Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Boy and Girl: Chapter 3
Mr. Riley comes to visit, and before supper Mr. Tulliver asks his advice about a school for Tom. He hints that he thinks it best to start Tom in another field, "as he may make a nest for himself, an' not want to push me out o' mine." Maggie is in the room, and she leaps to Tom's defense. She drops the book she has been reading, and Mr. Riley picks it up. It is The History of the Devil. Riley is surprised that she reads such things, but Mr. Tulliver says he didn't know what it was; he had bought it for the cover. Maggie shows off the breadth of her knowledge, but when she talks of the devil her father sends her from the room. He remarks that, unlike her mother, she is a little too intelligent for a woman.
Mr. Riley easily agrees that a good education is the best thing for Tom, and he recommends as a tutor the son-in-law of a business acquaintance. He actually knows very little of the man, a clergyman named Rev. Walter Stelling; but he has heard him well spoken of. Tulliver is anxious about the price, which Riley thinks likely to be rather high. However, he says Stelling is "not a grasping man," and he might do it for a hundred pounds, which is less than most clergymen would charge. Mrs. Tulliver worries aloud as to whether Tom will get enough to eat, but Riley assures her that Mrs. Stelling is an excellent housekeeper. Tulliver then wonders whether Tom would get the right kind of education, a good practical education, and not "the sort o' learning as lay mostly out o' sight." Riley is confident that Rev. Stelling can teach anything, just as a workman who knows his tools can make a door as well as a window. He even offers to contact Stelling for them.
The author observes that Riley is not giving his aid from any hope of gain, as the reader might think. He simply wants to be of help, and the fact that he knows nothing is no reason to refuse his aid by withholding his opinion.
Emphasis is laid on Maggie's cleverness, and on her love for Tom. But others do not see her cleverness as she does — it is considered almost harmful.
Mr. Riley, though he appears nowhere else in the book, is fully characterized here as part of the background provided for the main characters. He is treated ironically, for the beliefs that are ascribed to him by the author are obviously not the author's own: "Thus, Mr. Riley, knowing no harm of Stelling to begin with, and wishing him well, so far as he had any wishes at all concerning him, had no sooner recommended him than he began to think with admiration of a man recommended on such high authority . . . ." But in fact Riley knows no more of education than does Mr. Tulliver. The extent of his knowledge is that "Stelling was an Oxford man, and the Oxford men were always — no, no, it was the Cambridge men who were always good mathematicians."
Tulliver, on the other hand, is puzzled by the whole matter, and knows he is ignorant. But he is not shrewd enough to avoid joining Riley in judging Rev. Stelling on the basis of social standing. This situation is compared ironically with the books which Tulliver has bought, and which Maggie reads. Tulliver bought them because "they was all bound alike — it's a good binding, you see Maggie's knowledge of them, and their unsuitability for her, move him to remark that "it seems one mustn't judge by th' outside." Nevertheless, he does just that, as do nearly all the characters of the novel.
Mrs. Tulliver's excellence as a housewife is reemphasized, as is her dull-wittedness. Mr. Tulliver remarks that he picked her "'cause she was a bit weak, like"; and her own words show it — she expects no schoolmaster to have anything against Tom, who is "a nice fresh-skinned lad as anybody need wish to see." Note that, to Mrs. Tulliver, it is entirely fitting and proper to judge by the outside.
Her concern for her son is contrasted with her comments on Maggie in Chapter 2: "I don't like to fly i' the face o' Providence, but it seems hard as I should have but one gell, an' her so comical."
Alongside Mrs. Tulliver's particular love for her son we may place Mr. Tulliver's care for Maggie, which appears to be based partly on her cleverness, and partly on her tenderness of heart.