Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I’m a-laying up sin and suffering for us both, I know. He’s full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him, somehow.
The novel opens with Aunt Polly scouring the house in search of her nephew, Tom Sawyer. She finds him in the closet, discovers that his hands are covered with jam, and prepares to give him a whipping. Tom cries out theatrically, “Look behind you!” and when Aunt Polly turns, Tom escapes over the fence. After Tom is gone, Aunt Polly reflects ruefully on Tom’s mischief and how she lets him get away with too much.
Tom comes home at suppertime to help Aunt Polly’s young slave, Jim, chop wood. Tom also wants to tell Jim about his adventures. During supper, Aunt Polly asks Tom leading questions in an attempt to confirm her suspicion that he skipped school that afternoon and went swimming instead. Tom explains his wet hair by saying that he pumped water on his head and shows her that his collar is still sewn from the morning, which means that he couldn’t have taken his shirt off to swim. Aunt Polly is satisfied, but Sid, Tom’s half-brother, points out that the shirt thread, which was white in the morning, is now black. Tom has resewn the shirt himself to disguise his delinquency.
Tom goes out of the house furious with Sid, but he soon forgets his anger as he practices a new kind of whistling. While wandering the streets of St. Petersburg, his town, he encounters a newcomer, a boy his own age who appears overdressed and arrogant. Tom and the new arrival exchange insults for a while and then begin wrestling. Tom overcomes his antagonist and eventually chases the newcomer all the way home.
When he returns home in the evening, Tom finds Aunt Polly waiting for him. She notices his dirtied clothes and resolves to make him work the next day, a Saturday, as punishment.
“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”
On Saturday morning, Aunt Polly sends Tom out to whitewash the fence. Jim passes by, and Tom tries to get him to do some of the whitewashing in return for a “white alley,” a kind of marble. Jim almost agrees, but Aunt Polly appears and chases him off, leaving Tom alone with his labor.
A little while later, Ben Rogers, another boy Tom’s age, walks by. Tom convinces Ben that whitewashing a fence is great pleasure, and after some bargaining, Ben agrees to give Tom his apple in exchange for the privilege of working on the fence. Over the course of the day, every boy who passes ends up staying to whitewash, and each one gives Tom something in exchange. By the time the fence has three coats, Tom has collected a hoard of miscellaneous treasures. Tom muses that all it takes to make someone want something is to make that thing hard to get.