Eliot was not a psychologist. She didn’t have even the knowledge required by a psychologist; yet, she is called the first modern novelist since her approach is psychological. She is the pioneer of psychological fiction. With the transcription of the visible and real, she traces the ups and downs of the mental processes and the emotional states of complex character. Her sharp analysis helps her to come nearer to the truth of human nature, motives and impulses.
“The Mill on the Floss” is a psychological study of the state of an intellectual and sensitive girl in the English middle-class society, bound by convention. Maggie’s character is primarily the study of child psychology. Eliot’s psychological approach finds its best and main expression in characterization.
Stephen Guest is a vital character. There would have been no condition for him to make a moral choice, and Maggie wouldn’t have come across the greatest conflict which agitated her and caused her deep agony. Some critics accuse Stephen as a weakling for he was unable to allure Maggie. Stephen condemns himself as a mere “hair dresser’s block” and, to Swinburne, he was “a cur”. But, he did attract even Maggie like intellectual girl. The link between Stephen and Maggie and the moral choice that follows it together constitute a fine psychological study.
Though Eliot collared all her aspects as a novelist, her intellectual approach is more clearly found in characterization. She does not begin with the apparent personality but with the psychological forces and basics underlying the personality. Her portraits are ‘of the inner man’. Through intellectual and psychological approach, she traced virtues and sins to their causes.
Her characters are always consistent. Charlotte, who lays stress on the outer man, often fails to make the inner constant. There is a wide gap which even imagination can't fill up. The directing principles on which Eliot focuses and around which she construct her characters remain clearly understandable through every change. The insight into human nature makes her picture homogeneous that that of the Victorians.
She presents aspects of human nature which the Victorians cannot. She successfully describes how a character develops. Others cut a character into good and bad without explaining the essential causes that make a good character bad and vice versa. Eliot, however, portrays the evidences of this change with acuteness of observation.
She draws complex characters better than the Victorians because her method is inside-out. She shows the twisting of motives and gripping impulses. She shows that human mind is like a battle field where a tug-of-war between the two hostile forces ever persists. She shows how temptation comes, and leaves at the warning of conscience, comes back disguised and how it shows death to rise again and approach. As Maggie’s is tempted towards Stephen, she decides to resist it for her duty towards Philip and Lucy; temptation comes back when both declare love for each other, but decide not to pursue it; finally, the temptation, which shows death, rises again and attacks both Stephen and Maggie.
Because of the sharp and intellectual approach, she treats plain and living characters. Her characters are rather more life-like, for they are nearer to truth, outside as well as inside.
The world of “The Mill on the Floss” is of deceit, pride, vain glory, hatred, malice, cheap quarrels, etc. Eliot was a well-read and experienced person. She observed life minutely and deeply. She draws characters from her personal experience and paints them realistically. Moral conflict lies at the root of her chief characters. The conflict is possibly between duty and love, asceticism and sensuousness, the ideal and the real, or amid eternal forces and discipline.
Her portraits are characters and nature of men and their inner conflict. As her novels proceed, her characters grow to new dimensions. Maggie, who was impulsive, became matured and more balanced. Every character has tinge goodness and no one is thoroughly contemptible.
In “The Mill in the Floss”, she deals with child psychology and reveals it through action and words. She plans the working of child’s mind, his nature, imagination and impulsiveness. Child prefers to live in his own world and, for him, the forbidden things are the very apples for plucking. Maggie is a fine agent of child psychology. She is jealous, impulsive and has desire for Tom’s affection. Sensitivity, imagination and impulsiveness are linked together to make her suffer in a deep agony as a child, leading her into troubles and sufferings. Later, Maggie grows into a fine and matured woman.
Eliot presents a deep view of the problems of life relating the clash of hearts and emotions. Like Maggie, she shows that a child has more and more intellectual gifts. In the final analysis, Maggie’s character no longer remains the study of child psychology alone rather Eliot transforms it into a great study in characters, incited by complex impulses.
In a word, Eliot’s approach, intellectual and psychological, distinguishes her from other Victorians novelist and brings her on the brink of modern novelist.