Skip to main content

Human Psychology in "The Mill on the Floss"


“If I got places, sir, it was because I made myself fit for 'em. If you want to slip into a round hole, you must first make a ball of yourself; that's where it is.”

— George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

Modern science and new approaches to explain human psychology began to bloom in the 19th-Century, as a result, scientific researches challenged religious notions of pre-historic times and also greatly influenced literature. George Eliot was a prominent writer of the Victorian era, she presents psychological realism in her novels by discussing motives, impulses and hereditary influences governing human actions. The writer Lettice Copper has aptly observed: “Her analysis of motives is penetrating, and she has more understanding than any English novelist before Freud of the undercurrents of mind and heart”. Eliot despised naïve romanticism and challenged the centuries-old notions regarding arts, her portrayal of life was bleak as she sought to cut through the veil of superficial habits of humans to reveal the bare bones of humanity, she was keen on observing, experimenting and explaining what it is to be a human, how a human reacts in different situations and in what ways humans change themselves. In her novels Eliot explored the obscure recesses of human nature, her work was more a product of scientific theories than arts, as the famous author Henry James complained that Eliot’s books contained too much science and not enough art. Eliot writes fiction by interweaving science with melodramatic love stories (Welsh 243). As biologists explained that humans are bound by their hereditary make-up and human nature is inflexible, Eliot chose to oppose this and assumed that human nature is malleable and is capable of change. Eliot took a keen interest in psychology and therefore she applied psychology in the construction of her characters. The habits, defense mechanisms and nature of her characters can be well explained through pre-Freudian psychoanalytic theory.

George Eliot’s interest in human psychology and personality is mirrored in her works, her characters are the embodiment of the human psyche. She focused on the inner man rather than the outward appearances of her characters. Her novel “Mill on the Floss” is a profound revelation about the human psyche and passion. Through her characters in the aforementioned novel, she unravels the obscure personality traits of human beings, her most famous character is Maggie. The protagonist of the play Maggie is an ambivalent character, who finds herself unable to decide whether to do what she desires or what is socially upright, for instance first Maggie decides to elope with Stephen as she loved him and wanted a life with him but later she turns back when she realizes that this will hurt the people she loves, she instantly regrets her decision. The emotion of regret and ambivalence are both the trademark of the character of Maggie, through this character Eliot reveals that humans are in a constant state of ambivalence. Another important aspect of human nature that Eliot explores through the character of Maggie is the desire to be loved and to belong to someone, the writer asserts “the need of being loved, the strongest need in poor Maggie’s nature” (Eliot 340, this theme runs throughout the novel and unveils the truth that humans long to be loved and all of their actions revolve around getting people to love them just like Maggie who endeavored throughout the novel to find love. She sacrificed her own desires for the love of her family, for instance, breaking off her relation with Philip and Stephan (Welsh 245). Humans only bloom when they are loved, otherwise, they are just as lost as Maggie and search for love throughout their lives.

The theme of vengeance is also present in the novel, it hints at human nature of seeking revenge on people and finding it hard to forgive people who did them wrong, this trait of human nature is depicted in the characters of Tom and Mr. Tulliver, who do not want to forgive the people who did them wrong, in the novel the narrator says “[Tom] was particularly clear and positive on one point, that he would punish everybody who deserved it”(Eliot 223), when Maggie asks Mr. Trulliver while he was on his death bed that whether he would forgive Mr. Wakem, he replies that “I will never forgive him”, this depicts human nature of holding grudges throughout their lives. The next trait of human nature that Eliot traverses is that of sacrifice. Humans have the capability and tendency of sacrificing their own lives and happiness for the people they love, again Maggie embodies the quality of self-sacrifice, for instance, she sacrifices her love for her brother and then later drowns saving her brother. Maggie had always known family love in terms of “self-sacrifice” much like normal humans who attribute love to sacrifice. It is instilled in human nature that one sacrifices himself for the person he loves. Eliot discusses psychological aspects of human personality, the defense mechanism of displacement runs rampant throughout the novel, and Eliot shows how it is the nature of human to project their anger on irrelevant people and things when they cannot be angry at someone who caused them pain, for instance, Maggie could not hurt her Aunt Glegg and her mother so she hits and nails her doll to channel her anger, as the narrator says “Here she kept a fetish which she punished for all her misfortunes”. Jealousy is also a predominant feature of the characters in the novel when Tom realizes that Maggie is better at the subjects he is learning despite being a girl, he taunts her that “any donkey can do that” (Eliot 124) to make her feel bad about herself. At another instance, Maggie pushes Lucy into the puddle when she notices that her brother is giving all attention to Lucy and is ignoring her, this feeling of jealousy is an attribute of humans which has been profoundly enacted by the characters of the novel (Welsh 248). Maggie’s character unravels another obscure trait of human nature that is the tendency of self-destruction, in extreme anger humans disclose the violent streak of hurting themselves for instance when Maggie’s mother criticizes her and asks her to comb her hair, she cuts her hair just to annoy her mother “Maggie answered by seizing her front locks and cutting them straight across the middle of her forehead” (Eliot 34). Eliot has mastered the art of describing human nature through her characters, her focus is the inner man and not the appearance, which distinguishes her from other authors of her time.

