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Mary Ann Evans, born in Warwickshire, England, wrote the novel The Mill on the Floss during the Victorian era of 1859 under the pseudonym George Eliot. In keeping the Victorian mindset, the novel encompasses many stereotypes of gender roles for its main characters. Evans received criticism during her lifetime for not following the expected gender roles of the time period. She may have written The Mill on the Floss as a subtle outcry against society’s expectations (or lack thereof) of men and especially of women. The gender roles of the Victorian period are clearly seen in The Mill on the Floss and mostly followed; however, sometimes the roles are reversed or contrary to what the reader would expect. The characters of Tom, Phillip, Lucy and Maggie all demonstrate how Evans defines gender roles throughout the novel.
Tom Tulliver, a central character in the novel, is first introduced to the reader as a lively and adventurous thirteen year old boy. Tom clearly enjoys traditionally manly activities such as fishing, riding big horses and thinking about owning a gun one day. He does not seem to worry much about his future and quite enjoys the fact that his younger sister Maggie looks up to him as a friend and “protector”. The reader has every reason to suspect that Tom will enjoy a life laden with adventures and few responsibilities until it is his time to take over the family business and become a man. Mr. Tulliver, Tom’s father, has different plans for his boy, though. Mr. Tulliver expects Tom to go to school and receive an education and be “a bit nimble with his tongue and his pen, and [become] a smart chap” (p.23). It is at the point in Tom’s life when he goes to live with Mr. Stelling, a clergyman/tutor, to be taught in the ways of Latin, arithmetic and history that Tom is most lost in terms of gender roles. All of his previous experiences seem to be of no use to him in this new environment. With no other boys under Mr. Stelling’s charge, Tom cannot fight physically for his place in the world. He also has a very hard time with the new subjects he is being taught because he has had no previous exposure to them. Therefore, he cannot even prove himself through his studies. During this time, Tom is described as, “more like a girl than he had ever been in his life before” (p. 148). He had become quite aware of his difficulties in grasping the new concepts that were thrown at him every day made him appear “stupid” and this knowledge gave him a “girl’s susceptibility” (p. 149). Toward the middle of the novel and the end of Tom’s school days, Tom learns of the terrible accident his father has been in and he must return home. It is during this period that Tom shakes off all womanly and even childish expressions. Tom is pressed too quickly into manhood and soon becomes ultra-masculinized. He trudges off to work everyday and upon returning, refuses to talk to anyone while he eats his dinner. This mindset rules the rest of Tom’s life until the end of the novel, and subsequently his life, when he is again put into the position of a woman as his sister rescues him during the flooding of the Floss.
Phillip Wakem, a character who becomes increasingly important as the novel comes to an end, stands in stark contrast to the character of Tom Tulliver. Phillip, born with a deformity of the spine, is considered weak throughout the entire novel. When Tom and Phillip become schoolmates at King’s Lorton with Mr. Stelling, Phillip is always depicted in a gentler light with finer features and more refined talents. Phillip is a master of the arts, such as drawing and music. And where Tom would go out and experience adventures, Phillip would only read about them and retell the quests of others (p.173). As Phillip becomes older, he befriends Maggie Tulliver, Tom’s sister, and falls in love with her. However, Maggie in the beginning does not see Phillip as a potential lover, a sign that she does not see Phillip as a “real” man. He is repeatedly described as womanly or feminine when pledging his love for Maggie (p. 344). Maggie does enjoy Phillip’s beautiful singing voice, although it is mentioned many times to the reader that it is a tenor and not a manlier bass (p.435). Phillip does show more manly traits as he becomes older and even opposes his father’s opinion of Maggie Tulliver when Phillip informs his of the plan to marry her. However, Phillip cannot hold Maggie’s attention forever. He ends up losing her to another gentleman who exhibits a more traditional male gender role.
Lucy Deane, a relative to the Tullivers, is not a main character in the novel. However, it is important to note that she is one of the characters who followed gender roles almost perfectly as an adult. As a child, Lucy was brought up to portray the role of a perfectly feminine girl. She had “the neatest little rosebud mouth to be kissed: everything about her was neat – her little round neck with the row of coral beads, her little straight nose…her clear eyebrows…to match her hazel eyes” (p.66). As a result of her upbringing, Lucy longed to play with her cousins, Maggie and Tom. On one occasion in particular, the reader is shown Lucy’s delight in going on an “adventure” with Tom to forbidden parts of Aunt Pullet’s garden, “a rare treat to do something naughty” (p. 107). The reader does not hear very much about Lucy once Tom has left for school and the next time Lucy is brought into the plot, she is a young woman. As a young woman, Lucy upholds the Victorian gender role of a female and is very petite and demure. She is even described as becoming physically sick when Maggie runs off with her would-be fiancÃ© (p.531). Lucy’s behavior proves that even though she had a desire, albeit a small one, to break free of the mold, society pushed her back into a pattern of “appropriate” behavior as she matured.
Maggie Tulliver, the heroine of the story, is first shown to the reader as a spitfire of a child with quite an active imagination. Maggie, against every wish of her mother, plays out doors with Tom, won’t keep her bonnet over her hair, and refuses to wear the gorgeous and expensive clothes her relatives send her. Her father affectionately refers to her as a “little wench” throughout the novel and Maggie continually defies society’s expectation for her actions. Maggie reads every book she can get her hands on and gives herself a sort of “self-education”. Maggie proves herself so smart that she is almost as good at Latin as Tom is and she had never taken a lesson (p.157). As a child, Maggie does not understand why people expect her to act in such a way that would make her physically uncomfortable and deny her the right to express all of her vibrant feelings. As she ages and comes to deal with her father’s illness, Maggie begins to let herself be pushed into a more traditional mold. She reads the writings of Thomas Ã¡ Kempis and decides to live a life of piety and self-denial (p.301). She believes that in doing this she will becomes less bound to the desires of “this” world and more attuned to the rewards in the “next life”(p.302). This decision is clearly motivated by the desire she feels to fit into her society, now that she must take on more responsibilities at home due to her father’s illness. Out of Maggie’s mindset of piety comes a love for Phillip Wakem. However, at first it is not a true love for Phillip. Maggie feels more completed by the sense that it is a selfless love because Phillip needs to have the love of Maggie to fill the void of physical affection in his life. These actions are merely Maggie trying to fit into the more traditional role that is expected of her. However, after a few years away spent being a Governess, Maggie returns to her old self. When she stays with her cousin Lucy upon her return, Maggie meets Lucy’s soon to be fiancÃ© Stephen. Maggie starts to have feelings for Stephen and against her better judgment, runs away with him. Her actions show that she has begun to embrace her true self and not just act in a way to please the “society” in Garum Firs. In the end of the novel, Maggie stays true to herself and becomes Tom’s rescuer when the flooding of the Floss destroys the mill.
Evans, in her never ending quest for true realism, portrays each character as behaving in varied ways due to varied external and internal forces. No one character can be said to be the epitome of one gender role or the other. The seamless blending of masculine and feminine traits gives each character a depth not seen in many other authors’ works, while also proving a very powerful point. Evans is trying to tell the reader that being true to one’s inner self is the most important part of life. She shows through each character that living life inside a social construction is not rewarding and in fact mostly causes pain for the character. Evans’ lesson, although not the easiest to follow, should be applied everyday in “real” life.
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