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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

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Mark Twain

The following entry presents criticism on Twain's novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). See also The Mysterious Stranger Criticism, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Criticism, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Criticism.

Along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer remains Twain's best known and most widely read work. Depicting the life of a young boy growing up in a Mississippi river town, the novel was regarded as an entertainment for children when it was originally published. Since that time, Tom Sawyer has come to be viewed as a complex work addressed to both children and adults.

Plot and Major Characters

Loosely based on Twain's own childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, Tom Sawyer relates the exploits of its adolescent hero over the course of a summer in the fictional Mississippi valley town of St. Petersburg. Tom is presented as a mischievous child who delights in such boyish pranks as stealing jam from his Aunt Polly's kitchen, getting into fights with neighborhood boys, and tricking other children into doing his chores. After establishing Tom's rebellious personality in the opening chapter, the novel relates his various adventures in an episodic fashion that weaves several storylines together. Twain emphasizes the trials and misadventures of ordinary childhood through Tom's many escapades at school and his courting of Becky Thatcher, the daughter of a local judge. These everyday events contrast with the romanticized and extraordinary adventures that Tom shares with his friend Huckleberry Finn. During a midnight excursion to the town graveyard, Tom and Huck witness the murder of Dr. Robinson by Injun Joe, and Tom must later testify in court to save the life of Muff Potter, who has wrongfully been charged with the crime. At another point in the story, Tom and Huck run away to Jackson's Island, a peaceful, wooded island in the middle of the Mississippi, only to be driven by homesickness back to St. Petersburg, where the townspeople, presuming them to have drowned, have organized their funeral. The climax of the book involves Tom and Becky Thatcher becoming lost in McDougal's Cave. Tom finds a way out after three days of searching, and emerges from the cave a town hero. The story closes with the discovery of Injun Joe's body and the bestowal on Tom and Huck of a vast treasure left behind by the villain.

Major Themes

In his preface to Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain asserted: "Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in." Commentators such as Diana Trilling and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., have affirmed the success of Twain's design. While the more melodramatic plotlines involving the murder of Dr. Robinson, the discovery of hidden treasure, and the adventure in McDougal's Cave serve to entertain a younger body of readers, such incidents as the fence whitewashing episode and Tom's "treatment" of the family cat with an intoxicating painkiller are cited as canny portrayals of the nature of childhood. Other critics, notably John Seelye, view several incidents in the novel, including Tom's encounters with Injun Joe and Tom and Becky's disappearance in the cave, as confrontations between innocence and evil which initiate Tom into the world of adult responsibilities and consequences. Commentators also contrast Tom's initial resistance to the social order of St. Petersburg with his later acceptance of a prominent place among the wealthy townspeople and his final efforts to "civilize" Huck as evidence that Tom develops from a romantic who shuns the demands of adulthood into a more practical character who is able to achieve maturity without losing his individuality and playfulness. It has also been observed that the novel burlesques the conventions of romantic fiction through Tom's playacting at heroic roles and his pining for Becky Thatcher, while the motif of Tom as a young hero who achieves success despite his mischievousness pokes fun at the didactic fiction popular in Twain's day, which portrayed unrealistically pious children whose exemplary behavior ensures their eventual material success. Although its reputation has suffered from comparisons to its highly acclaimed sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, most critics agree with Barry Marks's assessment: "Its capacity still to appeal to the modern reader lies, I think, in the quality to which Mark Twain referred in calling it a hymn. Inherent in its structure is a song praising mankind—praising his weakness and need for love and security as well as his strength and capacity for achievement, but mostly praising the life which permits man's conflicting motives to exist together in ultimate harmony."

The Atlantic Monthly (essay date 1876)

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SOURCE: A review of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XXXVII, No. CCXXIII, May, 1876, pp. 617-29.

[In the following essay, the critic praises the portrayal of boyhood in the rural American Southwest in Tom Sawyer.]

Mr. Aldrich has studied the life of A Bad Boy as the pleasant reprobate led it in a quiet old New England town twenty-five or thirty years ago, where in spite of the natural outlawry of boyhood he was more or less part of a settled order of things, and was hemmed in, to some measure, by the traditions of an established civilization. Mr. Clemens, on the contrary, has taken the boy of the Southwest for the hero of his new book, [The Adventures of Tom Sawyer] and has presented him with a fidelity to circumstance which loses no charm by being realistic in the highest degree, and which gives incomparably the best picture of life in that region as yet known to fiction. The town where Tom Sawyer was born and brought up is some such idle, shabby little Mississippi River town as Mr. Clemens has so well described in his piloting reminiscences, but Tom belongs to the better sort of people in it, and has been bred to fear God and dread the Sunday-school according to the strictest rite of the faiths that have characterized all the respectability of the West. His subjection in these respects does not so deeply affect his inherent tendencies but that he makes himself a beloved burden to the poor, tender-hearted old aunt who brings him up with his orphan brother and sister, and struggles vainly with his manifold sins, actual and imaginary. The limitations of his transgressions are nicely and artistically traced. He is mischievous, but not vicious; he is ready for almost any depredation that involves the danger and honor of adventure, but profanity he knows may provoke a thunderbolt upon the heart of the blasphemer, and he almost never swears; he resorts to any stratagem to keep out of school, but he is not a downright liar, except upon terms of after shame and remorse that make his falsehood bitter to him. He is cruel, as all children are, but chiefly because he is ignorant; he is not mean, but there are very definite bounds to his generosity; and his courage is the Indian sort, full of prudence and mindful of retreat as one of the conditions of prolonged hostilities. In a word, he is a boy, and merely and exactly an ordinary boy on the moral side. What makes him delightful to the reader is that on the imaginative side he is very much more, and though every boy has wild and fantastic dreams, this boy cannot rest till he has somehow realized them. Till he has actually run off with two other boys in the character of buccaneer, and lived for a week on an island in the Mississippi, he has lived in vain; and this passage is but the prelude to more thrilling adventures, in which he finds hidden treasures, traces the bandits to their cave, and is himself lost in its recesses. The local material and the incidents with which his career is worked up are excellent, and throughout there is scrupulous regard for the boy's point of view in reference to his surroundings and himself, which shows how rapidly Mr. Clemens has grown as an artist. We do not remember anything in which this propriety is violated, and its preservation adds immensely to the grown-up reader's satisfaction in the amusing and exciting story. There is a boy's love-affair, but it is never treated otherwise than as a boy's love-affair. When the half-breed has murdered the young doctor, Tom and his friend, Huckleberry Finn, are really, in their boyish terror and superstition, going to let the poor old town-drunkard be hanged for the crime, till the terror of that becomes unendurable. The story is a wonderful study of the boy-mind, which inhabits a world quite distinct from that in which he is bodily present with his elders, and in this lies its great charm and its universality, for boy-nature, however human-nature varies, is the same everywhere.