The characters sketched out by Eliot are not static or non-living, they are fluid and change gradually with scenarios. In her novel “Mill on the Floss” the characters evolve gradually either for the better or worse. The character of Mrs. Glegg is the worst character in the novel, in the start of the novel she has been portrayed as a vile woman who criticizes and rebukes people especially Maggie, she is extremely critical of everything and is snobbish, as the narrator says “Mrs. Glegg who talks to the children as if she considers them “rather idiotic” and “ criticizes Maggie’s messy dark hair”, but she gradually evolves to be the best version of herself at the end of the novel when Maggie is berated for eloping with Stephan “Surprisingly, the usually judgmental Mrs. Glegg is very much on Maggie’s side” (Eliot 554), she was the only member of the family who vouched for Maggie’s innocence. The character of Maggie’s mother also undergoes change in the novel for the better, initially, she is presented as an overly-critical mother, who does not like her daughter and wishes that her niece Lucy was her daughter instead of Maggie, at one point Mrs. Tulliver literally says “don’t make yourself too ugly” but near the end of the novel when Maggie is exiled from her home, Mrs. Tulliver was the one who left the house with her daughter, she refused to blame her and leave her alone (Adam 145). The protagonist of the novel undergoes a lot of changes as the novel progresses, in the start of the novel Maggie has been shown as a rash and angry girl, who rebels against whatever she does not like, she has been called “ a wild thing” and “spitfire” in the novel owing to her passion and vitality. It is due to her rebellious nature that she was chastised by her entire family. Maggie does not care about her mother’s feelings, just to annoy her she cuts her hair and does things which her family dislikes, at one point Mrs. Tulliver exclaims “Maggie, what is to become of you if you’re so naughty?” The moment of change comes in Maggie’s life when her family goes bankrupt, she loses her safe haven and comes across a book by Thomas Kempis that changes her into a docile and self-sacrificing woman. She learns the art of self-denial and turns herself into the perfect Victorian girl. After the change, her mother starts to adore and respect her. The change in Maggie’s character does not stop here, she reverts back to her original situation when she meets Philip Wakhem who makes her understand that she is “shutting [herself] up in a narrow self-delusive fanaticism, which is only a way of escaping pain by starving into dullness all the highest powers of her nature” (Eliot 234), Philip’s love awakens in her the long-deceased desire of rebellion and she continues to meet Philip despite her family’s disapproval but later leaves him for the love of her father (Adam 142). She also elopes with Stephan Guest out of her desire to escape and find love but refuses to marry when she realizes this will hurt Lucy, the same Lucy she pushed into the Puddle out of jealousy when they were young girls.

Although Tom Trulliver possess the same qualities as he did when he first appears in the novel but that does not mean he does not undergo any change, he matures as the novel progresses, the turning point in Tom’s behavior is his father’s bankruptcy. Before the bankruptcy of his father, Tom was a careless and stupid child, who was bad at studies and could not care less about knowledge. The education give him a feminine touch and he “becomes more like a girl than he had ever been in his life before” but when his father goes bankrupt, he rises to the occasion and decides to “provide for his mother and sister himself, and make everyone say that he was a man of high character”. As a child Tom always thought his father was always right and he internalized whatever his father taught him but after his father’s bankruptcy “Tom starts to think of his father with reproach” and he thinks that his father is the reason that people talk to them with contempt. Another trait that altered in the character of Tom Tulliver at the end of the novel was his feelings towards her sister, from the first chapter of the novel Tom has always looked down upon his sister, teased her, made fun of her and suppressed her. He always thought he is right and his sister is stupid and commits mistake but the end of novel before the death of both Tom and Maggie, Tom feels “humiliation”, the feeling he has never felt before in front of his sister, he felt shame for treating his sister badly and finally he realizes the value of Maggie’s sacrifice (Adam 123) George Eliot believes that “Character to is a process”, she depicts this belief in her novel “Mill on the floss” as discussed above.

In George Eliot’s novels, the characters develop gradually as we come to know them. They go from weakness to strength, or from strength to weakness”. The characters in the novel go through changes as the story progresses which is the trademark of the characters sketched by Eliot, also the characters of the novel under discussion have human-like qualities and depict the general human nature, which is another trait of the characters written by Eliot.

Scroll to Continue


Adam, Ian. "Character and Destiney in George Eliot's Fiction ." Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1965): 123-143.

Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. New York: Harper & Brothers , 1860.

Welsh, Alexander. "George Eliot and the Romance." Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1959): 241-254.

Related Articles