Mrs. Tulliver points out that it would be difficult for the family financially if Mrs. Glegg were to demand the return of her loan of five hundred pounds. Mr. Tulliver claims angrily that he won’t be beholden to his wife’s sisters. The next day, he goes to visit his sister, Moss, and her husband. The narrator explains that Mr. Tulliver has a two thousand pound mortgage on his farm, one thousand pounds of which he gave as dowry for his sister when she married. Now, Mr. Tulliver plans to call in three hundred pounds of that loan.
The relationship between Mr. Tulliver and his sister, Mrs. Moss, is one of financial dependence. When she married, she relied on him to give her a “dowry”—a payment made by a woman’s family members to her husband. The convention of giving a dowry on a woman’s marriage underscores that women in this society have no economic power on their own and must rely on the financial generosity of male relatives.
Mr. Tulliver arrives at the Moss family farm in Basset, a ramshackle and run-down parish. Mrs. Moss appears with a few of her eight children and inquires after Maggie, of whom she is particularly fond, since Maggie takes after their side of the family. Mrs. Moss says that she hopes Tom will always care for his sister, just as Mr. Tulliver has always cared for her. When Mr. Moss arrives, Mr. Tulliver goes to talk with him in the garden. He begins by criticizing Mr. Moss’s farming and financial prospects, before asking for the return of three hundred pounds of the capital he’s given them. Mr. Moss protests that he will have to sell the farm in order to repay the Tullivers.
Mrs. Moss’s current financial situation further demonstrates the extent of her dependence on men in her life. Because Mrs. Moss has married a poor farmer, she is in bad financial straits and can do little to change her prospects. Mr. Tulliver’s anger at his sister’s husband suggests that he feels his sister has made a bad economic calculation. Marriage is often considered a romantic and emotional choice, but the emphasis on such practical and financial considerations suggests that in this society, marriage is the only way that women can support themselves financially.
Mr. Tulliver curtly tells Mr. Moss to raise the money. Mr. Tulliver rides away from the farm, but before he’s gotten far, he thinks of Maggie—“Poor little wench! She’ll have nobody but Tom, belike, when I’m gone”—and feels pity for his own sister. He returns to the Moss farm and tells Mrs. Moss that he won’t be calling in the loan after all. Mrs. Moss thanks him and gives him a colored egg to give as a gift to Maggie. As he rides away, he reflects that being harsh on his own sister might in some way teach Tom to be hard on Maggie.
Mr. Tulliver ultimately relents and takes pity on his sister because he thinks of his own daughter, Maggie. His observation that “she’ll have nobody but Tom” demonstrates that Mr. Tulliver recognizes that Maggie will be dependent on Tom, just as Mrs. Moss is now dependent on Mr. Tulliver himself. The exclamation “poor little wench!” shows he is aware that this is a disempowering arrangement for Maggie and that he worries for her.