The tale is very dramatically wrought, and the subordinate characters are treated with the same graphic force that sets Tom alive before us. The worthless vagabond, Huck Finn, is entirely delightful throughout, and in his promised reform his identity is respected: he will lead a decent life in order that he may one day be thought worthy to become a member of that gang of robbers which Tom is to organize. Tom's aunt is excellent, with her kind heart's sorrow and secret pride in Tom; and so is his sister Mary, one of those good girls who are born to usefulness and charity and forbearance and unvarying rectitude. Many village people and local notables are introduced in well-conceived character; the whole little town lives in the reader's sense, with its religiousness, its lawlessness, its droll social distinctions, its civilization qualified by its slave-holding, and its traditions of the wilder West which has passed away. The picture will be instructive to those who have fancied the whole Southwest a sort of vast Pike County, and have not conceived of a sober and serious and orderly contrast to the sort of life that has come to represent the Southwest in literature. Mr. William M. Baker gives a notion of this in his stories, and Mr. Clemens has again enforced the fact here, in a book full of entertaining character, and of the greatest artistic sincerity.

Tom Brown and Tom Bailey are, among boys in books, alone deserving to be named with Tom Sawyer.

Walter Blair (essay date 1939)

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SOURCE: "On the Structure of Tom Sawyer," in Modern Philology, Vol. 37, No. 1, August, 1939, pp. 75-96.

[Blair was an American author and editor who wrote two book-length studies of Huckleberry Finn. In the following essay, he demonstrates that Tom Sawyer was written partly as a response to the didactic children's fiction of Twain's day.]

Since, as several critics have suggested, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) attacked earlier juvenile literature in something roughly like the way Joseph Andrews attacked Pamela, a note on the structure of the novel may well start though it should not, I think, terminate) with a consideration of Clemens' book in its literary contexts. Such a consideration, by indicating the nature of the writings attacked and the way Mark Twain and other American humorists assaulted them, may emphasize certain architectural peculiarities in the volume and suggest more clearly than critics have done, a unifying narrative thread.

Notable in earlier juvenile fictional works had been their characters, their preachments, and their plots. The children portrayed had been, for the most part, characterized with extraordinary simplicity: they had been good or bad, and that had been an end of it. Horatio Alger's street boy heroes in the sixties, to be sure, had been more inclined towards naughtiness than flawless Little Eva or even beautifully trained Little Rollo had been. But Alger's Ragged Dick, though he used profanity, patronized the Old Bowery Theatre, smoked, and played jokes on country folk, was "above doing anything mean or dishonorable … or imposing upon younger boys.… His nature was noble and had saved him from all mean faults." And as a rule, as a critic of the Alger books has recently remarked:

Our hero was … a good boy, honest, abstemious (in fact something unduly disposed to preach to drinkers and smokers), prudent, well-mannered (except perhaps for preaching), and frugal.… Nor did any subtleties of character-drawing prevent one from determining who were the good characters and who were the bad ones. They were labeled plainly. [Frederick Lewis Allen, "Horatio Alger, Jr.," Saturday Review of Literature, XVIII (September 17, 1938)]

The bad children—as lacking in complexity as the good—had been distinguished, perhaps, more by their proclivities toward sin than by their accomplishments. Their crimes had ranged all the way from simply being lazy or playing truant to the most horrible outrages within their infantile powers—lying, stealing, battering the helpless and the weak, swearing, smoking, and even drinking. In short, with few exceptions, a bad child had been as totally depraved (in intention) as the non-elect of Calvinistic theology-

The authors of juvenile tales, employing these angelic or villainous children, had provided sermon-like commentaries and had fashioned lesson-teaching plots. Constantly these writers had "extolled the precocious child, deprecated wholesome pleasure, and delighted in didactic sentimentality," patting good children on the back, and scolding bad children sternly. Even when he had skipped the sermons, the reader of a typical story had been able to get its point by noticing that the author's denouement observed the strictest poetic justice. In stories following what seemingly was the earliest pattern—the best known instance of which is the tale of Little Eva—the pallid virtuous child had died at the age proverbially prescribed for the Good, but had promptly gone to Heaven. The Alger boys, somewhat better adapted to the Gilded Age, had survived childhood to become successful business men. But the bad boy who had played truant "and was not really sorry for what he had done … went from one bad thing to another, and grew up to be a very wicked man, and at last committed a murder"; while naughty Thomas, who loafed all day or played with his kite, had a depressing adulthood:

Without a shilling in his purse,
Or cot to call his own,
Poor Thomas went from bad to worse,

And hardened as a stone.

During the years before Tom Sawyer appeared, such good-bad-child tales, with their preachments and predetermined conclusions, had suggested incongruities between fiction and life useful to many American humorists. Beginning in the forties comic writers had sporadically beguiled readers with amoral portraits of unregenerate boys. Johnson J. Hooper's Simon Suggs had cheated his father at cards in 1845, and in the fifties adolescent Sut Lovengood and young Ike Partington had perpetrated sundry deviltries. Ike, perhaps the most notorious of these juvenile delinquents, in the first volume in which he had appeared, had told lies, scratched letters on a newly japanned tray, broken countless windows, stolen oranges and cakes and doughnuts, hanged a cat, and imitated the hero of The black avenger, or the pirates of the Spanish Main. In the seventies Max Adeler's Cooley boy was creating commotions in church, and kindred spirits in the writings of other humorists were behaving, in sketches, as Tom was to behave in a book. Doubtless the incongruity between these youths and those in contemporary books not only augmented their comic appeal but also molded the form of stories about them.

