The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an extremely difficult work to approach analytically because it is so embedded in the reader's own childhood. It is read in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world, and has become iconographic of childhood itself—especially American childhood. Indeed, this has been its reception from its initial publication. The first review, written by William Dean Howells in 1876, called it "a wonderful study of the boy-mind" which exists beyond the control or comprehension of adult society. His comments appeared in Atlantic Monthly before the book was even published, and thus set the framework for the way in which the novel would be read. Clemens himself did not read his book this way, a fact that is suggested by his initial conviction that the story was written for an adult audience. Though his wife persuaded him to publish it as a children's book, Tom Sawyer's story can still be recovered as a novel for adults—a savage satire on adult hypocrisy and American cultural identity.
Tom Sawyer is generally read as the first truly American novel: a cathartic attempt by Clemens to write his own childhood and the childhood of America into a coherent literary whole. His success is attested to by the timeless status of Tom as a sort of "Every-Boy" for American culture—the literary epitome of the ingenuity, imagination, and pluck which form the basis of America's understanding of its own national character. In this reading, Tom's flouting of authority is a paradigm for American self-determination in the face of tyranny, his character expressing the intrinsic essence of freedom from tyranny and restraint. If we accept this and then look more closely at the structural motifs and internal parallels of Clemens' novel, a very different picture of the national character begins to emerge. The novel, like the village in which it is set, seems to be bathed in perpetually fair weather and sunshine. There is, however, always a darker side. Just as the sunshine of the village is belied by the dank, labyrinthine caves, so the novel has deeper and more disturbing resonances than are at first apparent.
To find this darker side, we must start by questioning the validity of Howells' distinction between the adult and the child mind in the novel. Are Tom's behavior, responses, needs, and follies really any different from those of the adults around him? In two early scenes this distinction would seem to be untenable. The first is the Sabbath School scene where Tom's "wily fraud" wins him a Bible. Several direct parallels are made here between the behavior of the adults and the children. Faced with the unexpected appearance of a guest of honor, adults and children alike respond with the same show of self-importance:
Mr. Walters fell to "showing off". The librarian "showed off". The young lady teachers "showed off". The little girls "showed off" ... the little boys "showed off" ... and above it all the great man sat and beamed ... for he was "showing off" too.
The only thing that differentiates the individuals in the Sabbath School is the method with which they express the same desire to be noticed. This series of comparisons suggests that public altruism, making spit-wads, enforcing discipline, and fulfilling the duties of public office should all be understood as essentially the same act. More subtly, the language that Clemens uses to describe Tom's actions in this episode is insidiously reflective of the adults that surround him. Tom's successful and hard-nosed bartering for the chits that will win him a Bible is described in the language of the adults' economy. In this way, the chits become "certified checks," which represent "warehoused" knowledge on the "premises" of Tom's brain. Judge Thatcher encourages him to say that he would rather have this "warehoused" knowledge than "any money" he could be offered, which draws the analogy tighter.
Tom's gathering of this paper "wealth" is done to elevate himself above his peers and impress the powerful. If this wealth performs the same function in the adults' economy as it does in the children's, then the acquisition of money is being presented as foolish, egotistical, and child-like.
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Initially Twain had intended [The Adventures of Tom Sawyer] to be a kind of bildungsroman: as Justin Kaplan reports, it was to have had four parts—"1. Boyhood & youth; 2. Y[outh] & early manh[ood]; 3. The Battle of Life in many lands; 4. (age 37 to [40?])..."
Yet the finished novel shows no sign of this early intention. In fact, Twain writes his "conclusion" with a kind of defensive bravado: "So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man." At least one reason for the author's decision may be found in the very nature of the world he was moved to create. There are no available men in it—no men whom Tom can fancy himself imitating—no newspaper office with a garrulous editor, no general store owner to purvey gossip and candy, no lawyer lounging in an office buzzing with flies and heavy with the odor of musty books. Of course there is Judge Thatcher, "a fine, portly, middle-aged gentleman with iron-gray hair." But Judge Thatcher presides in the county seat, twelve miles away; he enters the novel only very briefly in chapter IV (to witness Tom's triumph-turned-humiliation in Bible class) and thereafter disappears entirely until chapter XXXII, when he is summoned to rejoice in the safe return of the children from the cave. Many adults who have not read Tom Sawyer since the days of their youth are apt to recall Judge Thatcher as a rather more vivid personage than he truly is in the novel. Perhaps we are recollecting cinematic images, or perhaps our own imaginations supply his presence because we feel compelled to remedy the novel's deficiencies and "normalize" the town. But the stubborn fact remains. The town is not normal, certainly not congenial to a boy's coming of age.
It is, of course, a matriarchy (and in this respect, contrasts markedly with the various patriarchal systems that Huck encounters in his journey down the river), a world that holds small boys in bondage. The town that we are shown in this book is saturated with gentility, that is, with women's notions. A man may dispense Bible tickets or conduct the ceremony on Sundays; but the church service, the Sunday School exercises, the daily ritual of family prayers—these are all clearly defined as fundamental components of something that Aunt Polly (and other women like her) have defined as "duty" or "morality." Similarly, the mayor himself may judge the elocution contest; but this masculine salute to "culture" merely reinforces already established female allegiances to the melancholy and banally "eloquent" in literature. The very opening word of the novel establishes the situation. "Tom!'" The boy's name called by his impatient aunt. "Tom!'" The demanding tone permeates the novel, no other voice so penetrating or intrusive. What is a male child to do against this diminutive drill master? Surrender is out of the question: the dismal results of capitulation greet him in mournful, not quite masculine figures. Mr. Walters, the superintendent of the Sunday School, "a slim creature of thirty-five, with a sandy goatee and short sandy hair; he wore a stiff standing-collar … a fence that compelled a straight lookout ahead, and a turning of the whole body when a side view was required." And, more contemptible, "the Model Boy, Willie Mufferson [who took] as heedful care of his mother as if she were cut glass. He always brought his mother to church, and was the pride of all the matrons. The boys all hated him, he was so good."
