Chapter I - Outside Dorlcote Mill
The narrator, asleep in her chair, dreams of Dorlcote Mill, and in doing so describes the town of St Ogg’s along the Floss and a little girl standing at the edge of the water by the mill thirty years ago. When she wakes, she resumes the story of Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver's actions on the very afternoon she was dreaming of.
Chapter II - Mr. Tullier, of Dorlcote Mill, Declares His Resolution about Tom
At Dorlcote Mill, Mr. Tulliver explains to his wife Bessy that he is taking their son, Tom, out of his day school to go to boarding school because he wants him to be something better than a miller or a farmer. He plans to ask his friend Mr. Riley for advice on where to send Tom to school, but worries that even with a good education, he’s not smart enough to ever be truly intelligent, as opposed to Tom’s clever sister Maggie. Despite her daughter's cleverness, Mrs. Tulliver complains about how difficult Maggie is; in particular, the girl's hair won't hold a proper curl.
Chapter III - Mr. Riley Gives His Advice Concerning a School for Tom
Mr. Riley visits the mill, and Mr. Tulliver asks him about Tom’s schooling. Riley strongly recommends he go to Reverend Stelling, who graduated from Oxford and wants to keep teaching even with his duties to his parish, so wants to take on a few pupils. Riley says he will recommend Tom to Stelling. Hearing her beloved brother's name, Maggie interrupts the conversation. She quickly illustrates how clever she is, showing Mr. Riley engravings in "History of the Devil", a book she's reading. But she is disgraced and belittled by Mr. Riley. Mr. Tulliver laments that if she were a boy, Maggie would go far.
Chapter IV - Tom is Expected
Maggie, impatient with her mother for not letting her go with Mr. Tulliver to pick up Tom from school, runs outside and talks to Luke, the head miller. From him she learns that Tom’s rabbits, that she was supposed to take care of, have all died because she forgot to feed them.
Chapter V - Tom Comes Home
Tom comes home with two new fishing lines, one for Maggie to have all to herself, but when Maggie tells him about the rabbits, he takes it back and tells her he doesn’t love her. She goes to the attic to sulk and play with a voodoo-doll like toy which she uses to work out her feelings. Though Tom is intent on punishing her, when she comes down again he can’t resist her apologies and forgives her, taking her fishing the next day as originally planned.
Chapter VI - The Aunts and Uncles Are Coming
The Tullivers prepare for a visit Mrs. Tulliver's sisters and their families. Tom and Maggie play outside, enjoying freshly-baked jam puff. Tom cuts a third puff in uneven halves and tells Maggie to choose left or right so one of the siblings gets the better half fair and square. Maggie tells her brother he can have the better piece - to impress Tom - but he insists she choose with her eyes closed. Maggie gets the better half and tries to give it to her brother, but Tom insists on fairness. However, after both pieces are eaten, Tom gets jealous and calls Maggie greedy and runs away with his dog Yap, finding his friend Bob Jakin. They go off to watch a rat-catching, but get into a fight over Bob cheating at heads or tails, so Tom, unwilling to go along with a cheat, stalks off.
Chapter VII - Enter the Aunts and Uncles
Mrs. Jane Glegg, Mrs. Sophy Pullet, and Mrs. Susan Deane with her daughter Lucy arrive at Dorlcote Mill. All the aunts criticize Maggie’s hair, so she sneaks upstairs with Tom and cuts it herself. Tom laughs at how stupid she looks, upsetting her greatly. He finally convinces her to come down to dinner, and the uncles mock her while the aunts reproach her.
The children are sent outside, and Mr. Tulliver tells everyone his plans for Tom’s education. Everyone is surprised, but the uncles are easily convinced it’s a good idea. Mrs. Gregg is quite scornful and unpleasant about the decision and ends up fighting with Mr. Tulliver. She leaves angrily.
Chapter VIII - Mr. Tulliver Shows His Weaker Side
Mrs. Tulliver mentions to Mr. Tulliver that he shouldn’t have fought with Mrs. Glegg, because she might insist he pay back the 500 pounds he borrowed from her. This convinces Mr. Tulliver that he must pay her back so he won’t be beholden to her anymore, so he goes to visit his sister Gritty and brother-in-law Mr. Moss in order to retrieve the 300 pounds he lent them. Mr. Tulliver tells Mr. Moss that he must pay him back, but almost immediately after loses his resolve. He thinks of Maggie and hopes to set a good example for Tom in the event she falls on misfortune. He returns to the Moss farm and tells his sister not to worry about the loan.
Chapter IX - To Garum Firs
Mrs. Tulliver takes Tom, Maggie, and Lucy to Garum Firs, the Pullets’ farm. Mrs. Pullet shows the visitors a grand bonnet she has purchased. Maggie is in a bad mood because Tom has been favoring Lucy all morning, as she accidentally knocked over his house of cards. At Garum Firs, the children are sent outside and Mrs. Tulliver and Mrs. Pullet discuss the fight between Mrs. Glegg and Mr. Tulliver. At Mrs. Tulliver’s bidding, Mrs. Pullet agrees to visit Mrs. Glegg the following to try to sooth the tension.
Chapter X - Maggie Behaves Worse Than She Expected
Outside, Tom, still mad at Maggie for the morning and for causing him to spill some wine at Garum Firs, ignores her and pays attention to Lucy. This makes Maggie more and more miserable. She gets irrationally mad at Lucy as well. Tom takes Lucy to the pond to look for fish and Maggie follows behind, but Tom tells her to go away. In retribution, Maggie shoves Lucy into the mud.
