Introduction: The Mill on the Floss and the Anthropocene
In our Anthropocene edition of The Mill on the Floss, we discuss how the novel offers insight into contemporary and Victorian ecological issues. To discuss how George Eliot can influence our thinking today, we have put her work in conversation with Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement and his assertions that literary fiction has helped to make climate change “unthinkable.” The way that realist fiction in particular is implicated in creating modern capitalist subjectivities supportive of national identity also motivates us to revisit a canonical example of realism to notice how the novel is and is not aware of its own anthropocentrism and the consequences of this. Our edition is not meant to serve as a defense of Victorian realism but as a complication of any claim that these novels are unsuitable for helping people imagine and intervene in ecological disasters such as climate change.
In what follows, you will find Megan Butler discussing probability and Nature, Francesca Colonnese on modes of temporality, Rachel Dusin on agency and free will, Averie Freund on the human and the nonhuman, Mara Minion on evolutionary theory, and Zenia Rios on the uncanny and nature. These topics trace central themes in both Ghosh and Eliot that we think produce interesting insights and arguments about The Mill on the Floss and how it inhabits and interprets the Anthropocene. To read this edition, you can read our individual introductions and annotations to follow a specific theme or you can read the novel in sequence to explore how these themes repeatedly arise such that questions about the interactions of humans and nature are impossible to ignore. One warning, if you read our introductions and annotations, you will learn the ending ahead of time. As we have conceived of this as a critical edition to help guide a reader through our understandings of the novel, we have given away the plot in favor of critical insight. In addition, we offer a combined list of sources for further reading for the interested reader.
Probability and the Order of Nature, Contributed by Megan Butler
Amitav Ghosh opens The Great Derangement with an image from the movie The Empire Strikes Back. He recalls the moment when Han Solo lands the Millennium Falcon on what he thinks is an asteroid but what turns out to be the back of a sleeping space monster. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, impending calamity and the need to act fast were not only probable, but normal. Ghosh uses the image to recall that moment of recognition when we realize “the energy that surrounds us, flowing under our feet and through wires in our walls, animating our vehicles and illuminating our rooms, is an all-encompassing presence that may have its own purposes about which we know nothing” (5). This energy, he contends, is either missing or unacknowledged in the modern novel, which tends to concern itself with manners and moderation and portrays nature as scenery, an orderly backdrop for human interaction. The reality of destructive weather and climate change tells another story, and so Ghosh declares the modern and “realist” novel complicit in climate change denial: “the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real” (23). What is missing in the modern novel are the violent storms and uncontrollable behavior of the non-human. Excluding them from the ecology of serious fiction suggests a dualism or, in Ghosh’s terms, “the without and the within” that belies a “realist” depiction of reality (5).
In The Mill on the Floss, Eliot defies many of Ghosh’s accusations while still working within the idea of what fiction was at the time. She establishes a “without and within” between the narrator and the narration, between Maggie’s inner thoughts and society’s machinations, between the Floss and the hydrography of other bodies of water, and between the slow, country life of St. Ogg’s and the encroachment of modernity and industrialization. In each case, the dual entities are eventually woven together in scenes of what Kyle McAuley terms “aquatic entanglement” (189). This entanglement forces a way of reading the novel that incorporates the non-human characters of water and weather and thus foreshadows events that would otherwise appear improbable. Looking at the novel from the perspective of the Anthropocene, water radiates the energy Ghosh recalls in the transcendent moment of recognition, and the probable lurks throughout. Eliot does what Ghosh says realist novelists do not, but her process of writing with dualities that eventually collide leaves the novel open for multiple interpretations.
Since its publication in 1860 as a work of realist fiction, The Mill on the Floss’s narrative about Maggie’s coming of age dominated all other aspects of the book. Maggie’s story provided readers with what they expected from a novel at the time, novelistic elements Catherine Gallagher describes as “a seemingly free space in which to temporarily indulge imaginative play…[and] a protective enclosure that would cordon off imaginary yielding from any dangerous consequence” (347). Maggie’s stumbling can be observed from a safe distance by a reader protected from any impact of her fall. Moreover, Maggie is a commoner who, Gallagher writes, “falls beneath the notice of history proper and so…tend[s] to carry little extracurricular baggage” (351). Given a traditional reckoning, Maggie’s story is compelling and sorrowful, a morality tale of a young girl caught in bad circumstances; given a reckoning from the Anthropocene, her story and her agency—or lack of it—are bound up with the unsettled Floss. Her role as commoner provides commentary on life at the margins of industrialization and globalization in the English Midlands, the geographic heart of the First Industrial Revolution at the time of the shift from water power to steam power. An anthropogenic reading of the novel decenters Maggie and recognizes the centrality of the Floss, which is a factor in each major shift in her life, from her father’s failed lawsuit to her ill-fated day trip with Stephen to the final flood.
