In chapters 36-39 of his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, how does Mark Twain present Tom Sawyer's plans to free Jim from imprisonment?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In chapters 36-39 of his novel titled Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain deals with a number of important issues. In particular, he implicitly mocks Tom’s plans to help Jim “escape” from imprisonment. In formulating those plans, Tom shows little true regard for Jim’s safety and welfare. At one point, for instance, he inserts parts of a brass candlestick (to be used as an escape tool) into Jim’s food, with the result that “when Jim bit into it it most mashed all his teeth out.” Similarly, Tom later thinks that Jim, to be a real prisoner, needs to be surrounded by dangers, such as snakes or spiders, and when Jim expresses his fear of spiders, Tom simply dismisses Jim’s worries. When Tom then suggests that Jim needs to try to tame a rattlesnake while imprisoned, Jim is terrified:

"Please, Mars Tom—doan' talk so!  I can't stan' it!"

There is real fear in Jim's voice here. Once again, however, Tom makes light of Jim’s worries.  Tom does so partly because he has been badly influenced by the unrealistic, romantic fiction he has read. Thus, Tom replies to Jim by saying,

"Jim, don't act so foolish.  A prisoner's got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain't ever been tried, why, there's more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it than any other way you could ever think of to save your life."

Tom’s willingness to risk using a rattlesnake in this way shows that he is the one who is truly "foolish." He is dangerously out of touch with reality. His reading of adventurous stories has corrupted his mind and robbed him of his common sense. Thus he continues to think of different kinds of animals with which Jim needs to share his cell if Jim is ever to seem the proper kind of prisoner Tom has read about. His next proposal involves rats:

"Prisoners ain't ever without rats.  There ain't no instance of it.  And they train them, and pet them, and learn them tricks, and they get to be as sociable as flies.  But you got to play music to them.  You got anything to play music on?"

Although Twain is obviously playing much of this episode for laughs, he is also making the more serious point that writers and readers of fiction have an obligation to keep their imaginations under control. High-flown "Romantic" ideas, he suggests, can prove positively dangerous if one takes them too seriously and tries to put them into practice. (One thinks of the effects of Wagner’s operas in Nazi Germany or the number of people who have become addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, or even drugs because such substances have seemed associated with a sophisticated "Romantic" lifestyle.)

One of the disappointments of these chapters, for many readers, is that both Huck and Twain allow Tom to experiment with Jim and play games at Jim’s expense. Huck by now knows that Jim deserves better treatment, but he says little to oppose Tom's plans. Twain, of course, is mocking Tom's foolishness, but in the process Jim is being mistreated by Tom. Defenders of Twain (of whom there are many) nevertheless have had to try to defend the ending of the book, which often leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many readers. By the end of the book, the satire on romanticism is clear, but perhaps at the expense of a diminishment of Jim, Huck, and possibly even Twain himself.




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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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