At least as early as the sixties, various authors had begun an even more direct onslaught upon juvenile fictional characters. Henry Ward Beecher, for example, had said in an essay written for a New York paper:

The real lives of boys are yet to be written. The lives of pious and good boys, which enrich the catalogues of great publishing societies, resemble a real boy's life about as much as a chicken picked and larded, upon a spit, and ready for delicious eating, resembles a free fowl in the fields. With some honorable exceptions, they are impossible boys, with incredible goodness. Their piety is monstrous. A man's experience stuffed into a little boy is simply monstrous.… Boys have a period of mischief as much as they have measles or chicken-pox.

In 1869, Thomas Bailey Aldrich had launched his somewhat mild full-length portrait of Tom Bailey with a defiant passage calling attention to the difference between the Model Boy and the human youngster:

I call my story the story of a bad boy, partly to distinguish myself from those faultless young gentlemen who generally figure in narratives of this kind, and partly because I really was not a cherub. I may truthfully say I was an amiable, impulsive lad, blessed with fine digestive powers, and no hypocrite. I didn't want to be an angel … and I didn't send my little pocket-money to the natives of the Feejee Islands, but spent it royally on peppermint drops and tiffy candy. In short, I was a real human boy, such as you may meet anywhere in New England, and no more like an impossible boy in a story-book than a sound orange is like one that has been sucked dry.

The story carrying this foreword could swell the circulation of Our young folks in 1869, and, in book form, could quickly run through eleven editions.

By the middle of the seventies, the Moral Boy had become a dependable butt for humorists. During the year 1873, when Tom Sawyer was incubating, James M. Bailey was surmising that the nine-year-old Concord boy whose ability to repeat the multiplication table backwards had been recorded in a news item was the same hateful paragon who had lived next door to Bailey in his childhood—a youth who "always went to bed at eight o'clock … brushed his hair back of his ears, and carried a store handkerchief.… He was the model boy, the boy our parents used to point to, and speak of … while unfitting us for sitting on anything harder than a poultice." The year before Tom Sawyer was issued, a Detroit humorist published sketches, "The good boy" and "The bad boy," satirizing some of the excesses of Sunday school fiction. In the year Clemens' novel appeared, Robert Burdette humorously referred to "well-known 'good boys' who wash their faces every morning, keep their clothes clean, wear white collars, and don't say bad words."

None of these attacks, it is probable, can be thought of as a direct inspiration of Mark Twain's book about boys. They are useful only to show a common conception of the humor of childhood and the nature of children of which he could take advantage. As a matter of fact, Twain himself had been rather early in the field with "The story of the good little boy who did not prosper" (1867) and "The story of the bad little boy who didn't come to grief (1870)—both burlesques. Jim, the hero of the former sketch, stole jam without the usual consequences: "all at once a terrible feeling didn't come over him.… he ate that jam and said it was bully." He stole apples and survived, purloined the teacher's penknife and shifted the blame to "the moral boy, the good little boy of the village, who always obeyed his mother, and never told an untruth, and was fond of his lessons, and infatuated with Sunday-school." Jim was delighted when the paragon was whipped, because he "hated moral boys. Jim said he was down on them milksops.'" Thus "everything turned out differently with him from the way it does to the bad Jameses in the books." In manhood, Jim "got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the legislature."

Jacob Blivens in the 1870 sketch behaved so abnormally—refusing to play hookey, to lie, and to play on Sunday—that other children decided he was "afflicted," though the real trouble was simply that he "read all the Sunday-school books.… This was the secret of it." Again there was an attack upon the endings of stories about children. In them, the models "always had a good time, and the bad boys had the broken legs; in his case there was a screw loose somewhere, and it all happened the other way."

One who turns to Tom Sawyer with the conventional literature and the humorous attacks on that literature by various writers including Twain in mind may see some important achievements of Clemens' novel. These were suggested by a contemporary critic who said:

This literary wag has performed some services which entitle him to the gratitude of his generation. He has run the traditional Sunday-school boy through his literary mangle and turned him out washed and ironed into a proper state of collapse. That whining, canting, early-dying, anaemic creature was held up to mischievous lads as worthy of imitation. He poured his religious hypocrisy over every honest pleasure a boy had. He whined his lachrymous warnings on every playground. He vexed their lives. So when Mark grew old enough, he went gunning for him, and lo, wherever his soul may be, the skin of the strumous young pietist is now neatly tacked up to view on the Sunday-school door of to-day as a warning. [Quoted in Will M. Clemens, Mark Twain: His Life and Work]

That the attack thus suggested may have been responsible in part for the organization of the narrative becomes clear if the story is restated in the way it would have been handled in the literature attacked. The opening chapter of Clemens' novel reveals a character who, in terms of moralizing juvenile literature, has the indubitable earmarks of a Bad Boy. As the story opens, Tom is stealing. Caught in the act, he avoids punishment by deceiving his aunt. He departs to play hookey, returns to stand slothfully by while a slave boy does his chores for him, then enters the house to deceive his aunt again. His trickery exposed by his half-brother Sid, he dashes out of the door shouting threats of revenge. A few minutes later, he is exchanging vainglorious boasts with a stranger whom he hates simply because the stranger is cleanly and neatly dressed. The action of the chapter concludes with Tom pounding the strange boy into submission (for no righteous reason), then chasing him home. "At last," says the author, "the enemy's mother appeared, and called Tom a bad, vicious vulgar child.…" If earlier moral writers had had a chance at Tom, they would have been much more eloquent, for within a few pages he has committed many of the enormities against which they had battled for years.

