Tom Sawyer

Having read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books earlier this year, and now reading “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” for the first time, it seems to me that Mark Twain produced for boys’ childhood something similar to what Wilder did for girls.  Both have produced an idealized but recognizable memory of childhood in a time and place existing before modernity, or apart from it. These places have a still-strong bond with nature, which gives the stories, if not quite timelessness, at least a timeless flavor.

But as a parent of two kids, including an 11-year-old boy, the passages in “Tom Sawyer” that positively leap off the page for me are those about the psychology of forbidden behavior, and about the futility of parenting by negative decree.  Parents, take heed.  They say “Tom Sawyer” is a boys’ book but if feels to me like something written for adults.  Twain says himself in the introduction that he hopes to remind adults of “what they once were themselves”.

And some of the observations about human desire remain valid for people of any age.

Some of those passages that leapt at me:

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance. Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim; his coat, when he wore one, hung nearly to his heels and had the rearward buttons far down the back; but one suspender supported his trousers; the seat of the trousers bagged low and contained nothing, the fringed legs dragged in the dirt when not rolled up.

Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious that boy had. So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St. Petersburg.


“But, Joe, there ain’t such another swimming-place anywhere.”

“Swimming’s no good. I don’t seem to care for it, somehow, when there ain’t anybody to say I sha’n’t go in. I mean to go home.”


TOM joined the new order of Cadets of Temperance, being attracted by the showy character of their “regalia.” He promised to abstain from smoking, chewing, and profanity as long as he remained a member. Now he found out a new thing—namely, that to promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing. Tom soon found himself tormented with a desire to drink and swear; the desire grew to be so intense that nothing but the hope of a chance to display himself in his red sash kept him from withdrawing from the order. Fourth of July was coming; but he soon gave that up—gave it up before he had worn his shackles over forty-eight hours—and fixed his hopes upon old Judge Frazer, justice of the peace, who was apparently on his deathbed and would have a big public funeral, since he was so high an official. During three days Tom was deeply concerned about the Judge’s condition and hungry for news of it. Sometimes his hopes ran high—so high that he would venture to get out his regalia and practise before the looking-glass. But the Judge had a most discouraging way of fluctuating. At last he was pronounced upon the mend—and then convalescent. Tom was disgusted; and felt a sense of injury, too. He handed in his resignation at once—and that night the Judge suffered a relapse and died. Tom resolved that he would never trust a man like that again.

The funeral was a fine thing. The Cadets paraded in a style calculated to kill the late member with envy. Tom was a free boy again, however—there was something in that. He could drink and swear, now—but found to his surprise that he did not want to. The simple fact that he could, took the desire away, and the charm of it.

And here, a very recognizable bit of self-pity and fantasizing:

TOM’S mind was made up now. He was gloomy and desperate. He was a forsaken, friendless boy, he said; nobody loved him; when they found out what they had driven him to, perhaps they would be sorry; he had tried to do right and get along, but they would not let him; since nothing would do them but to be rid of him, let it be so; and let them blame him for the consequences—why shouldn’t they? What right had the friendless to complain? Yes, they had forced him to it at last: he would lead a life of crime. There was no choice.

That is almost enough to convince you that misbehavior really is nothing but a lack of love – or perhaps better said, a cry for love, whether the love is absent or not.  A loveless person cries for love, to be sure; but so does a drama-queen, and that’s what Tom is.

But just about the most loveable of drama queens imaginable.  By the end, he has turned into rascal, knight and gentleman.  As loveable as he is, he can cry for whatever he wants and he will always get it.

He’s the archetype of the lovable rascal, but occasionally he shows some odd traits that don’t fit that mold, so there’s some complexity to the character.  I scribbled in the margin, “Tom is a fundy,” when I read this passage:

There was a rustling of dresses, and the standing congregation sat down. The boy whose history this book relates did not enjoy the prayer, he only endured it—if he even did that much. He was restive all through it; he kept tally of the details of the prayer, unconsciously—for he was not listening, but he knew the ground of old, and the clergyman’s regular route over it—and when a little trifle of new matter was interlarded, his ear detected it and his whole nature resented it; he considered additions unfair, and scoundrelly.

We think of him as someone who loves to play, but he’s actually a little inflexible about rules, and about texts:  he plays Robin Hood with his friends but insists that they adhere closely to the Robin Hood stories that they’ve read, and he refuses to do anything that “ain’t in the book.”

I haven’t read “Huckleberry Finn” yet, but I know some things about that story, and it’s interesting to see Huck in this book already cutting a different figure from Tom, in at least three big ways. Huck is introspective, self-aware, and already compassionate toward blacks:

Huck was silent while he framed a duly cautious reply. Then he said:

“Well, you see, I’m a kind of a hard lot,—least everybody says so, and I don’t see nothing agin it—and sometimes I can’t sleep much, on account of thinking about it and sort of trying to strike out a new way of doing. That was the way of it last night. I couldn’t sleep, and so I come along upstreet ’bout midnight, a-turning it all over, and when I got to that old shackly brick store by the Temperance Tavern, I backed up agin the wall to have another think. Well, just then along comes these two chaps slipping along close by me, with something under their arm, and I reckoned they’d stole it. One was a-smoking, and t’other one wanted a light; so they stopped right before me and the cigars lit up their faces and I see that the big one was the deaf and dumb Spaniard, by his white whiskers and the patch on his eye, and t’other one was a rusty, ragged-looking devil.”


