Mr. Tulliver drinks a brandy with Mr. Riley, a well-educated man who refers to the Tullivers as “people of the old school.” Mr. Tulliver praises Mr. Riley for his assistance in a legal dispute over the height of the water near the mill, remarking that he thinks Old Harry (the devil) created lawyers. He asks for advice about where to send Tom to school, since he wants his son to set up in a profession on his own rather than trying to inherit the family farm too soon. At the sound of her brother’s name, Maggie stands up from her book and protests that Tom would never do any “mischief” to his father.
Although he hates lawyers and is constantly involved in lawsuits around his property, Mr. Tulliver also seems to have a peculiar reverence for them due to their impressive education, which is something he hasn’t been able to enjoy himself. He believes that the devil creates lawyers, suggesting that Mr. Tulliver views their knowledge as something mysterious and even supernatural.
Mr. Tulliver proudly tells Mr. Riley about Maggie’s reading abilities, although he also worries that a woman has “no business wi’ being so clever.” Mr. Riley asks Maggie what she’s reading, and she explains that she’s read Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil as well as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Mr. Riley wonders whether the devil is an appropriate subject for a little girl to read about. Mr. Tulliver admits that he wishes Maggie had been the boy of the family, since she would be a match for any lawyer.
Once again, Mr. Tulliver shows his mingled pride in Maggie's intellectual abilities and his concern that such talents will be of little use to her as a wife and a mother. Indeed, her reading might even be an active demerit, as demonstrated by Mr. Riley’s disapproving comments that Maggie is reading books inappropriate for a little girl. Mr. Tulliver's wish that Maggie had been a boy demonstrates that is her gender that prevents her from fully expressing her intellectual interests and abilities.
Mr. Riley suggests that Mr. Tulliver send Tom to study with Stelling, a parson with a Master of Arts degree from Oxford, who is willing to take on a pupil for one hundred pounds a year. Mrs. Tulliver worries about Tom growing up in the house of a bachelor, but Mr. Riley assures her that Stelling is married to a nice woman from a good family. Mr. Tulliver is concerned that a parson isn’t the best choice for teaching his son to be a man of business, to which Mr. Riley responds that Stelling is a gentleman who can prepare Tom for any trade. Maggie asks Mr. Riley how far away Tom will have to go, and Mr. Riley reassures the family that it is only about fifteen miles.
Mr. Tulliver’s own ignorance of schooling and education makes him overly reverential of people who have had some education. Although Mr. Riley is not very learned himself, Mr. Tulliver respects his opinions and gives them a great deal of weight. Similarly, both Mr. Riley and Mr. Tulliver are extremely impressed by the fact that Mr. Stelling has a degree from Oxford. This alone is considered sufficient qualification to make him Tom’s tutor, although the two men don’t actually know anything about Mr. Stelling’s scholarship, talents, or teaching abilities.
The narrator observes that Mr. Riley had no ulterior or malicious motives in recommending Stelling, as he really was attempting to help the Tulliver family. He did not actually know Stelling personally, but had heard him recommended by a relative who had attended Oxford. Mr. Riley had forgotten most of his school Latin, and was consequently impressed by anyone with a university education. Besides, Mr. Riley knew Stelling’s wife and assumed that her husband must be an upstanding gentleman. The narrator asks the reader not to judge Mr. Riley harshly for making a recommendation based on so little firsthand knowledge.
Mr. Riley’s recommendation of Mr. Stelling—which is based on circumstantial evidence and little firsthand knowledge—exemplifies the tendency of St. Ogg’s residents to jump to conclusions. Although Mr. Riley is in fact completely ignorant of Mr. Stelling and doesn’t know him personally, he ventures an opinion anyway. Throughout the rest of the novel, the inhabitants of St. Ogg’s frequently make conclusions based on incomplete evidence, just as Mr. Riley does here.