Although the reader spends chapters “within” Maggie’s interiority leaving the Floss “without,” the two are “in an embrace never to be parted” until death (Book Seventh, Chapter V). Just as Maggie’s depths are plumbed in the narrative, so the Floss and the behavior of rivers across deep time concern the narrator. The narrator’s persistent descriptions of antediluvian destruction starkly contrast her descriptions of St. Ogg’s, which she paints as “a level plain where men lose their belief in volcanoes and earthquakes, thinking to-morrow will be as yesterday, and the giant forces that used to shake the earth are for ever laid to sleep” (Book First, Chapter XII). Despite the history of great floods in St. Ogg’s and the lore behind the town’s patron saint, the residents are numb to the probability of another. The narrator mentions floods more than twenty times before the final scene, creating tense foreboding as Maggie’s entanglement with Stephen escalates. By the end of the story, the narrative feels like a dam ready to burst from the force of the water behind it. This sensation renders the final flood not only probable but inevitable, and two of the most clear-eyed characters are ready for their moments of recognition: Bob Jakin exclaims, “I don’t care about a flood comin’…I don’t mind the water, no more nor the land” and Maggie, when the water reaches her knees, is “not bewildered for an instant—she knew it was the flood!” (Book First, Chapter VI; Book Seventh, Chapter V).
Gallagher writes that the realist novel is often under particular pressure because it has a “double imperative to taxonomize the social body and to individualize the character” (361). Eliot does this work by drawing Maggie in more than one way. She is a sympathetic character whose social situations press against the manners of St. Ogg’s and she is a commoner, a human at the margins caught in a moment when shifting modes of power, production, and extraction overcome humanity’s ability to keep up. Likewise, the Floss is a character present in “type and instance” (Gallagher 361). It is a river like the Rhine and Rhone, both described by the narrator as swift rivers that once rose “like an angry destroying god, sweeping down the feeble generations whose breath is in their nostrils, and making their dwellings a desolation” (Book Fourth, Chapter I). And it is prone to the kind of flooding “that was widely fatal to the helpless cattle, and swept as sudden death over all smaller living things” (Book First, Chapter XII). An anthropogenic reading reveals Maggie’s place in the world as one of the “smaller living things,” a necessary sacrifice swept away by the power of nature and the engine of modernity. The continuous entanglement between Maggie and the Floss portends the improbable in the form of the final flood, although by the time it arrives, it is inevitable. The St Ogg’s residents may engage in Ghosh’s “concealment of the real,” but Eliot does not allow their collective amnesia to go unchecked. If Ghosh wants an example of serious modern fiction that does not address climate change, he will have to look elsewhere.
Temporality and Adherence to Anthropocentric Time, Contributed by Francesca Colonnese
In considering the problem of literary fiction and closed mindedness towards climate change, Ghosh identifies that the primary dilemma for both is “a scalar one” (63). In thinking about time and space, Ghosh complains that setting is usually a confinement for a novel and unsuitable to thinking about the vastness of scope required to enable imagining a global climate event. However, the human mind’s ineptness at scale is hardly confined to literary forms--after all, this is the same problem that has generated a thousand classroom demonstrations of the scale of the solar system if the sun is the size of a beach ball. For temporal scales, trying to intuit what it means for the Earth to be 4.5 billion years old is the problem of deep time. Although the terminology has more recently been solidified by modern thinkers, the term “deep time” refers to the philosophical and scientific notion of geologic time as developed by James Hutton in The Theory of the Earth (1788) and Charles Lyell in Principles of Geology (1830-33) (Heringman 57). Lyell’s theory of Uniformitarianism, that the earth is changing in slow and continuous processes rather than through cataclysm (known at Catastrophism), particularly forced the reconception of the age of the Earth to be much longer than Biblical timelines allowed. As such, the Victorians had to reckon with geologic or deep time, along with evolution, requiring conceptions of vast time that was different from the infinite scales of divinity. For Ghosh, the novel has taken part in the acceptance of Uniformitarianism as it presents itself as representing probable, thinkable events rather than the improbable disasters of Catastrophism that novels tend to truly sneak into their plots (current geology asserts that both of these theories have a roles in the Earth’s history as phenomena like continental drift exists along major events like the creation of the moon through an impact event). In considering how geologic conceptions have infected the novel, Ghosh claims that, “the nineteenth century was indeed a time when it was assumed, in both fiction and geology, that Nature was moderate and orderly” (22). The danger of deep time is not just that it is difficult to conceive but that it aides in making the improbable inconceivable as well.
