Eliot’s Mill on the Floss may not seem like a typical bildungsroman, but it does contain all the necessary elements. Eliot presents Maggie’s “life course” from childhood, school years, relationships with potential mates, the “fates that life brings”, her “works and deeds” and, of course, her death. Her development does take place over a lifetime, her lifetime. Throughout the novel her development stutters and stumbles, as she experiences setbacks that plague her with unrelenting hardship. She never achieves the success in life that she wishes for, but she does discover what is most important. Eliot’s novel presents love of family as a core tenet of moral and ethical responsibility. As a reader, I tend to prefer a character’s development to arc positively upward, but the type and trajectory of development may be less important than the result itself. This posting will focus on several episodes of Maggie’s story that make this novel a bildungsroman. These represent a lifelong struggle between her personal desire and family duty.
Throughout the novel, Maggie is presented as rebellious and rash, but starves for affirmation. Her place in society is defined by her gender, class and the stifling expectation of her parents, primarily her mother. The description of Maggie tends heavy towards her outward appearance. Her hair is wild and untamed, much to the irritation of her mother. Her impulsive and egocentric behavior blooms, starting with the cutting of her own hair. Maggie views this act as one of rebellion towards her mother. Before cutting her hair she imagined the “triumph she should have over her mother and her aunts by this decided course of action.” The narrator describes the moments following the passionate frenzy of snipping “with a sense of clearness and freedom, as if she had emerged from a wood into the open plain.” Unfortunately for Maggie, just a child, her act of sudden defiance results in teasing from her brother, Tom. In this moment we see that for Maggie, the opinions of others are most important, especially those of Tom.
This desire for Tom’s approval has put Maggie at odds with her extended family. The aunts’ disparagement and refusal to truly help pull them out of dire financial hardship crushes Tom’s spirit. Maggie experiences his agony, and with “eyes flashing like the eyes of a young lioness,” “bursts out,” scolding her aunts for their dereliction of family duty. In this moment the sphere of family contracts. For Maggie, there is realization that dependence can only be sought within her immediate family. This sphere continues to tighten as we near the end of the novel.
It isn’t until the final moments of the novel that Maggie puts immediate family above her own desires. As the rain starts to slowly invade, Maggie rejects Stephen’s final plea for her to ask him to “Come!” and is set upon sending him her “last word of parting.” She struggles with the realization that this rejection will gnaw at her for the rest of her life. The rushing currents pulled her “away from that life which she had been dreading…” The water washes away the “artificial vesture” of life, leaving only naked “primitive mortal needs,” family. When Maggie arrives at her family home, the sphere has constricted Tom and Maggie into a single unit. Their lives were lost, but “in death they were not divided.”
Eliot chooses to end the novel with their unexpected death. Family is the thread that traces throughout the novel and the only thing able to survive death. We see the development of Maggie from a young girl driven by rash behavior, unthinking of the consequences, to a woman driven by rash, selfless love for her family. In her final moments she realizes that she must put her desire and safety aside for the sake of those she holds most dear. Her bildungsroman develops in favor of family duty at the cost of personal desire.