Mrs. Moss enters the troubled household, sympathetic and humble, as she has her brother's three hundred pounds still but cannot pay it back with eight children to feed. Mr. and Mrs. Glegg suggest that the security note should be found, and Mrs. Moss should be made to pay the debt. Tom interjects to relate that his father once told him that the Mosses should never be made to pay back the loan. Tom means to abide by his father's spoken will. Mr. Glegg suggests that he and Tom then find the promissary note and destroy it. Mrs. Moss is grateful, and she, Tom, and Mr. Glegg go upstairs to search for the note.


Events begin to move more quickly in Book Third of The Mill on the Floss. Contemporary reviews of the novel complained of the tediousness of the opening two books, filled as they are with metaphysical narrative rather than action. Yet it is only through this detailed exposition of the formation of Maggie's and Tom's characters that their respective responses to their troubled adulthoods seems to work in a course. For it is in these opening chapters of Book Third, that Maggie and Tom come directly into adulthood, already tired and harried by the stresses of taking over family affairs while their mother is distraught and their father ill. The adult characters notably resort to placing blame within the situation—Mr. Tulliver blames the supposed perniciousness of lawyers, Wakem specifically, while the Dodson sisters blame Mr. Tulliver himself. Thus it is left to Maggie and Tom to maturely act on matters and as they do, the narrative moves swiftly. Long meditative sections involving the narrator's personal opinions, or general historical information are shortened in favor of dialogue and shorter paragraphs.

Book Third's ambitious title, "The Downfall," is tempered with the narrator's sense of the un-epic quality of the subject matter—the bankruptcy of a small town miller and his family. The narrator calls attention to the dullness of the content of her story in the opening of Chapter I but points to the emotions involved as of an epic quality: Mr. Tulliver "was as proud and obstinate as if he had been a very lofty personage, in whom such dispositions might be a source of that conspicuous, far-echoing tragedy, which sweeps the stage in regal robes and makes the dullest chronicler sublime." Yet the narrative of the "tragedy" at hand continues to include the same sort of deflationary, satiric material used through the novel as a whole. Thus, Mrs. Tulliver in Chapters II and III is not so much condemned for her concern for her linens and china, as held up as an object of ridicule or humorous pity. Her mind sticks to the issue of the linens and china as though she cannot comprehend anything else. In Chapter II, she "stroke[s]" the linens "automatically," attentive to little else. In Chapter III, she manages to turn all conversation back to the linens and china, as when Mrs. Deane mentions medicating "jelly" and Mrs. Tulliver, in return, pleads for the safety of her jelly dishes. This treatment of Mrs. Tulliver has the double effect of deflating the epic quality of the family's tragedy and making Mrs. Tulliver more sympathetic; her ridiculous obsession invites our pity, rather than our censure.

In these opening chapters of Book Third, Maggie's personality is once again aligned with her father's. Beyond the fact that Mr. Tulliver summons Maggie in his trouble and recognizes only Maggie during his memory loss, their individual tendencies, too, are depicted as similar. In the same way that Mr. Tulliver has rashly and singlemindedly pursued the Wakem litigation—with no objective thought to the potential consequences—Maggie is shown to rush into situations without considering the outcome, as when she loses her temper with the aunts and uncles and thereby endangers the chances of their aid. Tom is shown to be the only member of the Tulliver family capable of attaining a prudent view of the situation and taking action accordingly.