But as the story continues, Bad Boy Tom continues to sin as these authors would have put it) in a fashion almost unprecedented in the fiction of the time. Up to the last page of chapter x, he piles up enough horrible deeds to spur the average Sunday school author to write pages of admonitions. His actions are of a sort to show that he is—in the language of such an author—thievish, guileful, untruthful, vengeful, vainglorious, selfish, frivolous, self-pitying, dirty, lazy, irreverent, superstitious and cowardly.

What a chance for sermonizing! But Clemens makes nothing of his opportunity: he indicates not the least concern about his hero's mendacity. In fact, his preaching (such as it is) is of a perverse sort. Instead of clucking to show his horror, he writes of Tom's sins with a gusto which earlier authors had reserved for the deeds of Good Boys, and on occasion (as when he tells about the whitewashing trick), he actually commends the youth for his chicanery. A ragged ruffian named Huckleberry Finn who smokes and swears is set up as an ideal figure because

.… he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; … he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had. So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St. Petersburg.

On the other hand, the sort of spiteful disdain which had been used to chasten Bad Boys in other books is actually employed here to introduce an indubitable Good Boy. To church on Sunday, says Clemens,

… last of all came the Model Boy, Willie Mufferson, taking 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 hated him, he was so good. And besides, he had been "thrown up to them" so much. His white handkerchief was hanging out of his pocket behind, as usual on Sundays—accidentally. Tom had no handkerchief, and he looked upon boys who had, as snobs.

The ending of the book departs as determinedly from the patterns of juvenile fiction. It staggers the imagination to guess the sort of punishment which would have been deigned fitting for such a monster as Tom by fictionists who had felt hanging in adulthood was an appropriate result of youthful truancy. From their standpoint, the author of Tom Sawyer must have outraged poetic justice to the point of being hideously immoral. Here were Tom and his companions, who had run away, played truant, and smoked to boot, actually lionized because they returned from Jackson's Island. Here was Tom cheered to the echo because he saved an unjustly accused man, compared with George Washington by Judge Thatcher because he took Becky's punishment, lionized because he saved the girl from the cave. More shocking, here was even the unregenerate Huck dramatically saving the life of the Widow Douglas. And to top it all, these boys were allowed at the end to accumulate a fortune of the size exclusively awarded to only the best of the Alger heroes.

Thus the characterization, the perverse preaching, the unconventional ending of the book, which gave the volume in its day a comic appeal now all but irrecoverable, also, it is possible, did much to mold the form of the narrative. The simplest explanation of the arrangement of happenings in Clemens' book is that it represented a fictional working-out of the author's antipathy to the conventional plot structure of juvenile tales. Here, in other words, is a repetition of the plot so broadly developed in "The story of a bad little boy who didn't come to grief "—a more serious handling of a reversed moralizing narrative.

One effect of this method of telling a story was, of course, to give youthful readers exactly the sort of a series of happenings likely to please them. Here was the story of a character who, in their opinion, was a real boy, a character who, furthermore, time after time, when he was idolized for his achievements, fulfilled the sort of daydreams which had been their own.

A second effect was perhaps even more important. In attacking in other than a burlesque fashion fictional representations of boys who were unreal, Clemens was faced with the problem of depicting, through characterization and plot, boys who were real. What a real boy was was suggested by the very terms of the attack: he was not simply good or bad but a mixture of virtue and mischievousness. And he could play pranks at the same time he was developing qualities which would make him a normal adult.

This concept allowed elements of incongruity which an author might develop humorously. In this view, youngsters of Tom's age were diverting combinations of ignorance and wisdom, deviltry and morality, childhood and adulthood. These incongruities, of course, were useful to Clemens again and again. But the incongruities of boy nature not only had humorous possibilities; they also had potentialities—far beyond those in good-bad-boy books—for plot structures closely linked with developing characters. As a "real" boy grew up, the common sense theory implied, unlike the consistent actions of the static character in goody-goody books, the nature of his actions would change. Not only would they change from year to year but also from month to month. Less and less, he would behave like an irresponsible and ignorant savage; more and more he would act like a responsible and intelligent adult.

If Tom Sawyer is regarded as a working out in fictional form of this notion of a boy's maturing, the book will reveal, I believe, a structure on the whole quite well adapted to its purpose. My suggestion, in other words, is that Clemens' divergence from the older patterns of juvenile fiction and his concept of the normal history of boyhood led him to a way of characterizing and a patterning of action which showed a boy developing toward manhood.

That this was the unifying theme of the story will be indicated, perhaps, by a consideration of the units of narrative, the lines of action, in the novel. There are four of these—the story of Tom and Becky, the story of Tom and Muff Potter, the Jackson's Island episode, and the series of happenings (which might be called the Injun Joe story) leading to the discovery of the treasure. Each one of these is initiated by a characteristic and typically boyish action. The love story begins with Tom's childishly fickle desertion of his fiancée, Amy Lawrence; the Potter narrative with the superstitious trip to the graveyard; the Jackson's Island episode with the adolescent revolt of the boy against Aunt Polly, and Tom's youthful ambition to be a pirate; the Injun Joe story with the juvenile search for buried treasure. Three of these narrative strands, however, are climaxed by a characteristic and mature sort of action, a sort of action, moreover, directly opposed to the initial action. Tom chivalrously takes Becky's punishment and faithfully helps her in the cave; he defies boyish superstition and courageously testifies for Muff Potter; he forgets a childish antipathy and shows mature concern for his aunt's uneasiness about him. The Injun Joe story, though it is the least useful of the four so far as showing Tom's maturing is concerned, by showing Huck conquering fear to rescue the widow, has value as a repetition—with variations—of the motif of the book.

That these actions are regarded by the older folk of St. Petersburg as evidences of mature virtue is suggested in each instance by their reactions. Every subplot in the book eventuates in an expression of adult approval. Sometimes this is private, like Aunt Polly's discovery that Tom has come from the island to tell her of his safety, or like Judge Thatcher's enthusiastic comments upon Tom's chivalry at school. Sometimes it is public, like the adulation lavished on the hero after the trial and after the rescue of Becky, or like the widow's party honoring Huck Finn.

