Omniscience vs. Intimacy: The Narrator’s Role in Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot once said, “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” Although she accomplishes this in several ways throughout her novel The Mill on the Floss, I believe the most interesting way in which she does so is through the use of the narrator.

The characteristic that intrigued me the most about the narrator is her intimate, yet omniscient, presence in the novel. Although we as readers do not have a strong idea who the narrator is – who she is, how she came to know so much about St. Ogg’s, etc. – we are given several clues that the narrator was involved in Maggie and Tom’s lives, which gives her an air of authority over the reader. This is evidenced early on in the first chapter of Book 1 when the narrator first describes one of her memories of Maggie as a child, “Now I can turn my eyes toward the mill again, and watch the unresting wheel sending out its diamond jets of water. That little girl is watching it too; she has been standing on just the same spot at the edge of the water ever since I paused on the bridge.”

In addition to making the narrator more personable, Eliot also appears to have given the narrator an omniscient presence during some points of the novel. The narrator’s omniscience serves as a tool to slow down the reader’s judgment of certain characters, such as Tom, Philip, and Maggie. This allows the narrator to guide the readers toward having compassion for these characters. The narrator best demonstrates this in chapter five of Book 5 when the narrator comments:

“Do not think too hardly of Philip. Ugly and deformed people have great need of unusual    virtues, because they are likely to be extremely uncomfortable without them… Does not the Hunger Tower stand as the type of the utmost trial to what is human in us?”

The narrator’s ability to peer into the lives of the characters makes it difficult for the reader to make quick, easy judgements about them. Additionally, the narrator’s omniscience forces us to apply her insight of the characters to our lives, forcing us to step into the shoes of the character and explore our motivations and desires.

Eliot uses many strategies to successfully foster sympathy in the reader for the main characters. However, I believe the narrator is one of the most effective methods. Her experience with the story makes the story feel that much more real, and her omniscience arms the reader with the necessary tools to feel compassionate toward the main characters.

2 thoughts on “Omniscience vs. Intimacy: The Narrator’s Role in Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

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