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I wrote this paper for a Freshman college English lit class I completed two years ago, found it while wondering through my computer, and thought I'd publish it as a node. I don't have a copy of the original question, but it was probably comparing Eliot's idea of the function of society with Nietzsche's own concept.

George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss follows the lives of Maggie and Tom Tulliver. The novel’s primary protagonist, Maggie, is first seen as a young girl who is still relatively free from the restrictions placed on her by society. As the novel progresses, Maggie’s behavior is molded through the wishes of her close and extended family, especially as a young girl. Within The Mill on the Floss, Tom acts as both Maggie’s primary influence and as another example of the way society molds an individual, eventually completely submerging into the model entrepreneur he must become in order to bring his family out of debt. Through the portrayal of Maggie and Tom and their relationship with their family, George Eliot shows how society rewards those who follow its rules, and punishes those who are “uncivilized”, producing a society who’s members are “tame and civilized” (23).

Maggie’s behavior as a child embodies a person who has been untamed by her culture. Maggie’s untamed nature is seen in George Eliot’s description, “Maggie was incessantly tossing her head to keep the dark heavy locks out of her gleaming black eyes – an action which gave her very much the air of a small Shetland pony” (13). Maggie’s resemblance to an animal goes beyond her physical features and mannerisms: like many young children, Maggie doesn’t have a deep understanding of morality, and tends to do what she wants, even if it displeases her family, as described by Mrs. Tulliver, “Wanderin’ up an’ down by the water, like a wild thing: she’ll tumble in some day” (12). As Maggie’s childhood continues, she begins to develop a sense of morality based on the actions her family criticizes her for. When Maggie misbehaves, her mother uses the threat of her aunts withdrawing their love as a way to force her to behave. After Maggie ruins her curls in a basin of water, Mrs. Tulliver exclaims, “what is to become of you if you’re so naughty? I’ll tell you aunt Glegg and your aunt Pullet when they come next week, and they’ll never love you any more” (28). While Mrs, Tulliver’s threat may not stop Maggie from ever ruining her hair again, it does teach Maggie the lesson that misbehaving is wrong, and that only good girls are loved by their family. As the first section of The Mill on the Floss continues, Maggie’s childhood is depicted as a series of lessons on morality as seen by her family. By the time Tom leaves for school, Maggie has been taught the morality of 19th century English culture through her family.

The indoctrination Maggie goes through as a child at Dorlcote Mill is similar to Nietzsche’s conception of modern society as one in which it’s members are transformed from “the beast of prey” into “a tame and civilized animal” (23). This process is seen most clearly in Maggie’s case as she cuts off her hair both to avoid “teasing remarks” about it, and so that people would “think her a clever little girl, and not … find fault with her” (64). Maggie attempted to solve a problem, but because her solution makes her look ugly and savage, “like a gypsy” (68), she is insulted and scolded by most of her family. Though Maggie acts to improve her situation, her family reacts by chastising her, forcing their opinion that Maggie is not strong enough to decide for herself on Maggie. Maggie’s close and extended family functions as an extension of society, teaching Maggie values that are not based on consideration of their inherent worth, but as reaction to what Nietzsche describes as “this ‘boldness’ of noble races – mad, absurd, sudden” (22).

The speed with which Maggie’s parents criticize her when her behavior violates the way women are supposed to behave in English society suggests that they, along with the rest of English society, have lost their faith in humanity. Because women are seen to have only one role within society, any behavior which violates this role is seen as dangerous and abnormal. Maggie’s acting out can be seen in the same light as what Nietzsche describes as “this hidden base need to discharge itself” (22). Maggie displays “this base need” several times throughout her childhood - always acting through passion without forethought, pushing Lucy into the mud, ruining her hair, spilling a glass of wine while hugging Tom, or trying to join a family of gypsies. Nietzsche writes, “with the fear of man we have also forfeited the love of him, the reverence toward him, the hope for him, indeed the will to him” (24). Instead of questioning the worth of Maggie’s actions, her parents and extended family punish her in an unthinking effort to change her behavior and mold her along the same lines of other women in English society.

