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...
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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. Slowly, Tom begins to accumulate funds to pay off his father’s debts.
Meanwhile, Maggie and Philip have been meeting secretly in the glades near the mill. One day, he asks her if she loves him. She puts him off. Later, at a family gathering, she shows feeling for Philip in a manner that arouses Tom’s suspicions. He makes her swear on the Bible not to have anything more to do with Philip, and then he looks for Philip and orders him to stay away from his sister. Shortly afterward, Tom shows his father his profits. The next day, Mr. Tulliver thrashes Mr. Wakem and then suffers another stroke, from which he never recovers.
Two years later, Maggie, now a teacher, visits her cousin, Lucy Deane, who is also entertaining young Stephen Guest in her home. One difficulty Lucy foresees is that Philip, who is friendly with both her and Stephen, might leave during Maggie’s visit. Stephen had already decided that Lucy is to be his choice for a wife, but he and Maggie are attracted to each other at first sight. Blind to what is happening, Lucy is pleased that her cousin Maggie and her friend Stephen are becoming good friends.
Maggie asks Tom’s permission to see Philip at a party that Lucy is giving. Tom replies that if Maggie should ever consider Philip as a lover, she must expect never to see her brother again. Tom stands by his oath to his father. He feels his dignity as a Tulliver, and he believes that Maggie is apt to follow the inclination of the moment without giving consideration to the outcome. He is right. Lacking the iron will that characterizes so many of her relatives, Maggie loves easily and without restraint.
When Philip learns that Lucy’s father has promised to try to buy back the mill for Tom, he hopes to persuade his father to sell the mill. Philip is sure that in return Tom will forget his old hatred.
Stephen Guest tries to kiss Maggie at a dance. She evades him, and the next day avoids Philip as well. She feels she owes it to Lucy not to allow Stephen to fall in love with her, and she feels that she owes it to her brother not to marry Philip. She lets herself be carried along by the tide. Her relatives will not let her go back to teaching, for Tom’s good luck continues and he has repossessed his father’s mill. Both Stephen and Philip want her to marry them, neither knowing about the other’s suit. Certainly, Lucy does not suspect Stephen’s growing indifference to her.
One day, Stephen takes Maggie boating and tries to convince her to run away with him and be married. She refuses. Then the tide carries them beyond the reach of shore, and they are forced to spend the night in the boat.
Maggie dares the wrath and judgment of her relatives when she returns and attempts to explain to Lucy and the others what had happened. They refuse to listen to her. Tom turns her away from the mill house, with the word that he will send her money but that he never wishes to see her again. Mrs. Tulliver resolves to go with Maggie, and Bob Jakin takes them in. One by one, people desert Maggie, and she slowly begins to realize the meaning of ostracism. Only Aunt Glegg and Lucy offer sympathy. Stephen writes to her in agony of spirit, as does Philip. Maggie wants to be by herself. She wonders if there could be love for her without pain for others.
That autumn a terrible flood ravages St. Ogg’s. Maggie knows that Tom is at the mill, and she attempts to reach him in a boat. The two are reunited, and Tom takes over the rowing of the boat. The full force of the flood, however, overwhelms them and they drown, together at the end as they had been when they were children.