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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 4–7 : School-Time | Summary



Chapter 4: "The Young Idea"

Although Tom continues to regard Philip with wariness, he accepts his help with Latin and is happy to listen to stories of battles and heroics that Philip has read about in books. Nonetheless, Philip has a "nervous irritability, half of it the heart-bitterness produced by the sense of his deformity." In such moods he is easily slighted, especially when the boys are outdoors and Tom patronizes him. Rev. Stelling begins to ease up on Tom as he takes on additional projects, and Philip's help also makes Tom's life easier. The village schoolmaster, an old soldier named Mr. Poulter, gives him drilling lessons to improve posture, and one day he, after prodding from Tom, brings his sword and demonstrates exercises with this weapon. Once Mr. Poulter gets started, Tom's nervousness and excitement cause him to come indoors to fetch Philip so he can also witness this marvel. Philip is absorbed in playing the piano and singing when Tom interrupts him. He also hates to hear about the drilling lessons. Thus in a fit of temper he calls Tom a "lumbering idiot ... not fit to speak to anything but a cart-horse." Tom answers in kind, saying Philip's father is a rogue and he no better than an imp and a girl. Mrs. Stelling hears the commotion and finds Philip crying after Tom storms back out, but he tells her it's his toothache. After the drill Tom convinces Mr. Poulter to let him keep his sword for a week.

Chapter 5: Maggie's Second Visit

The two boys remain estranged when Maggie comes for a second visit. Maggie watches some of Philip's lessons and determines he is very clever and wishes him to think she is also smart. She additionally is drawn to Philip because of his handicap; she has "a tenderness for deformed things," imagining they will be more grateful for her love and attention than ordinary beings. Philip does like Maggie, who seems unlike her brother. The narrator says: "I think it was that her eyes were full of unsatisfied intelligence, and unsatisfied, beseeching affection."

After his lessons Tom is intent on showing off to his sister, so he invites her upstairs in secret. He has Maggie hide her eyes while he dresses up like a battle-tested soldier and blackens his eyebrows and chin with cork, posing with the sword. Maggie is duly impressed, but then he draws the sword from its sheath and begins pointing it at her, finally losing his grip until the sword falls on his foot and cuts it.

Chapter 6: A Love-Scene

The doctor comes to patch Tom up, and fortunately the injury will not cause permanent damage. Philip visits Tom in his room to deliver that news, since he guesses Tom is worried about being lamed. Afterward Philip joins Maggie in the sickroom whenever he is not at his lessons. One day Philip and Maggie are alone in the study, and he asks her if she would love him as well as Tom if he were her brother. She readily answers in the affirmative, adding she would be so sorry for him. Maggie realizes her mistake when Philip blushes, so she tells him how clever he is and that if he were her brother she would like him to teach her. Philip confesses how much he cares for Maggie, and she responds sadly that Philip may be fonder of her than is Tom. She offers to kiss him as she does Tom, which she does "quite earnestly." After Maggie leaves, the boys drift apart again and revert to old feelings of animosity.

Chapter 7: The Golden Gates Are Passed

Tom remains at the Stellings' in King's Lorton until he is 16, and Maggie attends Miss Firniss's boarding school in Laceham along with Lucy Deane. During this period, Philip and Maggie see each other only in the town of St. Ogg's. Mr. Tulliver is now fighting a lawsuit against Mr. Pivart, who is represented by Mr. Wakem, so Maggie has no hope that her friendship with Philip might be resumed. In November of the year Maggie turns 13, she brings Tom the news that her father has lost the lawsuit and will lose the mill and the land because of costs he has incurred. Even worse, Mr. Tulliver has fallen off his horse and appears to have lost touch with reality. Tom asks Rev. Stelling for permission to leave, and the siblings return home together.


Not surprisingly, it doesn't take long for Tom and Philip to become enemies, and their animosity illustrates an important theme in the novel—the limits of empathy. Tom has no ability to empathize with people who are unlike him, while Philip is quite the opposite. However, Philip's sensitivity due to his "deformity" (his injured spine makes him appear as if he has a hump on his back) makes him jump to conclusions about other people's motives. While Philip is able to help Tom with his schoolwork without making him feel stupid, Tom does not easily return the favor and is condescending to Philip due to his physical limitations. Tom listens to Philip's heroic fighting stories but wants to assert his predominance—much like his father—and must mention how he beat the fellows in his last school in boxing and climbing. He asks Philip if he could go fishing, insensitively saying, "It's only standing, and sitting still, you know." But when Tom runs in to ask Philip to join him in watching Mr. Poulter's sword-exercise, he does so partly out of fear, to temporarily remove himself from the swordplay, and partly out of excitement, genuinely thinking that someone who tells such good stories about battles would be interested in Mr. Poulter's display. But perhaps Philip has received one slight too many from Tom, and he turns on him with uncharacteristic virulence, calling him stupid. Tom's retort is even more cutting, and Mrs. Stelling, another inadequate maternal figure (Philip is motherless) "is not a loving, tenderhearted woman," so Philip doesn't confide in her because she lacks sufficient empathy.

Maggie, on the other hand, immediately wins Philip's affection. When she first meets him, she perceives he is smart and wishes him to see the same quality in herself. She is drawn to him out of pity but also because of her awareness of the brutal calculus of power relations. Specifically, those who are outcast in some way will be more accepting of her own affection, since they will be grateful for attention they are not accustomed to receiving. Philip easily sees Maggie's need and responds to it because he knows what it is like to feel unloved and rejected. She is also a beautiful child, despite the Dodsons' disapproval of her dark looks, and she holds out the promise of a rich friendship. Unlike her brother, Maggie does have empathy and realizes she has hurt Philip's feelings by obliquely referencing his weakness. She immediately corrects herself by referring to his strength—his mental faculties—which he could use to teach her. Philip is already in love with Maggie, but she views him as a brother—one whom she says perhaps cares for her more than Tom does. What Maggie means is that she perceives that Philip sees her—he sees her personhood and not only his projected image of her. No one in Maggie's family—not even her father—sees her clearly. Her mother sees only what is absent from the ideal daughter that Maggie is not; Tom sees her as an obstinate sibling who doesn't know her place and continually breaks the unspoken rules of society; and Mr. Tulliver sees Maggie as another version of his sister Gritty, who needs love and protection. Maggie's exceptionality—her high intelligence and depth of feeling—is considered an aberration by her family members. Philip, on the other hand, is drawn to that exceptionality as well as Maggie's kindness. Indeed, Maggie has a deep well of kindness and compassion, and her outbursts are always a result of her own feelings of hurt and rejection. But she is too young and inexperienced to realize Philip's feelings go beyond brotherly affection.

Tom's and Maggie's childhoods end when Mr. Tulliver loses his last lawsuit, along with his mill, house, and land. His hubris in thinking he was shrewd enough to prevail over his enemies has led to a terrible consequence, and the miller cannot immediately face his situation. He falls off his horse (symbolic of his fall off his "high horse" and the resulting downfall), seeming to suffer some type of amnesia, which is psychologically—rather than physically—based.

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