Chapter I

The narrator compares two modes of life or of novelistic subject matter. The first could be related to the everyday dwellings, washed out by a flood, to be seen on the banks of the river Rhone that speak to a past "narrow, ugly, grovelling existence." The second could be related to the castle ruins on the river Rhine. The second consists of lives from the past that are colorful, sublime, and grandiose—a time of beautiful good and extreme evil.

The reader might imagine the story of the Dodsons and Tullivers to belong to the first mode of life, "irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active, self-renouncing faith." The "oppressive narrowness" felt in the tale of the Dodsons and Tullivers may be tedious to encounter, but, "it is necessary that we should feel it if we care to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie." The religious or moral ideas of the Dodsons have always been prosaic. They are Protestants but truly revere what is "customary and respectable"; they do not have a striking sense of spirituality. The Dodsons are exceptional only in their conviction that "the right thing must always be done towards kindred." Thus, the Dodsons will never turn their backs on unfortunate kin, though they will be hard on them in their speech.

The Tullivers, by contrast, are not as self-serving as a family but rather show "elements of generous imprudence, warm affection, and hot-tempered rashness." The Tullivers are even less big on religion, valuing common sense instead.

Chapter II

The initial trauma and accompanying adrenaline of the family downfall having worn off, the Tulliver household has become morose and monotonous, with few visitors. Mrs. Tulliver wanders around the house, bewildered at their loss. Maggie begins to feel tenderly toward her mother, who has become pitiful. Mrs. Tulliver, hopeless for herself, has begun to rest some hopes on Maggie, and dotes on her slightly by brushing her hair.

Mr. Tulliver is not his old self. Instead, he is singleminded in his attempt to pay his debts. He has turned into a miser, keeping a rigid hold on the house. He still likes Maggie to be near him, but this is now more of a need than a desire—there is no love in it.

Maggie feels no love any more from her father, nor from Tom, who is just as singleminded about repaying the debts as his father. Yet the money accumulates slowly, and it may be a very long while until they are all paid.