Though Tom is brought up in the same household as Maggie, his treatment is very different. Unlike their patronizing behavior towards Maggie, Tom’s close and extended family give Tom both responsibility and importance within the family. Tom is trusted enough that he is able to lead Maggie and Lucy outside of their parents’ supervision, into the Pullet’s garden, and later, after Maggie goes missing, Tom’s suggestion that she has gone home is accepted by his mother. Though part of the responsibility the Tullivers give Tom is based on his age and personality, most of it seems to be based on his position as the first born male child within the Tulliver household. Tom’s position of privilege within the family is seen by the amount of money that Mr. Tulliver spends just to ensure that Tom will be able to support the household and do well in life. Though Tom’s behavior is less strictly controlled than Maggie’s, his childhood at Dorlcote Mill also “tames” him, preparing him for his role as head of the Tulliver household. Unlike Maggie, who seems to resist becoming a normal member of English society, Tom must embrace domestication in order to bring his family out of debt. Tom’s uncle, Mr. Deane, explains to Tom how he prospered in life, “I’ll tell you how I got on … I kept my eyes and ears open, sir, and I wasn’t too fond of my own back, and I made my master’s interest my own” (229). By emulating his Uncle Deane and becoming a hardworking, unthreatening member of society, Tom eventually improves his situation. Tom’s success implies that society rewards those who forget their own happiness and transform themselves into “this hopelessly mediocre and uninspiring being” (Nietzsche, 24). Maggie and Tom have two separate kinds of pressures acting on them. Maggie is criticized when she steps outside her accepted role in society, while Tom is pressured into domesticity through rewarding his choice to transform himself.

Though both Tom and Maggie are pressured by society into domesticity and weakness, there are some instances in which individual family members are shown to tolerate or encourage “wild” behavior. Mr. Tulliver is the primary example of this tolerance, and the instances in which he shows his love for Maggie by praising her cleverness or comforting her after she misbehaves reinforce her untamed nature. George Eliot shows how Mr. Tulliver’s praise effects Maggie’s life long after his death, “Maggie never forgot any of these moments when her father ‘took her part;’ she kept them in her heart, and thought of them long years after” (68). Mr. Tulliver’s praise, which counteracts much of the criticism Maggie receives when she acts in an “unladylike” manner, seems to show that society is not a unified body whose only goal is to make its youngest members less unpredictable and dangerous. However, while Mr. Tulliver praises Maggie and accepts her wildness, his praise also unconsciously demeans Maggie, treating her untamed nature as a silly phase which she will soon abandon. Mr. Tulliver’s attitude towards his wife reflects this, “I picked the mother because she wasn’t o’er ‘cute – being a good-looking woman too, an’ come of a rare family for managing; but I picked her from her sisters o’ purpose, ‘cause she was a bit weak, like; for I wasn’t agoin’ to be told the rights o’ things by my own fireside” (19). To Mr. Tulliver, a woman’s purpose in life is to raise children, and his patronizing attitude towards Maggie is based on his assumption that she will grow up to become a homemaker like most other woman in English society. Though Mr. Tulliver loves Maggie and wants her to be happy, his attitudes are a reflection of the attitudes common in 19th century English society, and most of the rest of the world.

George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss reflects her conception of human progress as the struggle of individuals against outside forces which seek to mold their lives and thoughts. Eliot explains why she analyzes the lives of the Maggie and Tom so deeply, “I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness; but it is necessary that we should feel it, if we care to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie—how it has acted on young natures in many generations, that in the onward tendency of human things have risen above the mental level of the generation before them, to which they have been nevertheless tied by the strongest fibres of their hearts” (272). Unlike Nietzsche, who urges his readers to abandon their preconceptions, Eliot believes that the values and ties one learns as a child are still important throughout life, as illustrated by the emotional ties between Maggie and Tom. Though Eliot and Nietzsche differ in how critical they are to culture’s domesticating process, their vision of culture as a force which transforms its’ members into “tame and civilized” animals are in accord.

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