“There can never come much happiness to me from loving … I wish I could make myself a world outside it, as men do”: Sympathy and Femininity in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

“You have known Maggie a long while, and need to be told, not her characteristics, but her history … For the tragedy of our lives is not created entirely from within.” (Eliot 409)

George Eliot, one of the biggest names in Victorian literature, was known for her realistic storytelling and her continuous goal to write literature with psychological insight and empathetic understanding. The Mill on the Floss, one of Eliot’s classic works, is the chronicling of the complete life of Maggie Tulliver as she progresses through a rebellious childhood, a painful middle period, and into the culmination of her adulthood through a difficult choice she must make between family and love. Eliot characterises Maggie as a headstrong, willful woman caught between her feelings of responsibility and passion, between love and family, faith and desire, yet covers the entirety of Maggie’s dilemma with kind sincerity that makes Maggie’s conflict understandable to the sympathetic reader. These heavily contrasting themes in the novel are masterfully spun into tragic scenarios for Maggie and the people she becomes involved in, from her strict older brother, Tom, to her childhood sweetheart, Philip, and her seductive suitor, Stephen. Where the role of sympathy in the novel becomes most prominent, however, is in her relationship with Tom, and the direct contrasting of the siblings over the course of their individual ideologies and lifestyles creates an almost rival-like competition centred around the prominence of tragedy in the novel. The age-old question remains: Who is the tragic hero or heroine of The Mill on the Floss, and is that figure the same character as who inspires the most sympathy in the reader?

            It is initially important to consider the role of sympathy throughout the novel. Undoubtedly, Eliot writes in a way that draws attention to the inequalities and challenges of everyday life faced by all characters in the novel, as even from a young age Maggie had “passions at war in [her] at that moment to have made a tragedy, if tragedies were made by passion only”; at the same time, the narrative of the novel pays homage to the reasoning behind why other characters, in this case, Tom, would act as to create hardship for Maggie: “[Tom] never mentioned justice … his desire to punish might be called by that fine name” (Eliot 140). The result is a duplicity of understandings in the narrative, where the reader is both drawn towards sympathetic pity for Maggie’s unfortunate circumstances and chastised to remember the difficult position her actions place Tom in. Frequently, the complexity of Eliot’s characters and their relationships to one another create an impossibility of extreme thinking on either end of the spectrum: her characters may be drawn towards doing extreme things, such as Maggie pushing Lucy into the mud in the aforementioned scene or Tom’s eventual cutting off from Maggie completely, but the reader is never quite drawn into the same black-and-white ideologies as what Eliot’s characters embrace. The result is what Recchio explains to be “part self-recognition, part self-projection, and part intersubjective community … [t]here is always something missing in any explanation about the relations among experience, narrative, character, and reader” (Recchio 117). The gap between a complete narrative of each character within the novel and the limited perspectives of those characters individually means that the experience of understanding differs between each reading as well; the reader is equally likely to have a complete sympathetic understanding of the tragic narrative as a whole as they are to have an individually-driven empathy towards distinct characters and motivations within that narrative, therefore centralising the experience of tragedy towards a victim who can be pointed out as the suffering form.

Consequently, who comes to mind is the novel’s central protagonist, Maggie Tulliver. From the beginning of the novel Maggie is figured as distinctly unusual; she is the object of disapproval of her family, in particular from her mother and aunts, and is contrasted against her cousin, Lucy, for her failure to act as what popular audiences would expect of a woman in Victorian times. Recchio figures Maggie as “embod[ying] an ‘other’ against which normative discourses can be seen, measured, and found wanting” (Recchio 126), in that Maggie ultimately represents a figure of disappointment, othered by the characteristics that seem natural to her. Contrastingly, what gains her disapproval within the narrative frame of the novel gains her sympathy to a modern audience, as societal norms and values shift over time. Maggie’s frequent self-flagellation, in particular by contrasting her “dreadful” personality with Lucy’s “dear” one (Eliot 383), inspires within contemporary readers a desire to rectify the wrongs done against Maggie to make her think this way, a sense that some kind of justice has been blocked from its proper carrying out by the confines of a strict, suffocating society. Modern sympathy in the novel is located in solidarity with the injustice faced by Maggie, thus encouraging a sense of kinship with the novel’s central protagonist.

