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The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Book 3, Chapters 1–3 : The Downfall | Summary



Chapter 1: What Had Happened at Home

At first Mr. Tulliver had thought he could save his disastrous situation by selling his property to the mortgage holder and continuing on as manager and tenant of the property. Mr. Riley recently died without paying back the 250 pounds he owed Tulliver, which created an additional financial burden. The 500 pounds he borrowed to pay back Mrs. Glegg was coming due, and he put up his household furniture as a bond. He thought his wife should be able to get the money from the Pullets with the same furniture as collateral. "The pride and obstinacy of millers, and other insignificant people, whom you pass unnoticingly on the road every day, have their tragedy too; but it is of that unwept, hidden sort, that goes from generation to generation, and leaves no record," the narrator comments. The last straw fell when Mr. Tulliver learned his mortgage holder had sold his debt to Wakem. He fell off his horse and remained insensible until someone found him and took him home. When Tom hears the whole story he tells Maggie to never speak to Philip again.

Chapter 2: Mrs. Tulliver's Teraphim, or Household Gods

When Tom and Maggie get home from King's Lorton, they find a bailiff in the house who has arrived to collect most of their belongings. Their mother is in the store-room, looking at all her household treasures—linens, cutlery, a silver teapot, and the like—in despair because they are to be "sold up." Tom asks if his aunts can't save her precious household items, but Mrs. Pullet has already refused to buy anything except a few tablecloths, and Mr. Glegg says they will buy back only what the family absolutely needs to live, but he must consult with Mrs. Glegg. No one wants Mrs. Tulliver's precious china. Mrs. Tulliver blames her husband for beggaring the family by "going to law," and for the first time Tom feels some resentment toward his father. She turns to Tom for solace in her grief, and Maggie is angered that neither of them seem worried about her father's collapse. Maggie had been blamed all her life, the narrator says, so she will not now blame her father when nothing can come of it. "Her father had always defended and excused her, and her loving remembrance of his tenderness was a force within her that would enable her to do or bear anything for his sake," the narrator says.

Chapter 3: The Family Council

The next day the entire Dodson clan shows up for a family council. Mrs. Tulliver begs for help so that a few of her heirlooms may remain in the family: a silver teapot, her china, her best castors, and the sugar tongs—the first thing she ever bought for her trousseau. Mrs. Glegg says Mrs. Tulliver can hardly be thinking of china or silver when she needs the basics like a bed and a blanket. She says this for her sister's own good: "it's right you should feel what your state is, and what disgrace your husband's brought on your family, as you've got to look to for everything—and be humble in your mind." The narrator ironically notes that "Mrs. Glegg paused, for speaking with much energy for the good of others is naturally exhausting." The consensus is that the Dodsons will buy back from the bailiff only the necessary items needed for the Tulliver family to live, even though Mrs. Tulliver continues to beg Mrs. Deane to buy the teapot. Tom attempts to assuage his mother's pain by asking the Dodson relatives to give the family the money that would prevent their being "sold up" to the bailiff and offers in exchange his and Maggie's inheritance (the money the Dodsons plan to leave them in their wills). The Dodsons immediately nix the plan because they would lose interest on their savings. Moreover, Mrs. Glegg objects that her money should be "squandered on them as have had the same chance as me, only they've been wicked and wasteful."

Maggie speaks with particular strength to her aunts about their treatment of her parents, and both Mrs. Pullet and Mrs. Glegg chastise Maggie, with the latter saying she will come to no good. In the midst of this drama, Gritty Moss arrives, having just heard of the Tullivers' misfortune. When the Dodsons propose that the impoverished Mosses pay the 300 pounds they owe Mr. Tulliver, Tom speaks on his father's behalf to say he never meant to call in that debt. Mr. Glegg decides that if the money was a gift, it doesn't need to be figured into the settlement of the Tulliver bankruptcy.


