Study Guide

The Mill on the Floss Society and Class

By George Eliot

Society and Class

It is a pathetic sight and a striking example of the complexity introduced into the emotions by a high state of civilisation - the sight of a fashionably dressed female in grief. [...] In the enlightened child of civilisation the abandonment characteristic of grief is checked and varied in the subtlest manner [...] (1.7.17)

The phony nature of civilization and society is highlighted and mocked here, as the narrator ridicules the way people check their emotions in order to be "civilized."

Law was a sort of cock-fight in which it was the business of injured honesty to get a game bird with the best pluck and the strongest spurs. (2.2.10)

Law often functions as symbol for modern Victorian society as a whole. The seedy side of law is highlighted with the comparison to "cock-fighting." Law may act like it’s civilized, but it very often is not here.

The first step towards getting on in the world was a chill, dusty, noisy affair [...] (3.7.6)

Tom discovers the less pleasant aspects of being an adult here as he joins the workforce for the first time. It is interesting that the words used to describe adult life, "dusty" and "noisy" are referenced again when the narrator compares Tom’s outer struggles with Maggie’s inner struggles. Check out the "Gender" section to see this.

Their religion was of a simple, semi-pagan kind, but there was no heresy in it, if heresy properly means choice, for they didn’t know there was any other religion, except that of chapel-goers, which appeared to run in families, like asthma. [...] The religion of the Dodsons consisted in revering whatever was customary and respectable [...] (4.1.4)

Religion is a matter of custom and of social practice here, as opposed to genuine individual belief. In fact, religion seems practically like a mindless social duty here since it "runs in families." It is inherited and then never looked at too closely.

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, due consideration had to his own infallibility, required the hypothesis of a very active diabolical agency to explain them. It is still possible to believe that the attorney was not more guilty towards him, than an ingenious machine which performs its work with much regularity is guilty towards the rash man who, venturing too near it, is caught up by some fly-wheel or other, and suddenly converted into unexpected sausages. (3.7.10)

This is may the best, and funniest, sum-up of Mr. Tulliver’s character in the whole book. There is a clear division of world-views here, which is at the heart of Tulliver’s problems. Tulliver takes everything personally and see the entire world as both potentially out to get him and as controlled by the devil. Mr. Wakem, the evil lawyer, is cast as a machine here, though. Wakem is essentially a cog in the machine of society itself, which is largely impersonal, in the realm of business at least. Mr. Tulliver takes things personally because the alternative of an impersonal, cruel, and uncaring society is even scarier.

To see an enemy humiliated gives a certain contentment, but this is jejune compared with the highly blent satisfaction of seeing him humiliated by your benevolent action of concession on his behalf. That is a sort of revenge which falls into the scale of virtue [...] (3.7.48)

Mr. Wakem isn’t above petty human emotions like revenge, but he commits revenge in a socially acceptable and even "virtuous" manner, which really may be more cruel than the type of brutal, physical revenge that Mr. Tulliver commits.

We perhaps never detect how much of our social demeanour is made up of artificial airs, until we see a person who is at once beautiful and simple. (6.9.1)

The "beautiful and simple" Maggie is contrasted to "artificial" society here, implying that there is something to be said for being removed from society.

We judge others according to results; how else? - not knowing the process by which results are arrived at. (7.2.1)

The narrator comments on how society at large doesn’t really take the time to understand individuals and their motives. This contrasts to the views of Maggie, however, who places a huge emphasis on the feelings of others and on the past itself. The present moment, or end "result" often matters less that what preceded it and what led up to it.

All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our lives is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sot is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. (7.2.27)

If we had to pick one thematic statement to sum up this book, this would be it. Above all else the narrator emphasizes the need to see people as individuals and to try to understand them as unique, rather than lump people together and create overly broad social rules to govern everybody. Maggie definitely embodies the spirit of this message.

Even with his twenty years’ experience as a parish priest, he was aghast at the obstinate continuance against [Maggie] in the face of evidence. (7.4.1)

It is interesting that this statement about Dr. Kenn implies that his job as a parish priest had done something to prepare him for cruel gossip and rumors, even though this latest instance shocked him. The sentence beings "even with," implying that his job experience had previously helped him to deal with rumors and gossip and other bad aspects of society.

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