Tom has brought home a gift for Maggie, a new fish line. He acquired it at some cost to himself, having had to fight every day at school because he wouldn't share the cost of toffee and gingerbread while he was saving the money. For this and for his promise to take Maggie fishing the next day Tom receives the admiration and gratitude he expects.
Next he proposes to go see to his rabbits. Maggie tries to head him off by offering to buy him some new ones, but she finally has to admit that she has let the others die. Tom reminds her of previous failings of this sort and tells her that he will not take her fishing after all. He is unmoved by her sobs.
After Tom leaves her alone, Maggie goes up in the attic to cry. She determines to stay there and starve herself and frighten everyone, but eventually her need of love and forgiveness overcomes her. She is starting down when Tom, who has been sent by their father, comes to fetch her. Their father correctly suspected that Tom had been hard on her. But once they are together the two quickly make up and share a bite of cake.
The next day Tom takes Maggie fishing, and he is pleased with her when she catches a large fish. This makes her happy and pleased with herself. She dreams that life may go on like this always, that they two will never change.
The narrator remarks that life did change for them, but that the thoughts of these first years were always part of them, and that the love of our early surroundings never fades.
Tom is seen for the first time, but we are already somewhat familiar with him from what has been said of him. The author devotes a long paragraph to analysis of his character. He has the fresh-cheeked appearance which his mother loves, but the author tells us that under this appearance nature conceals "some of her most rigid, inflexible purposes, some of her most unmodifiable characters." This is essentially the way Tom will be throughout the book. Tom loves his sister, but insists she act correctly. He brings her a gift, but he will not forgive her for neglecting his rabbits until their father forces him to bring her down to tea. The author puts this directly: "he was very fond of his sister, and meant always to take care of her, make her his housekeeper, and punish her when she did wrong." This is part of the "correctness" which is his inheritance from the Dodsons, his mother's family. It is a sort of acquisitiveness, for, to Tom, Maggie is almost a possession.
In contrast, we are shown dramatically and are told directly that "the need of being loved" was "the strongest need in poor Maggie's nature." Tom loves her, but he has no understanding of her needs.
Another of Maggie's characteristics which is lacking in Tom is imagination. She imagines him so brave that he would save her if a lion were coming, but he can only reply that "the lion isn't coming."
The author takes the point of view of whatever character she wishes to concentrate on. But for characters other than Maggie, this internal view tends to be used ironically. This is true of Tom in this chapter: when he is angry with Maggie, he goes out "not intending to reprieve Maggie's punishment, which was no more than she deserved . . . why, he wouldn't have minded being punished himself, if he deserved it; but, then, he never did deserve it." There is an ironic contrast of Tom's thoughts as he sees them and as the author makes us see them.
Note the imagery connected with the river. Maggie thinks of the Floss when reading of "the river over which there is no bridge" — that is, death. And for the second time Mrs. Tulliver expresses a fear that Maggie has drowned. This is natural enough when living close to a river, but it also foreshadows the future.