Book 4, Chapter 1 Summary
The narrator states that this chapter concerns some of the beliefs of the characters involved in this story in order to help readers better understand why the characters act the ways they do. It focuses on the Tullivers and the Dodsons (Mrs. Tulliver’s side of the family).
Readers might find the lives of the Tullivers and Dodsons oppressive, with their lack of romantic visions and “self-renouncing faith.” They seem unmoved by wild, uncontrollable passions; their lives are devoid of any of the “poetry” of peasant life. Instead, these families are ruled by conventional habits and proud respectability. The little religion that guides their lives is not much above the “pagan.” They believe what their parents believed without questioning any of it. Readers might conclude that they could not live among these people, with their lack of things beautiful and great. These are “dull men and women” who are out of touch with the world in which they live. Readers must feel this narrowness, the narrator claims, to understand Tom and Maggie. Then the narrator further explains the families’ biases.
These are people who will claim they are religious, but their religion is simple and consists of praising whatever is customary. For example, they believe it is necessary to exercise some of the sacraments, such as baptism, so one can be buried in the church cemetery when they die. However, it is equally necessary to have the proper pall-bearers at one’s funeral as well as a well-cured ham at the funeral dinner. These types of considerations are at the same level of importance as obeying one’s parents, being thrifty, thoroughly scouring one’s copper pans, and preferring things that are homemade over things that are manufactured and sold in stores.
In a slightly different realm, the Dodson motto is to be honest and rich. In death, one is supposed to have a will that proves him to be richer than anyone had guessed. The family code is for adults to severely correct any child who strays from the family’s traditions and rules, but this punishment should never go to the point of excluding any kin from the will. The Dodsons were most disturbed if anyone proved themselves a discredit to their family name. But they would never punish any kin so severely that their relatives went hungry. They might, however, under certain conditions, provide them with food that is not very appealing to the palate.
The Tullivers have similar beliefs to the Dodsons, but they are tempered with elements of “generous imprudence” and “hot-tempered rashness.” This might explain Mr. Tulliver’s cursing someone and recording it in his family Bible. Tulliver believes in the church and respects his minister. However, he separates the things he learns from the church and those he gathers from plain common sense. No one can tell Tulliver what is entailed in claiming what is common sense, so Tulliver finds no clash between his church beliefs and those based on his common sense.