Education in the Gendered Society of The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Well, you’ll be a woman some day,” said Tom, “so you needn’t talk.” “But I shall be a clever woman,” said Maggie, with a toss. “Oh, I dare say, and a nasty conceited thing. Everybody’ll hate you.”

The theme of education in the novel The Mill on the Floss (1860) by GeorgEliot manifests itself in the gendered reality of the nineteenth century. The disparity in the education of boys and girls, in Eliot’s social context, is brought to light.  The protagonist Maggie’s being well-read and sharp does not bring her the attention she craves and instead gets her into trouble. She remains unrewarded for her curiosity and inquisitiveness, much like Scout from Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), who was admonished for being aware of more than had been taught in school. Her father, like Maggie’s, encouraged her despite this and fostered her intelligence. The fathers in both novels acted as supportive and proud figures, yet were apprehensive (of society’s outlook in Maggie’s case and of offending the teacher in Scout’s). On the other hand, Maggie’s brother Tom was expected to grow knowledgeable and study at an expensive academy. The imbalance in rights and expectations of the two sexes is brought out in Eliot’s portrayal of the patriarchal society in which education for girls comprises solely of being taught to be ladylike and being trained in etiquette and domestic skills. Being “quick” had, for women, negative connotations and clever women were considered nasty and conceited. Tom, aware of the gender inequality, had a sense of pride stemming entirely from his being a boy and thus superior to Maggie, who was ‘only’ a girl. [Book Second, Chapter I]

Eliot also critiqued the education system meant for boys, propagating that subjects irrelevant to life were taught and the important and useful aspects were not awarded the deserved focus. In addition, there was no specialised education; people’s diverse aims or interests were not taken into consideration, with everyone taught in a uniform fashion. The purpose of education (of providing a means to a better life) thus goes unfulfilled. Eliot here stresses the importance of practical knowledge and uses Maggie’s uncle Mr Deane as a specimen that gained success through hard work and experience, not education. [Book Third, Chapter V] In Tom’s case, an attempt to change his disposition in order to fit him into the pre-made societal mould is shown. Tom’s ‘privileges’ are thus wasted on him and this makes Maggie’s thwarted potential ironic. However, Eliot establishes that an individual’s nature will prevail above all else, in comparing him to a beaver, since he is like the creature that continues to dig no matter where it is placed. Tom’s natural instinct, like that of the beaver, cannot be suppressed and his disinterest towards education of the time prevented him from learning as expected. This nature that continues to persist is seemingly disregarded in implementing the system. [Book Second, Chapter I] The writer’s take here is reminiscent again of Harper Lee’s twentieth century perspective that exposed a system of education where teachers would employ methodology literally and remain closed to interpretation, inputs or questioning.

This is similar also to the stance taken by Dickens towards education in Hard Times (1854), who showed a system that regarded facts and allowed no room for much else (like imagination) through the ‘Gradgrind school of thought.’ Eliot’s depictions of and references to the education system of England in the mid-Victorian milieu reflect her personal views and the position she takes. She, in her novel, critiques the pedagogy and the so-called ‘prestigious’ academics. [Book Second, Chapter IV] Tom, as one of the victims of this system where his practical skill remains unrecognised, is considered a “thoroughly stupid lad” by his teacher, Mr Stelling. [Book Second, Chapter I] He is forced to conform to an education that doesn’t suit him. In the words of Roger Waters (lead vocalist, Pink Floyd),

“All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.”