Philip and Tom are not to have the same lessons because Philip is much more advanced and intelligent. The boys reconcile through Philip's knowledge of Greek war stories. Tom then tries to reassert his superiority in the face of Philip's older age and knowledge of fighting stories, by indirectly reminding Philip of his handicap.


If most of Book First focused on Maggie, Book Second concentrates fully on Tom's school years at the house of Mr. Stelling. In the same ways that Maggie has suffered in her childhood with an external world that is much at odds with her personality, Tom suffers in the unfamiliar environment of higher education. Eliot seems to invite this connection and stress gender for the first time, when she repeatedly mentions that Tom is now "like a girl." Here, being a girl refers to a state of being in which external pressure has colluded to make one feel weak. It is only in subtle points such as this that Eliot indirectly calls attention to the fact that part of the difficulty Maggie feels in simply existing comes from her gender. Indeed, we see in Chapter I that even Mr. Stelling, who values education and intelligence, holds generalized ideas about female capabilities—women have "a great deal of superficial cleverness; but they couldn't go far into anything." Mr. Stelling, like authority figures in Maggie's life, also does not consider the effect his statement of this judgment will have on Maggie.

Tom's difficulty in coming to terms with Mr. Stelling's idea of education and general value systems is also mirrored in Mr. Tulliver's bafflement in relation to potential litigation over waterpower from the Floss in Chapter II. Both Tom and Mr. Tulliver are depicted as characters who imagine physical solutions to social problems. Tom brings percussion caps to school to help him fit in and be respected. In Chapter II, Mr. Tulliver imagines the law in terms of a cockfight, "it was the business of injured honesty to get a game bird with the best pluck and the strongest spurs." Both Tom and Mr. Tulliver seem baffled, to an extent, by intricate, slippery language. Tom does not understand Mr. Stelling's educated humor about declining his dinner or a Latin verb, and we have already seen Mr. Tulliver's early judgment in Book First, Chapter II, "it's puzzling work, talking is." Both face up-and-coming adversaries—Mr. Stelling and Mr. Pivart are not from established, local, provincial families like the Tullivers but instead have arrived recently on the scene and intend to make money quickly. This ethos of rapid wealth rests on speculation and on qualities that seem vague to the Tulliver men. Mr. Stelling would rise in the world based on his investment in others' perception of him as a learned man. Mr. Pivart would rise in the world based on the deceptive intricacies of litigation and invisible waterpower. Tom and Mr. Tulliver do not have heads for these sophisticated ways of money and image making, so foreign to their own ethos of cumulative saving. Mr. Tulliver remarks in Chapter II of Mr. Pivart's claims to water power: it's "a very particular thing—you can't pick it up with a pitchfork." This clash between the Tulliver's older, provincial way of life and the newer aggressive materialism is presented neatly in the narrator's meditation at the end of Chapter I on the affection for the weathered furniture of one's childhood versus the impulse to acquire newer and better housewares. The narrator warns of the dangers of unchecked materialism—"who knows where that striving might lead us"—and speaks of the important affection for tradition.