In these early chapters we are introduced to nearly all the main characters and get detailed sketches of Tom, Maggie, and their often stormy relationship. These chapters give us a good understanding of the types of people that Tom and Maggie are and also set up a lot of the book’s major plot strands, namely the disastrous lawsuit and the feud with the Wakems.
Tom and Maggie’s childhoods come to an abrupt end when their father loses his lawsuit. The family falls into financial ruin and all the Tullivers despair at ever paying off their debts. And Mr. Tulliver’s health is failing. Mr. Wakem also buys this mill during this stage, which causes further conflict between the Tulliers and the Wakems.
Maggie turns to an extreme form of religion to help her cope. After a few years of this she meets Philip again and is eventually convinced to meet with him secretly. During this entire time, Maggie has a lot of inner turmoil and questions where her loyalties lie: to Philip, to her family, or to herself. Maggie is also confused as to whether or not she really loves Philip.
There’s actually a series of climaxes, one on top of the other here. First Tom discovers Maggie’s hidden relationship with Philip and forbids her from ever seeing him again. Maggie bows to Tom’s wishes after some internal strife. Shortly after this, the Tullivers are able to pay off their debts, but the occasion is ruined when Mr. Tulliver attacks Mr. Wakem. Mr. Tulliver dies shortly after this and the family is forced to leave the mill.
The stalemate that settles in after Mr. Tulliver’s death is disrupted by the growing relationship between Maggie and Stephen. After fighting their feelings, the two end up eloping. But Maggie quickly changes her mind and they break-up. Maggie is now disgraced and has hurt those closest to her.
Things start to wrap up in this stage. Maggie returns home and is shunned by the town. But the people closest to her, including Philip and Lucy, forgive her. Maggie makes amends with everyone except Tom.
The action surges once again during the flood. Tom and Maggie finally reconcile but they both die tragically in the flood. In an epilogue we learn that the other characters survive the flood and move on with their lives.