Given many readers’ shock and irritation at the catastrophic ending, The Mill on the Floss can easily be accused of committing the sin of claiming to be a gradualist novel while relying on exceptional events. In addition to playing with getting the reader to accept the foreshadowed flood, the novel also plays with the notion of time and history as abstractions and lived experiences. In some of the most famous passages of the novel, Eliot writes about human history and her project of getting people interested in the “history of unfashionable families” (Book Fourth, Chapter III). For Eliot, even compared to the relatively small scale of human history, particularly of human settlement in the English Midlands, the length of generational time is much more thinkable. While not all her characters struggle with conceptions of time, or are reliant on linear time alone, the difficulty of abstract time and vastness is something that Eliot plays with throughout the novel. One of the difficulties of deep time is that it is compatible with the “homogeneous empty time” of modernity in which time can be viewed as a regular and infinite calendar of precisely measured days (Benjamin). Deep time reassures us that time has gone on and will go on with empirical regularity and so its vastness is also a reassurance that climate change cannot stop the coming of future days. Alternatively, one might think about deep time and gradualism as complicit in Rob Nixon’s “slow violence” of environmental disaster as “the insidious workings of slow violence derive largely from the unequal attention given to spectacular and unspectacular time” (Nixon 6). Eliot incorporates both levels of natural events and events in the novel and also both levels of natural temporality. So, despite Ghosh’s assertion against realist fiction, by viewing The Mill on the Floss as invested in how we understand and perceive temporality, the novel can also be understood as a project in how to make time “thinkable”--and the danger of temporal misperception.
For the annotations on temporality, you will see that I have followed two threads: 1. The unthinkableness of deep time and 2. Alternative temporalities, particularly as available to Maggie. Time and history as abstract and whether or not the inhabitants of St. Oggs are able to imagine its scale. For this, I see Eliot playing with how limited the human mind can be. Instead of fiction, she seems to blame human mental habits and human nature as making temporal scale inconceivable. However, by illustrating this, Eliot demonstrates how the mind boggling aspects of climate change are not due to limitations in modern forms but also in human minds. Working off Tom and his difficulty of understanding the Romans were real people, I explore moments in the text when past and present seem to be notions that limit human imagination. These annotations are aimed at seeing how Victorians offer continuities with our present troubles of grasping climate change and the scale of necessary change to stop it.
In thinking about Maggie, I propose that she might not be a creature of the progress, linear time of modernity but instead inhabits cyclic time. The cyclic time here is available in both natural and religious variations, just as the flood is both entirely natural and cannot help but have biblical undertones. In critiquing the conflicts between steam and water power and the linear and cyclical temporal structures they operate on, Elizabeth Miller identifies how the flood in particular operates on cyclical temporal logic as the river Floss is, “seasonally vari-
able, bound to the calendar, and occasionally catastrophic” (89). Despite this when the narrator describes past and future orientation at the end of the novel, “Crucially, this temporally dialectical perspective encouraged by the narrator is one that refuses the consolation and recompense of a cyclical temporality” (94). Yet, I would suggest that part of Maggie’s ending is that she is operating on cyclical temporality and thus, unlike the narrator, cannot survive the flood. Part of this is also due to Maggie’s faith being a dominant theme as the flood arrives. Maggie’s religious belief shapes itself on Thomas Keble’s The Christian Year and other Christian texts which ties her to the cyclic liturgical calendar and oriented her towards messianic time. This helps to disrupt her out of the linear temporalities in the novel.
In addition, Maggie’s growth into a marriageable young woman also means that St. Oggs expects her to conform to a certain biological and reproductive temporality. In considering how,
“Social experience is powerfully constrained and organized according to temporal forms” (Levine 51), the social constructs of marriage and of family impose temporality on Maggie. I argue that this is a temporality that Maggie is unwilling to conform to and is endangered by her inability to track. One way that it may be helpful to conceive of Maggie as partaking in queer time. While writing about Philip’s relationships to queer and crip time, Natalie Prizel helpfully describes, “Queer time has been defined in multiple ways: by Lee Edelman and Judith (Jack) Halberstam as a resistance of reproductive and normative futurity, by Eve Sedgwick in terms of the ‘deroutinz[ation]’ of time wrought by AIDS, and by Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon as an alternative to teleological historicism.” Here, queer time helps explain how in opting out of social norms around her boatride and her reproductive future, she is making an anti-normative temporality choice. Instead the suggestion that, “The Mill on the Floss is written entirely in queer time” (Prizel) helps to explain why the novel and Maggie do not come to the end that modernity’s teleological, continuous, linear time would have caused the reader to expect. As such, queer time offers another way to rethink temporality. In the case of the Anthropocene, it may also help to suggest that the deep time is also only useful as not gradualism but a fundamental dislocation through scale--one useful for rendering ecological slow violence thinkable.
