The Mill on the Floss | Study Guide

George Eliot

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The Mill on the Floss | Book 3, Chapters 4–6 : The Downfall | Summary



Chapter 4: A Vanishing Gleam

Mr. Glegg and Tom enter Mr. Tulliver's bedroom to look for the £300 promissory note from Mr. Moss. Mr. Tulliver awakens in a somewhat lucid state and asks what they are doing. Tom explains and asks him what to do about it, and Mr. Tulliver confirms that he meant to forgive the loan. He also instructs Tom to pay Luke the miller the £50 he is owed.

Chapter 5: Tom Applies His Knife to the Oyster

The next day Tom visits his uncle Deane at his place of business to get some advice about how he might get some work. Tom does not feel Maggie's indignation against his Dodson relatives for their lack of generosity, since he "saw some justice in severity." Coming up on 17, he wants no handouts—simply some help getting employment so he can support the family. Mr. Deane asks Tom what he has learned in his three years of schooling at Mr. Stelling's, and it becomes clear that not much of it will be of use in business. Mr. Deane then gives him a lecture about what it means to start at the bottom of a company, as he did, and expresses his doubt that Tom would be willing to do so, having been spoiled by his father's high expectations. When Tom sees Maggie he reports the encounter and that his uncle advised him to learn bookkeeping. Maggie makes a joke about a bookkeeper in a Walter Scott novel who could have taught her the trade as he did to the female character, and then she could have taught Tom. He gets angry and says it's always the same with Maggie, "setting yourself up above me and everyone else." He scolds her for speaking out in front of the Dodsons and putting herself forward when she should have let him do all the talking. "You think you know better than any one," Tom says, "but you're almost always wrong. I can judge much better than you can." Maggie feels Tom's harshness and bursts into tears, and she sees ahead of her a life with no love in it.

Chapter 6: Tending to Refute the Popular Prejudice against the Present of a Pocket-Knife

While the sale of the household furniture continues, Tom receives a visit from Bob Jakin. Tom doesn't remember him until he pulls out the pocket knife Tom gave him. Bob recalls Tom was his favorite companion of childhood, despite how the friendship ended. Just then Maggie comes in and notices that many of the books have been sold and tears up. When Tom gets back to Bob and asks him why he came by, he explains that his work as a bargeman put him in the vicinity of a mill fire, which he extinguished, and the mill owner rewarded him with ten sovereigns. He has spent one sovereign on a goose for his mother and some clothes to begin a new trade as a packman (a travelling peddler) and wants to give Tom the other nine. Both siblings, especially Maggie, are moved by his kindness, but Tom refuses the money. Maggie tells Bob that they are happy to have him as a friend.


A more serious rift begins to open between Maggie and Tom because of the family's financial crisis, in which it becomes clear that they hold diametrically opposed views about life and how people ought to conduct themselves. Once the Dodsons have done the minimum to allow the family to continue for the time being at Dorlcote Mill, Tom sees it as his job to support the Tullivers. He "steps up" admirably as the man of the family and shows his strong character in applying to his uncle for any kind of work. He doesn't blame the Dodsons, as Maggie does, because his conventional sense of fairness aligns with their own views. He doesn't see why his mother's family should give them money when his father hasn't taken care of his own. He also believes that Maggie was wrong to scold the aunts and uncles, first because she should take a back seat to him as a female and a younger sibling, and second because she is almost always wrong in her assessment of a situation—meaning her values are different from his. When Maggie, daydreaming about something she read in a book, mentions how it is too bad she can't teach him bookkeeping, he takes this as one more piece of evidence of Maggie's desire to dominate with her intellect, but in this case Maggie is innocent. She is only daydreaming about how she might have helped her brother. An important theme in the novel is the necessity of human connection, and Maggie is continually trying to connect emotionally with others, particularly her brother. She can endure poverty, but she doesn't know how she can endure a life without love, and the more she becomes estranged from Tom, the more bereft she feels.

Bob Jakin is reintroduced in Book 3, Chapter 6, and he serves as a foil to highlight the Dodsons' lack of charity. Here is someone who was rebuffed and humiliated by Tom in their childhood. Yet, Bob remembers what was good about their relationship, especially the fact that Tom gave him a pocket knife. Bob is now willing to give him the sum total of his liquid wealth—nine sovereigns earned by putting out a fire. Understandably, the Tulliver children will not take Bob's money, but Maggie at least understands that he is also offering his friendship, and she accepts it on behalf of both herself and her brother. Later, Bob will play a key role in helping the Tullivers get out of debt.

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