The Mill on the Floss
by George Eliot
Tools of Characterization
This is the most common method of characterization employed in this novel. Eliot is very fond of giving us rather lengthy run-downs of characters after we meet them, or after they do something notable. As a result, we get extremely detailed portraits of every character in the book sketched out for us. Eliot also uses a lot of carefully chosen adjectives (Mrs. Glegg often speaks "peremptorily" or abruptly, for example) and quick, descriptive sentences scattered throughout the book to keep her characterization evolving. We don’t just get a handy paragraph spiel on each character. Rather, we get a whole series of descriptive and explanatory paragraphs as well as almost constant narrative commentary on each character. Characterization is one of the narrator’s main jobs, and the narrator pretty much does it non-stop.
Speech and Dialogue
Aside from our helpfully detail-oriented narrator, we get a lot of valuable characterization through speech and dialogue. Eliot is notable for writing in dialects and, as a result, the speech of characters like Mr. Tulliver and Mrs. Glegg is written with lots of apostrophes in order to give the reader a sense of what these characters’ accents really sounded like. A lot of characters also have very unique ways of speaking that help to give us insight into their characters. The always rambling Bob Jakin is a good example of this, as well as of Eliot’s use of dialects in her writing.
Thoughts and Opinions
This method of characterization often goes hand in hand with narrative commentary and direct characterization. Often, when a character makes a statement or a claim the narrator will jump in to elaborate on what they actually mean and why they are actually saying it. But characters are also allowed to carry on a conversation without interruption too. The hugely substantial conversations between Philip and Maggie regarding individual desires, and between Stephen and Maggie just prior to their break-up, are good examples of places where Eliot gives her characters free reign to express their opinions. The characters in this book are also very helpfully outspoken; between them and the commenting narrator, we rarely have to guess at what a character’s actual thought or opinion is.
This method of characterization is not the most consistent in this book. Social status, particularly in terms of how much money a person has, is a major part of St. Ogg’s society and gives us a good sense of our characters. The contrast between the wealthy Deanes and the bankrupt Tullivers is significant, for instance. But social status concerns often fall by the wayside, giving way to factors like family relations, emotional attachments, etc. For instance, while we know that there is a huge monetary gap between Stephen Guest and Maggie, the two of them never discuss their relationship problems in terms of money. Rather, their issues revolve around family, Lucy, Philip, and morality for the most part.
However, a lot of characters are characterized largely by their social status. Mr. Deane is characterized almost exclusively by his job, and Tom’s desire to make money and pay his family debts is a huge part of his character. Social status is an important tool of characterization, but it does not apply equally to every character in the book, which is interesting in and of itself.