Dorlcote Mill stands on the banks of the River Floss near the village of St. Ogg’s. Owned by the ambitious Mr. Tulliver, the mill provides a good living for the Tulliver family, but Mr. Tulliver dreams of the day when his son Tom will achieve a higher station in life. Mrs. Tulliver’s sisters, who had married well, criticize Mr. Tulliver’s unseemly ambition and openly predict the day when his air castles will bring himself and his family to ruin. Aunt Glegg is the richest of the sisters and holds a note on his property. After he quarrels with her over his plans for Tom’s education, Mr. Tulliver determines to borrow the money and repay her.
Tom has inherited the placid arrogance of his mother’s relatives; for him, life is not difficult. He is resolved to be fair in all of his dealings and to deliver punishment to whomever deserves it. His sister Maggie grows up with an imagination that surpasses her understanding. Her aunts predict she will come to a bad end because she is tomboyish, dark-skinned, dreamy, and indifferent to their commands. Frightened by her lack of success in attempting to please her brother Tom, her cousin Lucy, and her mother and aunts, Maggie runs away, determined to live with the gypsies, but she is glad enough to return. Her father scolds her mother and Tom for abusing her. Her mother is sure Maggie will come to a bad end because of the way Mr. Tulliver humors her.
Tom’s troubles begin when his father sends him to study at Mr. Stelling’s school. Having little interest in spelling, grammar, or Latin, Tom wishes he were back at the mill, where he can dream of someday riding a horse like his father’s and giving orders to people around him. Mr. Stelling is convinced that Tom is not just obstinate but stupid. Returning home for the Christmas holidays, Tom learns that Philip Wakem, son of a lawyer who is his father’s enemy, is also to enter Mr. Stelling’s school.
Philip is disabled; Tom, therefore, cannot beat him up. Philip can draw, and he knows Latin and Greek. After they overcome their initial reserve, the two boys become useful to each other. Philip admires Tom’s arrogance and self-possession, and Tom needs Philip to help him in his studies, but their fathers’ quarrel keeps a gulf between them.
When Maggie visits Tom, she meets Philip, and the two become close friends. After Maggie is sent away to school with her cousin, Lucy, Mr. Tulliver becomes involved in a lawsuit. Because Mr. Wakem defends the opposition, Mr. Tulliver says his children should have as little as possible to do with Philip. Mr. Tulliver loses his suit and stands to lose all of his property as well. To pay off Aunt Glegg, he borrowed money on his household furnishings. Now he hopes Aunt Pullet will lend him the money to pay the debt against which those furnishings stand forfeit. He can no longer afford to keep Maggie and Tom in school. When he learns that Mr. Wakem had bought up his debts, the discovery brings on a stroke. Tom makes Maggie promise never to speak to Philip Wakem again. Mrs. Tulliver weeps because her household possessions are to be put up for sale at auction. In the ruin that follows, Tom and Maggie reject the scornful offers of help from their aunts.
Bob Jakin, a country brute with whom Tom had fought as a boy, turns up to offer Tom partnership with him in a venture where Tom’s education will help Bob’s native business shrewdness. Because both of them are without capital, Tom takes a job in a warehouse for the time being and studies bookkeeping at night.
Mr. Wakem buys the mill but permits Mr. Tulliver to act as its manager for wages. It is Wakem’s plan eventually to turn the mill over to his son. Not knowing what else to do, Tulliver stays on as an employee of his enemy, but he asks Tom to sign a statement in the Bible that he will wish the Wakems evil as long as he lives. Against Maggie’s entreaties, Tom signs his name. Finally, Aunt Glegg gives Tom money, which he invests with Bob Jakin....
(The entire section is 1,396 words.)