The narrator stands on a bridge over the Floss next to Dorlcote Mill. The narrator peacefully watches a little girl and her white dog that stand on the bank of the river, watching the mill. The narrator can see the light of a fire burning inside the little girl's house.
It is decades later and the narrator has been dozing in her armchair, dreaming of that past afternoon outside Dorlcote Mill. The narrator proceeds to tell the story of what Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver were discussing in their house, in front of the fire on that afternoon.
Mr. Tulliver explains to Mrs. Tulliver his wish to send their young son Tom for further education, so that Tom might have a lucrative career and enough scholarly knowledge to help Mr. Tulliver with confusing legal processes. Stout, blond Mrs. Tulliver submissively does not object but wants to have her sisters to dinner to hear their thoughts on the matter. Mr. Tulliver refuses to ask his sister-in-laws' advice.
Mrs. Tulliver prattles on about her wish that Tom not be sent to a school too far away so that she can still do his washing. Mr. Tulliver, using analogy about not hiring a waggoner because of only a mole on his face, warns her not to set herself against a perfectly good school if they can only find one farther away. Mrs. Tulliver takes his analogy literally, and Mr. Tulliver tries to explain, but then gives up—"it's puzzling work, talking is." Bessy Tulliver continues talking about laundry while Mr. Tulliver resolves to himself to ask Mr. Riley's advice about a good school. Mr. Tulliver brings up his only doubt over Tom's education—that Tom is a bit slow, taking after Bessy's family. Mr. Tulliver laments the fact that his daughter instead of his son takes after his own family in her cleverness.
More than happy to concede Maggie's likeness to the Tulliver family line, Mrs. Tulliver calls her a "wild thing" and complains of her messiness, absentmindedness, and "brown skin as makes her look like a mulatter." Mr. Tulliver dismisses his wife's complaints, citing Maggie's ability to read "almost as well as the parson." Mrs. Tulliver wishes Maggie's dark hair would curl, like that of her pretty cousin Lucy Deane.
At this moment, Maggie enters the room and throws off her bonnet and refuses her mother's injunctions to work on her patchwork for Mrs. Glegg, whom Maggie doesn't like. Mr. Tulliver chuckles at her honesty as she leaves the room.
Mr. Tulliver and Mr. Riley have been discussing local arbitrations and troublesome lawyers such as Wakem, all of whom Mr. Tulliver believes have been created by the devil. At a pause in the conversation, Tulliver asks Riley's advice about Tom's schooling. Tulliver explains his plan to educate Tom so that Tom can go into business instead of looking to replace himself at the mill. Maggie, who has been sitting with a book, runs to her father proclaiming that Tom would be incapable of such an evil. Tulliver comforts Maggie, bragging to Riley of her cleverness. Maggie feels excitement at the mention of her intelligence to Riley, who is busy looking at the book she has dropped. Maggie hopes to earn Riley's respect with an exposition of the book—"The History of the Devil" by Daniel Defoe—but Riley is unreceptive. Mr. Tulliver is suddenly embarrassed by his daughter's knowledge and sends her to her mother.
Tulliver explains his fears that Tom is more inclined to an outdoors sort of knowledge and isn't at ease speaking to strangers as Maggie is. Riley recommends a parson named Stelling as a tutor for Tom. Riley speaks elaborately of Stelling's merits and soon convinces Tulliver, though we learn that Riley's recommendation has sprung more from Riley's desire to do a favor to Stelling's father-in-law and to speak authoritatively, than from first-hand knowledge of Stelling's merits.
Maggie, not allowed to accompany her father to fetch Tom from school, won't let her hair be curled to spite her mother, then runs up to the attic. Maggie picks up the doll that she uses as a voodoo doll, abusing it with nails and beatings, while she imagines it to be people who vex her like Aunt Glegg. Maggie's sobbing abates after a while, and she runs outside into the sunshine to her dog, Yap, celebrating Tom's imminent arrival. Maggie runs into the mill with her father's miller, Luke, and tries unsuccessfully to convince Luke to read some of her books. Luke declines, warning, "That's what brings folks to the gallows—knowin' everything but what they'n got to get their bread by." In the midst of the conversation, Luke mentions the fact that Tom's rabbits have died, and Maggie becomes upset, realizing that she had forgotten to feed the rabbits according to Tom's request and has killed them. Maggie is soon distracted, however, as she accepts Luke's invitation to visit his wife at his nearby house. At Luke's house, Maggie becomes interested in a series of pictures depicting the parable of the prodigal son.
