Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 24 (1993)
The relationship, and conflict, between brother and sister that lies at the heart of The Mill on the Floss involves not only important differences of character and gender, but also radically different modes of thought and expression. The contrast between narrow- minded Tom and large-souled Maggie is, among other things, a contrast between different forms of knowledge and different ways of using language. For Tom, with his 'conscious rectitude of purpose' and 'narrowness of imagination and intellect', 1 knowledge is unquestioning, unhesitating, and immune to doubt. No shadow of epistemological uncertainty dims the harsh light by which he sees and judges. In describing the qualities of such a mind as his, the narrator stresses its predisposition to prejudice and, at the same time, defines an alternative view of knowledge: 'prejudices come as the natural food of tendencies which can get no sustenance out of that complex, fragmentary, doubt-provoking knowledge which we call truth' (579). The first person plural here unites narrator and reader in the community of the enlightened who can perceive Tom's limitations and appreciate the difficult and elusive nature of true knowledge. It is towards this kind of knowledge 'which we call truth' that Maggie struggles, and for which she suffers; and it is this kind of knowledge that the novel itself promotes, making us aware, for instance, of the complex pattern of strengths and weaknesses, of admirable single-mindedness and pernicious dogmatism and self-righteousness, that constitutes Tom's character. Such knowledge is not only beyond the mental capacity of a man like Tom, but also it cannot be conveyed by his kind of plain-speaking. Complex understanding requires linguistic subtlety - the sort of subtlety that is, in the first place, the property of Eliot's narrator, and one of whose essential features is metaphor.