In the concluding paragraphs of George Eliot’s classic novel The Mill on the Floss, the narrator tells us: “The desolation wrought by that flood, had left little visible trace on the face of the earth, five years after” (Eliot 517). Yet, the desolation wrought by the greater flood that is Eliot’s novel—a narrative so overwhelming in its contradictions and ambiguities that its structure embodies the very undulation of the final catastrophe it describes—continues to be quite visible on the face of our earth, one hundred and fifty years after its publication. This is evident in the massive canon of critical works dedicated to Mill, especially in those that seek to establish a discernible coherence within one of the text’s most problematic aspects: the narration. In their analyses that suggest there is certifiable meaning (and thus stability) to be gleaned in the narrator’s position, many critics have not revealed the narrative’s construction, as intended, but rather have engaged in a construction of the narrative themselves—hence desolation, for these constructed spaces of interpretation are ultimately uninhabitable, given that they reduce in the narration what is really irreducible and therefore posit fallacies.

    In this essay, I will examine the role of the narrator on the existential level, pointing to the way in which her/his shifting perspective complicates the story’s telling; accordingly, I will also examine it on the functional level, illustrating how her/his tone and language manipulate perception of the diegesis and consequently evoke a multiplicity of contradictions and ambiguities. The unpacking of these complications will reveal their irreconcilability with those interpretations that propose the presence of any sense of wholeness, or stable meaning within the narrative. For this purpose, the two main critics with whom I will engage are Monika Fludernik and Mary Jacobus, as their respective narratological and semiotic analyses are well-suited complements for an analysis of narration.

        In the novel’s famous opening chapter, we are introduced to the fractured perspective occupied by the narrator, which sets the stage for our own skewed perception of the narrative that follows. Monika Fludernik, in her article “Subversive Irony: Reflect-orization, Trustworthy Narration and Dead-Pan Narrative,” notes that the “kind of peripheral first-person narrator” of this chapter has most often been “condemned” by critics for her/his “intrusive nature” (Fludernik 163). But to condemn is to project an opinion, to construct the narrative and ignore the effects of its layered-ness. Although the chapter begins with a description of the St. Ogg’s area, we soon after find that the narration is governed by a homodiegetic narrator, a single embodied subjectivity present in the scene: “I wander along the bank and listen… I remember those large dipping willows. I remember the stone bridge… I must stand a minute or two here on the bridge and look at it… Now I can turn my eyes towards the mill again, and watch the unresting wheel…” (Eliot 51-52). The present tense verbs indicate the usage of, to use Genettian terms, simultaneous narration, in which the narrator is telling the story at the very same moment it is occurring. But that idea, in conjunction with the homodiegetic perspective, seems incongruent with the way in which the description of St. Ogg’s is presented just previous to the “I” revelation. For example, she/he tells us:

On this mighty tide the black ships—laden with the fresh-scented fir-planks, with rounded sacks of oil-bearing seed, or with the dark glitter of coal—are borne along to the town of St. Ogg’s, which shows its aged, fluted red roofs and the broad gables of its wharves between the low wooded hill and the river brink, tinging the water with a soft purple hue under the transient glance of the February sun. (51)

The expansive nature of this vision is suggestive of a heter-odiegetic, or omniscient viewpoint, as it is not plausible that character/narrator can actually see, for instance, the fir-planks and sacks of seed, despite having presented it as so—and given that, there also appears to be a toying with time, for presumably the narrator has seen these things she/he describes, but has seen them before the narrative instance. Furthermore, Fludernik, whose analysis focuses on these “ontological inconsistencies,” points out another skewing of perception when the narrator says, “As I look at the full stream…I am in love with moistness, and envy the ducks that are dipping their heads far into the water…unmindful of…the drier world above” (Eliot 52). She suggests that this description “refer[s] to a past state of mind presented from a later perspective, since one cannot plausibly be in love with moistness and envious of ducks except in a (later) metaphorical evaluation of one’s earlier mute feelings” (166). While I do not believe this necessarily must be the case, I do think it is possible—an ambiguity rendered by the use of peculiar language and ideas, resulting in the notion that even the moments which seem to be in the present tense, and thus encompass a type of unity in time, may in fact be faintly splintered by a subtle merging with the past.