Determinism, Choice, and Agency, Contributed by Rachel Dusin
“In natural science, I have understood, there is nothing petty to the mind that has a large vision of relations, and to which every single object suggests a vast sum of conditions. It is surely the same with the observation of human life.” Book Fourth, Chapter I “A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet”
George Eliot, author of The Mill on the Floss, began her life as many of her time did, and many still do today: baptized in the Chrisitan faith. While Eliot chose to formally leave the religion she was raised in, certain elements of that faith have found their way into her writing. Some of these elements are hard to miss, such as the Tulliver’s family Bible, the legend of St Ogg’s, and the quoting of scripture. Other elements have crept their way in as the steady, invisible hand that moves the narrative. One such element was the protestant theological position of Calvinism within the broader greater Christian faith. This theology of Calvinism within the Reformed branch of Christianity holds a core belief in a concept of “predestination”. Derived from Romans 8:28-30, a Calvinistic interpretation of predestination is that God has chosen some to be saved from the beginning. In other words, God has specifically chosen only some people to become Christians and go to heaven. Those he has chosen are given both the gift of grace paid for by Christ’s death and resurrection, and the gift of faith to believe in him. Those given this two-part gift therefore have no choice themselves, just as those not given the gifts also have no choice. Both the chosen and those not have a predetermined fate they can neither control nor escape, thus is the Calvinistic stance on predestination.
Now, as mentioned before, Eliot did not abide in Christianity, let alone the specific strain of Christian Calvinism that she had once adhered to. When Biblical doctrine is carefully removed from Calvinism, a secular philosophy of determinism appears in its stead. Determinism is in essence the belief that every event is determined by every other preceding event. In this way, a deterministic world is marching on towards an unknown, yet predictable fate. Nothing is left to chance, and in the end no one gets a say since they themselves are products of irrevocable events. In determinism, the past has already sealed the future.
In Book First, Chapter VII, this deterministic notion of irrevocability is explored as Maggie suffers under the guilt of an action she cannot undo. An action she could not do differently if she had wished, for it was already too late before they happened. In Book First, Chapter XII, this concept of determinism that seals the Tulliver’s and Dodson’s fates is further explored through different actors in creating events, acknowledging that humans are not the only actors in creating deterministic events. In Book Sixth, Chapter XIV, the role of responsibility for one’s actions is explored in a deterministic world that appears to not give one a choice in their fate. In Book Seventh, Conclusion, the concept of agency in a deterministic world is further explored through actors other than humans that create events.
Three supplementary texts are used in conversation with The Mill on the Floss in order to further explore the passages in relation to the themes of determinism, choice, and agency in both the fictional and actual Anthropocene. The primary supplementary source used to support these themes in relation to the Anthropocene is Amitav Ghosh’s, The Great Derangement. Building off of that text, Elisabeth Even Sale’s paper, “Determinism and freedom of choice operating through five experiences in psychological development in the lives of three of George Eliot’s Heroines”, brings into conversion the more specific nature of determinism within Eliot’s writings. The final text used is Bruno Latour’s Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene, to fully flesh out the above themes as the novel concludes.
These annotations as a whole reflect upon the very nature of the world, who holds responsibility for its current state in the Anthropocene, if the earth is heading into a predetermined fate, and whether anyone really has any say in where we’re collectively and individually heading.
“I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,/ And gather dust and chaff, and call/ To what I feel is Lord of all,/ And faintly trust the larger hope” -- Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam
The Human and the Nonhuman, Contributed by Averie Freund
George Eliot’s work, The Mill on the Floss, frequently depicts the relationship between humans and other nonhuman entities. These relationships are identified in blatant ways like the numerous instances in which the characters are compared to animals as Maggie is on multiple occasions described as having the “air of a small Shetland pony,” (Book First, Chapter II). However, the constant presence of nature, music, and other nonhuman elements are evidentiary of the many forms in which this relationship may take place. Considering the extensive number of areas worthy of analysis within the text, the focus will fall on the relationship between humans and nature including the forces that reside within it. The use of bodies of water, particularly rivers, are pertinent to this analysis of the text in tandem with secondary works to evaluate the dynamics of the human and nonhuman relationship.
