The Mill on the Floss, Book V: Wheat and Tares

Maggie and Philip meet again, and it is quite obvious that Philip is very much in love with her. Philip is an interesting character, but I had to wonder, when did he fall so much in love with Maggie? This is the first meeting they have had since they were children. Maggie is seventeen now (Philip is four or five years older), and they cannot have met for the past four years at the very least. Even before then, they only had very brief contact since the time they spent together at Tom’s school. She did regret the fact that the lawsuit made it unlikely that she would be able to every have any intimacy with him again. But that was back when she was thirteen (or younger).

Philip is very much in love with Maggie, so, of course, he wants to see her. (He is just recently back from abroad.) Two things are working against him. One is the enmity between their fathers, the other is Maggie’s dedication to renunciation. To allow an interest into her life would cause her to wish for too much. When Philip asks her to meet with him, she longs to accede. “She might have books, converse, affection; she might hear tidings of the world from which her mind had not yet lost its sense of exile …” (ch. 3). And then she might be a comfort to Philip who is pitiable and unhappy. When she tries to deny herself, Philip warns her, “You will be thrown into the world some day, and then every rational satisfaction of your nature that you deny now will assault you like a savage appetite.” Despite this, Maggie sees these meetings as a temptation. Beyond making her care for pleasures again, they must be hidden. She must deceive her family, for they must not know if she meets with Philip. (Even Tom, though he resents his father’s mismanagement of their affairs, enters fully into his father’s hatred and forbade Maggie ever to speak to Philip again.) She eventually consents, however, and they begin meeting secretly.

Philip was wrong to press Maggie into meeting with him. He knows how such meetings would be viewed by others (an interpretation to which Maggie, typical of heroines, is oblivious). He sees that Maggie’s conscience is against it. But he convinces himself that he only wishes to make her happier. After nearly a year of secret meetings, Philip declares his love to Maggie.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 5.42.54 PMUp to this point, Maggie is portrayed as being completely unsuspicious of Philip’s feelings for her. She never considers him as a lover and has no thought of him or herself in that light. I’m actually surprised that Maggie doesn’t fall in love with Philip. He provides her with the things she longs for. Her nature craves affection and Philip gives it to her. With him, she is no longer lonely. Unlike her brother, Philip doesn’t consider himself above her, doesn’t punish her, isn’t cold to her. He understands her in a way that Tom is incapable of. He is able to provide her with interests beyond the narrow life she leads. He provides the books and conversation she longs for.

When Philip asks Maggie if she loves him, she hesitates and then tells him, “I think I could hardly love any one better; there is nothing but what I love you for” (ch. 4), but adds that it would be better not to think about it since they can’t even be friends openly. Philip suspects that she only says she loves him out of pity and insists that he can’t give up wanting to marry her unless she only cares for him as a brother. She tells him,

“It is all new and strange to me; but I don’t think I could love any one better than I love you. I should like always to live with you — to make you happy. I have always been happy when I have been with you. … What happiness have I ever had so great as being with you …? And your mind is a sort of world to me; you can tell me all I want to know. I think I should never be tired of being with you.”

“It was one of those dangerous moments when speech is at once sincere and deceptive;” for Maggie does not really love Philip in the way he loves her. Still, she kisses him when they part. “She had a moment of real happiness then, — a moment of belief that, if there were sacrifice in this love, it was all the richer and more satisfying.”

Right after this they are found out. Putting circumstances together, Tom figures out that Maggie has been meeting with Philip. He confronts her and demands that she never see Philip again or he will tell their father. Knowing the pain that the knowledge would cause her father, Maggie promises never to see or speak to Philip without Tom’s knowledge, but insists she be able to tell Philip about her promise. Tom allows this, but accompanies her, as he considers her untrustworthy. He speaks as cruelly to Philip as he did to Maggie. When they leave, Maggie tells him,

“Don’t suppose that I think you are right, Tom, or that I bow to your will. I despise the feelings you have shown in speaking to Philip; I detest your insulting, unmanly allusions to his deformity. You have been reproaching other people all your life; you have been always sure you yourself are right. It is because you have not a mind large enough to see that there is anything better than your own conduct and your own petty aims.” (Ch. 5)

Her resentment at Tom’s conduct is only made worse by the knowledge that she was not completely in the right herself. After this quarrel, Maggie and Tom hardly speak to or look at each other for three weeks. Yet, Maggie feels some relief in being forced to separate from Philip.

Unknown to his father, Tom has been doing some trading on his own account. When he has made enough to pay his father’s debts, he surprises him with the sum of money he has earned in addition to his wages. The sudden joy of being able to hold his head up high is a shock to Mr. Tulliver’s health. He takes the first opportunity to insolently tell Wakem that he will no longer work for him. They quarrel and Tulliver brutally beats Wakem until Maggie is able to part them. Mr. Tulliver goes home with a pain in his head.

In fact, Mr. Tulliver is dying. He wants Tom to get the mill back (it has been in the family a long time, Mr. Tulliver grew up there and is attached to the place). He tells Tom to take care of his mother: “make her amends, all you can, for my bad luck” (ch. 7). To the last he won’t admit that his troubles were due to his own carelessness, recklessness, and anger. Then he charges Tom to take care of Maggie: “you must be good to her, my lad. I was good to my sister.” This hearkens back to the first book. Wishing to pay back a debt, he calls in a loan he had made to his sister. In order to pay, his sister and her husband would have to sell up. The thought of Maggie causes Mr. Tulliver to relent and forgive the debt.

He had not a rapid imagination, but the thought of Maggie was very near to him, and he was not long in seeing his relation to his own sister side by side with Tom’s relation to Maggie. Would the little wench ever be poorly off, and Tom rather hard upon her? … “Poor little wench! she’ll have nobody but Tom, belike, when I’m gone.” …  It had come across his mind that if he were hard upon his sister, it might somehow tend to make Tom hard upon Maggie at some distant day, when her father was no longer there to take her part … (Book 1 , Chapter 8)

After charging Tom with these things, his mind returns to Wakem. “I had my turn — I beat him. That was nothing but fair.” Maggie is anxious for her father to forgive Wakem, but he won’t. “No, my wench. I don’t forgive him. What’s forgiving to do? I can’t love a raskill —” And then he dies.

Mr. Tulliver may have died with bitterness on his lips, but their mutual sorrow upon their father’s death brings Tom and Maggie back together.

Tom and Maggie went downstairs together into the room where their father’s place was empty. Their eyes turned to the same spot, and Maggie spoke, —

“Tom, forgive me — let us always love each other”; and they clung and wept together.


This is part of the Eliot Project, in which “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I read through all of George Eliot’s novels and write about them. Read “Sophie’s” notes on the fifth book of The Mill on the Floss here: “‘The Mill on the Floss’: Wheat and Tares”.

Screencap of Philip and Maggie meeting together in a 1978 adaptation of The Mill on the Floss.

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