I just finished listening to the audio version of George Eliot's novel, and will warn you now that I have basically recounted everything in the book below. Therefore if you're the kind of person who hates knowing the end of the book until they've read it, don't read past the page break because I've not blacked out most of the spoilers.
The Mill on the Floss is essentially about two siblings: the practical, unimaginative but hard-working Tom Tulliver, and his emotional, dreaming, and misfit younger sister Maggie. As tI read the story, I began to suspect each sibling might be symbolized by the two things in the title: Tom is the hardworking, stolid Mill, Maggie is the turbulent, changeable river Floss. The story opens when they're children and follows them into young adulthood, through all their family tragedies and personal conflicts with one another.
The book begins with their father, Mr. Tulliver, planning for greater things for his children. He intends to invest his livelihood from owning the titular Mill (Dorlcote Mill, as it's known to the book's characters) into making Tom more educated than himself, despite the objections of his in-laws who throughout the book are the voice of the Status Quo. As for Maggie, even though she's obviously her father's favorite, he foresees hardship for her, because she is even more intellectual than Tom, but as a girl in the early 1800's can never put it to good use.
Even as children we see that both Maggie and Tom have major issues that will only grow worse as they become adults. Maggie is irresponsible, rebellious, and wild--which is not that unusual for a nine-year-old, admittedly, but when she actually runs away to live with gypsies and tries to appoint herself their queen, one gets the feeling she is severely lacking in common sense, no matter how much she loves to read and study. Tom for his part shows a lack of empathy for his sister, seeking to punish her for any of her mistakes and refusing to acknowledge his own faults. Again, this is not entirely uncommon for a teenage older brother, but as he grows up Tom not only fails to mature, but he becomes rigid in his tyranny of his sister and mother, and his unforgiving harshness never quite is redeemed.
When their father loses the Mill in a lawsuit and becomes a broken man, Tom is forced to give up his schooling and find work. Much like Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, Tom is doing this to help his impoverished family. But unlike Nickleby, Tom does this more out of a sense of pride, for the family name, than for any affection he holds for his mother, sister, or ailing father. His unforgiving nature makes him judge his father as guilty of losing the Mill in the first place, and alienates Tom from the rest of his family.
Meanwhile Maggie, bereft even of her beloved books, mentally stagnates as she and her mother are forced to *gasp* cook and clean for themselves, as well as take in "piecework" sewing to do to help support themselves. Their father becomes another Charles Dickens character, Ebenezer Scrooge, in the attempt to scrimp and save enough to pay their debts and regain their family honor. Mr. Tulliver's love for Maggie is eaten away by this miserliness, and since Maggie was never very close to her mother and Tom has taken to ignoring her, Maggie is virtually alone for her teen years. Getting her hands on Thomas a Kempis' book The Imitation of Christ, Maggie gives herself over to stoic piety and self-denial as a way to cope with her solitude and deprivation of worldly goods.
She's drawn out of this renunciation of all her dreams by the renewal of a friendship with Philip Wakem, one of Tom's former schoolmates. Philip has been in love with Maggie since he first met her as a youth, but there are several impediments to their romance. First, that Philip is the son of the man who stole Dorlcote Mill from the Tulliver's and caused Mr. Tulliver's mental collapse. Both Mr. Tulliver and Tom have sworn vengeance on the Wakem family for ruining them, and have made Maggie swear never to see Philip again. Second, Philip is a hunchback, causing most people surrounding him either to pity him or suspect him of having just as crooked a soul as he has a deformed body. Thirdly, and more important than either of these things, is Maggie does not return his affections, loving him more like a brother. Philip cannot control his own feelings, however, and convinced himself and Maggie that what she feels for him is romantic. Maggie, not having been exposed to a loving atmosphere enough in the past, allows herself to be convinced that this first experience of someone loving her, and feeling gratitude for friendship and tenderness, is in fact romantic love.
Of course Tom discovers this secret relationship and denounces Maggie as a liar and a traitor to the family, guilt-tripping her into never seeing Philip again without his permission by threatening to tell their father, which Maggie and Tom both know will be enough of a shock to kill Mr. Tulliver. Not long after Mr. Tulliver dies anyway, but Maggie keeps her promise to Tom and goes off to be a governess to support herself. Tom in the meantime does pay off his father's debts and builds a name for himself, with only two goals in mind: to take vengeance on the Wakems and to restore Dorlcote Mill to the Tulliver family.
The tone changes a bit when we see Maggie again, this time visiting her perfect and pleasant cousin Lucy while she's in-between governess positions. Lucy introduces Maggie to her beau Stephen Guest, unconsciously creating a tangled piece of love geometry:
Lucy loves Stephen, but
Stephen loves Maggie, who
Also loves Stephen, but feels an obligation to her past promises to
Philip, who loves Maggie
and finally there's Tom, unbeknownst to everyone but the reader, loves Lucy
Lucy finds out about Maggie's previous attachment to Philip, and being an innocent romantic takes it on herself to pave the way to a happy ending for them. She helps Philip in finding a way to get his father to sell the Mill back to Tom, and Philip begins working on getting his father to accept the impoverished Miss Tulliver as a future daughter-in-law.