            However, a reading of The Mill on the Floss must take into consideration Tom’s impact on the narrative as well. Throughout the entire novel Maggie continuously defers to Tom in her devotion to her brother; whether or not that is wise is a subject of much debate both academically and among fandom, and with heavy implications from a bibliographical reading of the text. Tom himself is, at multiple times, both accuser and accused; he is directly responsible in multiple scenarios for the trouble that Maggie gets into, and also affected as an individual by Maggie’s actions. Ermarth considers Tom “a growing boy strugg[ling] anxiously to be superior”, though adds that “[f]or him, equality is confusing and inferiority insupportable” (Ermarth 589). In this way Tom can be seen as both abuser and abused, a victim of his society with ideas that he then passes onto Maggie as a way to suppress her through the desire to be superior, though that desire is innately one driven by anxiety about his situation. Tom is conditioned by something, whether that is society, family dynamics, or simply his own frame of mind, to think that standing as an equal to Maggie is unacceptable; he must prove himself to be superior to her regardless of how exactly that proof takes shape. Towards the very end of the novel, he described as: “A truly respectable young man – Mr Tom Tulliver: quite likely to rise in the world! His sister’s disgrace was naturally a heavy blow to him” (Eliot 490), turning Maggie into an object that brings shame rather than a member of his family deserving of respect. Where Tom fails to have empathy for Maggie, the modern reader is often positioned into having sympathy for her instead; accordingly, a modern audience’s feelings on Tom are heavily mixed and, more often than not, negative for his treatment of his sister. Ermarth says Maggie learns “to defer to others in place of developing a sense of her own authority; hence what she learns to fear most is the withdrawal of approval” (Ermarth 592), in response to Tom’s treatment of her and society’s continuous beating down of a woman who behaves, for lack of a better term, ‘unwomanly’ according to strict societal standards. Therefore, even a sympathetic reading of Tom is done with the consideration of his now-inexcusable treatment of Maggie as an individual, and therefore the level of sympathy one can justify for Tom as a victim of his circumstances is heavily reduced by the autonomy of his actions and the cruelty thereof he shows towards his sister.

Eliot’s novel is a tragedy. The resolution of plot conflict, the break between Tom and Maggie, only comes at the expense of both siblings’ lives; Tom and Maggie reconcile, as the book writes, “In their deaths they were not divided” (Eliot 518). Whether Eliot intended the novel’s ending as the final piece in Maggie’s tragic life of never being able to live as her nature intended, or as a bittersweet resolution of problems between two very human siblings will never be decided, though overall the subject seems to be one open to different interpretations and, accordingly, debate. Ultimately, sympathy plays a huge role in audience understanding of the novel, and the boundaries and constructs of that sympathy changes over time in rough alignment with the changes brought on in the communal consciousness of ideas centred around morality and justice. In our contemporary time, Maggie Tulliver remains a complex, interesting protagonist drawing both relatability in her isolated otherness and sympathy in her inability to ever fully integrate her eccentricity with public and private expectations. 

Works Cited

Eliot, George, and Oliver Lovesey. The Mill on the Floss. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press, 2007. Print.

Ermarth, Elizabeth. “Maggie Tulliver’s Long Suicide.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 14, no. 4, Rice University, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974, pp. 587–601,

Recchio, Thomas. “Toward a Theory of Narrative Sympathy: Character, Story, and the Body in ‘The Mill on the Floss.’” Dickens Studies Annual, vol. 38, Penn State University Press, 2007, pp. 115–42,

Image Credit

House near body of water during golden hour” Photo by Cosmin Gurau on Unsplash

Screenshot from Graham Theakston’s film, The Mill on the Floss (1997), with Maggie (Emily Watson) and Tom (Ifan Meredith).

Boat on the pond near brown field” Photo by Corina Ardeleanu on Unsplash

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