Tom arrives home to the delight of Mrs. Tulliver and Maggie, who dotes on Tom affectionately. Tom greets Maggie and shows her the fishing line he has saved all term to buy her, so that they can go fishing tomorrow. Tom had to fight some boys over his money, and Maggie adoringly compares his strength to Samson's. Impatient with Maggie's hypothetical imaginings, Tom decides to go see his rabbits, and Maggie must confess that they are dead. Tom tells Maggie he doesn't love her and severely reminds her of her past naughtiness. Maggie, distraught, clings to Tom, but he shrugs her off. Maggie retreats to the attic and remains there, miserable, until her presence is missed at teatime. Mr. Tulliver, suspecting that Tom has been hard on her, orders Tom to fetch her and treat her kindly. Maggie begs Tom's forgiveness, and the two share the cake that Tom has brought and nuzzle each other like "two friendly ponies."
Tom and Maggie go fishing the next day. Maggie is respectful of Tom's practical knowledge of the outdoors and is impressed by his superiority and refusal to acknowledge her bookish cleverness. Maggie, through no skill of her own, catches a fish. Today, both Tom and Maggie envision that they will always be together, and always be happy. The narrator informs us that their lives will change. But as the narrator him/herself strolls in the woods, he/she reflects that childhoods spent outdoors inspire a lifelong love of nature that affects one's perception of the world.
Mrs. Tulliver prepares for the visit of her sisters—all former Miss Dodsons—and their husbands and children. Though Mr. Tulliver scoffs at the opinions of the Dodsons, Mrs. Tulliver values their participation, not least because they each have money saved to be left to their nieces and nephews. Her sister Mrs. Deane will bring her daughter Lucy, whom Mrs. Tulliver loves as her own as a result of Lucy's demureness and coloring. The Dodsons consider themselves a respectable family with a sense of superiority and particular ways of maintaining households and social relations meant to distinguish themselves from other families.
Tom steals two pastries from the kitchen for himself and Maggie. Maggie offers to take the one with less jam, but Tom insists that she choose between them fairly, without looking. Maggie ends up with the bigger pastry, and Tom refuses when she tries to give it to him. But he finishes his own smaller one first and watches angrily as she eats all of her larger one, calling her "greedy." Tom runs off, and Maggie sits feeling regretful and confused about the pastry. She arouses herself finally to realize that Tom has gone off with Bob Jakin.
Tom and Bob play heads-or-tails with Bob's half-penny, and Bob cheats, snatching back the coin and claiming it was heads. Tom accuses Bob of not playing fair, and the two fight. Tom forces Bob to give him the half-penny, then refuses to take it, saying he doesn't play with cheaters and won't hang around Bob anymore. Bob yells insults after Tom and throws the pocketknife that Tom had given him, picking it up again when Tom is out of sight.
Mrs. Glegg is the first of the Dodsons to arrive at the Tullivers. All the Dodsons are handsome women, though Mrs. Glegg stingily keeps her new or expensive clothing in storage, wearing shabbier clothing that smells of mold instead. Mrs. Glegg reproaches Mrs. Tulliver for various extravagances while they wait for the others to arrive. The Pullets soon come; Mrs. Pullet is crying dramatically over the death of an acquaintance. Mrs. Pullet goes with Mrs. Tulliver to admire a new hat, while Mrs. Glegg ruminates on their extravagance and on the unbecoming qualities of Maggie, who resembles her father's sister, Mrs. Moss, rather than the Dodsons.