Jayne Hildebrand, “Environmental Desire in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss” (pp. 192–222)

This essay argues that George Eliot’s expansive use of landscape description in The Mill on the Floss (1860) represents an engagement with the emerging concept of a biological “medium” or “environment” in the nineteenth-century sciences. In the 1850s, scientific writers including Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and G. H. Lewes redefined biological life as dependent on an abstraction called a “medium” or “environment”—a term that united all the objects, substances, and forces in an organism’s physical surroundings into a singular entity. Eliot in The Mill on the Floss draws out the ecological potential of this new biological concept by imbuing the described backgrounds of her novel with a lyrical affect I call “environmental desire,” a diffuse longing for ambient contact with one’s formative medium that offers an ethical alternative to the possessive and object-driven forms of desire that drive the plot of a traditional Bildungsroman. Maggie Tulliver’s marriage plot is structured by a tension between environmental desire and possessive desire, in which her erotic desire for Stephen Guest competes with a more diffuse environmental desire that attaches to the novel’s described backgrounds. Ultimately, the new environment concept enables Eliot to reconceive the Bildungsroman’s usual opposition between self and world as a relationship of nourishment and dependency rather than struggle, and invites a reconsideration of the ecological role of description in the Bildungsroman genre.

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