Tom takes the crying Lucy back to Pullet house and tells the maid that it was Maggie that did it, and then runs back outside; he knows his cruelty played a part in Maggie's misbehavior. Mrs. Tulliver finds him and tells him to go get Maggie, but she is nowhere to be found. Mrs. Tulliver fears she has drowned in the pond, but Tom says she probably left to go home, so they go off after her.
Chapter XI - Maggie Tries to Run away from Her Shadow
Maggie is so miserable she decides to run away and join the gypsies. She goes off looking for a common where she expects to find them, but in fact stumbles upon a gypsy camp in the lane rather quickly. She announces she wants to stay with them and joins them around their fire, but quickly realizes it wasn’t all she imagined it would be and gets frightened. She tells the gypsies she must be off, but they insist on taking her home. Maggie is terrified she will be murdered. On the road, Maggie and the gypsy run into Mr. Tulliver, on his way back from Gritty's. He pays the gypsy for his trouble and embraces his daughter, saying she must never leave him. Maggie does not get in trouble for running away.
Chapter XII - Mr. and Mrs. Glegg at Home
The narrator describes the history of the town of St. Ogg’s and the legend of St. Ogg himself. St. Ogg, a boatman who ferried people across the Floss, ferried a poor woman who turned out to be the Virgin Mother. For his kindness, she blessed his boat - which rescued many people during the great flood.
Mr. Glegg is kind-hearted and finds it hard to bear when his wife is at odds with someone, so the morning after the argument with Mr. Tulliver, he hopes that she will have calmed down overnight. She has not, instead picking a fight with him over him siding against her. He convinces her, though, that rather than taking her money back from Mr. Tulliver immediately, it would make more sense to wait until she has an opportunity to invest it in something better.
Chapter XIII - Mr. Tulliver Further Entangles the Skein of Life
Mrs. Pullet comes the next day to petition for the Tullivers, and Mrs. Glegg says she will speak civilly to him if he does to her and won’t give the neighbors any cause to gossip, and she feels quite pleased with herself for being so magnanimous. It thus infuriates her when she soon after receives a note from Mr. Tulliver telling her he will repay everything within a month. Mrs. Glegg does not visit again until the day before Tom leaves for school. Mr. Tulliver realizes he will need to find an investor to replace the 500 pounds he returned to the Gleggs. The last person he wants to borrow from is Mr. Wakem, a lawyer, but fate turns out otherwise.
The opening chapter of The Mill on the Floss frames the novel to come. The narrator introduces us to Dorlcote Mill with a tone of dreamy nostalgia; at the end of the chapter, we realize she is, in fact, literally dreaming. This device of an adult looking back fondly to childhood crystalizes one of the main themes of the book - nostalgia. The narrator considers the lives of Maggie and Tom from an adult perspective, both acknowledging and reveling the innocence of youth. This reverence for childhood innocence is emphasized by the last image of the book. Maggie and Tom die in an idealized version of their childhood - clasping “their little hands in love” and roaming “the daisied fields together” (422).
This frame works on several levels. The narrator speaks from about thirty years past the events of young Maggie and Tom on the Floss and continually focuses on the differences between a child’s worldview and an adult’s. The coming-of-age tale of the Tulliver children is both objective and subjective, portraying its hero and heroine in their emotional reality while exposing the childlike nature they will soon grow out of. We watch Maggie and Tom as they leave their childhood behind without relinquishing the ties created in this time; moreover, their behavior is continually dictated by those ties. The narrator helps to create intimacy both with the reader and the author. The Mill on the Floss is, by George Eliot's own admission, her most autobiographical work. In writing the novel, Eliot is looking back at her own childhood - fictionalized through Maggie's experiences - from an adult's perspective. The reader is privy to the characters' inner thoughts as well as the sometimes critical thoughts of the narrator of these thoughts.
This section is replete with the dramas of childhood that both reflect a certain nostalgia for this time preceding one’s loss of innocence, and foreshadow the great differences in character that will lead to Tom and Maggie intense disagreements in adulthood. We see in Maggie a strong drive to please Tom as well as a frequent inability to do so, either because she can’t understand him due to their vast differences in character - as in the case with the jam puff - or because she is moved by her strong emotions, which she has trouble controlling - as in the incident with Lucy and the mud. Tom's martial sense of justice and order contrasts sharply with Maggie's thirst for knowledge and experience. Tom often punishes his sister for her behavior, especially when her whims get the best of her, but the siblings love each other deeply and maintain a strong familial bond.
Many of the other themes of the novel are also introduced in the first book. Maggie’s inability to fit into a societal role because of the limitations placed on women is abundantly clear, even in her childhood. Mr. Tulliver is the character that loves and supports Maggie most throughout this section, yet even he wishes, on some level, that she were different. He says it’s “a bit of a pity” (11) that Maggie is “too 'cute for a woman” (12). Throughout this section, while the narrator and the reader appreciate her intelligence, almost all of the other characters are dismayed by her cleverness and her reluctance to behave and look the part of a proper girl.
Beyond just the issues of gendered limitations, this book gives the reader a strong sense of the setting which is hugely important to the novel as a whole, since it is Maggie’s struggle between her internal desires and what the community expects of her, between progress and tradition, that drives the plot. We learn that in St. Ogg’s, an “old, old” town (98), “it was a time when ignorance was much more comfortable than at present...and when country surgeons never thought of asking their female patients if they were fond of reading, but simply took it for granted that they preferred gossip” (101). We also learn that the Dodsons stand as the symbol of community and tradition, as “while no individual Dodson was satisfied with any other individual Dodson, each was satisfied...with the Dodsons collectively,” and one of their core values is their “faithfulness to admitted rules.” It is in this world that the distinctly individual Maggie will struggle to survive.