Mark Twain Long Fiction Analysis
It is instructive to note that the most pervasive structural characteristic of Mark Twain’s work, of his nonfiction as well as his fiction, is dualistic. That observation is not worth much without detailed application to specific aspects of particular works, but even before turning to particulars, it is useful to consider how many “pairs” of contending, conflicting, complementary, or contrasting characters, situations, states of being, ideas, and values run through Twain’s work. One thinks immediately of Tom and Huck, of Huck and Jim, of Huck and Pap, of Aunt Sally and Miss Watson, of the prince and the pauper, of the two sets of twins in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. One thinks of boys testing themselves against adults, of youth and adulthood, of the free life on the river contrasted with the settled life of the river towns, of the wilderness and civilization, of the promises of industrial progress against the backdrop of the humbler, traditional rural setting, of Eden and everything east of Eden, and, finally, of good and evil.
The tonal quality of Twain’s works is also dualistic. The jumping frog story is almost pure fun. “The Mysterious Stranger,” first published in bowdlerized form after Twain’s death, is almost pure gloom. Most of Twain’s fiction comes between the two, both chronologically and thematically. Except for The Gilded Age, which he wrote with Warner, the novels, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to the final two, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, fall within the thematic and tonal extremes established by the short fiction. That is, Tom’s adventures take place in the hallowed light of innocence and virtue beyond the reach of any truly effective evil forces, while Roxy’s adventures in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson are of almost unrelieved gloom. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is midway between the extremes, with its blending of the light and affirmation that shine so brightly in Twain’s childhood idyll with the darkened vision of the later years.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Nearly everyone agrees that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain’s second novel, is an American classic, and nearly everyone agrees that there is no accounting for its success. It is at the same time a novel of the utmost simplicity and of deep complexity. The novel is a marvelous boy’s adventure story, a fact given perspective by Twain’s observation that “it will be read only by adults.” That is, the essence of childhood can be savored only after the fact, only after one has passed through it and can look back on it. Popularizations of Tom’s adventures are produced for children, but the continuing vitality of the novel depends on the adult sensibility and its capacity and need for nostalgic recollection. Twain plays on all the strings of that sensibility as he guides the reader through Tom’s encounters with the adult world, represented by Aunt Polly and Judge Thatcher, through Tom’s romance with Becky, and finally to the adventurous triumph over evil in the person of Injun Joe.
Aunt Polly is the perfect adult foil for a perfect boyhood. Not only does she provide the emotional security that comes from being loved in one’s place, but she also serves as an adult Tom can challenge through his wits, thereby deepening his self-confidence about his place in the adult world. The fence whitewashing episode is surely one of the best known in American literature. In it, Tom not only outwits his friends, whom he persuades to whitewash the fence for him, but also successfully challenges the adult world, which, through Aunt Polly, assigned the “boy’s chore” to him in the first place. The episode also provides Twain an opportunity to exercise his irony , which, in contrast to much that was to come in the later fiction, is serenely gentle here. Judge Thatcher represents the secure, if somewhat pompous, authority of the adult world beyond the domestic circle. The much desired...
(The entire section is 3,083 words.)