(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Wendla places in the closet the long. grown-up dress that her mother has just finished making for her, protesting that she does not see why next year would not be soon enough to put on such a penitential garment. Mrs. Bergmann acquiesces with motherly affection to her daughter’s wish to continue wearing, for the present, the freer, familiar clothes of childhood, remarking at the same time on the fact that Wendla has retained her childhood grace without a trace of the gawkiness usual to her age. Mrs. Bergmann is not without misgivings, even while she cherishes that appearance of innocence and grace, and she expresses her uneasiness in various equivocating substitutes for her real fears.

Melchior Gabor, Moritz Stiefel, and their classmates end their games to attend to their homework. Moritz and Melchior, walking home in the spring night, discuss the meaninglessness of the exam system and the sexual phenomena of adolescence that they are beginning to experience. For Moritz, the mysterious sexual pressures are a great burden, partly because they hinder his already desperate attempts to meet the demands of school and parents. Although he is a poor student and excessively timid, he possesses an acute sensitivity that is unrecognized by all but Melchior, who is his closest friend and, unlike Moritz, an extremely promising student. The ease with which Melchior deals with his schoolwork leaves him time not only for metaphysical speculation but also for the scholarly acquisition of the facts of reproduction, which he now offers to impart. Moritz accepts Melchior’s offer on the condition that the facts be in written form and slipped into his books, where he can come upon them later as if by chance.

On a blustery spring day not long afterward, Wendla, Thea, and Martha exchange confidences on the subjects of parental tyranny, love, marriage, and children. The talk turns to boys of their own age and to the peculiar behavior they sometimes exhibit. Wendla discloses that Melchior once told her he believes in nothing. Mention of the spring floods reminds the girls that Melchior once came near drowning in one of the swollen streams but had been saved by his ability as a swimmer.

Moritz illicitly enters the school’s staff common room (repository of all records), driven by the need to know whether he is to be promoted. When he comes out of the room, dazed by his own boldness but relieved by the knowledge of a provisional remove, he is taunted by the other boys for having said that he would shoot himself if he were not being promoted.

Melchior and Wendla meet by chance in the woods, where Wendla has gone to gather woodruff for her mother and has stopped to daydream by a brook. Melchior persuades her to sit down and asks if she enjoys going among the poor to take them food and money, errands on which her mother often sends her. Wendla’s answer, that doing so gives her pleasure, begins an argument on the reality of virtue and selflessness.

Wendla also confesses that she daydreams of being a poor beggar child, beaten by a cruel father, although she herself has never been beaten. She picks up a stick to use as a switch and begs Melchior to strike her with it, to show her how such punishment feels. The boy at first refuses; then, as she persists in her request, he throws the stick aside and pummels her with his fists before he runs away into the woods, crying in anguish.

Moritz finds himself again on the verge of school failure. While reading Johann...

(The entire section is 1432 words.)