“What is the talk around, Huck? I’ve heard a power of it.”

“Talk? Well, it’s just Muff Potter, Muff Potter, Muff Potter all the time. It keeps me in a sweat, constant, so’s I want to hide som’ers.”

“That’s just the same way they go on round me. I reckon he’s a goner. Don’t you feel sorry for him, sometimes?”

“Most always—most always. He ain’t no account; but then he hain’t ever done anything to hurt anybody. Just fishes a little, to get money to get drunk on—and loafs around considerable; but lord, we all do that—leastways most of us—preachers and such like. But he’s kind of good—he give me half a fish, once, when there warn’t enough for two; and lots of times he’s kind of stood by me when I was out of luck.”


“Now, Huck, the storm’s over, and I’ll go home. It’ll begin to be daylight in a couple of hours. You go back and watch that long, will you?”

“I said I would, Tom, and I will. I’ll ha’nt that tavern every night for a year! I’ll sleep all day and I’ll stand watch all night.”

“That’s all right. Now, where you going to sleep?”

“In Ben Rogers’ hayloft. He lets me, and so does his pap’s nigger man, Uncle Jake. I tote water for Uncle Jake whenever he wants me to, and any time I ask him he gives me a little something to eat if he can spare it. That’s a mighty good nigger, Tom. He likes me, becuz I don’t ever act as if I was above him. Sometime I’ve set right down and eat with him. But you needn’t tell that. A body’s got to do things when he’s awful hungry he wouldn’t want to do as a steady thing.”

At the end of the book Tom, rascal and rule-breaker, turns out to be just fine living in society and being “respectable”, now that he has money, while Huck proves to be a true social outlier, who cannot stand his new rich lifestyle.  Huck begins and ends the novel a less conventional member of society than Tom – a lesser member of society, period.

Other differences between Huck and Tom come through in “Tom Sawyer”:  Huck is the more afraid of the two in their adventures.  He’s also less vain.

Later, in the novel bearing his name, Huck will believe that he’s going to hell for helping Jim.  Similarly, in this first book, Tom and Huck are afraid of supernatural punishments were they to testify against Injun Joe (“Tom Sawyer,” ch. 11).  They are actually confused about what is right and wrong (just as Huck is later with Jim), since the lying Injun Joe is not struck down by God as they expect and he appears to have the protection of Satan.

Injun Joe is a Native American drawn with no redeeming characteristics, which is a bit of a surprise since we’re always hearing about Mark Twain as enlightened when it comes to race.  The most surprising passage in the book for me was the one where Twain himself, as narrator, seems to be all for the capital punishment of Injun Joe. It’s a passage, again, lacking nuance where I would have expected it:

This funeral stopped the further growth of one thing—the petition to the governor for Injun Joe’s pardon. The petition had been largely signed; many tearful and eloquent meetings had been held, and a committee of sappy women been appointed to go in deep mourning and wail around the governor, and implore him to be a merciful ass and trample his duty under foot. Injun Joe was believed to have killed five citizens of the village, but what of that? If he had been Satan himself there would have been plenty of weaklings ready to scribble their names to a pardon-petition, and drip a tear on it from their permanently impaired and leaky water-works.

There is just a hint of modern feminism when Twain describes Tom as “taking silence for consent” and putting his arm around Becky to whisper in her ear.

Tom and Becky lost in the cave is the best part of the book, hands down.

At that point, and a few others, Tom does seem a little too capable for his age, a bit of a superman; he does better in this situation than maybe most adults would do. This is a common flaw in children’s books, but forgivable, especially in a book that gives us so much of children’s flaws.

There are many instances of self-sacrifice in the book, enough to prompt me to make a list (though it doesn’t take much to do this, since I’m a list-maker at heart and will go to the grave as one):

  • Tom takes a whipping for Becky (who is covering for herself but also for Alfred Temple)
  • Tom saves Muff Potter from hanging, by telling the truth about Injun Joe murdering Doc Robinson
  • Tom saves Becky and himself from the cave
  • Tom tries to save Injun Joe from the cave
  • Huck saves the widow Douglas from Injun Joe by tracking him and alerting the Welchman

Whether this qualifies as realistic, is a judgment call. In a moralizing book, all this self-sacrifice would be too much. But Twain attaches virtue right to the tail of vice; he makes virtue come out of circumstance and need rather than morality or convention. So he makes the noble acts in the book come off as idealistic in a realistic way, if that makes sense.

“Huck Finn” is next.

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