The book contains various episodes extraneous to these lines of action—episodes whose only value in the scheme is variation in the display of the incongruities of boy nature from which the actions arise, but it is notable how much of the novel is concerned with these four threads. Only four of the thirty-five chapters are not in some way concerned with the development of at least one of them. Hence a large share of the book is concerned with actions which show the kind of development suggested.

More important is the fact that, if the novel is regarded as one narrative including the alternately treated lines of action and the episodes as well, as the story progresses, wholly boylike actions become more infrequent while adult actions increase. No such simple and melodramatic a device as a complete reformation is employed: late in the book, Tom is still capable of treasure hunts and fantasies about robber gangs. (Clemens remarked that he "didn't take the chap beyond boyhood.") But actions which are credible late in the story—actions such as Tom's taking Becky's punishment (chap. xx) or testifying for Potter chap. xxiii)—would, I think, seem improbable early in the book. One of a few slips Clemens makes strengthens this point: in chapter xxiv, Tom tells Huck that when he is rich he is "going to buy a new drum, and sure 'nough sword, and a red necktie and a bull pup, and get married." Mr. Edgar Lee Masters finds this jarring. "Can any boy of that age," he asks, "be imagined talking in this way … ?" It is jarring in chapter xxiv, to be sure, but at any point in the first five chapters of the book, say, it would be highly appropriate.

There is perhaps, then, reason for believing that the theme, the main action, and the character portrayal in the novel are one—the developing of Tom's character in a series of crucial situations. Studying the progress of the novel with this in mind, the reader will see, I believe, that though the earlier chapters emphasize Tom's mischievousness, and though a Sunday school fictionist would therefore call him a Bad Boy, there are potentialities in these chapters for his later behavior. To put the matter negatively, his motives are never vicious; to put it positively, he has a good heart. In his aunt's words, he

.… warn't bad, so to say—only mischeevous. Only just giddy, and harumscarum, you know. He warn't any more responsible than a colt. He never meant any harm, and he was the best-hearted boy that ever was.…

An appeal to his sympathy, he himself indicates in chapter ii, is more efficacious than physical punishment or scolding. "She talks awful," he says of Aunt Polly, "but talk don't hurt—anyways it don't if she don't cry." Inevitably then, when at the end of chapter x, his aunt weeps over him, "this was worse than a thousand whippings." And a chapter later, tender-hearted Tom is ministering to poor Muff Potter as he languishes in jail.

Significant, too, is Tom's acceptance, in times of stress in the early chapters, of the adult code of the particularly godly folk of idyllic St. Petersburg. His feeling that it would be pleasant to die disappears when he remembers that he does not have "a clean Sunday-school record" chap. viii), and the howling dog's prophecy of his death brings regret that he has been "playing hookey and doing everything a feller's told not to do." "But if I ever get off this time," he promises, "I lay I'll just waller in Sunday-schools!" Surrounded by night on Jackson's Island, he inwardly says his prayers, and a little later, his conscience gnaws as he recalls his sins. He wants to be a soldier, or a plainsman, or a pirate chiefly in order that he may stroll into the drowsy little St. Petersburg church some Sunday morning and bask in the respect of the village. And his impelling desire for a place of honor in the community is a key to his initiating three of the four lines of action, hence the plot strands are closely linked with his character.

Beginning with the final pages of chapter x, these potentialities for something more mature than inconsiderate childhood begin to develop. Tom is touched by his aunt's appeal to his sympathy; his conscience hurts because of his silence about Potter's innocence; he suffers pangs because he realizes he has sinned in running away; he worries about his aunt's concern for his safety, and so on. And well in the second half of the book, in a series of chapters—xx, xxiii, xxix, xxxii—come those crucial situations in which he acts more like a grownup than like an irresponsible boy.

There are some indications that Clemens was aware of the pattern I have suggested. He was aware, undoubtedly, of the divergence from the older fictional models patently burlesqued in his "Bad boy" and "Good boy" travesties. Did he perceive, however, that deliberate divergence from older patterns had led him to create a new structure of his own, nearer to the history of boyhood as he and others conceived it? It is impossible to be sure, but some facts may have a bearing on the problem.

In Clemens' "Conclusion" to Tom Sawyer (the italics are his) he wrote: "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." When in 1875 he wrote Howells asking him to read the manuscript, Mark Twain asked him particularly to "see if you don't really decide that I am right in closing with him as a boy." And writing to Howells, shortly after the critic had read the manuscript, the humorist said he had decided to discard or not to write what would have been chapter xxxvi, and to add nothing in its place. "Something told me," he said, "that the book was done when I got to that point"—presumably, from the context, the present concluding chapter (xxxv) of the book.

The concluding passage in this chapter tells how Huck Finn, tired of civilization, sneaked away from the widow and started to live again a life free from adult restraints. In chapter vi, it may be recalled, this sort of life had been, in Tom's opinion, most enviable: "everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had." So Tom had thought when all adult curbs had been hateful to him, when grown folk had seemed to be natural enemies, and their ways unnatural ways. But now Tom, bent on dragging Huck back to that civilization, tells the runaway that everybody lives cleanly and according to schedule. "And besides," he urges, "if you'll try this sort of thing just awhile longer you'll come to like it." Craftily, when Huck's chance remark helps Tom "see his opportunity," Tom dangles the bait of the robber gang. But though in chapter xiii Huck in rags was eligible for piratehood and even as late as chapter xxxiii his savagery has not been mentioned as a bar to his joining the robbers, now, to lure the boy back to the Widow's, Tom insists that Huck the Red-handed will have to live with the good woman and be "respectable" if he is to be allowed to join the gang. Something has happened to Tom. He is talking more like an adult than like an unsocial child. He has, it appears, gone over to the side of the enemy.

Lewis Leary (essay date 1954)

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SOURCE: "Tom and Huck: Innocence on Trial," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1954, pp. 417-30.

[Leary is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on American literature. In the following essay, he analyzes Twain's synthesis of romantic and anti-romantic themes in Tom Sawyer.]

