Study Guide

The Mill on the Floss Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By George Eliot

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Water, the River, and Floods

Given the ending of this novel, it’s not really surprising that water and floods are an important symbol. In fact, water and flood imagery is found throughout the novel, and the river itself is practically a character. We often hear about water in direct relation to the Tulliver kids, which is sort of morbidly appropriate given the way they die. Mrs. Tulliver is always complaining that Maggie is going to fall in the river and drown one day.

But water isn’t just a bringer of death and doom and destruction and other "d" words. The river is often a place of romance, dreams, and even magic, particularly for Maggie and Stephen:

They glided rapidly along, to Stephen’s rowing, helped by the backward-flowing tide [...] on between the silent, sunny fields and pastures [...] thought did not belong to that enchanted haze in which they were enveloped - it belonged to the past and the future that lay outside the haze. (6.13.33)

But the river always carries a darker edge with it. Maggie is lulled by the river and the sleepy, romantic atmosphere it produces. But the river helps to carry Maggie into a nightmarish situation, where she is tempted to do something that she worries is morally wrong.

As a symbol, water and the river contains both darkness and light. Floods, too, are positive and negative in this book. While floods can be destructive forces, they are also somehow cleansing, in a highly biblical sense:

Nature repairs her ravages – repairs them with her sunshine and with human labour. The desolation wrought by that flood, had left little visible trace on the face of the earth, five years after. (7.6.1)

This blending of good and bad elements is important to the other major role water symbolism plays in this book. Water is a metaphor for narrative itself. Here’s how the narrator describes Maggie’s story using water as a metaphor:

Maggie’s destiny, then, is at present hidden, and we must wait for it to reveal itself like the course of an unmapped river: we only know that the river is full and rapid, and that for all rivers there is the same final home. (6.6.4)

Water represents individual stories and life itself here, which is of course filled with both triumph and suffering.

Music and Sound

Music and sound are probably the most frequently repeated symbols in the entire book and, as a result, music and sound represent a lot of different things. Music and sound have the ability to create entire worlds here, and they are often depicted as safe havens from harsh reality. Both Philip and Maggie take comfort and joy in music. Maggie explains her love of music here:

I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort, when I am filled with music. (6.3.10)

But music isn’t always depicted as peaceful in this book. Rather, music and sound are emotionally charged and dynamic. Music is a way to experience heightened emotions and it is also a way to express heightened emotions to others. Philip uses music to express himself in this scene:

It was not quite unintentionally that Philip had wandered into this song which might be an indirect expression to Maggie of what he could not prevail on himself to say to her directly. (6.7.53)

Symbolically, the passion of music and sound are frequently related to the passionate Maggie. Maggie and music have a very close affinity, or a close relationship. The way music is represented here – emotional, passionate, beautiful – often seems to represent Maggie in the abstract. Maggie is even sometimes characterized as a musical instrument. Check out the "Art and Culture Quotes" section for some thoughts on this.

Overall, music and sound represent the better life, for which Maggie spends the entire book searching. This sort of "musical" life is one of deep emotion and energy.

Maggie’s Hair, Eyes, and Skin

Maggie’s "dark" coloring (her hair, her skin, and her eyes) might seem like weird symbols. They are certainly mentioned enough to qualify them as motifs, or repeating themes and images. We start hearing about Maggie’s dark skin and crazy hair from the very first chapter. Notably, Maggie’s "dark" looks are frequently referred to negatively by her relatives. Here Aunt Pullet comments on Maggie’s looks:

I think the gell has too much hair. I’d have it thinned and cut shorter, sister, if I was you: it isn’t good for her health. It’s that as makes her skin so brown, I shouldn’t wonder. (1.7.45)

Aunt Pullet see’s Maggie’s hair as a "problem" to be solved. Maggie’s dark hair and skin help to set her apart from the rest of the extended Dodson clan and, as a result, Maggie’s physical appearance helps to reinforce the ways she differs from her family in terms of intellect, emotions, ideas, and behavior.

Maggie’s dark hair and skin also have some racial connotations, or meanings. In this time period, a lot of English people thought that white people were superior, and the whiter your skin was, the better. White skin was also related to class prejudices. Women who had money and didn’t have to work could remain indoors and avoid getting a tan. So white skin was a marker of money and status as well. Maggie’s darker skin is unsettling for her family, since she is part of a middle class family. Her skin and hair imply that she is somehow wild or poor or "savage." Maggie herself even makes note of this when she observes that her family often compares her to the gypsies, a group that society looked down upon.

