It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

As is revealed by Charles Dickens in his above mentioned quote, the Victorian Age was an era of contradictions and complexities marked by radical social reforms, scientific progress and revelations. An epoch of massive happenings, the century was also confronted by its fair share of theoretical-ideological challenges. The most significant of these challenges was the questioning of the supreme transcendental power. God’s very existence was doubted and highly debated upon. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, God was dead. He first used the term ‘God is dead’ in the Madman, section 25, of The Gay Science (p. 1882).

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!”… “Whither is God?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers.”.. “ God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

In saying so, he meant to imply that society no longer needed the idea of God in order to function. Human morality was not dictated by the Church. Or rather, as Charles Darwin posited in his book The Origin of the Species (p. 1859), human character was defined through the natural process of passing on of genes. God had no role to play in the nurturing of human beings as individual units of the society. Humans weren’t divine creatures, only genetically advanced apes.

Darwin dedicated three chapters of The Origin of the Species to his renowned theory of evolution, that is: Struggle of Existence, Natural Selection and The Laws of Variation. The behaviour of the animal world was mainly of his interest. Of all the writers of the Victorian age who used Darwin’s ideas to portray the behaviour of their protagonists, it was George Eliot who gave most importance to his theories on human relations. She began work on her novel The Mill on the Floss (p. 1860) while her partner George Henry Lewes simultaneously researched his Studies in Animal Life (p. 1862). Eliot’s exploration of Darwinian ideas of natural selection and the nature-nurture debate is thus evident in The Mill on the Floss.

Maggie Tulliver, the tragic heroine of the novel, is a Darwinian figure whose behaviour is dictated by her inherent nature. She is wild at heart, uninhibited and impulsive. Her untameable character and ability to feel intense passion and love lead her to make unconventional choices which are seen as animalistic by the society surrounding her. Maggie is described by her family as “a wild thing,” “a Bedlam creatur,” and a “mistake of nature,” or some kind of small animal, such as a “Shetland pony” or a “Skye terrier.” Her impulsiveness forces her to commit acts of an unsophisticated nature which are frowned upon by the community of St. Ogg’s.  She pushes Lucy into the mud out of spite, chops and ruins her hair in fit of anger and defiance, spills a glass of wine while hugging Tom, and tries to join a family of gypsies in order to feel a sense of belongingness. Her case can be seen as a mutation of sorts where there’s a departure from the parent type in heritable characteristics. Unlike the rest of her family which consists of ‘civilised’ and advanced beings, she is a creature who cannot seem to thrive in the St. Ogg’s community simply because her nature does not allow her to adapt to the hostile environment. Through such a construction of Maggie’s character, Eliot attempts to place her as a member of the animal kingdom – an individual with natural impulses. Like animals, she is ruled by nature rather than the behaviour she is taught.

The nature versus nurture debate is also evident in Maggie’s upbringing in the novel. Maggie symbolises ‘nature’ – pure, wild, and unchanging. The St. Ogg’s community represents the ‘nurturing’ Christianity which assumes that all children are born tabula rasa (blank slate) and that their character can be modified through parental and societal influences. Mrs. Tulliver’s attempts to ‘nurture’ Maggie are fruitless. She is unable to dictate her behaviour or improve her demeanour. This proves that it is ultimately the ‘nature’ side of the debate which wins. Instead of being a product of her parent’s upbringing, Maggie has her own specific identity that cannot be altered.

Darwin’s theories of Sexual Selection and Survival of the Fittest are also visible throughout the text. According to Darwin, appearances mattered most for both sexes.  This is perhaps why there is a huge focus on the importance of feminine beauty within the society. The Dodson’s are constantly emphasising the need for young girls to be well-behaved, well-dressed, delicate and elegant. This importance given to feminine beauty arises from the need for women to be able to secure wealthy husbands in the future. Naturally, the best looking women of the lot would be chosen by males. Maggie’s cousin Lucy embodies all the traits sought after by men – fair skin, blonde hair, light eyes, whereas Maggie herself has dark hair, dark eyes and looks like a gypsy. In brief, Maggie does not fit into society according to the Dodsons’ opinion.

Sexual selection is also seen in the relation between Maggie, Philip and Stephen. Philip and Stephen are essentially two males fighting to ‘mate’ with a female. Biologically, Stephen is a better partner for Maggie. He is strong, handsome and decisive, and hence the superior male. In contrast, Philip is handicapped with a “puny, miserable body”. He is often criticised by Tom and looked down upon for not meeting the society’s standards of masculinity. Maggie, an outcast herself, ultimately chooses Philip because of their strong emotional connection. The survival of the fittest is not always the survival of the best, and moral factors – faithfulness, generosity, renunciation of present pleasure, duty rooted in the past – also lay their part in the evolution (Przemysław MroczkowskiHistorian literatury angielskiejZakład Narodowy imOssolińskich,Wrocław 1993).

Finally, the Dodson family clan itself is representative of a species evolved differently with their own set of traits and characteristics. Darwin extensively researched finches on oceanic islands and realized birds on diverse islands had evolved differently due to variations that had become engendered in each species. The Dodson family is the best example of a family in St. Ogg’s characterized by a set of values typical only to their clan,  that is passed on through the generations. The Dodson family’s values include household customs, such as how to bleach linen and make preserves and hams, as well as outward conduct, such as never wearing blue hatbands or eating preserves or butter in other people’s houses. Even though there are varying qualities among the Dodsons, they all maintained the same rule of propriety, imparted to them by previous Dodsons.

We thus see how Eliot’s work bears traces of Darwin’s influence. Her examination of the various discourses of the age relating to evolution and natural human instinct is evident in the characters, themes and motifs in The Mill on the Floss.


The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, Worldview Critical Edition

19th Century Thought, Worldview Critical Edition