One cannot seriously quarrel with DeLancey Ferguson when he says that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer violates every rule, past, present, and future of the "art novel," for in its context Mr. Ferguson's statement points out something which is important and true about that book. Taken out of its context, however, as I am afraid it has often been taken, this judgment and others like it have been seriously misleading. There is, of course, a great deal of apparent looseness about Tom Sawyer. Characters like Alfred Temple and Cousin Mary are needlessly or belatedly introduced. Toward the latter part of the book, time does seem mangled until some critics find more summer days following the Fourth of July than either the weather or the school calendar of Missouri would have allowed. The story is desperately episodic. The parts—the whitewashing incident, the graveyard horror, the adventure in the cave—remain more prominently in our memory than the whole to which they should be contributory. These are commonplaces, plain to almost every reader.

Yet, episodic, loose, and shambling—as Mark Twain was loose and shambling—the book is not without artistry beyond the surface artistry of the raconteur who, as Bernard De Voto has said, engraves minor realisms about provincial society for all time. There is another artistry, of theme and structure, which makes Tom Sawyer more than a charming narrative which transcends its own weaknesses. It is not, I think, a planned structure or a consciously articulated theme. But planned or not, the structure and the theme are there, expressive of a deeply underlying principle which haunted Mark Twain and which helps to explain why Tom Sawyer remained all his life Mark Twain's favorite character.

Mark Twain admits that the story moves on two levels. His first purpose, we are told in the preface, is to tell a tale which will hold boys and girls; his second, "to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves." The boy adventures—the whitewashing, the love in the schoolroom, the Jackson Island runaways, the school examination days—these, we may suppose, were for adults mainly. The murder, the murder trial, the cave adventures, almost everything about Injun Joe—these were for the boys and girls. The story line, the plot, the excitement were for them, the secret, the pursuit, the capture. The episodes were for the reminiscent adults. But a close reading of Tom Sawyer reveals more than this. One of the things I want to suggest as we re-examine its structure is a third, a more tantalizing and penetrative level. Let us, then, review the story briefly, with Mark Twain's often maligned time-sense as one of our principal guides.

The book is divided into three almost exactly equal parts. There are ten chapters in the first part, ten in the second, thirteen in the third. The first part is separated from the second and the second from the third, each by an interchapter. Within the three parts events are detailed carefully, time moves slowly, incident by incident, day by day. In the interchapters time is accelerated, so that weeks go by within a few pages. Each of the three parts is different from the others in tone, in the kind of adventure in which Tom involves himself, and in the ultimate relationship of these adventures to what I hope can be demonstrated as the theme which unifies the whole.

The first part begins on a Friday afternoon when Tom is discovered by Aunt Polly to have been in the jam pot. It continues through Saturday morning when he promotes his whitewashing coup, through Saturday afternoon when he meets the new girl in town, through the two Sunday chapters, one of the Sunday School, the other of the church service, the beetle and the poodle. It then proceeds to a full-packed Monday when, off to school minus the tooth he had pled as reason for staying home, Tom meets Huck Finn, exchanges the tooth for a woodtick which gets him and Joe Harper into trouble, pauses for a romantic moment over the noon-time tryst with Becky Thatcher, details an afternoon of hookey and imaginative schoolboy play, and finally ends on Monday night when Tom and Huck in the graveyard witness the murder of young Dr. Robinson by Injun Joe.

Seldom in any fiction have three and a half days been more expertly packed with what we must know in order to follow the rest of the tale with understanding. Tom is established, the murder known, the picnic which provides the climax planned. Seldom has time been better articulated. We know throughout where we are and just when every incident happens. There is unity of time, of place. It is the Aristotelian beginning, self-contained. Nor are the incidents told for their own sake alone, but weave one into the next to a pattern which creates a unity of tone for this whole first part. Its purpose? The recreation of boyhood adventure. Its theme—that innocent boyhood adventure, the brave curiosity of the imaginative boy, leads from innocence to knowledge of evil. Tom and Huck have eaten of no forbidden fruit. They do go out at night in defiance, at worst, of grownup disapproval, and they go where, in the strictest sense, they have really no right to be. But they go to the graveyard essentially in innocence, bravely, and adventuresomely, and the evil which is revealed to them and which will cloud and lengthen the whole summer for them is outside of them and in no manner of their making.

Then comes chapter eleven, an interchapter. Time is no longer exactly chronicled, but accelerated. Muff Potter is arrested. Two weeks pass.

The second part of the novel, chapters twelve to twenty-one, is divided into two episodes—the Jackson Island adventure and the last day at school. Again time slows down, so that the first episode begins on a Wednesday and ends on Sunday morning when the boys confuse the adults by attending their own funeral, and the second episode begins on Monday morning and moves to its climax with the artful prank of lifting the schoolmaster's wig. Each episode details imaginative boyhood adventure, each is an extension of the adventures of the first part of the novel, not precisely the same, but nonetheless much the kind we have been led to expect from a boy like Tom.

Are we too long diverted from the plot, which is concerned with the discovery of the murder, the capture of the murderer? If so, what is established? The two episodes which make up this second part of the novel have this in common: in each the boy in his prank wins out over the practical, matter-of-fact adult. And the tone of the adventure is now different. It is less innocent. It is no longer the simple, imaginative play of boys among themselves for their own ends. Tom's escapade on Jackson Island is in part the result of his reaction to a certain fall from innocence typified in his initiation to the bewildering attitude of girls. The schoolroom prank is a result of boyhood's revolt against conventional authority, against punishment for something of which Tom is not really guilty, against the kind of adult standards which the schoolmaster represents. In each, it is revolt against what the world inevitably holds in store for boys as they grow beyond innocence to knowledge of the world, of society, of its bewildering complications, its restraints, its insistence on regulations which would, without imagination, put everything in its place.