In Book 3, Chapters 1–3, the ugly side of mercantilism is thoroughly exposed by the author whose work became a moral compass for the Victorian era. No doubt the mercantile mindset, which promotes trading at a profit and accumulating capital, allowed for the rise of the European bourgeois class. But the business mentality can be harsh, especially when applied to one's relatives, and it often opposes Christian values. As critic Kathleen Blake notes, Mr. Tulliver belongs to the pre-capitalist economy of gift exchange, while the Dodsons are strictly capitalists. Mr. Tulliver seems to loan his sister 300 pounds, but he more properly meant it as a gift. He loses an addition 250 pounds loaned to the dead Mr. Riley. He has not properly understood his financially precarious situation, believing he owns the mill and property because it has been in the family for over 100 years. In truth, as the reader learns in Book 1, Chapter 8, after he provides his sister with a large dowry, Mr. Tulliver carries a large mortgage on "his" property. Thus, the generous Mr. Tulliver puts family and friends ahead of his monetary interests and is motivated by overweening pride to carry out lawsuits he can ill afford. Moreover, where previously Mr. Tulliver couldn't pay back the loan of 500 pounds to his sister-in-law quickly enough, he now thinks that his wife's sister Mrs. Pullet will take their same furniture as collateral and allow him to pay down the promissory note for that same 500 pounds that now belongs to Mr. Wakem. He imagines she will do this for her sister, but he couldn't be more wrong.

In Book 3, Chapter 2, aptly titled "Mrs. Tulliver's Household Gods," Mrs. Tulliver's extreme materialism is shockingly revealed, as she sits in her storeroom among her household items, most of which she doesn't use or takes out only on special occasions. These are her "laid-up treasures," some of them marked with her maiden name or initials. Her children find her in this closet weeping and remembering how she built her marriage trousseau. Her best linen she meant to pass on to Tom, but now she laments that he will never have it. Mrs. Tulliver cries for her things, but she has no pity for her husband lying in bed, seemingly insensible, and she has roused even Tom's ire against him. Clearly she has reason to be angry with him for bankrupting the family, but he is still her husband, and she seems to have no thought for his grief and illness. Maggie angrily scolds her mother for caring more about her things than her husband, and she also resents that her mother has now created a new dyad with her son from which Maggie is excluded.

Mrs. Tulliver's greatest wish is that her sisters buy some of her most precious items—not so that she can get them back, but because she wants them to stay in the family. She has imbued these material items with her personhood and cannot bear to think of them being used and passed around by strangers. But the Dodson sisters are hardly ready to comply with her need. After arriving to "help" with the family crisis, they—led by Jane Glegg—are primarily concerned with humbling their improvident relatives and venting their own grievances about how the family name has been disgraced. They do not intend to buy Mrs. Tulliver's things: as uncle Pullet points out, the family shouldn't pay more for these items than what they would "fetch" at auction, which would be very little. Mrs. Glegg cannot punish Mr. Tulliver directly, but she must punish her sister who married an improvident man she is unable to control. Like a true bourgeois, she sees the Tullivers' troubles as entirely of their own making, and she possesses no Christian sympathy for their misfortune. Rather, like an Old Testament prophet, she wants even the Tulliver children to "feel as they've got to suffer for their father's faults."

The Dodsons turn down Tom's suggestion that they act with Christian charity toward their sister because their morality is based on the key commandment that they accumulate as much money as possible and pass it on to the next generation. Their second commandment is that they must uphold conventional ideas about respectability. Both of these commandments would be violated by any attempts to make the Tullivers whole. Tom shares much of the Dodson mentality, while Maggie shares her father's pre-capitalist outlook. She tells them to get out if they have no feeling for their own sister and "won't part with anything, though you would never miss it." She also draws a comparison between her father's values and theirs when she says he would have helped them if the shoe were on the other foot. Mrs. Glegg predicts that Maggie will come to no good because she does not share the Dodson values, while they praise Tom for ensuring his father's wishes are carried out with regard to the money he gave his sister. Thus, the Dodsons show that, within their paradigm, they are honorable and wish to do right by Mrs. Moss.

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