The Mill on the Floss as bildungsroman

The Mill on the Floss as bildungsroman

Dr Rohan Maitzen explores how George Eliot uses education, literature and her own experience in The Mill on the Floss to subvert the traditional bildungsroman, or novel of development.

The Mill on the Floss (1860) is George Eliot’s most autobiographical novel. In form, it is a variation on the bildungsroman, or novel of development. In its classic version, the bildungsroman follows its hero’s passage to adulthood and often culminates in his marriage, which represents not just his personal happy ending but also his secure establishment in society. Goethe’s The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister (1795–96) is an important and influential example; in the Victorian period, Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1860) are both works in this tradition.

The conventional pattern of the bildungsroman is greatly complicated when the main character is female. As Eliot was only too aware from her own experience, a girl’s journey to adulthood – especially if she aspired to anything beyond a typically domestic female role – was likely to be less a triumphant journey than a series of collisions with society’s restrictions. This is what we see, for instance, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): Jane’s development is marked (as one contemporary critic observed) by ‘hunger, rebellion and rage’ – as one contemporary critic said disapprovingly of Brontë herself.[1] ‘Women feel just as men do,’ Jane exclaims as she reflects on her own enforced passivity:

they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts… they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; … It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (ch. 12)

But condemned and laughed at such women were, and the experience was both infuriating and debilitating, as we see with Eliot’s heroine, Maggie Tulliver. Maggie’s painful maturation in a provincial milieu hostile to her passionate, imaginative nature reflects Eliot’s own struggles growing up as an intellectually ambitious girl with little encouragement and scant educational opportunities. Maggie’s fraught relationship with her fond but domineering brother Tom closely resembles Eliot’s with her own older brother Isaac. Eliot’s 1869 sonnet sequence Brother and Sister poignantly recalls their childhood intimacy:

I cannot choose but think upon the time
When our two lives grew like two buds that kiss
At lightest thrill from the bee's swinging chime,
Because the one so near the other is. (Sonnet 1)

By the time Eliot was in her mid-30s, the siblings were no longer speaking: Isaac had broken off all contact with his sister when she chose to live openly as a married woman with the already-married George Henry Lewes in 1854. The breach between them was healed only when in 1880, after Lewes’s death, Eliot married another man – this time legally.

Brother and Sister: sonnet sequence by George Eliot

Brother and Sister: sonnet sequence by George Eliot

Manuscript of Brother and Sister, a sonnet sequence by George Eliot. The poems are autobiographical, recalling the close relationship Eliot had with her brother Isaac when she was a young girl.

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Letter from Isaac Evans to George Eliot, congratulating her on her marriage

Letter from Isaac Evans to George Eliot, congratulating her on her marriage

George Eliot’s brother sent her this letter in 1880, congratulating her on her recent marriage. It ended the silence between them that had lasted more than 25 years.

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As appropriate in a novel of development, education is a central theme of The Mill on the Floss. Thanks to the support of free-thinking friends and to her own intelligence and determination, Eliot herself triumphed over the limits usually set on women’s education in the 19th century. She become one of Victorian England’s foremost intellectuals: she read multiple languages, including German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; she translated works of history and philosophy; she edited and contributed to a prestigious journal, the Westminster Review, where she was responsible for overseeing work by notable figures including philosopher John Stuart Mill and historian James Anthony Froude.

Eliot understood only too well, however, that her own path was not an easy one to follow, and she knew better than to tell an uplifting story that would obscure the need for radical change. Instead, in The Mill on the Floss she dramatises the tragedy of a girl chafing against sexist restrictions while her less able brother has all the opportunities she craves. The thwarting of Maggie’s intellectual potential makes it doubly ironic that Tom’s privileges are wasted on him: he has neither interest in nor capacity for the expensive gentleman’s education his father fondly believes will guarantee his upward mobility. Nothing could be duller for Tom than puzzling over his volume of Euclid’s geometry or, even more mysterious, the pages of his Latin grammar.

Eliot does not dismiss Tom’s struggles: The Mill on the Floss can in fact be read as a double bildungsroman, as Tom’s difficult journey to adulthood is chronicled with nearly as much sympathy as Maggie’s. Like Maggie, Tom has natural talents that are not valued by those around him: he may be unable to decline Latin verbs, but he can ‘predict with accuracy what number of horses were cantering behind him… guess to a fraction how many lengths of his stick it would take to reach across the playground, and could draw almost perfect squares on his slate without any measurement’. These practical skills mean nothing to his teacher Mr Stelling, who considers Tom a ‘thoroughly stupid lad’ (Book 2, ch. 1). For all Tom’s advantages as a boy – which he does not hesitate to exercise at Maggie’s expense – he too suffers from having to conform to an education that doesn’t suit him at all.