Amitav Ghosh’s work, The Great Derangement, provides the primary lens to analyze Eliot’s work through. Ghosh’s first part entitled “Stories,” discusses the relationship between the human and nonhuman while questioning the ability of literature to accurately convey the threat that is faced by climate change in the Anthropocene. The relationship between humans and natural forces has been severed as a result of an illusion of mastery over nature. This separation has come into being following the development of the bourgeois way of life and the “collective setting aside of the knowledge that accrues over generations through dwelling in a landscape,” (Ghosh, 55). This intentional forgetfulness, Ghosh argues, has allowed humans to falsely believe ourselves masters of nature despite the fact that, “there is no place where the orderly expectations of bourgeois life hold unchallenged sway,” (Ghosh, 26). This separation is breached by the uncanny in which humans and nonhuman subjects become mutually aware of one another. The most striking aspect of the uncanny in its relation to the human and nonhuman relationship is “the fact that in these encounters we recognize something we had turned away from,” (Ghosh, 30). Through the uncanny humans become cognizant of the fact that things considered defining aspects of humanity and a means of separation such as will and thought, are not limited to our species. In this realization we are then stripped of our illusion of mastery.
Bruno Latour’s, Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene contributes a great deal of insight into understanding the human and nonhuman connection in The Mill on the Floss. Latour’s analysis of this ever-evolving “geostory,” and the Earth’s role as an active player within it illustrates the interdependence that exists between humans and the Earth (Latour, 3). The interdependence which Latour describes challenges the ideas of subjectivity and objectivity as it is commonly understood because of the way in which human and nonhuman entities impact and influence the existence of the other. This flow of influence contributes to Latour’s arguments around causality because the quasi-subjectivity of all the human and nonhuman elements that reside within Earth who have lost some degree of autonomy. In this loss of autonomy the interconnectedness is reaffirmed and Earth can no longer be considered an object that can be without humans. The impact of humanity is in every aspect of the Earth that is experienced today and “it depends so much on us that it is shaking,” thus creating the events that have created awareness of the Earth’s agency (Latour, 4).
The interconnectedness that Latour discusses reaffirms Ghosh’s arguments concerning the separation that has been developed between the human and nonhuman but is remembered through the uncanny. Within Eliot’s work there are many instances in which this recognition is able to take place resulting from nonhuman entities exemplifying their agency. Maggie and Stephen’s “elopement” illustrates this relationship extremely well through Maggie’s reaction to the event itself (Book Fifth, Chapter XIII). Maggie’s attempt to blame the tide of the river, which Latour notes as one of the “invincible natural agents,” showcases not only her recognition of the impact of the tide which affirms its agency but it simultaneously proves Ghosh’s argument around the separation between humans and nonhumans (Latour, 8). Although Ghosh argues that this separation exists he argues that “a great number of human beings had never lost this awareness in the first place,” a category in which Maggie clearly falls (Ghosh, 63-64). Maggie’s understanding that the tide only plays a part in the situation that had befallen her and is not solely to blame recognizes the agency which Latour discusses while also illustrating the impact of the uncanny.
These ideas of agency and the uncanny are emphasized by Jedidiah Purdy’s work After Nature, specifically in the sixth chapter entitled “A Wilderness Passage into Ecology,” which explores the philosophical and legal development and enforcement of ecological beliefs. For the analysis of Eliot’s work the discussion of the evolving philosophical beliefs behind ecology play a large role in the ability to recognize the importance of these ideologies as they evoke a sense of greater understanding of nature. Ecologists, as Purdy describes, were examples of Ghosh’s exceptions to the separation that had formed between humans and nonhuman forces, “because the consciousness they prized was precisely awareness of, and attunement to, indifferent alien nature,” (Purdy, 192). Through this awareness comes an attitude of humility in those aware of the same interconnectedness that Latour describes, making them hyper-aware of their smallness in relation to the Earth whilst simultaneously understanding that humans do, in fact, have a place within it. Eliot conveys this relation to nature early on in the novel as she leads the reader to reflect on their own childhood interactions with the nonhuman through the claim that, “We could never have loved the Earth so well if we had had no childhood in it,” (Book First, Chapter V). Eliot is taking the metaphorical smallness that is evoked by nature as a nonhuman entity and applies it to our smallest, and most innocent form of existence experienced by all. Through this evocation of smallness and humility Ghosh’s uncanny takes effect leading the reader to regain familiarity with the agency that nature has.
