Tuesday, March 03, 2009

What is the Floss?

I finally finished George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss -- only a week after our Book Group met to discuss it.

Since I hadn't finished the book, my first question was "What is the Floss?" OK, I guess I missed the reference to the Floss River in the first paragraph of the book. Of course, that was good for a few dentist jokes. Our book group had a guest attendee, a woman who was a Victorian Literature professor at Kenyon University before moving to Philly who provided a wonderful perspective on aspects of the book that we might otherwise have missed.

A brief description of the story:

George Eliot’s thrilling novel focuses on the loving yet turbulent relationship between siblings Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Maggie is impetuous and fervent while Tom is collected and pragmatic, yet their different natures are united by a strong bond. That bond is tested by many upheavals, including their family’s bankruptcy, the loss of their family’s mill, and their father’s eventual death. Maggie, meanwhile, experiences her own personal turmoil: though the sensitive, hunchbacked Philip is in love with her, she is drawn to Stephen Guest, a prominent town resident who happens to be her cousin Lucy’s suitor. Despite the fact that both of them are involved with other people, Maggie and Stephen cannot hide their feelings—from each other and from other characters. But when their relationship becomes public, Stephen flees the country, Maggie is cast out of society, and the bond between the siblings undergoes its toughest trial. In The Mill on the Floss, Eliot weaves a mesmerizing, devastating tale about various types of love, the deepest of which may be the love between families.
The novel was published in 1860 and was Mary Ann Evans' most autobiographical book. It is a variation on her real life and the impact of her affair with a married man. The writing style is much more wordy than we are used to today, but her writing and descriptions are beautiful. The novel definitely holds up as a classic. In fact, the group has put Eliot's Middlemarch on our to read list, now that we're showing a more literary bent (at least for a while).

There are certainly areas where the novel is somewhat dated, such as the sexist roles imposed on women, as seen through the subservient role that Maggie was forced to live, despite her "independent" spirit. Yet, there are also those aspects of the story that are timeless and there were even a few parallels to issues of today. For example, dysfunctional families are timeless and the Tulliver family can keep up with the best of them! Maggie's relationship with her brother is complex and forms the central theme of the book. Her brother Tom is a rigid, judgmental person, yet Maggie adores him. From childhood on, she craves his approval, which is often withheld. Apparently this mirrors Mary Ann Evans' own relationship with her brother, who also rejected her, as did Tom Maggie.

Then there are the issues related to class dynamics and the poverty that Maggie's family faced after her father lost a lawsuit and had to declare bankruptcy, which certainly provides echoes of what we're faced with today. Maggie's relationships with the two men in her life, Philip and Stephen Guest, are set out in light the mores of the time, so are limited based upon family dynamics. Philip is the son of a family enemy, so he cannot ever be accepted for Maggie, regardless of her feelings. Stephen Glass is involved with her cousin Lucy, so Maggie is unable to allow her own desires to prevail. The shunning that Maggie experienced an unchaperoned boat trip with Stephen Glass could only occur in Amish country today, yet the gossip and speculation about Maggie afterwards by the townspeople still rings true today.

Laura McDonald's review of the book at Girlebooks and description of Maggie is on point:

Maggie as a child is a beautiful character; Eliot portrays the workings of her mind so truthfully and compellingly. She is full of fiery defiance and lives for the moment, whether in her need for Tom’s affection or full of bitter regret after she realizes the consequences of her actions. One of the best illustrations of Maggie’s ornery personality is when, after being told since she was young that her looks and behavior are that of a gypsy, she decides to run away and live with “her people”. However, when she actually gets her wish and finds herself among the gypsies with no way to get home, it slowly dawns on her that she perhaps acted too precipitously.

Such stories from Maggie’s childhood prepare us for the challenges she will face as she grows older. Family troubles cause both Maggie and Tom to take on heavy responsibilities at an early age, turning grown Maggie into a shadow of her former self interspersed with flashes of emotion she can’t contain. Alongside their family drama we find several love stories intertwined. With these intertwined stories Eliot explores the themes of emotion over duty, passion over propriety. What if the one you desire is the last person who will make you happy? What place does obligation take in questions of the heart? What place does love of a family member take when conflicted with the love of a lover?

Although I did buy a real copy, the book is even available on Google Books, and I was able to read on the fly on my iPhone when I found myself with a few extra minutes here and there. Not quite the Kindle, of course, which I just saw this week-end for the first time (although I've been reading about it for some time). After seeing it, I think the Kindle is my next gadget "must have," but I can get by with books on the iPhone until then. Luckily, our next book up on our reading list is Crime & Punishment, is also available on Google Books.

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