The Mill on the Floss was published in 1860 when a vast majority of people believed that women and men had inherently different capabilities. These beliefs were deeply embedded in the dominant culture and social order of the era and were frequently exposed and criticized by 19th-century authors. The theme of gender discrimination can be found in the novel in the storylines of Maggie Tulliver and her brother Tom.
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For instance, since very childhood, Maggie was very curious and smart and yearned to learn new things. However, female education in the 19th century was almost non-existent, and parents rarely sent girls to schools as women did not play an active social role and mostly became caretakers. The risk of getting no education hanged over Maggie as well because Mr. Tulliver preferred to send Tom to school instead of her.
At the same time, Maggie was exposed to more strict behavioral expectations than Tom and other male characters. For instance, she was forced against her interest to do various chores and engage in regular activities that women were expected to like and perform, such as patchwork:
Oh dear, oh, dear, Maggie, what are you thinkin’ of to throw your bonnet down there? Take it upstairs, there’s a good girl, an’ let your hair be brushed, and put your other pinafore on, an’ change your shoes – do, for shame; an’ come an’ go on with your patchwork, like a little lady (Eliot 11).
Since Maggie considered patchwork a “foolish work” and often did not conform to an image of a lady, she frequently encountered disapproval on the part of others, both males and females (Eliot 12). However, a punishment that a girl could receive for not behaving like a lady was incomparable in its severity to the punishment that an adult woman could face. In Maggie’s case, her deviant behavior made her a social outcast.
When Tom became the master of the mill, he wanted his sister to be a housekeeper. However, instead of leading this traditional way of life, Maggie gave in to her feelings and chose to run away with Stephen Guest. The romance did not last for long, and she shortly returned home without marrying him. As a result, people became outraged by her behavior and started to look down upon her. Noteworthily, all the blame for this brief romance was laid on the woman’s shoulders, whereas Stephen was not judged by anyone. Even Maggie’s brother turns away from her when she comes back home for refuge:
You will find no home with me, he answered with tremulous rage. ‘You have disgraced us all. You have disgraced my father’s name. You have been a curse to your best friends … I wash my hands of you forever. You don’t belong to me (Eliot 434).
The overall situation that intensified the conflict between Maggie and Tom demonstrates that men in the Victorian era enjoyed much more freedom than females who were subject to multiple prejudices. In accordance with the values of the dominant culture and common gender stereotypes, Tom believed that his sister had to be innocent, modest, socially passive, and must concentrate on caring for her family. As such, Maggie was not against the role of a caretaker at all, and she loved Tom and was, to some degree, submissive to him. Nevertheless, she held a set of other values as well and longed for independence, which she could not get without a struggle and social condemnation. Therefore, it was hard for the character to choose just one side and devote herself to it entirely.
Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. Wordsworth Classics, 1999.