The understanding of nature that Purdy illustrates in his work connects in many ways to the points posited by Ghosh and Latour surrounding the illusion of mastery of nature and all things nonhuman. Part of the ecological belief is that in order to gain true self-understanding humans must be stripped of the things that create this false air of mastery that Ghosh, Latour, and Eliot all disprove (Purdy, 193). Eliot illustrates this in her own work as she compares Maggie’s unfolding destiny to the difficulty of charting an unmapped river for which “we must wait for it to reveal itself,” (Book Sixth, Chapter VI). The fact that only the size, speed, and final destination (death) are the only known factors to the human subjects affirms the loss of mastery. Eliot’s decision to leave the reader and the human characters without any agency in an example such as this illuminates the element of the uncanny which Ghosh sees as essential to dismantling the false separation between the human and nonhuman.
Evolution and Developmental Theory, Contributed by Mara Minion
In The Great Derangement, while considering the insufficiencies of the novel form in addressing the Anthropocene, Amitav Ghosh critiques the insular setting and limited scope of the realist novel. He argues, "Since each setting [in a realist novel] is particular to itself, its connections to the world are inevitably made to recede… Unlike epics, novels do not usually bring multiple universes into conjunction; nor are their settings transportable outside their context” (Ghosh 59). Interestingly, Ghosh names three female nineteenth-century novelists to illustrate the constructed domesticity of the realist novel, the "discontinuities of place" that obscure global networks of power: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot (59).
While Ghosh's point is certainly true to an extent, George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss presents an interesting counterexample. The Mill on the Floss is not simply an insular, domestic tale; the setting and scope of the novel prove flexible and scalable. Throughout the novel, the omniscient narrator "zooms in" and "zooms out," contextualizing Dorlcote Mill in networks of power, trade, and capital and, in particular, considering the behaviors and actions of individual characters in relation to humanity as a whole. In fact, the narrator explicitly advocates for "this comparison of small things with great" and "a large vision of relations" in the "observation of human life" (Book Fourth, Chapter I). The Mill on the Floss does not just tell the story of Maggie Tulliver but questions how her story fits into and shapes the story of the human species. In this way, George Eliot participates in deep conversation with contemporary evolutionary and developmental theories and the biological reorientation of the human in Victorian thought.
In her landmark study, Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Gillian Beer demonstrates that George Eliot's project as a novelist is deeply entangled with Charles Darwin's concerns as an evolutionary theorist: "The two major and interconnected problems on which Darwin wrote which fascinated George Eliot were those of relations and of origins. These preoccupations control her late novels as both theme and structure" (Beer 156). Though Beer focuses on Eliot's late novels, concerns of relations and origins and a preoccupation with kinship pervade The Mill on the Floss as well.
At the very beginning of the novel, Mr Tulliver, observing the differing traits of Tom and Maggie, expresses anxiety about the unpredictability of heredity: "That’s the worst on’t wi’ the crossing o’ breeds: you can never justly calkilate what’ll come on’t" (Book First, Chapter II). Tulliver's anxiety is echoed in the Dodson obsession with maintaining particular Dodson family traits throughout generations of reproduction; any variation is met with suspicion and condemnation. This fear of diversification and desire for uniformity directly opposes Darwin's theory of natural selection, which requires variation in individuals. As Beer clarifies, "[Evolution theory's] order welcomed difference, plenitude, multifariousness so that the exigencies of the environment were persistently controverted by the genetic impulse towards variety and by the multiformity of environmental responses as well" (Beer 12). This so-called "order" elicits Dodson-like anxieties precisely because it is not ordered; there is no uniformity, no predictability. In fact, “variations in nature are not within the control of will; they are random and unwilled and may happen to advantage or disadvantage an individual and his progeny in any particular environment" (Beer 196). Variations—whether in the Dodson family or the human species more broadly—present a threat to hegemony.