        The scene goes on to blur the perspective of space and time to an even greater extent. The narrator tells us, “That honest waggoner is thinking of his dinner… his horses—the strong, submissive, meek-eyed beasts, who, I fancy, are looking mild reproach at him…” (52). This moment, too, is technically incompatible with a first-person perspective, in its implication that the subjective “I” is capable of entering the Other’s consciousness. Whereas this movement is presented as definitive in the case of the waggoner, given the unequivocal nature of “is thinking,” it is not so in the case of the horses, given the insertion and imaginative connotation of “I fancy.” Thus, not only is there a blurring between omniscience and solipsism, past and present, but also knowledge and imagination. That these latter two ideas are so tightly juxtaposed in the descriptions of the waggoner and the horses, a single scene yet one that inspires different levels of perception, points to their ironic similarity to one another. Of course, all of these blurred binaries are further solidified after the narrator apparently wakes up and tells us that she/he had “dozed off” and was only dreaming of “standing on the bridge in front of Dorlcote Mill, as it looked one February afternoon many years ago” (Eliot 53). Within this revelation, the ideas of narrative space and time become intertwined with dream, memory, and reality—all different levels of consciousness and thus of perspective.

       Fludernik believes that “the major significance of the device of the dream narrator of I, i—is Eliot’s attempt to provide a ‘realistic’ justification for the omniscient narrator convention… this narrator exists only as a person dreaming in an armchair, and indeed not as a narrator at all” (Fludernik 168). But in tracing the trajectory of perspective in the chapter, we see an undulating pattern that cannot be reconciled with the conventional source of realistic justification, which is to conceive and perceive through those oppositional binaries. The narrator is neither fully heterodiegetic nor homodiegetic, narrating neither fully in the present nor in the past, and is implicitly suggesting that reality and memory/dream/imagination are not mutually exclusive concepts. Thus, that the narrator exists “only as person,” or only as anything for that matter, is a false construction: the narrator is much closer to existing as everything, like “Huge fragments, clinging together in fatal fellowship… one wide mass across the stream” (Eliot 517) of our conscious understanding.

        This paradoxical nature of the narrator’s role in regards to her/his ontological status is further and ultimately complicated by how she/he functions throughout the telling of the Tulliver’s story. One of the most interesting critical pieces that deals with this—what I appear to be calling the unreadable/indefinable properties of the narration—is Mary Jacobus’ essay “The Question of Language: Men of Maxims and The Mill on the Floss.” Examining the text through an Irigarayan lens, Jacobus suggests that its language which appears to earnestly create and espouse the many gender-defining maxims of the novel simultaneously renders them ironic. While she does not believe the novel can be seen as an embodiment of the ever-elusive l’écriture féminine, she claims it does "gesture beyond cultural boundaries... reaching beyond analytic and realistic modes to the metaphors of unbounded female desire..." (Jacobus 222). Much of her analysis focuses on the character of Maggie to demonstrate this idea, but Jacobus also points to the following thought of the narrator’s:

It is astonishing what a different result one gets by changing the metaphor!... It was doubtless an ingenious idea to call the camel the ship of the desert, but it would hardly lead one far in training that useful beast. O Aristotle!... would you not have mingled your praise of metaphorical speech as a sign of high intelligence, with a lamentation that intelligence so rarely shows itself in speech without metaphor,—that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else? (Eliot 176)

Of this narratorial aside and the metaphors that precede it, Jacobus says:

…there’s something unsettling to the mind, or, rather, stomach, in this dizzy progression from culture, digestive tract, and tabula rasa to ship of the desert… But the price one pays for such freedom [of choice in language] is the recognition that language, thus viewed, is endlessly duplicitous rather than single-minded…that metaphor is a kind of impropriety or oxymoronic otherness. (Jacobus 218)

Thus, Jacobus sees, in the narrator’s aside, an espousal of a philosophy of language—one which, in claiming the signified to be ever multiple and thus ever elusive, gestures toward that Irigarayan realm of the female. But given these notions of deferred meaning and desire, I would argue that a striking omission in Jacobus’ analysis is the narrator’s rendering of the Fetish scene, which quite obviously explores both concepts and thus should certainly have warranted attention. Indeed, it is not merely an omission in her argument, but I would moreover call it a flaw, for a reading of the scene appears to challenge Jacobus’ claim that the realm of desire can be specifically attributed to the “female”—that in spite of the “unbounded” sense in which she uses the term, to do so can be limiting. 

