Summary and Analysis
Book 3: The Downfall: Chapter 2
When Tom and Maggie arrive home they find "a coarse, dingy man" in the parlor. Tom immediately realizes that this is the bailiff who has come to "sell them up." Maggie does not recognize him, but is afraid "lest this stranger might have something to do with a change in her father." She finds that Mr. Tulliver is quiet, so she and Tom go to look for their mother. They find her in the storeroom with her "best things." She is crying over her mark, "Elizabeth Dodson," on her tablecloths. Tom says his aunts would not let the things be sold, but Mrs. Tulliver says she has sent for them and they will buy for themselves only the things they want. She tells Tom he'll never have a penny, but it's not his "poor mother's fault." Tom says he will find "a situation" and get money for them. Mrs. Tulliver says she wouldn't mind so much "if we could ha' kept the things wi' my name on 'em."
Maggie reproaches her mother for talking so and for caring about anything but Mr. Tulliver. She goes to her place by her father's bed.
This chapter carries a fine characterization of the Dodson mentality and its faults. The title states the case: Mrs. Tulliver's possessions have become her gods. (Teraphim were the household gods of the early Semitic peoples.) The storeroom is their sanctuary. They are "only unwrapped and brought out on special occasions," like relics at a religious festival.
Compared to her possessions, her marriage is a transitory thing. Her concern is not for her husband, but for her china and tablecloths. She says, "I shouldn't ha' minded so much if we could ha' kept the things wi' my name on 'em," forgetting that her name changed when she was married. Her things are an extension of herself, and like all Dodsons she is entirely self-concerned. Note that none of the relatives will buy any of Mrs. Tulliver's things to spare her the anguish of seeing them go to strangers. They will take only the few things they need. Similarly, Tom has always considered his father to be right "simply on the ground that he was Tom Tulliver's father." There is no emotion to be spared for anyone other than oneself.
The bailiff comes as the personification of bankruptcy. His presence makes it real. Compare Maggie's and Tom's reactions to him. Tom thinks of his own disgrace, but Maggie is filled with dread for her father. She has the pity which the others lack. On the other hand, Maggie is wrong to forget that some blame is really deserved; but hers is a shortcoming which is easier to forgive.