The Mill on the Floss: Purpose without Purpose

  • Peter New


The Mill on the Floss is unlikely to seem as obvious a choice as the other three fictions I have selected for the present study. In this chapter I shall try to clarify, at the cost of some simplification, what I take to be the most radical purpose in the novel, that is the search for some ultimate meaning for human life in a world which in the author’s view has no transcendent Purpose. In a famous letter to Dr Payne, written in 1876, she claims explicitly that this was a general intention in her fiction: ‘my writing is simply a set of experiments in life — an endeavour to see what our thought and emotion may be capable of — what stores of motive, actual or hinted as possible, give promise of a better after which we may strive — what gains from past revelations and discipline we must strive to keep hold of as something more sure than shifting theory. I become more and more timid — with less daring to adopt any formula which does not get itself clothed for me in some human figure and individual experience, and perhaps that is a sign that if I help others to see at all it must be through that medium of art’.1 In chapter 10 I shall discuss those aspects of the book which are most clearly highlighted by thinking of it in unaccustomed relation to Utopia and Rasselas; and in the following two chapters I shall pursue some of the underlying questions of form and of philosophy raised by this kind of fiction and by my account of it.


Christian Belief Radical Purpose Moral Tradition Christian Morality Ultimate Meaning 
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  1. 1.
    The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight (1954–6), Vol. 6 pp. 216–17.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (1963), p. 379.Google Scholar

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© Peter New 1985

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  • Peter New

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