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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 7–9 : The Downfall | Summary



Chapter 7: How a Hen Takes to Stratagem

Mr. Tulliver begins to recover, and Dorlcote Mill is on the market. Mr. Deane is thinking that his firm, Guest & Co., might buy it, since it has always done good business and might be improved by adding steam power; he could then hire Mr. Tulliver back as the manager. He is worried, however, that Mr. Wakem might take a notion of buying the property himself. He must mention all of this to Mrs. Tulliver, since he arrives one day to inspect the property. Mr. Deane also finds Tom a temporary job in a warehouse and helps him get evening lessons in bookkeeping.

Mrs. Tulliver now conceives a plan to speak to Mr. Wakem and mentions it to her brothers-in-law, Mr. Glegg and Mr. Deane, who tell her emphatically to steer clear of the lawyer. Nonetheless, she visits him in his office and asks him not to buy the mill. This is a surprise to Mr. Wakem, who had not thought of it, and he learns from Mrs. Tulliver that Guest & Co. is considering its purchase. While Mr. Wakem does not return Mr. Tulliver's enduring hatred and has simply been besting him at business, he has been irritated by Mr. Tulliver's continual insults. He now has two good reasons to buy the mill: first, it is a good investment and he will prevail over Guest & Co., a friendly rival. Second, buying the mill and keeping Mr. Tulliver on as the manager will mortify his old enemy.

Chapter 8: Daylight on the Wreck

In January the family is discussing Mr. Wakem's offer to hire Mr. Tulliver to manage the mill, should he recover, since the lawyer has now purchased the property. The Dodsons, particularly Mrs. Glegg, feel that Mr. Tulliver should humble himself and do what he can so that his wife's family doesn't have to step in and help again. Mr. Tulliver finally comes downstairs to resume his life, but he has lost a sense of how much time has passed since he first received the letter from his lawyer, Mr. Gore. He now learns he is a bankrupt and that everything has been "sold up." Mr. Tulliver offers an apology to his wife, but she says nothing to make him feel better. Rather, when he says he'd like to make amends, she suggests he allow the family to stay in place, even though Mr. Wakem now owns everything. He immediately agrees and says, "this world's too many for me ... it's no use standing up for anything now." Tom doesn't agree with the family that his father should buckle under Mr. Wakem, but Mr. Tulliver tells Tom to "say no more."

Chapter 9: An Item Added to the Family Register

The Tullivers had held the land and the mill for generations, the narrator says, which is a strong reason for Mr. Tulliver to keep his promise to his wife: "He couldn't bear to think of himself living on any other spot than this, where he knew the sound of every gate and door, and felt that the shape and color of every roof and weather-stain and broken hillock was good." He mentions to Luke the miller that "when the mill changes hands the river gets angry." When Mr. Tulliver comes indoors he tells his son to get the Bible. He commands Tom to write that his father has agreed to work honestly for Mr. Wakem so he can die in his old home but that he wishes "evil may befall him." He charges Tom to write his own version of what Mr. Wakem did to his father and to make him and his family "feel it, if ever the day comes." Tom gladly follows his father's orders.


Mrs. Tulliver is perhaps stupid; the narrator makes fun of her, calling her a hen who wishes to prevail upon the farmer to not wring her neck. But perhaps she unconsciously wishes to punish her husband for making a shambles of their life. She is a woman who generally takes orders from men, and yet she takes it upon herself to go into town and speak to Mr. Wakem, despite the fact that two of her male relatives have told her explicitly that would be a bad idea. In fact, Mrs. Tulliver takes Mr. Wakem's part against her husband in her own mind. When she conceives her plan, she imagines presenting herself as separate from her husband, someone who never wanted to oppose him in the courts. The Tullivers' marriage, unlike that of the Gleggs, is clearly a loveless union, and neither spouse respects the other. Mrs. Tulliver does not see herself as her husband's partner nor helpmate, and she is inclined to throw him under the bus if she can obtain an advantage by doing so. The result of approaching Mr. Wakem is that she once again gets the opposite outcome of what she intended (or seemed to intend). The lawyer decides to avail himself of a good business proposition and at the same time humiliate the man who has been a thorn in his side.

Once Mr. Wakem buys the mill and Mr. Tulliver is on his feet and well enough to understand what has happened to him, he agrees to buckle under the lawyer, both for his family's sake as well as his own. He is a broken man, and he can't imagine giving up the lifelong habit of living and working on the land where he was born. George Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes kept abreast of scientific discoveries, and the discussions about heredity and adaptation that circulated because of Darwin's work, as well as speculations of early physiologists and psychologists, inform The Mill on the Floss. According to Lewes and others, habits form channels in the mind, which people then travel over again and again, often unconsciously. Thus, Mr. Tulliver's habit of living at the mill would be hard to override. Both children forgive their father, which is evident by Maggie's unwavering sympathy and Tom's willingness to take up his father's burden. Mr. Tulliver reminds his wife that it's been 18 years since they married, and she promised to take him for better or worse, to which she responds, "I never thought it 'ud be so for worse as this." Mr. Tulliver makes a genuine apology, and he readily agrees to do the one thing that will make some amends, telling his wife she may do what she likes with him now that he's brought her into poverty. For her part, she gives him no token of love nor loyalty nor solace.

In Book 3, Chapter 9, the novel once again takes a Gothic turn. Mr. Tulliver notes that the river gets angry when the mill changes hands, and "there's no telling whether there mayn't be summat in the story, for this is a puzzling world, and Old Harry's the devil got a finger in it." Here is another instance of the heavy-handed foreshadowing of the story's ending, in which the river rises up and kills Maggie and Tom. When Mr. Tulliver has Tom write in the Bible a vow of vengeance against his enemy, Maggie trembles like a leaf and tells her father "it's wicked to curse and bear malice," but he responds that it's the "rascals" who are wicked. For his part, Tom is happy to carry out his father's orders and tells Maggie once again to mind her own business.

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