Meanwhile, Maggie realizes too late that the love she thought she held for Philip was not nearly as strong as this pull toward her cousin's fiancé. Try as they might to deny, sublimate, or outright refuse their feelings, Stephen and Maggie end up running away together, almost by accident, with Stephen fully intending that they should elope and throw all their former ties and loyalties to the wind. Maggie, however, decides not to go through with it, since it would be a betrayal of all she's ever held to be right and hurt the people she loves. Stephen points out that to turn back now would be to ruin her reputation, but Maggie, still lacking in this common sense of "what other people will think," goes back home to make amends to Lucy, Philip, and her family.
She goes back for refuge with Tom, who of course immediately casts her out. He never does reconcile with her, even though Philip and Lucy both in turn show their forgiveness and understanding to her. Stephen writes to Maggie entreating her to take him back. Maggie is at a loss as to how to respond, when a Deus ex Machina causes the Floss river to flood, threatening the entire town and drowning her and Tom. Stephen eventually marries Lucy, and Philip lives a life devoted to Maggie's memory. The End.
The thing about George Eliot's writing is she is very psychologically complex. Her narrators are usually omniscient, which means she gives an equal voice to all characters. This makes it rather hard to distinguish any overt villians of the story, or for that matter any overt heroes. Ostensibly Maggie is the hero, because she's the protagonist whose perspective we see the most of throughout the novel. Yet she is not very heroic: she deceives enough to try to follow her own desires, yet cowardly and never follows through to reach her goals. The way she immediately cows to Tom's or other men's dominance of her is pitiable, especially to the modern reader who does not expect a woman to pretend she's stupider than a man just because she is female. For being as "clever" as her father says she is, Maggie does most of the foolish things in the plot, but perhaps this is because she is a girl, and though the capacity for wisdom is there, because she is denied education she can never deliver on that potential. The main issue I had with Maggie, however, was her misplaced loyalty to "the past," all her prior experiences and connections being what keeps her from striking out on her own. Her father's ruined reputation, her mother's family pride and materialism, and her brother's thirst for revenge and rebuilding his own status, all keep her from moving outside of her solitude and moving into different circles of society, and it's this solitude that ultimately causes her to stumble.
Tom is also a problem. A brute, unfeeling, almost machine-like character, he could easily be the villain. A lot of his conversations with Maggie could be construed by modern perspectives to be emotional and verbal abuse. But Tom is not just a caricature of cruelty against women. He's also the one that drags his family out of the gutter and sets them back up at their ancestral home of the Mill. This is all due to his own enterprise and hard work, since his father's lofty education prepared him for none of the brass tacks of business. There's also the subtle romance between him and Lucy, and his reaction to Maggie's betrayal with Stephen could be translated as his anger towards her for ruining Lucy's happiness.
Personally, my vote for villain would go to Stephen Guest, a wealthy and charming young man who reminded me of Jane Austen's Henry Crawford from Mansfield Park. He betrays his affection for Lucy for a more passionate affair with Maggie, and their elopement is almost a kidnapping on his part. Then, both when Maggie first refuses to go through with it, and later in his letter trying to coax her back, he uses all he knows about Maggie's emotional
gullibility to try to guilt her into coming to him. His manipulative, accusative language reveal that he is self-absorbed and views Maggie as an object to possess. It's never about how Maggie will feel later when they're married, when she's turned her back onto her family and betrayed her friends. It's only about how she's hurt him.
As for the hero of the story, while Lucy comes to mind, she is far too perfect a candidate. Philip Wakem, on the other hand, is my choice. While he makes a mistake in getting Maggie to agree to an attachment when he deep down knows that she only loves him like a brother, he eventually realizes this mistake and confesses it to her, releasing Maggie from any obligation or engagement. Philip is the only one to suspect that Maggie loves Stephen, and when they run away together he honestly hopes for Maggie's happiness, and hates the suffering she goes through when she comes back to face disgrace and shunning.
Whenever I read Eliot I have to re-teach myself that this may be about the same era as Charles Dickens or Charlotte Bronte, but Eliot is writing in an entirely different style. One cannot expect the sparkling wit of earlier romantic comedies like Jane Austen. There are few caricatures such as so colorfully populate Dickens' works. It isn't even as moody as the Bronte sisters. I'm almost tempted to liken her to Elizabeth Gaskell (whose Jane Austen-esque humor is blackened by a high death toll of characters) in that Eliot doesn't shy away from being depressing, but Eliot is different from Gaskell in that Gaskell's social commentary comes from her characters, whereas Eliot uses irony and an omniscient narrator who often goes into philosophical tangents to make her points a little less directly.
So, when reading Eliot, always be prepared to slow down, as she will take you into the most detailed minutiae of life and emotions in order to explore the theme of her works. Don't expect a happy ending, at least a conventional one with all loose ends tied up in a neat bow leaving no one disappointed and no consequences meted out. And always expect to have your thoughts provoked and your own mind, motivations, and feelings explored.