Then comes chapter twenty-two, another interchapter. It is vacation time, into which so many things are packed that a particularizing reader can count, at very least, thirty-seven days following the 4th of July and estimate, therefore, that the murder trial which opens the third part of the novel could not have taken place before the middle of August. And yet this second acceleration of time, of time into which too much is crowded, is perhaps justified. With guilty knowledge on his conscience, with fear in his heart, Tom may well have found that summer long, blighted with length. Restlessly he sought one consoling activity after another. He joined the Sons of Temperance. He gave up smoking and swearing. He kept a diary, for he was troubled with knowledge of himself. He played at soldier, at minstrel show, and at circus, as any boy might, but then he went to bed with measles for two weeks and got up to discover himself isolated, as indeed with his guilty knowledge of Muff Potter's innocence he was, from the rest of the community which had undergone a religious revival, so that Joe Harper was "studying a Testament," Ben Rogers was "visiting the poor with a basket of tracts," and even Huck Finn was quoting scripture. For three weeks more he was in bed with a relapse. Bernard DeVoto suggests that Tom was sick too much. He had reason to be.

The last part of the novel, the final thirteen chapters, is again unified in time, but not so concisely as the first two parts. The story moves now of its own power toward climax. The "sleepy atmosphere of the town was stirred—and vigorously: the murder trial came on in court," and continued through three exciting days until Tom gave his surprise evidence and Injun Joe escaped through a window. The boy was a hero, and up to a point he loved it: "Tom's days were days of splendor and exultation to him, but his nights were seasons of horror." He was entering, as everyone who grows to maturity must, the world of an adult where nights are often filled with horror. And so the "slow days drifted on," and Tom's fear changed and increased. He had squared his conscience with confession: that was right and proper and decent, but it led to menace even more real, the vengeance of Injun Joe.

These final chapters round out the plot and articulate the theme. From chapter twenty-five to the end, the time sequence is again precise. It begins on Thursday afternoon, when Tom and Huck first go treasure hunting on Cardiff Hill. If their adventure is not so innocent as it had been before, in the first part of the novel or even the second, it is as bravely pursued, in spite of the threat which the presence of Injun Joe and his companion provides. Evil is no longer something unknown, nor is it something which simply gnaws at the conscience to make nights filled with horror. It is real, it is present, it is consciously recognized and guarded against.

The boys are beginning to act as adults would act, and not only in seeking now a treasure which is real and not an imagined product of boyish play. On Saturday, when they discover that Injun Joe is disguised as the "old deaf and dumb Spaniard," they stalk him and watch for him at the head of the alley from Monday through Thursday in something approximating a serious, commonsense, adult manner. But with no results. (It may be worth noticing that, for some reason, Sunday is omitted from this sequence: we move from Saturday night directly into Monday. Is Mark Twain nodding, or did he cannily slip something by us? Either way, we may read into the omission remembrance that Sundays sometimes seem very important to boys, if only because they are uncomfortably miserable, but that as one grows toward maturity and is occupied with more sophisticated adult activities, then Sundays can be less important or even hardly Sundays at all. But we must not labor this point.)

With chapter twenty-nine, when the Thatchers return on Friday to town and announce their picnic for the next day, the story for the first time forks into parallel lines of action—with Tom and Becky in the cave, and with loyal, practical Huck at the same time conscientiously shadowing the murderer. Mark Twain's handling of the picnic-cave episode has not perhaps been adequately admired. It is prepared for early in the book, when Becky, eleven chapters and many weeks before, promises it during that crowded last day of school which ends the first part of the novel. As for the episode itself, it takes a second, even a third reading to discover how intricately the author has woven bumbling adult planning into a pattern of suspense ingeniously effective. It takes perhaps another reading to realize that it is this adult planning which goes astray and allows Tom and Becky to be lost for many hours before the search begins, that the adult search does not find the lost children, any more than it captures the murderer, but that it is Tom's brave, thoroughly impracticable, romance-bred explorations at the end of a string which ultimately lead them to safety.

Here, I think, the theme is most effectively pointed up: it is not the practical and methodical Huck, who acts as an adult would act and who is doggedly faithful in watching for the murderer, who accomplishes any more in relation to the evil personified by Injun Joe than scaring it off, driving it into hiding from which it may escape to strike again. It is the irresponsible and irrepressible Tom, who leaves the chase for a picnic, who explores beyond common sense into the cave, who bravely but quite inadvertently leads to the capture of Injun Joe. The adults do seal the mouth of the cave, but not to trap a murderer, only to prevent a recurrence of Tom's kind of adventuring. And the boy who had been in the cave which became a tomb for three days, from Saturday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon, ascended from it not essentially a different, but a more decently mature person. Two weeks later, when the body of Injun Joe was found, Tom's "pity was moved." He knew from his own experience "how this wretch had suffered."

Tom was not in the strictest sense reborn, but he was growing up, to knowledge and understanding of evil. Most important, however, he retained, as many who approach maturity do not, the secret of avoiding evil. It is boyhood adventure again, in the final two chapters, which leads Tom and Huck to the discovery of Injun Joe's treasure, as they play themselves at being robbers. It is Tom's imaginative play, not Huck's common sense, which brings to each of them the stupendous wealth of a dollar a day for life. That is security, indeed. Tom revels in it and is happy. But Huck is further rewarded. For his adult-like activities in tracking Injun Joe to the widow's house and then, scared but sensible, running for help as a responsible person should, Huck is adopted and ultimately made unhappy as the widow attempts to "sivilize" him.

We thus discover within the three parts of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer meanings which underlie the plot and which our examination of the structure of that book have made clear. In the first part we find that boyhood adventure leads innocently to knowledge of evil. In the second part we are shown that, even when it is self-consciously in revolt, adventure wins out over prosaic, adult methods of doing things. In the final part we discover that adventure, which is compounded in part of the spirit of make-believe, imagination, illusion—that adventure, and not common sense, leads finally to the wiping out of evil. Is this why Tom Sawyer was Mark Twain's favorite among his books?

William G. Barrett (essay date 1955)

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SOURCE: "On the Naming of Tom Sawyer," in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, July, 1955, pp. 424-36.

[In the following essay, which was first presented as a paper at the Midwinter Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in December, 1954, Barrett examines the psychological and mythological implications of Tom Sawyer's name.]

