Maggie and Mrs. Moss sit down at Mr. Tulliver's bedside while Mr. Glegg and Tom open Mr. Tulliver's oak chest in search of the Mosses' promissary note for the three hundred pounds he has lent them. While they are looking through papers, the hinges on the oak chest give way, and it bangs shut loudly. The noise rouses Mr. Tulliver from his sleep and temporary amnesia, and he demands to know what they are doing with his papers. They explain to Tulliver that he has been ill and that they've had to look after his affairs. He asks for his wife, and Maggie goes to get her. Mr. Tulliver tells Tom to pay Luke the fifty pounds the family owes him before paying anything else and, in answer to Tom's question, tells him to be easy on the Mosses' about the loan. Mrs. Tulliver enters the room, and Mr. Tulliver asks her forgiveness for the state of their affairs and blames the "raskills" of the "law" for his downfall. He admonishes Tom to get back at Wakem, if he ever has the chance.
Mr. Tulliver begins to drift off again, mumbling directions for the future, as though preparing the family for his death. But Tulliver is not presently dying; his death is to be "a long descent under thickening shadows." Mr. Tulliver sinks back into semi-consciousness, having never remembered that Wakem now owns the mortgage to his property. Tom sets about fulfilling his father's wishes.
Tom leaves for St. Ogg's to see his uncle Deane about getting a job. Tom feels humiliated about his family's condition but does not blame his aunts and uncles, as Maggie does, for not helping them. Tom cheers himself with optimism about his possibilities of getting a good job and making money quickly, as his uncle Deane has done.
In town, the local publican salutes him and mentions Tom's father's downfall, meaning to be friendly. Tom, embarrassed, passes him without speaking, and the publican takes offense. Once in his uncle Deane's office, Tom must wait while his uncle finishes auditing accounts. When Deane has finished, Tom tells him of his wish to get "a situation." Deane points out that Tom is quite young, and possesses no knowledge of the real world, only useless Latin. Tom manages to convince Deane that he cares enough about his own reputation to work hard at whatever job Deane might find him. Deane is impressed by this but makes no commitments.
Tom leaves feeling pained at the full understanding of his own disadvantage. At home, Maggie tries to cheer Tom by joking that she could teach him bookkeeping if she had learned it herself. Tom becomes angry at the implication that she might teach him and says, "You're always setting yourself up above me and everyone else." Maggie tries to explain that he has been misunderstanding her intent and accuses him of being harsh with her often. Maggie runs upstairs to cry and wishes that life were more like her books, where people "did not show their kindness by finding fault."
The Tulliver family sits by Mr. Tulliver's bedside as the sale of their furniture takes place downstairs. When it is over, Kezia, the housemaid, tells Tom that a man downstairs would like to see him.
Tom escorts the red-haired stranger into the parlor and realizes it is Bob Jakin when Bob pulls out the pocketknife Tom had given him when they were boys. Bob reminds Tom of the early kindness of the pocketknife, and Tom asks somewhat condescendingly if there's anything he can do for Bob now. Bob says no, and before he can finish speaking, Maggie comes in the room. Maggie focuses immediately on the empty bookshelves because she wasn't expecting so many books to have been sold. Close to tears, she sits down.
Bob continues, explaining that he has just won ten sovereigns for dousing a fire at a gentleman's mill. He puts nine of the sovereigns on the table, explaining that he used one to get himself started as a packman but that Tom should have the rest since Tom isn't as "lucky" as Bob. Tom is touched, but he refuses the money. Bob seems hurt that Tom will take nothing from him, and Maggie realizes what Bob wants, suggesting that the Tullivers will always think of Bob as a friend to depend on. Bob leaves satisfied.
These middle chapters of Book Third consist of the nearly formal transference of power from Mr. Tulliver to Tom. Mr. Tulliver regains consciousness again briefly in Chapter IV and attempts to make arrangements. We are signaled by the narrator that Tulliver has reached the beginning of his end: "But with poor Tulliver death was to be a long descent under thickening shadows." Tulliver is depicted throughout Book Third as a man caught in a world he no longer understands. By contrast, Tom shows himself to be adaptable and canny in Chapter V during his meeting with Deane. Tom recognizes the shift in worlds—from his father's model of slow saving to a newer model of venture capitalism—and he means to be part of the second: "he did not want to save money slowly and retire on a moderate fortune like his uncle Glegg, but he would be like his uncle Deane—get a situation in some great house of business and rise fast." The clearest sign that Tulliver is not adept within the changing world is his mistake about Tom's education. In Chapter IV, Tulliver still holds hope that Tom's education will set him off well in the world, but Deane makes clear in Chapter V what Tom already knows—the education on which his father spent much money is no good to him in the necessary world of finance and business.
The stress of the home situation seems to exacerbate Tom and Maggie's pre-existing differences. The narrator clearly documents the differences in their reactions. For example, Tom, adhering to his usual sense of justice, blames his father slightly for the family's downfall, while Maggie pities their father immensely, in part because it gives her a chance to love him more. Rather than Maggie and Tom rallying together in their family's difficult time, their relationship seems to become more tense and the differences between them heightened. In Chapter V, the differences are articulated by each when Tom becomes frustrated with Maggie and explains his perception of her ego to her. Maggie still seeks Tom's love more than anyone else's for her happiness. She calls Tom to task for not perceiving her intentions correctly and for not unconditionally loving her.
Bob Jakin's reappearance reminds us of the childhood scene between Bob and Tom and reinforces the growing theme around Tom's righteous sense of justice or fairness. Bob's big-heartedness—he has chosen to remember Tom's gift of the pocketknife rather than Tom's judgment and dismissal of him as a cheater—is contrasted with Tom's minute sense of justice. Tom applies a code of "fairness" to immediate situations, disregarding emotional attachments and the big-picture understanding of a person's character. Tom does not perceive the emotional intention behind Bob's gesture, dismissing his nine sovereigns at one point because "those sovereigns wouldn't help me much." Maggie, by contrast, understands the intention behind Bob's gesture: "That's what you would like—to have us always depend on you as a friend that we can go to—isn't it Bob?" In Chapter V, when a local publican mentions Mr. Tulliver's misfortune to Tom, Tom takes it as a jibe and inadvertently insults the publican in return. We could assume that Maggie, with her perceptive capacity for sympathetic understanding and without Tom's sense of pride, would not have misread the publican's good-natured gesture as aggressive.