As a child Maggie Tulliver is rebellious, angry, and full of rage because she is constantly criticized by her mother and her aunts. She adores her brother, Tom, who is often emotionally cruel to her, and she spends her entire life trying to meet with his approval, even as she unconsciously thwarts him. She leads Philip Waken on, not owning up to the fact that she doesn't love him, and she runs away with her cousin's beau but then ultimately refuses to marry him out of guilt. In the end she is the agent of Tom's destruction.
Although Tom Tulliver loves his sister Maggie, he often treats her cruelly because he doesn't understand the depth of her emotions. He never questions his own values and morals and believes his sister should follow his creed. Tom heroically bails the family out of debt through his hard work. He disowns his sister after her aborted elopement but ends up dying with her in the flood after they have a final reconciliation.
Philip Wakem falls in love with Maggie Tulliver when they are both young because she is kind to him and he sees the depths of her own need. He is sensitive, intelligent, artistic, and kind, and he continues to hold out hope that he can marry Maggie, although he has many signs that should dissuade him. In the end he forgives her for running off with her cousin's beau, Stephen Guest, and is able to love her unconditionally, apart from his own need.
Although Stephen Guest is spoiled and somewhat conceited, he chooses Lucy Deane as the woman he intends to marry because he does have a streak of originality and can see how superior she is to the upper-class women he is expected to choose from. However, he becomes infatuated with Maggie and convinces her to elope with him, although she leaves him before they can get married or consummate the relationship. Stephen grieves for Maggie after she dies and ends up marrying Lucy.
Mr. Jeremy Tulliver is a headstrong and impetuous man with a quick temper. He has a generous nature and loves his children, especially Maggie, but has no respect for his wife, whom he chose for her beauty and stupidity. He ends up losing everything because he will not listen to reason and insists on taking people to court because he thinks they are infringing on his water rights.
Mrs. Tulliver is not very bright, and she submits to people pushing her around—from her elder sister to her husband. She values things more than she does people, and she has no loyalty toward her husband. She is a less-than-adequate mother, especially to Maggie, who needs acceptance and affection. She has a hard time relating to her daughter because she is so different from herself. Later, when Maggie is being ostracized by the town for her elopement and disowned by her brother, Mrs. Tulliver stands by her daughter.