This book is a massive flop–overdone, perfected to a fault and clumsily ended–which plunges you into a deep foreboding of misery from the very outset. You tend to hope for an all-healing, happy denouement so that joy will be on par with sorrow, according to dictum. But no, George Eliot’s messy pen must needs end her most celebrated novel with just the same amount of tragic despair (as is in the exposition and the middle of the story) so that the ever-hopeful reader would mope around for days on end post-reading. It seems to me, towards the end of the book, Eliot grew tired of the hopeless futility (or drab ordinariness, as she herself relentlessly repeats over and over) of the lives she had set about storytelling. And thus the young ‘uns die while the oldies (including the unnamed, neuter-gendered narrator) who are put there to pass judgment on and evaluate youth as it ‘socially matures’ live on to tell the tale.
Besides, the narration commences in a fashion that beguiles you into a vulnerable state of ill-founded hope of the impropriety of evil in this, um, sad tale. Scattering a liberal amount of forebodings of death, The Mill actually does warn us about the tragic finale, but still, come on, who would drink poison if there’s no hope of something better or happier or promising in the future? And, you don’t really have any sure knowledge, even though Eliot cunningly tries to upgrade you to the level of a shrewd, perceptive confidante, while at the end you come to realize you look the fool because you were never in the confidence at all.
Wouldn’t it have been narratively and aesthetically better if Maggie had borne the brunt of social ridicule and continued to live her life in proud dignity, unmarried perhaps, with more and more soul-racking troubles coming her way? The Mill would have been another women-struggle-women-power novels where morality is rewarded and strength of spirit is acknowledged by all the world. You could have continued in the trance of convention, unruffled by Eliot’s unwarranted , jolting remembrance of the menace of life.
The Mill on the Floss is badly-crafted but well-written. Somehow, the story seems not to yield to Eliot’s omniscient narration; I feel the task of storytelling lay beyond her intelligent and incisive penetrating vision that moulds the narrative style. The rich complexity of characters, so true to experienced life, so well-carved, suffer an imbalance of footing when the narratorial voice intervenes to evaluate and pass judgement on the characters. Much like fate that throws the lives of (un)heroic persons into disharmony, the narrator is fate’s parody, with too deep an understanding of motives, and thus too controlling, playing with their “histories”, twisting actions, seizing on them when they are unaware. These intrusions of the wise and worldly experienced narrator jar with the reader’s sense of connection with the people in the novel; you see them being pulled apart and examined both by the events in their lives as well as by the narrator’s intermittent ‘studies’ of their every action. You are rendered a mute, helpless bystander. All that confusion, disappointments, disgrace, thirst for love, mastery of the self, power struggles, everything is rendered null when the characters escape the world of cares, leaving the reader behind, floundering and alone, struggling with a life as beset with cares as had been theirs. (That would be a bit of an overstatement, because I think Maggie and Tom have too many back-to-back troubles in their short lives.)
I guess I have made my point across (by repeating the same thing from the start of this essay)–you don’t leave your reader in the lurch like that, even in a classic work of art. Giving magical wings to your protagonists so that they can fly away to an alternate realm, inaccessible to the reader,(and Eliot herself can leave off her task that she had so painstakingly laboured on) is nothing but treason.
Maggie’s harrowing childhood, her moral dilemmas and resolutions, you are with her throughout, yet for no reason, you are eluded from the final mortal conflict where she takes decisions too quickly for your reading comfort and carries on those decisions into action–almost an impulsive (in keeping with character delineation) headlong, rushing into her doom, the flood that, in turn, rushes towards her. She seems to be yearning to join her brother in death, also in keeping with all that has been said and done so far.
Right. You ask: What’s your problem, then?
I think I have an answer. This is a case of T S Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’ (as I understand it, of course). The story-matter is too heavy for the medium. The narrative doesn’t hold. (To extend the metaphor,) the story is clumsily wrapped and it spills through. What The Mill on the Floss leaves behind, after life and the ‘carnage’, is a wounded reader–with a grudge.
Ahem, despite all the hue and cry, I give it a Rating: 4/5. One point deducted for treason. Got you there, GE.