Evolution and Situated Freedom in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

Our lecture yesterday was wonderfully insightful… but my god was it complicated! So much to think about on so many levels! I think my head will explode as I write this blog post.

The one thing I think I understood well enough to reflect on is the idea of evolution and how it is portrayed in the novel. Specifically, I’d like to¬†focus on that very last slide that we were shown in lecture, the quote by Karl Marx, and how this relates to ideas in The Mill on the Floss.

Here’s the quote, for your convenience:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

The first thing that comes to mind through this quote is the idea of “situated freedom”. Yeah, that phrase didn’t come up until Beauvoir, but it nevertheless applies to The Mill on the Floss, and I think it’s useful to understanding how the concept of evolution applies.

So here we have Tom and Maggie, one who is kind of “thick” and the other who has unlimited intellectual potential. But because of their respective genders, they are both forced into different niches in the community. Tom (the “thick” one) is expected to do well in school and become the next breadwinner in the family. Maggie (the smart one) is not supported in her education because she is a girl, and has to be confined to her traditional role as a female.¬†Their randomly inherited traits of gender and intelligence, as well as the environment they are born into, become their situation, under which I believe they can exert some control, or try to “adapt” their lives in a new direction.

It is interesting to contrast this view of the individual with the view of society at large under a similar light. Maggie especially, being more intelligent than most, is seen as an unexpected variation from the “emmet-like” (ant-like) people around her. They are said to operate with collectivity and instinct, as though they were mindless animals travelling on the path of evolution. Whereas they stick to tradition, Maggie is more willing to go against it, and thus would be a more adaptive person than others.

By all Spencerian logic, she should be among the “fittest” in her society – she is smart, literate, resourceful – and should therefore survive. But both she and her brother (who may be considered “unfit”) die in the flood, along with many other people. Were her traits undesirable? Was there no place for her in this world? No. It was just random, like Darwin said. Even though her variation made for a better individual, it did not survive in the greater population due to the chance happening of a disastrous flood.

So there we have it that the next generations would not have Maggie’s traits or her brother’s, but the traits of the others, who though individually worse-off, were collectively better-off in terms of number and establishment of their own niches.

Much like this blog post, it’s all just random…

3 Thoughts.

  1. Thank you for this post, Iva, as it helped crystallize for me some of the ideas from lecture. I would never have thought of connecting evolution to this text before hearing the lecture! And I agree that it was very insightful and thought-provoking, and also complicated.

    I don’t know much about Spencer, but I wonder if he might say that Maggie is not adapted well to her environment if she thinks and acts differently than what people expect, and what is necessary to do well as a woman at the time. She is indeed smart and resourceful, but were those traits valued in women in her environment? Perhaps so, because she attracts Philip and Stephen both, but her father thought she was too “cute” for a woman.

    But yeah, then again, maybe it’s just that the flood was a random event, as you suggest here, and there’s no more “message” than that.

    • Hello Christina,

      Actually, I realized that there was that issue with Maggie not fitting into her society that may have been seen as less adaptive. But what I was trying to get at was that individually, as a human being, Maggie has better traits, but that on a community/niche scale, she does not quite fit in. This was to emphasize Darwin’s idea of randomness, how even though she had good individual traits, due to random assignment to the wrong niche, she could not put these traits to adaptive use in her situation.

      Had she been born a male, she could have easily used these traits to her advantage. But due to chance, she was a girl, and was thus limited.

      My blog post was kind of here and there, but mainly I was focusing on how The Mill on the Floss demonstrates natural selection rather than survival of the fittest, and how people’s situations either allow for or repress the ability to fulfill one’s natural traits and reproduce or whatnot.

  2. Ah, I see–this makes sense! I think it’s what you said in seminar today too. So the randomness here would be that some traits come up randomly in Maggie (as they do in any individual, for Darwin) and then this may or may not be adaptive given what environment they’re in?

    You know, the more I think about this, the more I am confused about the relationship between Darwin and Spencer, because Darwin could also say that if Maggie’s traits aren’t adapted to the environment then they are not going to be selected for in the sense that she’s not going to survive to reproduce. In other words, natural selection works in both views, I would think–those who are not well adapted to the environment won’t reproduce so their traits won’t be selected for. So is the difference between Darwin and Spencer mainly that Spencer focuses on a progression over time in species, as if we are getting better and better, but Darwin does not?

    Okay, I’m confused enough to ask Miranda about this!

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