Eliot's novel is concerned with the social aspirations of a mill owner, Mr. Tulliver, and his son, Tom. A major theme is the problem of social mobility and how greed and desire work in English society to set neighbor against neighbor. This theme emerges in the feud between Mr. Tulliver and the lawyer Wakem, and in Mr. Tulliver's desire for Tom to get an education. Although he cannot afford it, Tom is sent to public school, where he meets Phillip, the son of his father's enemy. Tom's friendship with Phillip, and his sister's tentative attachment to Phillip, are pitted against his father's struggle with the lawyer over control of his mill. When Wakem is able to gain control of the mill, and reduce Mr. Tulliver to an employee, Tom pledges to get vengeance against the Wakems. The story ends with the death of Tom and his sister, but its message about social mobility and class is ambiguous. On the one hand, Tom's education made it possible for him to form personal ties with people outside his class, but on the other, his loyalty to his father caused him to abandon his social aspirations in favor of revenge. It is this overriding class consciousness that ultimately seals his fate.
George Eliot's novel about social norm versus individualist conflict stems from the British traditions of the time period. The character of Maggie, being raised with the social morals of the day, presents a unique perspective in a woman who tries to be her own self within the strict social norms of the day. Eliot does not begin with Maggie's apparent personality, but with the psychological forces and basics underlying the personality.
Maggie sees the world around her as well as her relationship to her father and brother with an intellectual lens that colors her emotional need for them. "She presents aspects of human nature which the Victorians cannot. She successfully describes how a character develops. Others cut a character into good and bad without explaining the essential uses that make a good character bad and vice versa. Eliot, however, portrays the evidences of this change with acuteness of observation. "