How does Tom Sawyer act as the shape-shifter archetype, and what does he contribute to the story?

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The cover of the original edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, included a parenthetical notation immediately underneath the title that read “Tom Sawyer’s Comrade.”  The significance of this notation is minor, as the character of Huckleberry Finn had served as a narrator for a short series of novels based upon the Tom Sawyer character.  It does serve, however, to remind the reader of the origins of the Huck Finn character, and to ensure a linkage between Twain’s novels, especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a feat made clearer by the first sentence in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer serves as a catalyst for the action that consumes the bulk of Twain’s novel.  As was established in the “Tom Sawyer” novels, Tom is the “alpha male” of his world, the leader behind whom the other boys follow, including Huck.  Early in the story, as Huck, living with his “adoptive” family, the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, is struggling with the expectations and within the confines of the life of a ‘proper boy,’ he contemplates his options, including running away.  Tom, though, has other plans, as Huck describes:

“But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable.  So I went back.”

Tom has a reputation for straying beyond those boundaries within which Miss Watson and the Widow Douglass attempt to keep Huck, prompting this passage regarding the afterlife and the prospects for Tom Sawyer’s future:

“Now she had got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.”

While Tom is the leader among the boys, and the most imaginative, a product of his voracious appetite for stories about pirates, thieves, and so on, Huck grows weary of his friend’s schemes and fantasies none of which pan-out or materialize.  At the end of the day, the boys were at the same position in life as when they woke up.  As Huck notes at the end of Chapter Three:

“So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school.”

While Tom is the one with the fantastical ideas about reaping great rewards through dubious propositions, it is Huck who is the more independent-minded and willing to wander well-beyond the confines of conventional society.  It is Huck, not Tom, who sets off on a journey the likes of which Tom couldn’t have imagined.  Tom is a product of the adventure stories he enjoys, but lacks the vision that sustains Huck.  That said, Tom Sawyer’s presence remains a part of Huck’s story, as the latter references his friend’s attributes and idiosyncrasies whenever appropriate, as in Chapter Seven, when Huck describes killing a pig and attempting to prepare it for eating:

“I did wish Tom Sawyer was there; I knowed he would take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches. Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that.”

Tom’s name continues to appear as a source of reference and comparison, his reputation for scheming and planning having survived his physical presence.  Impressed by Huck’s ingenuity, Jim tells him that even “Tom Sawyer couldn’t get up no better plan than what I had.”  Later, in Chapter Twelve, Huck and Jim are debating the merits of investigating a shipwreck the happen upon, with Jim hesitant to approach the wreck and Huck demonstrating his boldness.  As Huck notes, Jim was duly impressed with his (Huck’s) argument for rummaging through the remains: “He said Tom Sawyer couldn’t get up no better plan than what I had.”  Tom Sawyer becomes a metaphor for boldness and perseverance, his image a constant source of reassurance: “Tom Sawyer wouldn’t back out now, and so I won’t either”; “I felt very good; I judged I had done it pretty neat—I reckoned Tom Sawyer couldn’t a done it no neater himself. Of course he would a throwed more style into it, but I can’t do that very handy, not being brung up to it.”

So important is Tom Sawyer’s image to the story, that, in Chapter Thirty-Two, Huck is even mistaken for Tom, noting that “Being Tom Sawyer was easy and comfortable, and it stayed easy and comfortable . . .”  When Tom reenters the story as a living-breathing entity, he emerges as more complicated character, as though he has learned a few things about life and about integrity.  Discussing his efforts at concealing Jim’s whereabouts, Huck is reluctant to enlist Tom in his activities.  Tom’s response is, to borrow the operative phrase from the question, “shapeshifting”:

“Here was a boy that was respectable and well brung up; and had a character to lose; and folks at home that had characters; and he was bright and not leather-headed; and knowing and not ignorant; and not mean, but kind; and yet here he was, without any more pride, or rightness, or feeling, than to stoop to this business, and make himself a shame, and his family a shame, before everybody. I couldn’t understand it no way at all. It was outrageous, and I knowed I ought to just up and tell him so; and so be his true friend, and let him quit the thing right where he was and save himself. And I did start to tell him; but he shut me up, and says: ‘Don’t you reckon I know what I’m about? Don’t I generly know what I’m about?’”

This is Huck Finn’s story, but Tom Sawyer’s presence is felt throughout, and if Huck has grown through his adventures and through his relationship with the runaway slave, then Tom’s own personal growth has proven equally dramatic. Tom has gone from telling tall-tales and fantasizing about robberies and killings to the ultimate act of nobility.  He is Huck's friend, and a better one than even Huck had thought.

Read the study guide:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question