Mr. Tulliver tells his wife, Mrs. Tulliver, that he wants their son, Tom, to get a better education than Mr. Tulliver himself had received. He doesn’t want to make Tom “a downright lawyer,” but he does want him to become something more than a miller or farmer—perhaps an engineer or surveyor. Mrs. Tulliver hopes that Tom will attend school somewhere close to home, so that she can mend his clothes and send him extra food. Mr. Tulliver agrees, provided the school is a place where students spend their time doing something other than “blacking the family’s shoes, and getting up the potatoes.” He decides to talk about Tom’s schooling with Mr. Riley, a local appraiser and auctioneer.
Mr. Tulliver associates education with access to greater social and economic opportunities in life. He may not have had much education himself, but he recognizes how knowledge opens up a world that has not been available to him or to other poor, rural farmers. He wants Tom to do something other than agricultural labor—like “getting up the potatoes”—and he sees learning and knowledge as the route to a career in the professions. Notably, however, he imagines Tom as an engineer or surveyor—both careers based on practical forms of knowledge like bookkeeping.
Mr. Tulliver admits that Tom isn’t the brightest child in the family, although he hopes Tom will become a professional businessman and set up shop in St. Ogg’s. Tom’s sister (Maggie) is far cleverer. Mr. Tulliver is concerned about this, since he believes that cleverness won’t help a grown woman when it’s time for her to marry. Mrs. Tulliver complains exasperatedly that her daughter’s ways are very strange and “comical.” For example, the girl wanders close to the river, forgets her chores, and sings to herself “like a Bedlam creature.” Mrs. Tulliver admits that she is jealous of her sister Mrs. Deane, who has a very pretty and neat daughter named Lucy.
Despite his high hopes for Tom’s education, Mr. Tulliver freely admits that it’s his daughter, not his son, who has the most aptitude for study. It is striking that Mr. Tulliver acknowledges Maggie’s intellectual abilities while maintaining that her only role in life will be a wife and mother. In fact, he worries that her cleverness won’t make her any more desirable as a wife—and perhaps will actually lower her chances of finding a husband. Mrs. Tulliver, for her part, despairs at Maggie’s lack of feminine graces. This suggests that neither Maggie’s parents nor society in general value Maggie’s interests and skills.
When Maggie comes into the parlor, Mrs. Tulliver reproaches her for going to close to the river and taking off her bonnet, messing up her hair. Maggie’s dark hair is stubbornly straight, despite her mother’s attempts to curl it “like other folks’s children.” Mrs. Tulliver tells Maggie to work on her sewing for her Aunt Glegg, but Maggie protests that she doesn’t like sewing or her aunt. Mr. Tulliver laughs, although Mrs. Tulliver laments her daughter’s lack of feminine graces. The narrator comments that Mrs. Tulliver is beautiful and good-natured but dim-witted, comparing her to one of Raphael’s paintings of Madonna. The narrator wonders whether Madonna might have lost that calm and “somewhat stupid” expression if her child grew up strong-willed.
The narrator depicts Mrs. Tulliver as a highly conventional person who wants her daughter to embody traditionally feminine traits such as neatness, prettiness, and skill at domestic tasks such as sewing. Her hopes for Maggie, however, clash with her daughter’s strong-willed resistance to convention. For example, despite all Mrs. Tulliver’s efforts, Maggie’s hair does not curl in the style fashionable for nineteenth-century British woman. The stubbornness of Maggie’s hair thus becomes a metaphor for Maggie’s resistance to conventional gender roles.