Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
On Saturday morning, the summer sun is out, and everything looks bright and beautiful—but all is not well in Tom’s world. Tom carries a brush and a bucket of whitewash into the yard and glumly surveys the fence. It is long and high, and Aunt Polly has said that he has to whitewash the whole thing. His life feels “hollow, and existence but a burden.” He spends a minute or two swabbing whitewash on the fence, and then, when he realizes how much he still has to do, he sits down in disgust.
Jim, the slave boy, comes out the gate with a bucket, clearly going to the pump for water. Normally Tom hates carrying water , but now he thinks Jim’s job is much better than his own. He asks to trade, but Jim says that Polly threatened to whip him if he did. Tom dismisses this threat, saying that Aunt Polly “never licks anybody.” He offers Jim a marble to sweeten the deal, and Jim—who is “only human”—hesitantly reaches out to take it. But Aunt Polly has guessed that something of this sort might happen. She leaps onto the scene and smacks Jim on the rear with her slipper. Jim grabs his bucket and flees toward the pump. Tom reluctantly returns to whitewashing.
As Tom works, he thinks sadly of all the wonderful games he is missing. He well knows that the other boys will soon come along and laugh at him for being stuck with work. He pulls all his treasures out of his pockets—“bits of toys, marbles, and trash”—but he has to admit that none are valuable enough to buy any help from his friends. Then, “at this dark and hopeless moment,” he has a wonderful idea. He picks up his brush and begins to work, this time giving the task his full attention.
Quite soon Ben Rogers appears, munching an apple and pretending to be a steamboat. Tom works steadily at his whitewashing. Ben beeps and whistles for a while, and then he stops to say how awful it must be to be stuck with a chore. Now Tom looks up, pretending he is only just noticing that Ben is there. Acting surprised that Ben would call his current activity “work,” Tom claims that he is excited to have a chance to whitewash a fence. After all, how often does a kid get a chance to do such an unusual task?
After thinking this over for a moment, Ben asks if he can take a turn. Tom pretends to consider, and then he refuses, claiming that Aunt Polly will only allow an expert to whitewash her fence. This makes Ben even more eager to help. He offers his apple in exchange for a turn at whitewashing, and Tom—pretending to be reluctant—agrees. He sits in the shade munching the apple and watching Ben work.
In this manner, Tom catches the interest of nearly all the boys in town, who trade such treasures as “six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob” and “a dilapidated old window-sash” for turns at Tom’s chore. By the end of the afternoon, the fence is covered in three coats of whitewash, and Tom is rich. He has discovered
a great law of human action…namely, that, in order to make a man or boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make it difficult to obtain.
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