Saturday, April 30, 2011
The Mill on the Floss
I've been looking forward to reading The Mill on the Floss for years, and finally got to it during my current project to read all of George Eliot's novels and stories in the order they were written. I've heard for years about what a wonderful character Maggie Tulliver is, and I knew it was a tragedy and had a rough idea of how it ended.
As with so many long anticipated treats, I was a bit disappointed but extremely glad I have read the book and do plan to reread it at some point. Maggie was an interesting character. The afterword to the edition I read made the point that in Eliot's previous novel, Adam Bede, she contrasts two female protagonists, Dinah and Hettie, but in The Mill on the Floss, she provides contrasting forces that struggle within a single female character. I like this way of looking at Maggie, but I think for me her single overriding characteristic is her impulsiveness. It seems she has no filter between what she feels and how she acts, whether it be high or low, manic or depressive. Even near the end, when she is in a stupor, lulled beyond the point of no return by the river and Steven, there is an impulsive, careless quality to her willingness to remain torpid.
I had expected to identify more with Maggie, and perhaps I might have if I had read this book when I was high school or college-aged. I appreciated her mind and thirst for education and knowledge, but her devotion to her churlish brother Tom I found irritating. I admired her friendship with Philip Wakem and understood her passion for Steven Guest and sympathized with her relationship to her cousin Lucy, but I couldn't reconcile all this with her continued role as doormat for Tom.
It's been interesting to see Eliot's progress as a novelist. In a way, Philip Wakem is another take on the physically debilitated hero with an unfortunate keenly developed sense of self and destiny that she introduced in Latimer in The Lifted Veil, the work immediately preceding The Mill on the Floss. In The Mill on the Floss she has written a true tragedy, something she approached with Adam Bede but backed away from in the end.
And then there is the river. While I appreciate a good metaphor, I think that Eliot is far too overt with the symbolism she infuses into the river Floss. Throughout the book she talks of Maggie being swept away on currents of thought and feeling, the inevitability of time rushing on, as well as the ebb and flow of current, the unchangeability of people and society over the long haul, the force contained within the movement of the water. I really felt she was hitting the reader over the head with all this. At times the writing was poetic and true and beautiful, and at times it became melodramatic and banal. That said, I did glimpse from time to time the kind, sympathetic, and just narrator that I so love in Middlemarch.
Now, on to Silas Marner, though it will be a bit before I can tackle it as I signed up to review Hard Times for the Classic Circuit's Dueling Authors (Austen vs Dickens) Tour on May 19, and have a couple of books to finish up before I even start that one. However, I am eager to read Hard Times and compare it to Gaskell's North and South, which were written at about the same time and with the basically subject matter.
Final note, I usually watch an adaptation or two after finishing a classic, but I'm not sure whether I will go this route this time. Netflix has two versions--a 1997 90-minute version with Emma Watson as Maggie, and a 1998 212-minute version with Pippa Guard as Maggie. I'm open to input on which is best or if either is worth watching.