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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: March 2012

1 - Listening for the ‘Strain of Solemn Music’ in The Mill on the Floss

from Part One - ‘The Utmost Intricacies of the Soul's Pathways’—Syntax and Individuality


In George Eliot's 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss, a young Maggie Tulliver criticizes her brother Tom's faulty method of recitation by telling him:

[A]nd you don't mind your stops. For you ought to stop twice as long at a semicolon as you do at a comma, and you make the longest stops where there ought to be no stop at all.

As with many of Maggie's speeches, this one reverberates deeply in its apparent simplicity, prompting the reader to a second, subconscious admission: these lines are a definitive acknowledgment of the effect of ‘;stops’, or punctuation, on the performative aspect of a text. Having identified the presence and purpose of the vibratory movements of George Eliot's prose, our next step is to examine the mechanics of their creative process-a process that is rooted in the enormous impact that a small notation may have on sentence structure. For even within the mind, those ‘;stops’ that are individual commas, semicolons and other punctuation marks are cues for the ‘simultaneously summoned and silenced enunciation’ that naturally occurs in the soundless internal performance of a text that is silent reading. They subliminally affect how we hear and feel a literary work, creating distinct rhythms and patterns at the microscopic level that shape macroscopic context. The issue of the importance of punctuation is particularly relevant in light of studies of The Mill on the Floss within the last thirty years.