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The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Book 2, Chapters 1–3 : School-Time | Summary



Chapter 1: Tom's "First Half"

Tom becomes very unhappy when put under the care of Rev. Walter Stelling at King's Lorton. He first must reconcile himself to the idea that his schooling will be prolonged and "that he was not to be brought up in his father's business." Next, he must adjust to a curriculum that includes Latin grammar, geometry, and a new way of pronouncing English and deporting himself as a gentleman, which makes him feel for the first time in his life that he is "all wrong." Tom is slow to learn Latin, and Rev. Stelling scolds him for not being sufficiently interested in the subject to apply himself. Although Rev. Stelling is not cruel, he is strict and demanding, and the narrator says "under this vigorous treatment Tom became more like a girl than he had ever been in his life before," since his pride is perpetually bruised. Moreover, since Mrs. Stelling has had a second baby, she enlists Tom as a babysitter for her first child, Laura.

In October Maggie comes to visit along with Mr. Tulliver, and he leaves her behind for a fortnight's (14 days) visit. Maggie brags to Tom that she could learn his Euclid (geometry), and when she can't make anything of it, Tom feels triumphant. She then begins reading the Latin grammar, of which she can make more sense, although Tom says girls can't learn Latin. Maggie shows off in front of Rev. Stelling, wanting him to admire her cleverness. The next day the siblings put before him the question of whether Maggie could learn Tom's lessons if she were taught, and he responds that girls have a lot of "superficial cleverness" but can't go far in anything because they are "quick and shallow." Maggie feels disheartened. Despite Maggie's attempt to outshine him, Tom misses her when she leaves, but the December holidays finally arrive.

Chapter 2: The Christmas Holidays

Snow blankets Dorlcote Mill for Christmas, but Tom's happiness is overshadowed by his father's current worries. Mr. Tulliver is angry all the time and works himself up when complaining about Mr. Pivart, who is higher up on the Ripple tributary and using the water for irrigation. Mr. Tulliver takes his actions as an infringement of his rights. He is convinced his old nemesis, Lawyer Wakem, is egging Pivart on, and he says to his sister he will "go to law" if he must, although neither she nor Mrs. Tulliver think this is a good idea. He believes Mr. Wakem was behind a previous dispute with Mr. Dix, another mill owner, which was settled by arbitration, and that it was Mr. Wakem's fault he lost a lawsuit to prevent people from using his land as a thoroughfare. At some point in the holiday Tom mentions that Mr. Wakem's son will be joining him as a pupil of Rev. Stelling's.

Chapter 3: The New Schoolfellow

Tom returns to school in January and finds Philip Wakem there. He is uncomfortable about going to school with the son of "a bad man." Philip's deformity—a humpback—also makes him uneasy, and he vaguely relates it to Lawyer Wakem's seeming bad character. The pastor leaves the boys together in his study to get acquainted, and Tom can't help but be impressed by Philip's sketching ability. He learns that Philip has already studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, and writing. Since Philip is past the Latin grammar, he volunteers to help Tom. "I can't think why anybody should learn Latin," Tom says, and Philip explains "it's part of the education of a gentleman." While Tom is almost 14, Philip is already 15.


For the first time Tom is out of his own element and thrust into a world in which he has no mastery. Tom had previously entertained dreams of becoming a "substantial man" like his father, who went hunting and rode "a capital black mare," but now he must adjust himself to a different type of life he cannot even imagine. What he is learning from Rev. Stelling seems disconnected from his previous education as well as the previous way he has imagined himself as a man. Rev. Stelling's corrections of his dialect and his own inability to grasp seemingly esoteric subjects are a blow to his self-esteem. The narrator equates this new state of powerlessness with being like a girl because previously, "he had a large share of pride, which had hitherto found itself very comfortable in the world ... reposing in the sense of unquestioned rights; but now this same pride met with nothing but bruises and crushings." Such is the perpetual state of a girl in a sexist society that views women as the inferior gender; a girl must learn to be humble, defer to her betters, and not think too highly of herself. Mrs. Stelling further feminizes Tom by saddling him with her eldest child as often as she can.

Into Tom's new world comes Maggie, eager to show off her intellectual gifts to new people she meets, and she wants to impress Rev. Stelling as she did Mr. Riley. Tom is overjoyed to see her, despite their bickering. When she tells him she will be a clever woman, he replies, "O, I daresay, and a nasty conceited thing. Everybody'll hate you." Rev. Stelling also reminds her of her place when he determines that women "couldn't go far in anything." Maggie is mortified: "She had been so proud to be called 'quick' all her life, and now it appeared that this quickness was the brand of inferiority." While Tom thus regains his ascendency as a male, Maggie feels for the first time the weight of pervasive societal sexism and the oppression it engenders. Thus, as the story unfolds, Maggie's rage is a response not only to her family's devaluation of her selfhood but also society's devaluation. As critic Peggy Fitzhugh Johnstone notes, "Maggie's is a 'narcissistic rage': a chronic and disproportionate anger in response to any incident perceived as a narcissistic injury—an incident that attacks the already weak sense of self, or that repeats the pattern of rejection by her parents and society."

The seeds of Mr. Tulliver's downfall are planted in these first chapters of Book 2. Both his sister and wife oppose Mr. Tulliver's "going to law" because legal action is costly. Mrs. Tulliver's pleading not to pursue legal action, just like her attempt to prevent her sister's calling in the loan, has the opposite effect on her husband, although his animosity toward Mr. Wakem is the driving force behind his determination. He is a quarrelsome fellow who likes to dominate, which is why he married the passive-aggressive Mrs. Tulliver. In his mind, Mr. Wakem has been challenging his water rights through surrogates, and he has already lost to him once. Fighting legal battles is Mr. Wakem's business, but Mr. Tulliver takes his opposition personally and wishes to triumph over the lawyer. The fates of these two families become further intertwined when Philip Wakem becomes a pupil of Rev. Stelling. Although Philip is friendly and offers to help Tom, he cannot help but view him with suspicion. Tom's response is always conventional, and this is the son of his father's enemy; in addition, he has difficulty dealing with Philip's handicap, which gives him a strong aspect of "otherness"—something that Tom would prefer to avoid.

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