This anxiety reaches its culmination in Tom's horror at the prospect of Maggie's marriage to Philip. When Tom first realizes the possibility, the narrator describes his antipathy: "Tom’s was a nature which had a sort of superstitious repugnance to everything exceptional. A love for a deformed man would be odious in any woman—in a sister intolerable” (Book Fifth, Chapter V). Tom's endogamous worldview and abhorrence of heterogeneity fetishizes kinship with bigotry and intolerance toward the “other” in true Dodson fashion. Tom’s anxiety reflects concerns of the time and responds, in part, to Darwin’s theories on the interrelatedness of species. As Beer notes, “[On The Origin of Species] aroused many of the same dreads as fairy-tale in its insistence on the obligations of kinship, and the interdependence between beauty and beast. Many Victorian rejections of evolutionary ideas register a physical shudder. In its early readers one of the lurking fears it conjured was miscegeny – the frog in the bed – or what Ruskin called ‘the filthy heraldries which record the relation of humanity to the ascidian and the crocodile’" (Beer 7). In Tom’s mind, Philip is the frog in Maggie’s bed, the beast to Maggie’s beauty.
Throughout the novel and not just in this incident with Philip, Tom's attempts to dominate and domesticate Maggie presents another understanding of evolutionary theory—"the ascent of man" to his sovereign position over all living things, including "inferior animals" and "small sisters" (Book First, Chapter IX). Eliot, however, continually critiques this overly progressivist understanding of Darwinian theory by drawing distinctions between the natural and the social, between biological evolution and ethical development. Evolutionary theories were co-opted to rationalize social Darwinist ideologies and justify existing patriarchal, imperialist, and racial power structures. Eliot certainly calls at least those patriarchal power structures into question and argues that seemingly “natural” hierarchies are actually socially determined. Throughout the novel, Tom’s (and then Philip’s and Stephen’s) failed attempts to control Maggie suggest that she cannot be mastered after all.
Stephen makes use of Darwin's theories of sexual selection in his efforts to master Maggie and coerce her into submissively accepting his proposal. He argues "that natural law surmounts every other" (Book Sixth, Chapter XIV). As Ann H. Marshall notes in “Act Natural: Dubious Proposals in The Mill on the Floss, The Pastor’s Wife, Vera and Rebecca,” Stephen adopts “a male rhetoric of naturalness… as a means of domination” (Marshall 115-116). Stephen’s appeal to natural law is necessarily gendered: he, at once, presents marriage to himself as Maggie’s unavoidable destiny, precluding other possibilities, and ignores the fact that breaking social ties has far more severe consequences for her as a woman. Maggie’s refutation of Stephen’s argument denies this essentialization of woman’s natural destiny, appealing to the particularity of circumstances and the variability of individuals; in doing so, she demonstrates perhaps a less bastardized understanding of Darwinian thought. Maggie’s moral choice recontextualizes Darwin and asserts the idea that natural law does not supersede the supposedly “unnatural bonds” (Book Sixth, Chapter XIII) of “fellowship and sense of mutual responsibility,” (Book Seventh, Chapter II) advancing Eliot’s project of sympathy and ethical development in the novel.
As this last debate suggests, Eliot’s inclusion of evolutionary or developmental theory in the novel is not always uncomplicated or approbatory. She frequently challenges the narrative of unquestionable progress often attached to Darwin's ideas. Eliot places biological evolution in conversation, and in conflict, with ethical and social development—a tension that recurs throughout the novel. As Pauline Nestor states in her article, “Ethical Evolution: Endogamy and Exogamy in The Mill on the Floss,” “Where Darwin subscribed to a theory of biological advancement... Eliot's preoccupation was with moral and social progress... based, as she saw it, on the fellowship between man and man" (Nestor 102). Throughout The Mill on the Floss, Eliot suggests that the trajectory of human social and moral development is not automatically progressive and that the fellowship between children and “lower animals” is perhaps something for which to strive.
George Eliot is certainly a remarkable novelist, but her investment in evolutionary debates is not exceptional. As Jesse Oak Taylor observes in "Victorians in the Anthropocene," anthropogenic concerns about the human species' disruption of the Earth system is recognizably Victorian. He argues that "the Anthropocene debate revisits Victorian debates over evolution," and "while crystalized in the theory of natural selection, evolution and the species question pervaded nearly all facets of nineteenth-century thought and thus must be treated as historical, aesthetic, and philosophical concepts rather than exclusively biological or geological ones" (Taylor 500). In fact, "the Victorians were arguably the first society to self-consciously tell their own story as the 'story of a species'" (496). This suggests that Eliot is not the only exception to Ghosh's critique. Perhaps, when read with new frameworks and concerns in mind, the Victorian realist novel is more relevant to Anthropocene studies than Ghosh admits. Perhaps our common reading of the novel, based on inherited generic expectations and thematic concerns, is more limiting than the text itself.