    That challenge to Jacobus lies in the complex imagery of the Fetish, in which both genders are implicated. I do not propose a reading that is in some way true or comprehensive, but rather endeavor to show that the narrative’s treatment of metaphor and desire within it is simply too ambiguous to lend validity to Jacobus’ view. Running away from her mother’s scolding, the narrator tells us that Maggie shook “the water from her black locks as she ran, like a Skye terrier escaped from his bath” (Eliot 71). The narrator’s simile both animalizes and masculinizes Maggie, which, at this moment in the narrative, can be seen as a figurative fulfillment of Maggie’s desire, given that she is attempting to escape a hair ritual and thus the bonds of socially constructed femininity. Though just a small moment, we must consider the ambiguity that exists in the fact that it is her personhood in general and not just her gender that the narrator renders fluid in this moment of desire. Then, the narrator tells us:

…here she kept a Fetish which she punished for all her misfortunes. This was the trunk of a large wooden doll… now entirely defaced by a long career of vicarious suffering. Three nails driven into the head commemorated as many crises in Maggie’s nine years… [afterwards she would] comfort it, and make believe to poultice it… she had driven no more nails in, but had soothed herself by alternately grinding and beating the wooden head against the rough brick…That was what she did this morning on reaching the attic, sobbing all the while with a passion that expelled every other form of consciousness… (71-72, emphases mine)

The imagery of wood, three nails, and vicarious suffering, is suggestive of the Crucifixition, and especially given this, the final phrase about Maggie’s “passion” is implicative of Christ’s. That Maggie enacts violence against it but also appears to be victim of that same violence implies a sadomasochistic pleasure, and one which may be specifically sexual given the erotic connotation of grinding and beating, in conjunction with the orgasmic suggestion of sobs that affect consciousness. In following these levels of the metaphor, the Fetish allows Maggie to be Other from God through her violence, yet also to be a Self in God through her vicarious suffering and sympathy—both of which are represented, via the sexuality, as that which marks the ultimate desire. But this disruption of the God/self binary does not occur without similar, smaller reverberations. Concerning Jacobus’ argument, one such effect is that Maggie is simultaneously female in herself but necessarily male in God. This duality keeps the realm of desire indefinable.

    Fludernik, too, analyzes the way in which the narrator functions in the telling of the main narrative. Whereas Jacobus focuses on the narrative’s language from a feminist perspective, Fludernik focuses from a narratological one. In her analysis, she suggests that the narrator’s language operates in two separate and opposed ways: “trustworthy” and “generalizing” versus “ironical” and “dead-pan satirical” (170-172), but that in spite of their oppositional nature, their presences are “simultaneous” with one another, which is the “truly unsettling effect of Mill” (174). Where I would argue Fludernik goes wrong is in calling this simultaneity a “rift… a result of Eliot’s attempt to combine an authorial with a figural mode of narration without eventually resolving the question of how to balance irony and sympathy in such a set-up” (175), and suggesting that “the device of reflectorization helps to tide over the most flagrant inconsistencies” between those two modes (176). Rather, it is my contention that the rift is no rift at all, in the sense that the simultaneity of the voice(s) breaks down the binarial wall that is seemingly between them. In this way, reflectorization—which in Genettian terms is narration rendered by a heterodiegetic narrator with an internal focalization—does not heal anything, but complicates it even more, enacting another level of consciousness amongst the already-flooded plane of the novel’s perspective.

