The first time I heard about this book was in class 7 or 8. Our English Reader had a story called ‘Maggie cuts her Hair’. It was an abridged version of a small part of the book, but it had me hooked! Maggie seemed like such a fun character; I mean, to chop off your hair because you’d rather not brush it – that’s not just any girl!
However, it is this very nature of Maggie that prevents her from ever really fitting in. Although the story’s main plot is about the relationship between Maggie and her brother Tom, it is also a strong commentary on society’s oppression of women. The Mill on the Floss is set somewhere in the early 1800s, a time when it wasn’t exactly desirable for a woman to be independent in thought, speech or anything for that matter. As you proceed through the book, it becomes obvious that Maggie is certainly more intelligent, ambitious and creative than Tom, but her education is hardly given any importance, while Tom’s is given serious consideration. At one point Tom says, “Girls never learn such things. They’re too silly.”
Even as it becomes evident to Tom that Maggie is more intelligent, his chauvinism and ego prevents him from acknowledging it and accepting help from her in his studies. Unfortunately for Maggie, her academics are just one area of oppression. George Eliot, or rather, Mary Ann Evans, gives several subtle examples throughout the book about how everyone sets about to break Maggie’s spirit, bit by bit. Everything she does is judged – her appearance, her interests and her relationships. She is often compared to Lucy, her cousin, who is the model of the ‘ideal woman’ – perfectly dressed, hair in place, docile and forever agreeable. When you think about how little things have changed now that we are in the 21st century, it’s depressing!
I read the complete novel several years after that chapter in my English Reader, but I think that little story gives a very clear idea of the whole book. Maggie is judged as soon as she arrives, before she even cuts her hair and far more than Tom. She is in stark contrast to Lucy, with her ‘little rosebud mouth’, ‘little straight nose’ and her hazel eyes. Maggie gets creative and seeks her own happiness, only to find that it doesn’t go down well with those around her. Tom is unsympathetic to her worries and very conscious of what everyone thinks, although he does soften towards the end. The evolution of their relationship from childhood to their adult lives is beautifully written, and the end is almost heart breaking. If you haven’t read the book, it’s okay – no more spoilers!!