Chapters 39–43 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on May 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1109
Tom continues with his elaborate preparations for Jim’s rescue. He fills the hut with rats, snakes, and spiders, making it very uncomfortable for Jim. They saw through the leg of the bed (rather than simply lifting it up) to release the chain. Then they make themselves sick by eating the sawdust. Finally, Tom writes a series of anonymous letters to Silas Phelps to warn him of the proposed rescue, accompanied by pictures of a skull and crossbones and a coffin, drawn in blood.
Tom’s final anonymous letter had warned of an attempt to rescue Jim that night. Huck is alarmed to find, when he enters the sitting room, that there are fifteen farmers inside, each armed with a gun. Tom, however, is delighted by the presence of all these armed men, saying he believes that he could draw two hundred of them there if he were to try the plan over again. The two boys rescue Jim but are pursued by the farmers, who shoot at them. By the time they reach the raft, Tom has a bullet in his leg. Jim insists that they ask a doctor to look at it, and Huck goes to the village for one while Jim hides in the woods.
Huck fetches the doctor for Tom, then returns to the Phelps plantation to sleep in a woodpile. He runs into Silas Phelps, who asks him where he has been. Huck says that he was following the men shooting at the runaway slave. The living room at the Phelps house is full of farmers and farmers’ wives, all talking about Jim’s escape. Sally and Silas have examined the interior of the cabin where Jim was chained up and come to the conclusion that he must have been insane, from the bizarre collection of objects he accumulated there. When night falls, Sally puts Huck to bed but continues to worry about and wait up for Tom (or Sid, as she believes Tom to be).
The next morning, a crowd of people arrives at the Phelps plantation, including Tom Sawyer, laid out on a mattress; the doctor Huck fetched for him; and Jim, with his hands tied behind his back. The people in the crowd abuse and cuff Jim, and some of them want to hang him as an example to other runaway slaves, but the doctor makes a speech in his favor, saying that Jim helped him to care for Tom.
Tom is sick and is talking deliriously about the plan to rescue Jim. When Sally tells him that Jim has been recaptured, Tom responds indignantly that no one has any right to keep him chained up, since he is a free man: Miss Watson died two months ago and set him free in her will. Tom’s entire plan was concocted purely for excitement. As Tom reveals this, his Aunt Polly enters the room. Aunt Polly tells Sally that the boy she thinks is Sid is in fact Tom, and the boy she thinks is Tom is really Huck. She also confirms that Tom was telling the truth about Miss Watson giving Jim his freedom.
Jim is set free and Tom recovers. Tom gives Jim a present of $40 for being such a patient prisoner, and Jim is delighted, taking this as an augury of future wealth. He then reveals that when they entered the house floating on the river, in which there was a dead man, the reason he covered the corpse so quickly was that it was Huck’s father, Pap. Huck can therefore reclaim his money whenever he wants. He ends by saying that he will not write any more books, since he had no idea how much trouble they were to write and is glad that there is nothing more to say in this one. He thinks that he may go traveling again, since Sally Phelps has expressed a wish to adopt and civilize him—an idea that does not appeal, as he has been down that route before.
Tom’s plan grows ever more ludicrous and involved, with the final absurdity being his insistence in writing anonymous letters to Silas Phelps, warning him of a plan to steal Jim. Huck is alarmed when this results in a mob of heavily armed farmers preparing to shoot at them, but for Tom this merely adds to the adventure. It is fitting that he is the one who is shot, though even this wound does not appear to perturb him much.
For one who claims to be a rebel, Tom is very much impressed with what the law allows and dictates. He blithely announces that Jim is legally a free man, after he, Jim, and Huck have been dodging the bullets of an angry mob, with no representative of the law anywhere in sight. It never occurs to him that he has put Jim in great danger, and his gift of $40, while it delights Jim, is likely to appear to the reader as poor compensation for all the trouble he has caused.
Despite the unfortunate influence of Tom on the end of the book, he does not have matters all his own way. Aunt Polly, a much more major authority figure in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, appears at the very end of the book to bring him back to the respectable world of St. Petersburg, where the Widow Douglas and Judge Thatcher ensure that the law is observed. Huck, however, does not go with them, despite the fact that he could easily do so now that his father is dead. He has been very much under Tom’s influence for the last ten chapters and has not said much more than he usually does in opposition to Tom’s views of life and adventure. The most frustrating aspect of this section of the book for many readers is that it seems as though Huck has not developed at all but has returned to his position as Tom’s lieutenant in playing childish games (though these games themselves are no longer merely childish, but reprehensible, since they have such an effect on Jim’s life). In the book’s final sentences, however, it becomes clear that Huck and Tom are destined to part. While he never rejects Tom’s world and his attitude to life explicitly or verbally, Huck’s refusal either to be civilized by Sally Phelps or to return to St. Petersburg to undergo the same process at the hands of the Widow Douglas is the clearest possible indication that he will grow apart from Tom and continue to become his own man.