    One such example of reflectorization that Fludernik uses as evidence of her claims is the scene in which Maggie has found the gypsies, and the narrator’s subsequent commentary on it:

The slanting sunlight fell kindly upon them, and the scene was really very pretty and comfortable, Maggie thought, only she hoped they would soon set out the tea-cups. Everything would be quite charming when she had taught the gypsies to use a washing-basin, and to feel an interest in books. It was a little confusing, though, that the young woman began to speak to the old one in a language which Maggie did not understand, while the tall girl, who was feeding the donkey, sat up and stared at her without offering any salutation. (Eliot 147)

Maggie Tulliver, you perceive, was by no means that well-trained, well-informed young person that a small female of eight or nine necessarily is in these days… She could have informed you that there was such a word as “polygamy,” and being so acquainted with “polysyllable,” she had deduced the conclusion that “poly” meant “many”; but she had no idea that gypsies were not well-supplied with groceries, and her thoughts generally were the oddest mixture of clear-eyed acumen and blind dreams. (Eliot 150)

Fludernik notes how the first passage’s focalization through Maggie disables the reading audience to draw its own opinions regarding her behavior, which could have been “condemn[ing],” and that the following ironic narratorial commentary enhances this by implicating the audience, “ridiculing the supposed superiority of the reader’s generation.” That Maggie is the only character to be protected like this all throughout the narrative places her in a “mediating position between the irreconcilable opposites” of the narrator’s seeming two selves (Fludernik 178). But even if there were indeed a mediating effect created by this use of reflectorization, as she suggests, it would only be one experienced via the reader—a projection of our own emotion, or feeling, onto a narrative technique, which results in a false construction of the narrative itself. For even though we connect with the sentiment expressed through the internal focalization of Maggie, and thus do not condemn her foolishness, that does not affect her position within the narrative. Rather, this passage of reflectorization complicates, opening another dimension of perspective. Like the novel’s opening chapter, the narrator is again embodied and subjective, but in a character, not its own self.

    Like Maggie, readers of The Mill on the Floss cannot enact or occupy an extreme position: we are unable to revel in the unbridled passion of projecting of our own imaginative space onto what/how the narrative “is” and “does,” because its narrating force evades our binary conception of signification and thus our understanding; but nor are we able to renounce our quest for meaning, to become intellectual ascetics, for it is that selfsame evasiveness that makes the narrative so compelling, seduces our reading, and accordingly, our interpretation. Confined to this liminal state, our reading of The Mill on the Floss mirrors the very dream/memory space from which it is told—an experience in which truth is forever relative, only existing in perception.

Works Cited

Fludernik, Monika. “Subversive Irony: Reflectorization, Trustworthy Narration and Dead-Pan Narrative in The Mill on the Floss.” The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 8 (1992): 157-82.

Jacobus, Mary. “The Question of Language: Men of Maxims and The Mill on the Floss.” Critical Inquiry 8.2 (1981): 207-22.

Works Referenced

Calder, Simon. “The Art of Conduct, the Conduct of Art and the ‘Mixed Science’ of Eliot’s Ethics: ‘Sympathetic Impulse’ and ‘the Scientific Point of View’ in The Mill on the Floss.” George Eliot Review: Journal of the George Eliot Fellowship 41 (2010): 60-74.

Freeman, Janet H. “Authority in The Mill on the Floss.” Philological Quarterly 56.1 (1977): 374-88.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Anger in Different Voices: Carol Gilligan and The Mill on the Floss.” Signs 12.1 (1986): 23-39.

Hertz, Neil. “George Eliot’s Life-in-Debt.” Diacritics 25.4 (1995):  


Matus, Jill. “Proxy and Proximity: Metonymic Singing.” University of Toronto Quarterly 58.2 (1988): 305-26.

Pyle, Forest. “A Novel Sympathy: The Imagination of Community in George Eliot.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 27.1 (1993): 5-23.

Recchio, Thomas. “Toward a Theory of Narrative Sympathy: Character, Story, and the Body in The Mill on the Floss.” Dickens Studies Annual 38 (2007): 115-42.

Tang, Maria. “Eve’s Fig-Leaf: The Male Narrator, Sophistry and the Loss of Narrative Innocence in The Mill on the Floss.” Cahiers Victoriens Et Edouardiens: Revue Du Centre D’Etudes Et De Recherches Victoriennes Et Edouardiennes De L’Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier 59.22 (2004): 239-50.

Wasserman, Renata R. Mautner. “Narrative Logic and the Form of Tradition in The Mill on the Floss.” Studies in the Novel 14.3 (1982): 266-79.


“A too sagacious observer”: The Problem with Interpreting Narration in The Mill on the Floss

Claire Anderson