Friday, January 14, 2011

The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss is a museum piece from another time. The writing is richly descriptive and the characters are drawn with fine and perceptive sensibility, and considerable irony when Eliot's wants to point out their human foibles. She establishes her novel with a strong sense of historical and cultural context, with a keen awareness of the subtleties conveyed by pronunciation and the use of language.

The main character in the book is Maggie, an overly smart, bold and impulsive, "ugly duckling" of a girl who grows into a sensual and perceptive woman, whose dark appeal, challenges the stenotype of conventional blond attractiveness, and whose inquiring mind is all too aware of the limitations that she faces in life as a woman whose economic situation is far from secure. As far a novel-writing goes, this is a promising start. Too bad Eliot doesn't quite figure out what to do with her character, whose main love interest is her devotion to her brother Tom, who frankly does not do anything to deserve her affection, making her utter adoration somewhat inexplicable. Tom is dedicated to restoring the family's economic stability and control of the mill, and upholding his father's grudge against Lawyer Wakem.

A lot of potentially interesting issues are raised: the impact of economics on society, conventional morality and the consequences of challenging that morality, family relations, fidelity to friends, family, oneself. But the author never fully develops her ideas, and after many many pages of introducing her story and the characters, Eliot literally sweeps it all away and ends the book. Just like that.

It is really a disappointment that the conflicts and the relations do not get resolved in a more satisfactory manner. Let me clarify that not every story needs to have a happy ending, but I would have preferred an ending with some sort of relevance deriving from the actions or the nature of the main characters. Eliot's ending is random and facile.

My second objection to the book is that the exploration of class, social standing, and newfangled economics is no longer relevant to the modern reader, at least not in the same way. Nor is the provincial morality. As a museum piece this book is interesting, but it is no longer relevant today and it has not withstood the test of time.

No comments: