The ending of this book is pretty infamous, which means it’s famous in a bad way. The two main characters, Tom and Maggie, drown during a flood, which is about as depressing as you can get. To top off all this death and woe, the epilogue is really vague and gives us practically no details at all about how things end up for all the other characters.
This ending is frustrating in a lot of ways. Maggie had a hard time for the entire book and, after all her suffering, she ends up dying around the ripe old age of twenty. Plus, the lack of information about everyone else we’ve been reading about for hundreds of pages is kind of annoying. The only thing we learn is that some of the characters still visit the grave of Tom and Maggie, and we can infer that two characters, Lucy and Stephen, do eventually marry.
So what is going on with this seriously depressing and really vague ending? It’s important to note that this ending didn’t just come out of left field. Floods and drowning and death and destruction were alluded to from the very first chapter, where Mrs. Tulliver gripes that Maggie is probably going to fall in the river and drown one day. Clearly, the whole shebang was jinxed from the get go. If Maggie gets all the drowning references, then Tom gets sentences thrown in about how this is his "only" ––– [fill in the blank: speech, moment of triumph, etc.]. The narrator is bracing us for doom and death and sadness throughout the novel.
But while we were being prepared for the tragic ending, we still need to ask why it was so depressing and vague. Basically, the tragic death of Tom and Maggie hammers home a lot of the book’s major themes: the importance of family, the significance (and perhaps inescapable nature) of past bonds, the idea that life is filled with suffering. No matter how divided they were in life, Tom and Maggie are pretty much stuck with each other for the long (eternal) haul. It’s also interesting to note that Maggie and Tom only really came together in death. It’s doubtful that they would have ever reconciled had they both lived. In a twisted sense, killing Tom and Maggie was the only way to salvage their sibling relationship and to really emphasize themes like family.
But this ending does throw a monkey wrench into one of the book’s professed ideas. The narrator often notes that circumstances influence what happens to people, and that people’s futures can’t be predicted. However, this whole flood business (with all it’s biblical allusions) seems fated. This leaves the reader with a lot of questions. Are Tom and Maggie destined to die from the very beginning? Do the references to their eventual death result from the fact that the narrator is telling us this story after the fact? In other words, perhaps the narrator’s knowledge of what is going to happen filters its way into the story, subconsciously or deliberately. So are the drowning references and death foreshadowing a nod to fate, or a story-telling technique, or both?
The other issue to tackle here is the vague epilogue. The inconclusive nature of the epilogue may be a way to place the final emphasis of the book on Tom and Maggie. In the end, the novel is really "their" story and the other characters simply aren’t as important. This doesn’t mean that the epilogue isn’t still frustrating, though. And really, really depressing.