Realist Fiction and the Uncanny in Nature, Contributed by Zenia Rios
In his essay, “George Eliot’s Realism,” John P. McGowan opens by noting that despite Eliot herself referring to her novels as ‘realistic,’ “what she meant by ‘realism’ and how successfully she practiced what she preached have been matters of controversy since her novels first appeared” (171). The Mill on the Floss, with its deadly flood striking at an improbably timed moment, seems to be a prime example of why this sort of controversy exists. Yet Eliot includes several instances throughout the story that inform the reader of past floods and warn of an impending disaster. Why, then, does the flooding of a tidal river, one with a history of such flooding, seem unrealistic to some readers? When considering realist fiction within the context of the Anthropocene, one must consider the expectations for the genre, what we consider to be “serious fiction,” and the “uncanny” aspects of natural disasters in both reality and fiction.
In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that “the wild has become the norm” in regards to unusual weather events and that perhaps “certain literary forms are unable to navigate these torrents” (8) due to the limitations of their genre. The drama of The Mill on the Floss, however, shifts between the human relationships and the looming danger of the river, with the flood eventually superseding everything. Ghosh cites Franco Moretti, noting that novels make use of “fillers… to give a regularity, a ‘style’ to existence” (17) by providing smaller details of everyday life to conceal the exceptional moments that make up the story. These smaller details in The Mill on the Floss might include the growing tensions between Maggie and Tom, or the budding feelings between Maggie and Stephen, both of which lead to “exceptional moments” which their earlier interactions allude to and make more believable within the framework of a realist novel. Again referencing Moretti, Ghosh argues that this mundanity celebrated in realist fiction came about because it is “the kind of narrative pleasure compatible with the new regularity of bourgeois life” (19). People of the middle class expect things to be more or less “normal” in their day-to-day, and so they do not find it believable if unlikely things happen with no warning. There has to be a reason for it. For an unbelievable thing to happen in a novel believably, an author has to put a lot of work into making it feel like it could happen in the audience’s mind. Since extreme weather events do not fall into the realm of what is “likely” to happen, Ghosh asks us to “consider how much harder a writer would have to work to set up a scene that is wildly improbable even in real life,” (24) such as a flood wreaking destruction at the precise moment that Maggie prays for her future. How many gestures towards a flood need to be made to make an audience believe one will sweep Maggie away?
The issue is that while audiences are willing to accept that an unusual occurrence can happen between two humans, they are less willing to believe that nature will unexpectedly have such a huge impact on the course of our lives, despite the fact that many people have been or will be affected by natural disasters in some way. Within fiction, unusual and uncanny experiences tend to be linked to humanity or the supernatural. Ghosh defines the “uncanny” as “those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously, alive,” (3) such as when an invisible spirit raises a kitchen knife and flings it at a homeowner’s head. Ghosh argues, however, that “the environmental uncanny is not the same as the uncanniness of the supernatural: it is different precisely because it pertains to nonhuman forces and beings. … freakish weather events … have no human referents at all” (32). A ghost is inspired by human mythology, perhaps once was a human, and cares on some level about humans and how it affects them. A flood is none of these things. When an event like a flood occurs in fiction, there is a tendency to try to link it to something more recognizable than uncanny. The flood in The Mill on the Floss happens just as Maggie is praying about what her life will be like, so perhaps the flood is an act of God or otherwise magical in nature. Ghosh argues that the mere act of trying to include the uncanny elements of nature in a realist story is to “court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence;” (24) floods and other weather phenomena belong to genres such as science fiction and horror rather than “serious” realist fiction.
Despite these arguments, The Mill on the Floss appears to navigate this line between realism and the uncanny with a delicate balance. Ghosh posits that from the “reversed perspective of our time, the complacency and confidence of the emergent bourgeois order appears as yet another of those uncanny instances in which the planet seems to have been toying with humanity, by allowing it to assume that it was free to shape its own destiny” (21-22). This is exactly what the flooding of the Floss does at the end of the novel. Tom spends the entirety of the novel attempting to shape his destiny, to recover and later surpass his family’s fortunes which his father lost. Maggie similarly struggles with her fate, trying to make the right moral choices despite society’s condemnation of her. All of their struggling, however, comes to nothing in the face of the flood. Whether Maggie had been praying about her future or simply trying to get some sleep does not matter; whether Tom had forgiven her beforehand or not does not matter. They thought that they were “free to shape their own destiny,” but they were not. Combined with Eliot’s frequent allusions to past floods and comments about how the people of St. Ogg’s fail to acknowledge or properly remember this history, it seems that the novel does indeed make gestures towards the reality of natural disaster and foreshadow the “exceptional moment” that will tear apart the characters’ carefully cultivated bourgeois lives.