“‘Did you ever hear the like on’t?’ said Mr. Tulliver, as Maggie retired. ‘It’s a pity but what she’d been the lad – she’d ha’ been a match for the lawyers, she would. It’s a wonerdful’st thing’ – here he lowered his voice – ‘as I picked the mother because she wasn’t o’ver ‘cute – bein’ a good-looking woman too, an’ come of a rare family for managing; but I picked her from her sisters o’ purpose, ’cause she was a bit weak, like; for I wasn’t agoin’ to be told the rights o’ things by my own fireside. But you see, when a man’s got brains himself, there’s no knowing where they’ll run to; an’ a pleasant sort o’ soft woman may go on breeding you stupid lads and ‘cute wenches, till it’s like as if the world was turned topsy-turvy. It’s an uncommon puzzlin’ thing.'” (Eliot, p12)
In the above lines from The Mill on the Floss (1860), George Eliot depicts the deeply gendered society of the Victorian age. Mr.Tulliver, though proud of Maggie’s intelligence, has morose predictions about the future of a clever girl as he is aware of society’s expectations of a female. He himself admits to have chosen to marry Mrs. Tulliver “because she wasn’t o’er ‘cute” and was a “good-looking woman too”. Mr. Tulliver like any other man of the time, desired a woman who was “weak” in her mind so that she’d never interfere in his business or lend advice but only follow the man in all his pursuits and perform her duties without complaint, as was expected from a Victorian woman. The women played a domestic role in society and had no voice of their own. There was very little room for rebellion which is criticized by Eliot through Maggie’s character throughout the course of the novel. Maggie is looked down upon by society because of her intelligence and appearance while her need for affection and appreciation only intensifies yet she is unable to conform to the idea of a ‘lady’ and continues to show her wits.The primary role of a woman was to bear children such that the boys matured into the ‘provider’ of the family and the girls matured into attractive and desirable ‘ladies’ with the objective of matrimony. Hence Tom’s education is given more importance than Maggie’s. This is criticized by Eliot in the depiction of the education system which focuses more on the glamour quotient and less on practical knowledge and also in its rigidity and uniformity.
Maggie’s character challenges the domestic ideology of the Victorian era that idealizes women within the domestic sphere, and that based these ideas in the belief that women were innately weaker – both mentally and physically as explained in Women’s Sphere and the Emergence of the Women’s Rights Movement. We see both the voice of patriarchy as well as its victims in the novel.