So Maggie’s hair and skin help to set her apart and also prejudice a lot of people against her. Her eyes also add to her uncanny and striking appearance. Maggie’s eyes are frequently described as somehow hypnotic. Stephen is always wanting Maggie to look at him; he’s almost obsessed with her eyes. And it is no coincidence that Lucy considers Maggie as somehow supernatural, describing how Maggie uses "witchcraft" and has a "general uncanniness" (6.3.28).

Going off her odd physical features, Maggie does not really seem to belong in the world of St. Ogg’s, even though she feels quite passionately about her home. Maggie’s "dark" features help to represent the ways in which her character has trouble dealing with her competing emotions and the ways in which her character struggles to fit into her surroundings.

Animal Comparisons

Lucy, Maggie, and Tom are all compared to animals, generally dogs, throughout this text. Animals seem somehow related to childhood and to innocence more generally. Maggie is compared to multiple animals – dogs and ponies – when she is a child. For example:

Maggie was incessantly tossing her head to keep the dark heavy locks out of her gleaming black eyes - an action which gave her very much the air of a small Shetland pony. (1.2.24)

Maggie’s animal comparisons are particularly telling in terms of her rather bold personality. Much later in the novel, Lucy herself is compared to an animal:

Lucy sat down near the toilette table, watching [Maggie] with affectionate eyes, and head a little aside, like a pretty spaniel. (6.3.8)

In this instance, the animal comparison seems to reinforce Lucy’s sweet and almost child-like nature. Animals here are used to highlight child-like aspects of the characters’ personality, most of which are lost on the road to adulthood. It is notable that the bulk of the book’s animal comparisons occur early on, when Tom, Maggie, and Lucy are children. As they grow older, Tom and Maggie seem to lose their connection to simpler and more innocent emotions, which are represented by animals.

"Going to Law"

This phrase is repeated throughout the book, generally in regards to Mr. Tulliver. "Going to law" is essentially a sort of old-fashioned way of saying "getting involved in legal proceedings," or a lawsuit. Mr. Tulliver is of course oddly fixated on the law. We start hearing about his hatred of lawyers from the first chapter, where he notes that they were created by the devil. And it is his involvement with a lawsuit that leads to a dramatic reversal of the Tulliver family fortunes.

So what is so significant about the law, besides its role as a plot device? Well, Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver are characterized in terms of their relationship to the law. Both view the law and legal proceedings in old-fashioned terms. Mrs. Tulliver seems to have some sort of superstitious aversion to the law, not understanding it beyond a vague notion that it causes problems. Mr. Tulliver also seems rather mystified by the law. He wants Tom to get a good education so that he can be on par with smarty-pants lawyers, after all. Mr. Tulliver also views the law in very superstitious, old-fashioned terms, given his views on how the devil created lawyers. Mr. Tulliver’s thoughts on the law shed light on his character:

Mr. Tulliver was on the whole a man of safe traditional opinions; but on one or two points he had trusted to his unassisted intellect and had arrived at several questionable conclusions, among the rest, that rats, weevils, and lawyers were created by Old Harry [the devil]. (1.3.2)

The law basically stands in for modern life in general, which the old-fashioned Tullivers find really confusing. The ways that characters view the law represents their non-modern or else modern understandings of the world. What does it mean to have a modern world view? Here’s an explanation, using some metaphors:

It is clear that the irascible miller was a man to interpret any chance shot that grazed him as an attempt on his own life, and was liable to entanglements in this puzzling world which [...] required the hypothesis of a very active diabolical agency to explain them. It is still possible to believe that [Wakem] was not more guilty towards him, than an ingenious machine which performs its work." (3.7.10) (To see this quote in full with commentary check out the "Society and Class Quotes.")

The law here is basically an impersonal machine, part of a modern world of factories and banks and lawsuits. Characters like the Tullivers are sort of stumbling around in this world blindly. Mr. Tulliver still sees the world in terms of the devil, "Old Harry," while Mr. Wakem sees the world in terms of profits and clients and impersonal business transactions. Wakem is a machine doing his job. This is probably why Mr. Wakem assumed Mr. Tulliver was drunk right before Tulliver attacked him; having some sort of blood-feud just isn’t Wakem’s style, since it's not modern. Wakem takes revenge by buying people’s property, not beating them up. Overall, the law represents modern society and helps us to better understand character’s places in this "puzzling" world of lawsuits and legal procedure.