Rebellion, however, is no easy thing to manage. Tom cannot bring himself to dislike Aunt Polly. Occasionally, he admits to loving her; and when he genuinely saddens her (as during his disappearance to the island), he discovers that "his heart [is] full of pity for her." Pity and its cousin guilt: these are Aunt Polly's most formidable weapons (no less so for being used without guile). "'She never licks anybody,'" Tom complains as he sets about beginning to whitewash the fence. "'She talks awful, but talk don't hurt—anyways it don't if she don't cry.'" Tom might be able to contend with open anger, but he receives only reproaches that insinuate themselves into that budding thing called "conscience."
Discovered after a stealthy trip abroad at night, "Tom almost brightened in the hope that he was going to be flogged; but it was not so. His aunt wept over him and asked him how he could go and break her old heart so; and finally told him to go on, and ruin himself and bring her gray hairs with sorrow to the grave, for it was no use for her to try any more. This was worse than a thousand whippings, and Tom's heart was sorer now than his body. He cried, he pleaded for forgiveness, promised to reform over and over again." In Tom's world, female children are no easier to deal with than their adult models. Becky Thatcher rules him by alternating tears with lofty reproaches; and although Tom's angry feelings toward her are a good deal more available to him than any genuinely hostile feelings he might have toward the generation of mothers, he nonetheless continues to wish for a more direct and "manly" emotional code. "He was in a fine rage. He moped into the school-yard wishing she were a boy, and imagining how he would trounce her if she were."
With no acceptable model of "free" adult masculinity available, Tom does his best to cope with the prevailing feminine system without being irretrievably contaminated by it. His principal recourse is an entire repertoire of games and pranks and superstitions, the unifying motif of which is a struggle for control. Control over his relationship with Aunt Polly is a major area of warfare. Thus the first scene in the book is but one type of behavior that is repeated in ritual form throughout the book. Tom, caught with his hands in the jam jar—about to be switched.
"My! Look behind you, aunt!" The old lady whirled round, and snatched her skirts out of danger. The lad fled, on the instant, scrambled up the high board fence, and disappeared over it. His Aunt Polly stood surprised a moment, and then broke into a gentle laugh. "Hang the boy, can't I never learn anything? Ain't he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time?"
Crawling out his bedroom window at night is another type of such behavior, not important because it permits this or that specific act, but significant as a general assertion of the right to govern his own comings and goings. Bartering is still another type of this behavior. Trading for blue Bible coupons or tricking his playmates into painting the fence—these are superb inventions to win the prizes of a genteel society without ever genuinely submitting to it.
The logical continuation of such stratagems would be actual defiance: the rebellion of authentic adolescence to be followed by a manhood in which Tom and his peers might define the rules by which society is to be governed. But manhood never comes to Tom; anger and defiance remain disguised in the games of childhood.
Twain offers these pranks to us as if they were no more than humorous anecdotes; Aunt Polly is always more disposed to smile at them than to take them seriously. However, an acquiescence to the merely comic in this fiction will blind us to its darker side. A boy who seeks to control himself and his world so thoroughly is a boy deeply and constantly aware of danger—justifiably so, it would seem, for an ominous air of violence hangs over the entire tale. It erupts even into the apparently safe domestic sphere.
When the children depart from their school-master in chapter XXI to begin the lazy summer recess, they leave him disgraced—his gilded, bald pate blazing as the ultimate spectacle in the school's pageant. "The boys were avenged. Vacation had come." Mr. Dobbin (even his name invites laughter) is hilariously humiliated, and he is apt to linger in our memories primarily as the butt of a good joke. Yet for most of the children most of the time, he is a source of genuine terror.
The one "respectable" man whom Tom sees regularly, Mr. Dobbin, is a sadist. Having reached maturity with the unsatisfied ambition to be a doctor, he spends his free time perusing a book of "anatomy" (that is, a book with pictures of naked people in it). His principal active pleasure is lashing the children, and the preparations for the approaching commencement exercises merely provide an excuse to be
severer and more exacting than ever.…
His rod and his ferule were seldom idle now—at least among the smaller pupils. Mr. Dobbin's lashings were very vigorous ones, too; for although he carried, under his wig, a perfectly bald and shiny head, he had only reached middle age and there was no sign of feebleness in his muscle. As the great day approached, all the tyranny that was in him came to the surface; he seemed to take a...
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Mark Twain once said of Tom Sawyer, "It is not a boys' book at all. It will be read only by adults." We can suppose he was speaking defensively, with the extravagance of an irritated author. He had brought to the book his full powers of serious communication and he had no wish for it to be thought of as a mere children's book, what publishers call a "juvenile." Yet ever since its publication in 1876 until quite recently, the audience for Tom Sawyer has of course been primarily a youthful one. In fact, the American public has regarded it as one of those books peculiarly apt to induct any sensitive boy, and even any spirited girl, into the wholesome pleasures of reading.
This situation has now significantly...
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