From the very beginning of The Mill on the Floss, I knew the relationship between Maggie and Tom would be of very significant importance to the narrative. I see them as almost being “frenemies,” which is pretty typical of a sibling relationship. Although they do have some sweet moments and ultimately seem to rely on each other and need each other, I see their relationship as being rather toxic. For example, “But Maggie had hardly finished speaking in that chill, defiant manner, before she repented, and felt the dread of alienation from her brother” (Eliot 399). Right after Maggie confronts Tom about taking back his command for her not to see Philip Wakem, she almost seems to subtly regret it. Maggie wants to be independent, and I believe she is. However, she subconsciously seems to need some type of validation from Tom. If he is not happy with her, it affects her more than she would like to admit. In addition to this, “‘Not for myself, dear Tom. Don’t be angry. I shouldn’t have asked it (…) I shall only see him in the presence of other people. There will never be any secret between us again’” (Eliot 400). Right after mentally regretting standing up to her brother, Maggie covers up her bold confrontation with Tom. She takes a step back, and I think this shows some uncertainty and insecurity on her part. Granted, this makes a lot of sense in the culture and time period she grew up in. The fact that she stands up to her brother at all is very impressive and shows her strength and confidence. I think Eliot chose to employ this back-and-forth toxic sibling relationship to bring a sense of raw emotion to the novel as well as to show that gender power struggles were even present in family settings at the time.
Although there is quite the power struggle between these siblings, there is also a sweet display of love and connection. Tom and Maggie seem to gravitate towards each other no matter how much they irritate one another. By book seven, Maggie has endured a lot of shame and is shunned by many people, including Tom. This doesn’t stop her from trying to reconcile with him. “‘Tom,’ she began, faintly, ‘I am come back to you – I am come back home – for refuge – to tell you everything’” (Eliot 483). Tom is always the person Maggie will go to for the hope of safety and comfort, no matter how bad things have gotten between them.
While the relationship between the two siblings is very back and forth, it is ultimately rooted in a mutual love. They know they have each other, no matter how badly one hurts the other. The ending of this novel encompasses their deep love, “…but brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted: living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together” (Eliot 517). The conclusion I draw from this is that Tom and Maggie always had a deep longing for connection with one another. They felt it at times but it was also extremely damaged by their unhealthy interactions. They both longed for a simple loving sibling relationship, but the difficult circumstances in which they lived slowly tore them apart. The way in which Eliot ended the novel with their death shows that despite their many disagreements, they still had unconditional love for each other. I see the central theme of this novel as love and family, and both of those things are summed up in this last sentence.