Tom had never found any difficulty in discerning a pointer from a setter, when once he had been told the distinction, and his perceptive powers were not at all deficient. I fancy they were quite as strong as those of the Rev. Mr Stelling; for Tom could predict with accuracy what number of horses were cantering behind him, he could throw a stone right into the centre of a given ripple, he could guess to a fraction how many lengths of his stick it would take to reach across the playground, and could draw almost perfect squares on his slate without any measurement. But Mr Stelling took no note of these things: he only observed that Tom's faculties failed him before the abstractions hideously symbolised to him in the pages of the Eton Grammar, and that he was in a state bordering on idiocy with regard to the demonstration that two given triangles must be equal - though he could discern with great promptitude and certainty the fact that they were equal. Whence Mr Stelling concluded that Tom's brain being peculiarly impervious to etymology and demonstrations, was peculiarly in need of being ploughed and harrowed by these patent implements: it was his favourite metaphor, that the classics and geometry constituted that culture of the mind which prepared it for the reception of any subsequent crop. I say nothing against Mr Stelling's theory: if we are to have one regimen for all minds his seems to me as good as any other. I only know it turned out as uncomfortably for Tom Tulliver as if he had been plied with cheese in order to remedy a gastric weakness which prevented him from digesting it. It is astonishing what a different result one gets by changing the metaphor! Once call the brain an intellectual stomach, and one's ingenious conception of the classics and geometry as ploughs and harrows seems to settle nothing. But then, it is open to some one else to follow great authorities and call the mind a sheet of white paper or a mirror, in which case one's knowledge of the digestive process becomes quite irrelevant. It was doubtless an ingenious idea to call the camel the ship of the desert, but it would hardly lead one far in training that useful beast. O Aristotle! if you had had the advantage of being 'the freshest modern' instead of the greatest ancient, would you not have mingled your praise of metaphorical speech as a sign of high intelligence, with a lamentation that intelligence so rarely shows itself in speech without metaphor, - that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else?Reading this novel was a pleasant surprise. I picked it up for a dollar at the Strand and opened it, expecting a slightly different version of the execrable Silas Marner--with contrived plots, paper-thin characters, and sentimentality laid on thick enough to attract passing bees. What I found instead was a work of profound analytical depth, one which resists convenient resolutions and forms characters that overflow the author's own stereotypes. The prose is undoubtedly purple at times, but I think that's a forgivable fault--and Eliot's predilection for ruminating on life in general terms is largely redeemed by her acute insight. (Perhaps the fact that the book is in many respects autobiographical checked her tendency to simplify things.)
- George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
The Mill on the Floss sets itself implicitly in opposition to the genre conventions of the romance or comic novel. There, the conflict between the demands of family and the claims of love is rarely settled otherwise than by the total capitulation of the former. Well, not quite: what actually happens is that love triumphs and then events intervene to ensure that the family is satisfied too. (The orphan turns out to be an heir, the wicked suitor is exposed as a fraud, and so on.) Such a narrative structure can only evade the weighty questions it appears to pose; if the choice to acknowledge one claim or the other results in no tragic fallout, it is in effect bereft of moral significance. The Mill on the Floss does not take these easy ways out. Eliot's character does not choose love, and she does not escape the consequences of her choice.
The marketing material on my edition attempts to sell the book as a parable in which the villain is "the hypocrisy of the Victorian age" with its "bourgeois standards." This suggests, of course, that the hero must be bohemianism, Romanticism, or one of their cousins. Hardly. It is actually, of all people, Thomas à Kempis. The Imitation of Christ teaches Maggie, the protagonist, to see the world in terms of a Stoic conflict between the temptation of desire and the righteousness of renunciation. So when the inevitable climax comes and forces her to acknowledge the claims of the heart, she puts up a fight. If the typical nineteenth-century heroine sees love as the authentic alternative to those onerous bourgeois standards, Maggie views it precisely as the evil that must be resisted.
Eliot does not come down unambiguously on Kempis's side. Her point, I think, is that the classic tropes change shape and color depending on what conceptual scheme one uses to look at them. Her critique of metaphor hints in this direction. Its last sentence could be read as an appeal to the real thing beneath the metaphoric layer, but this would be missing the interesting part--that metaphors distort not only our experiential apprehension of the world, but also the judgments and expectations we have about it. The point being made here is that the novelistic convention of triumphant love relies on a corresponding metaphor that legitimates it, but only for as long as all the characters are willing to follow the rules. Maggie upsets the balance, and is appropriately punished by public opinion--which already expects the novelistic choice.
The ending is perhaps the least satisfying part of the book. God leans casually out of his machine and sends a flood that kills the protagonists. I suspect, though, that this was the only ending Eliot could have written. A book that asks so many questions about the structure of the romantic narrative cannot rely on a romantic dénouement. So all that was left her was to leave things hanging--and the reader, perhaps, a bit less complacent.