Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

I started reading _The Mill on the Floss_ today. I read it a long time ago. In fact, I read it when I was about 8. Some of it my mother read to me, and some I read on my own. Two things I thought about, reading this today.

1. I can't *BELIEVE* I was trying to read this when I was eight. Maybe I have been getting stupider, my whole life, and at 8 I was some kind of precocious smartybrains, but it boggles my mind how an eight-year-old could have made it through any of this book. Just reading the dialect... takes a lot of concentration. Maybe I *have* been deteriorating. Disturbing. Or not. Strangely, the first chapter has a small girl (her father lovingly calls her a "wench") reading books too hard for her. Like _The History of the Devil_ by Daniel Defoe. Okay, that one I didn't get to. I can *remember* reading this book, like... I remember how I envisioned the mill. Ridiculous. I am purposefully picturing it differently now, to thwart my eight-year-old self who couldn't possibly have read this lousy book.

2. I like this part: "Plotting covetousness and deliberate contrivance in order to compass a selfish end are nowhere abundant but in the world of the dramatist; they demand too intense a mental action for many of our fellow parishioners to be guilty of them." It goes on, but the gist of the passage is that most people are too stupid to be intentionally wicked. Nice!


I think, to begin, that Maggie did not ever love Stephen. Obviously, she never loved Phillip. The love story of the book was between Maggie and Tom. I don't mean any kind of icky illegal brother/sister whatever. I do think that if she had had a larger sphere of experience, more people to know, more exposure to the world, she would have found someone to feel truly "in love" with, in the way that Phillip and Stephen were in love with her. In the passionate, married, adult kind of way. However, she never did find that kind of love. Her love for her brother was the only one that was true. That was eternal, endless, that she would give up everything for, that would have been completely sustaining for her.

Look at the structure of the love story for Tom and Maggie. They were together, they were separated by events and circumstances, they came together in the end -- it's a classic story arc for a very traditional love story, except that it's as if the genders are reversed.

Mmm... more later. Children.


When I say it's like a gender reversal... I mean a reversal of the traditional stuff that you expect to happen in a romance novel. Tom is the one who rejects Maggie for being "bad" as he pursues his relentless morals and virtues. He sends her away, corrects her and refuses her for all her traits that he sees as flaws. Ultimately, as they come together at the end, he sees (I think) that she was essentially herself, and that the flaws were actually her consistency with her own strange (to him) nature. So, Tom is kind of the girl, and Maggie is kind of the man who redeems himself at the end through a heroic, pure act. And they die in each others arms. I mean... come on. The inscription on the tombstone of their shared grave is: "In death they were not parted." That's what you'd expect to see on the grave of two lovers. Stephen and Phillip are just distractions... obstacles and problems. THey aren't really love interests. They're things that keep Maggie from Tom, things she does to disappoint him and alienate him.

You know, this story kind of reminds me of A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. I have to reread that one, I guess. There was some kind of a train ride or something, reminding me of Maggie's float down the river with Stephen. I just can't remember how it all went together. This is why I need to reread these books.

SO. Baby needs convincing that she really does need a nap. I have more to say, shockingly enough.


Two more things and then I'm done with The Mill on the Floss and I'm on to The Haunted Pool by George Sand.

1. Eliot doesn't have any problem with all her characters sounding alike, except of course the ones that are supposed to sound funny. How is it that Tom and Maggie speak like articulate educated children while their parents speak like such funny bumpkins? Wouldn't they talk like their parents, at least until they went off to school? And then still pretty much? Maggie and Tom sound alike, as do Phillip and Stephen and Lucy. The aunts do have mannerisms that separate them, and of course Bob Jakin and Mr. Tulliver have unique diction. Again, this reminds me of D.H. Lawrence and the way everyone was able to really express everything so exquisitely, in spite of the fact that their parents and teachers were such dullards. Amazing.

2. I think that bringing the aunts and uncles and parents and children all together at the beginning of the book was a great and risky move. Writing a scene like this, with so many characters all new to the reader, would be a real forehead-cracker. Eliot tackles it with her weapon of choice -- exhaustive detail in description. I read that Eliot was one of the first of the Victorian fiction writers who really went all out on the visuals -- painting with words was a highly valued trait in Victorian fiction. So, in making you see the buckram sleeves and the fuzzy hairpieces and whatever else, Eliot is introducing you to these characters with visuals you can hang your information on. Also, bringing them all together with the catalyst of Tom's prospects in education forces them all into their most opinionate mode... so they can be their most exaggerated selves. Going to their individual houses and showing them to the reader in their own settings would have been easier, but less effective. Throwing them all together, guiding the reader through the chaotic scene with detailed descriptions, and making them fight it out -- that gives us everything we need to begin on these characters, in a few concentrated scenes.