The opening of The Mill on the Floss introduces us first to the narrator of the tale. The narrator is presented as a witness who lived in St. Ogg's at the time of the Tulliver's and now remembers and tells the tale thirty years later. However, we soon see that the narrator also remains unnamed and omniscient. Thus he/she recounts to us not only the dynamics of a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver that she was not present for, but also the dynamics of each of their thought processes. Every so often, however, the narrator does refer to his/herself in the first person and recount personal opinions, as with the narrator's musings on Mrs. Tulliver at the end of Chapter II—"I have often wondered . " Often these first person sections will involve an address to the reader, as with the narrator's plea on behalf of Mr. Riley at the end of Chapter III—"If you blame Mr. Riley very severely . " Thus we might look for two modes of narration in The Mill on the Floss. The first, impersonal omniscient mode will be used for basic narration, and especially narration of larger social or historical forces within St. Ogg's, while the second, more personal, will be used often with an address to the reader and will betray sympathy or lack of sympathy for a character.
One of the techniques that the narrator uses is that of free indirect narration, meaning the use of a character's own mode of expression to narrate a passage involving that character. This mode of narration might require some attention to recognize, especially given that some passages in The Mill on the Floss will only partially use free indirect narration, sliding into it at the end of a paragraph, for example. Eliot often uses the technique for satiric effect, when introducing characters. Thus, Mr. Riley is described in his own flattering words at the opening of Chapter III, to comic effect.
The description at the end of Chapter III, of the forces that have brought about Mr. Riley's recommendation of Mr. Stelling, is a good example and plea for George Eliot's psychological realism. Here the narrative explicitly distinguishes itself from more dramatic modes of art that portray characters' motives as blatant and forcefully conscious. Thus Mr. Riley would be depicted by a dramatist as having an obvious motive of selfishness and a goal of benefitting himself in sight when he recommended Mr. Stelling. George Eliot, however, is more interested in mapping the subtle nuances of social interaction that give rise to Riley's inappropriate endorsement. Instead of condemning Riley outright for a moral failure, Eliot traces the psychological causes of his behavior to their root in ambiguous, and sometimes good, intentions, such as Riley's sympathy for Stelling's father-in-law because he has so many daughters. Finally, Mr. Riley is not seen as a freestanding character but within the context of his era, his profession, and his education. Thus, we see that The Mill on the Floss will not be so interested in tracing the workings of fate on the destinies of individual characters, so much as the minute inner workings of characters that arise as a result of both their individual mindsets, and their treatment at the hands of other characters and larger, but subtle, historical forces.
As the main character of The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver will get the most in-depth psychological realist examination of the kind used to explain Mr. Riley above. Yet, in these opening three chapters, Maggie is introduced through the opinions and eyes of others, usually her parents. The Tullivers' discussion of Maggie in Chapter II actually serves more to pinpoint their individual characters—Mr. Tulliver as good-natured and practical and Mrs. Tulliver as superficial and dim-witted—than to render Maggie's character in depth. Here in these initial chapters, the figure of Maggie seems ominous through the eyes of others. Mr. Tulliver, though proud of Maggie's intelligence, has morose predictions about the future of a clever girl and seems to feel superstitious and intimidated toward Maggie's talents at times. Mrs. Tulliver directly relates Maggie to both untamed nature—she is a "wild thing"—and madness—she is a "Bedlam creatur." Finally, Maggie is associated with the devil in Chapter III, not only through her possession and knowledge of "The History of the Devil" by Defoe. Maggie's discussion of the devil's black and red coloring recalls her parents' discussion about her own coloring and descriptions of her dark hair, skin, and eyes.
In Chapter IV we get a closer look at Maggie and see that her world consists of oversensitive experiences of the world. Maggie feels pain and happiness more drastically for being a child and even more for her active imagination and knowledge of books, both of which inflect her perception of the world. For example, part of Maggie's attraction to the Mill involves the personal histories that she invents for the animals that live there, and Maggie feels her own guilt about neglecting Tom's rabbits more fully when she connects it to the parable of the Prodigal Son. The narrator is sympathetic with Maggie, yet also creates distance, by emphasizing the sinister quality of her voodoo doll and her unthinking neglect of Tom's rabbits. Less morally ambiguous is Luke, whose words are often presented as aphorisms of wisdom or unknowing foreshadowings of events to come.