The Mill on the Floss: A Balanced Bildungsroman

Abstract: In the simplest sense of the word, a Bildungsroman is a novel of the development of a young man (or in some cases a young woman). The Mill on the Floss, as the most autobiographical of George Eliot's fictions, therefore, is generally regarded as a typical Bildungsroman. However, because of the same autobiographical element in the novel, most former critics tend to focus on the development of Maggie, the female protagonist, hardly with any regard to that of Tom, the male protagonist.To me, on the contrary, Tom's growth plays quite an important part in our understanding the novel and Gorge Eliot's intelligence, resulting from what lies behind the apparent rupture between Tom's experience of growing up and the typical standard one set by the developmental theory about adolescents. This disruption, expressing itself through Tom's limited growth, will be delineated both temporally and spatially in the first part of my paper. Then I'm going to concentrate my attention on exploring the underlying reason of this discrepancy in the following part. The answer, in my opinion, lies in the author's own experience and the general social background of that time, both of which, according to Raymond Williams' conception of 'structure of feeling', lead to the crisis of 'knowable community' as well as the tension felt by the author, or more precisely, 'the emphasis of want' felt by George Eliot. And, from another point of view, if Tom's limited development in one respect demonstrates the author's 'intelligence', this 'intelligence' shows itself more obviously through the 'balance' elaborately placed between his Bildung and that of Maggie's, the motif of the last part. The real connotation of this 'balance', differingfrom that of Goodman's, is essentially a kind of complementarity. That is to say, the siblings' developments intersect with each other and bring out one more integrated typical Bildungsroman of that time, which is what the author intends to portray in the end. Here, on one hand, I'll turn back to the general adolescent theory, especially that of the developmental task, to demonstrate how the novel achieves a more 'complete' and 'ideal' mode of growing up with the help of this relationship; and on the other hand, if the final death betrays the fragility of both the community as fact and the community as consciousness, symbolled respectively by the brother and the sister, it also underlines impossibility of harmonious relationship between the individual and the society at that specific historical turning point. Hence, through rendering the 'balance' a new meaning in a more profound sense, I'll draw my conclusion that the seemingly 'incredible' ending of the novel and this 'balanced' Bildungsroman are actually the demonstration of the essence of Eliot's genius…
Key words: Bildungsroman; intelligence; the structure of feeling; the crisis of knowable community; the emphasis of want; balance

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