58 pages 1 hour read

George Eliot

The Mill on the Floss

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1860

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Summary and Study Guide


The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot was first published in three volumes in 1860. The Mill on the Floss was Eliot’s second novel, appearing at a time when speculation still surrounded George Eliot’s real identity. George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, a well-educated woman from England who worked in publishing before becoming a successful novelist. The Mill on the Floss incorporates autobiographical elements from Evans’s life. Like Maggie, Evans developed a scandalous relationship with a man and Evans’s brother disapproved so strongly of the relationship that their own sibling bond was ruptured.

The Mill on the Floss tells the story of a family repressed by social norms, featuring a protagonist who suffers at the hands of society’s constant judgements. Told through an unnamed narrator’s point-of-view, Eliot includes detailed imagery of the English countryside and infuses her text with psychological realism and deep inner reflection. This guide uses the edition published by Alma Books in 2019.

Content Warning: The source text uses the outdated and offensive term “gypsy” for Romani people. Except in direct quotes, the guide uses the more accurate, appropriate term.

Plot Summary

Tom and Maggie Tulliver grow up in an idyllic British seaport town called St. Ogg’s. Their father owns a mill, and they live close by their mother’s sisters’ families. Mr. Tulliver sends Tom, who is thirteen years old, to a better school run by a clergyman, hoping that Tom will find his own lucrative line of business instead of inheriting the mill. Maggie is younger and wilder; she is known for causing trouble and acting unladylike. Maggie adores her brother Tom and is only upset over her mischief if it bothers him. Mr. Tulliver has a dispute with his wife’s sister, Mrs. Glegg, over a five-hundred-pound loan.

Tom has a difficult time at school. Mr. Stelling, the clergyman, believes that Tom is stupid and obstinate, but Tom doesn’t learn well with Mr. Stelling’s style and content. Philip Wakem, the hunchbacked son of a prominent lawyer in Tom’s hometown, joins him for school amid a lawsuit between Mr. Wakem and Mr. Tulliver regarding a new neighbor’s legal rights over irrigation systems in the area. Philip is intelligent and works well with Mr. Stelling; he is a year older than Tom but much farther ahead in his studies. Philip and Tom build a tentative friendship that is thwarted when Tom teases him by inviting Philip to learn swordplay with a new tutor. Tom convinces this new tutor to loan him a sword that he hides in his bedroom. Meanwhile, Maggie comes for a visit before she heads off to boarding school. She and Philip get along well, and Maggie is interested in Philip’s passion for learning. Tom shows Maggie the sword but drops it on his foot, hurting himself. While recuperating, Philip attempts to be nicer to Tom and befriends Maggie. A few months after Maggie leaves for boarding school, she pays Tom an unexpected visit. She tells him the bad news that their father lost the lawsuit and that the family is now financially destroyed. What is more, their father fell off his horse, damaging his senses.

Mr. Tulliver recovers and, with much embarrassment, agrees to work in the mill under Mr. Wakem’s employment so that he can keep the house and settle his debts. Tom goes to work for a warehouse, where his education proves useless. The Tulliver family falls into a depression. Only Maggie finds a way to cope, usually through reading. Tom’s former childhood friend, Bob, visits the family to offer some money and gives Maggie books.

As the years go by, Maggie resigns herself to her lonely life. Tom works hard and pursues an investment with Bob and his Uncle Glegg. Maggie meets Philip Wakem again. They start meeting in secret to talk, laugh, and share books. Philip confesses that he’s in love with her and though Maggie loves him too, she can’t betray her father, so they keep their friendship a secret. Tom discovers the friendship and confronts them both. He makes Maggie promise to never see Philip again and insults Philip’s hunchback and poor character.

Tom’s investment is successful, and he finishes paying off his father’s debts. Mr. Tulliver, buoyed by this victory over Mr. Wakem, assaults Mr. Wakem. Maggie intervenes before anyone gets critically injured, but the physical altercation weakens Mr. Tulliver, and he dies the next day.

A couple of years go by in which Tom continues to work hard for his family and Maggie takes up teaching. Her cousin Lucy invites her to stay with her, introducing her into local society. Maggie is reunited with Philip, who still loves her. Meanwhile, Lucy is in a serious courtship with Stephen Guest, the son of a wealthy businessman. Stephen is besotted by Maggie’s beauty, and he quickly falls in love with her. Maggie tries to avoid his attentions but is flattered and excited by these new prospects. Lucy tries to help bring Maggie and Philip closer together. Philip gets his father’s blessing to pursue a courtship with Maggie, but Tom is steadfast in forbidding Maggie to get involved with Philip. Philip realizes that Stephen is in love with Maggie and worries that he will lose her to Stephen.

Stephen and Maggie go on a boat ride together. Stephen rows Maggie away from town for hours, proposing that they elope up North. Maggie rejects him and they have a deep conversation about their feelings for one another and their duty to their families. By this point, they have rowed too far away to row back, so they board a passing barge together. It takes hours to return to shore, and Stephen begs Maggie to marry him to save her honor. Maggie leaves Stephen and returns home to Tom, who has heard of her disgraceful behavior with Stephen and refuses to let her back into his house. Maggie finds refuge with Bob and his family, while Stephen and Philip flee abroad to escape their pain and shame. Stephen writes his father a letter admitting that the whole scandal was his fault, but this letter does little to ease the insidious gossip about Maggie. Philip and Stephen both write Maggie a letter declaring that they still love her and will help her.

Maggie must make a decision about Stephen, but unusual rains cause a flash flood on the river Floss. Bob sets Maggie up in a boat when the house floods and she rows to Dorlcote Mill to save Tom. As she and Tom row together to save Lucy, their boat is thrust under the water by passing debris. Maggie and Tom die in each other’s arms.