Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 26 (1995) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
The Mill on the Floss opens and closes with visions of a girl out of place - initially in a dream and finally in a grave. In between, this lost soul tries to find her way in the world, and she often uses books as her guides. While books give the young Maggie a certain freedom, her status as a woman in the society into which she is born forces her to read in certain ways which constrain and eventually destroy her.
The opening scenes of the novel establish Maggie's place in the hierarchy of learning. Mr. Tulliver's first words - actually the first words spoken in the novel - are, 'What I want, you know, ... is to give Tom a good eddication, an eddication as'll be a bread to him’. I This education is a gift, passed on from father to son, and part of a distinctly male tradition. Although Mr. Tulliver himself has not had much formal schooling, he realizes that an education will help his son to get ahead in life, and he explains that 'I should like Tom to be a bit of a scholard, so as he might be up to the tricks 0' these fellows as talk fine and write with a flourish .... [Tom should enter] one 0' them smartish businesses as are all profits and no outlay' (9). Tom's ability to read and write will get him 'bread' and 'profits', allowing him to make his own way in the world.
If Maggie were to seek a female perspective on education, she would have to turn to her mother, who is concerned only that Tom should go 'where I can wash him and mend him . . .. And then, when the box is goin' backards and forrards, I could send the lad a cake, or a pork-pie, or an apple' (10). Her only wish is that Tom go to a place where she can continue to take care of him. Mr. Tulliver projects Tom's life into the future, and compares his own life to that which an education will give his son, while Mrs. Tulliver neither has nor seeks a place in this male world of education.