Mill on the Floss as a Bildungsroman Novel

     If one were to define the bildungsroman genre as one that contains a story of a character’s growth, then Mill on the Floss by George Eliot could be considered a bildungsroman novel.  This is because the main protagonist, Maggie, grows with the maturity of her emotions in the novel throughout the story in various instances.  Maggie struggles to deal with impulse behaviors as she is attempting to figure out who she is and how she can express her emotions.  In the first book installment, Maggie feels pangs of jealousy as she watches her sibling, Tom, spending time with one of the more feminine characters, Lucy.  She becomes angry, and she is compelled to “push poor little pink-and-white Lucy into the cow-trodden mud” after Tom angrily tells her to leave them alone (Bk I, Ch. X).  Instead of being mature and asking to join them, Maggie is selfish by interrupting their plans and does something extremely immature by pushing Lucy into the mud, indicating that Maggie is emotionally on an immature level in life in the beginning.  Towards the middle of the novel, Maggie realizes that the books that they grew up with are gone and threw herself into a chair, with the big tears ready to roll down her cheeks” (Bk. III, Ch. VI).  While her emotions are still exploding outward as the tears roll, the reader can see some growth of emotions within Maggie because of the reasons why she is crying.  She is not angry or jealous, like in the scene with Tom and Lucy, but she is heartbroken because their childhood books are gone.  Heartbreak is more of a mature emotion because it requires the person to feel a deep sense of love and attachment for the object or person, which Maggie obviously is attached to the memories and sentiment behind the books.  Instead of being violent to others, Maggie simply breaks down in a healthier way of letting her emotions be known.  Her decrease in violence tells the reader that she is growing by learning consequences of violence and learning how to express her emotions in a normal way, like crying.  Toward the end of the story, Maggie felt as if “she was no longer an unheeded person, liable to be chid, from whom attention was continually claimed” after she is introduced to the life of a young lady at St. Ogg’s (Bk. VI, Ch. VI).  Maggie finally feels comfortable in her own emotions as she is starting this new chapter of her life as a young woman.  This shows to the reader character development because Maggie feels content instead of violent or tearful, much like the varying emotions of a child.  This novel is a bildungsroman novel because its protagonist, Maggie, continually grows throughout the story regarding her emotions and how she deals with them, both internally with herself and externally with other characters.  In the beginning, Maggie does not know how to deal with her emotions of jealousy, so she externally releases them by pushing Lucy into the mud.  In the end, Maggie is happy and content with her emotions and herself because she feels as if she is starting her life over at St. Ogg’s.   

Mr. Carson’s Character Development

Though many characters grow throughout Mary Barton, Mr. Carson’s Bildungsroman is perhaps the most notable. While he is not a main character, his change of heart is the greatest. In the beginning, Mr. Carson is the factory owner and the father of Mary’s fling, Harry Carson, and known for being a cruel and power hungry master. When a fire burns down his factory, he is not worried for “the insurance money would amply pay” and lays off his workers, including Mr. Wilson. Mr. Carson is not concerned with the “deep, terrible gloom” of “no wages to pay for the bread the children cried aloud for in their young impatience suffering” (95). For the rich, no work meant “leisure” that was a “pleasant thing” and meant “happy family evenings” (95). Rich families, including Mr. Carson’s, do not attempt to understand the intense weight of having no money. Rather than compensating for lost time, because the factory workers need it so badly, it is considered a luxury to not work. Meanwhile, Davenport falls ill and Wilson goes to the Carson’s to ask for medicine. Mr. Carson fails to recognize his name and doesn’t “pretend to know the names of the men [he] employ[s],” even though Davenport had worked for him for three years. He is unconcerned with the needs of his workers while in this time period, the people working in the factories need all the help they can get.

Carson continues to be ignorant of the workers’ conditions and needs until it directly affects him in the murder of his son, Henry. After he finds out his son has been shot, he reverts to using his money. He offers a “handsome reward [that] might accelerate the discovery of the murderer” (273). Rather than grieving his son’s death, comforting his hysterical wife or reflecting on how short life is, Mr. Carson seeks vengeance on the murderer: “My son! My son…but you shall be avenged, my poor murdered boy” (277). It is “a speedy conviction, a speedy execution” that “seemed to be the only things that would satisfy his craving thirst for blood” (286). This shows immaturity, recklessness and again a lack of concern for those around him. The death of his son has not so far as changed Mr. Carson but rather encouraged him to use his power and money to further fight fire with fire.

At the trial, Mr. Carson shows glimpses of emotions when he contemplates over his son’s love of Mary. He “abhorred her and her rumored loveliness” and “grew jealous of the love with which she had inspired his son” (402). Instead of pitying her and considering her loss of her “lover,” he felt a “severe” “satisfaction” when she is about to come testify against Jem. The narrator leaves out his reaction when the court rules Jem not guilty, maybe because the reader is not concerned with Mr. Carson at the moment—only Mary and Jem— or because his emotion would bring down the happiness of the reader. It is not until several chapters later that the narrator explores the reactions of Mr. Carson. This is when Mr. Carson has a change of heart and actually considers another person’s point of view: “But suddenly, while he was deliberating, and searching for motives which should be effective to compel him to exertion and action once more…suddenly I say, the thought arose within him that more yet remained to be learned about the circumstances and feelings which prompted John Barton’s crime” (466-7).

He then calls for Will Wilson and Job Leigh to help Mr. Carson understand. Once they explain it to him, the first thing he says is, “Now how in the world can we help it?” (471). Instead of getting angry or blowing them off as he might have done earlier, he asks what he can do. This shows immense growth in Mr. Carson’s character. He allows Wilson and Job to explain John Barton’s reasons and thanks them “for speaking candidly” about “the power, or want of power in masters, to remedy the evils the men complain of” (474). The death of Henry opened his eyes to the hurt, hunger and hate that ultimately comes from being poor and knowing there is nothing one can solely do about it. Yet with the power that Mr. Carson has from being a master and having money, he understands how he is one of the people who can actually do something about it. This development in Mr. Carson is a total change in his character. This gives the reader hope because of this growth. Mr. Carson is not a main character but he is an impressionable character because of his Bildungsroman.