Maggie, though, would love to immerse herself in his academic studies instead of the polite trivialities considered sufficient for her. When she comes to visit Tom at school, her bright curiosity makes Tom’s dullness all the more apparent; she asks Mr Stelling, ‘so many questions about the Roman empire’ that for the first time, Tom realises ‘there had once been people upon the earth who were so fortunate as to know Latin without learning it through the medium of the Latin grammar’. Maggie even yearns to try the dreaded Euclid – but she is put in her place by Mr Stelling, who pronounces that girls may have ‘a great deal of superficial cleverness; but they couldn’t go far into anything. They’re quick and shallow.’ For her own formal education, ‘this small apparatus of shallow quickness’ must make do with Miss Firniss’s boarding-school, where the emphasis is less on the expansion of her mind than the perfection of her manners (Book 2, ch. 1).

Books and Reading

Inevitably, in this context, Maggie’s most valuable lessons are learned outside of school. As a child, she reads avidly, feeding her imagination with books that let her vicariously explore a wider world and meet exotic ‘fellow-creatures’ like the Dutchmen in Pug’s Tour Through Europe, ‘very fat, and smoking, you know, and one sitting on a barrel’, or the Animated Nature in which she discovers ‘elephants and kangaroos, and the civet-cat, and the sunfish, and a bird sitting on its tail’ (Book 1, ch. 4).

In her world, a bookish girl is an anomaly; even her fond father, who’s proud of his smart ‘little wench’, acknowledges that ‘an over-’cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep – she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that’ (Book 1, ch. 2). Making matters worse, Maggie doesn’t always take from her reading quite the wholesome lessons the adults around her would like her to. Explaining Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil to her father’s startled guest Mr Riley, she astutely notes the double-bind of an accused witch:

‘That old woman in the water’s a witch – they’ve put her in to find out whether she’s a witch or no; and if she swims she’s a witch, and if she’s drowned – and killed, you know – she’s innocent, and not a witch, but only a poor silly old woman. But what good would it do her then, you know, when she was drowned?’ (Book 1, ch. 3)

When Mr Riley patronisingly tells her to ‘put by the “History of the Devil” and read some prettier book’, Maggie pulls out her copy of John Bunyan’s morally uplifting The Pilgrim’s Progress, only to disconcert Mr Riley further with its lurid pictures of devils, which Tom has coloured in for her.

A more grown-up Maggie, suffering under new varieties of oppression from the hardships that have fallen on her family, does find wisdom and consolation in Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, which preaches resignation and renunciation of earthly pleasures. The ease is only temporary, however. Maggie’s yearnings for a fuller life are reawakened by Philip Wakem, the son of her family’s sworn enemy, who lures Maggie with volumes of Sir Walter Scott’s romantic novels.

In the meantime, Tom has had to become the man of the family, meeting their financial burdens through unremitting hard work. This experience increases his patriarchal rigidity, and he forbids Maggie and Philip to meet. Poor Maggie faces a further complication when she and her cousin Lucy’s fiancé, Stephen Guest, fall unexpectedly in love. She ends up facing an impossible choice – one that is anticipated by the books she read that never did promise her (or us) a happy ending. Defoe’s drowned witch in particular turns out to be sadly prophetic: when Maggie’s feelings for Stephen carry her temporarily away, her actions have only the appearance of guilt, but she is unable to prove her innocence. Reconciliation, restitution, restoration: every option seems equally, and painfully, impossible.

The ending of The Mill on the Floss has been controversial since the novel’s first publication. It has been interpreted as both triumphant and tragic, as celebrating both death and love, as calling for revenge or for mourning. Whatever it means, it does not offer the satisfying resolution expected from a bildungsroman. If anything, it defies our wish for satisfaction, along with the novelistic conventions that usually provide it, and thus provokes us to imagine – and maybe even work for – the changes that would have made Maggie’s novel of development into the kind of story she wishes for: one in which ‘the dark woman triumphs’ (Book 4, ch. 4).


[1] Letters of Matthew Arnold, ed. by George W E Russell, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan,1896), i, p.34.  

  • Rohan Maitzen
  • Dr Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor of English at Dalhousie University, where she specializes in Victorian literature. Her publications include Gender, Genre, and Victorian Historiography and The Victorian Art of Fiction: Nineteenth-Century Essays on the Novel; recent research projects have focused on George Eliot and moral philosophy, and on the Anglo-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. She works as an editor for the journal Open Letters Monthly and maintains Novel Readings, an academic and literary blog.

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