All writers of fiction furnish their works with experience from their own lives. In a sense, no author can create a character not at least in part himself. Even so, each author has one book more intimately concerned than his others with the details of what he himself has known and done: his 'autobiographical' work. How an author titles this work, and how he christens his characters, is a subject of both literary and psychological interest. Freud, for instance, in The Interpretation of Dreams, ventures the theory that Zola, in his novel L'Oeuvre, offered 'a description of his own person and his own domestic happiness, and appears under the name of Sandoz'. This name, Freud guesses, was created in part by the reversal of Zola, the oz indicating the identity of the author and his fictional hero. And Foster, in his Life of Dickens, points out that David Copperfield, the hero of Dickens's most clearly autobiographical novel, bears a name the initials of which reversed become C. D. It is reported that Charles Dickens was not pleased when this was called to his attention.

The late Hanns Sachs once remarked that the German-Swiss poet and novelist Gottfried Keller wrote of himself as Heinrich Lee, and wondered whether the 'ell' of Keller might be, reversed in two ways, the source of Lee. Sachs also pointed out that Goethe called the heroine of his autobiographical novel, Die Leiden des Jungen Werther, by the name of his own beloved Lotte. The hero, Werther, representing himself, was named by prefacing a rhyming of Goethe with the first letter of his middle name, Wolfgang, thus: W-erther.

In these illustrations we see reversal, condensation, and rhyme, devices typical of the dream work. In some instances such devices are used consciously; in others this naming process is unconscious. Diverting as these guessing games may be, they are of limited significance. The naming of an autobiographical hero for reasons basic to the psychic conflicts of the author would be of more interest. Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer has, I believe, been named in this way.

As a name, Tom Sawyer sounds good. I have been told that it sounds better as a title than, for instance, Bill Rogers, who, in Twain's earlier writings, played the role later assigned to Tom. It is true that Tom Sawyer does sound better than Bill Rogers, although our preference may be subject to the persuasions of familiarity. In any case, we must look beyond euphony. Using the devices of condensation and reversal mentioned above, we might conjecture that Tom stands for Twain, and Sawyer for the first name of Samuel Clemens. Thus we arrive at Samuel (Clemens Mark) Twain, or the initials S. T., which, reversed, become those of Tom Sawyer. But let us look into meanings, and begin with Sawyer.

Mark Twain uses the word 'sawyer' in a letter to his sister written from New York in October, 1853, when he was not quite eighteen years old. He had gone east a few months earlier determined to make his own way in the world, and while following his trade of typesetter was tasting and relishing life in the big city, although not without a sense of guilt. But he was also somewhat homesick and afraid. He had taken lodgings in a cheap boarding house and was living under conditions that gave him but slight opportunity to betray his promise to his mother. 'I do solemnly swear', he had said, 'that I will not throw a card, or drink a drop of liquor while I am gone'. In this letter he states that 'a brother', if not able to take care of himself, is not worth one's thoughts', and continues, 'I shall ask favors from no one, and endeavor to be (and shall be) as "independent as a wood-sawyer's clerk"'.

The wood-sawyer as a symbol of independence was popular at that time, as shown by the promise of John M. Clayton, when made Secretary of State in President Taylor's cabinet in 1849, that he would be 'as independent of Congress as a wood-sawyer'.

Mark Twain's passion for independence was an unconscious denial of, a reaction-formation against, a deep unconscious passivity. This need for independence may have played an important part in determining his choice of the name Sawyer for the character modeled upon his image of his childhood self. In his letters, autobiography, and writings, he again and again declares his independence; but these declarations stand in strange contrast to his abiding alliance with the underdog and his deep feeling of identity with what he called 'the damned human race', a race he felt to be enslaved, even doomed, by its own puniness. Human beings are but playthings of Fate. Mark can conceive of a world directed by a devil ( The Mysterious Stranger), but he cannot bring himself to believe in God. He is simultaneously free and enslaved, strong and weak, struggling bravely against hopeless odds and experiencing repetitiously injustice and disillusionment. This is the world view of the masochistic personality.

The word 'sawyer' is closely connected, also, with the freest and happiest period of Mark Twain's life, the time he spent as pilot on a Mississippi river boat. In this period he was truly independent; he was making good money and he found it easy to think well of himself. The river pilot was a respected and privileged figure, and to become one required an exacting apprenticeship and a native gift of extraordinary memory. The channels of the river were constantly changing and in addition the pilot had to know the positions of dangerous snags. These were of two types: planters, those so firmly fixed as to remain motionless; and sawyers, those less firmly anchored and free to rise and fall with the waves or changing levels of the waters. Mark felt himself to be closely identified with the Mississippi—it gave him, among other things, the name under which he wrote—and his selection of the name Sawyer for the boy he had in mind, and who, like himself, was raised on the great river, may have been re-enforced by its association with the more freely moving snags.

Associations between the act of sawing and personal freedom are illustrated particularly clearly in two scenes of Huckleberry Finn. When Huck prepares to escape from his father he saws his way out of the cabin, although the story gives him several opportunities simply to sneak off without working so hard for his freedom. The same device of sawing one's way to freedom recurs when Nigger Jim is about to be freed in the last chapters of the book. Huck knows beforehand that Tom will insist upon sawing Jim out; and that is just what he does, regretting that the situation is not drastic enough to warrant sawing off Jim's leg! ere, too, the act of sawing is quite unnecessary as the chain could be freed by simply lifting the bed. Of course the entire episode is burlesque, since Tom knew before he began that Jim had been freed at his owner's death, but while Mark is having fun with, and amusing, his readers he is also giving us a measure of the emotional importance to him of winning one's way to freedom—by being a sawyer.

The more common associations between sawing and cutting must also have played a part in the selection of the name. Twain's works are rich in sadistic fantasies of death and mutilation. In Following the Equator, for instance, he is fascinated by reports of the incredible pain stoically endured by the Australian natives in their practice of primitive surgery without anesthesia; he describes the process of slowly burning off an injured hand or foot that appeared to be beyond cure. In the same country, he jokes about the sheepshearers who 'sometimes clipped a sample of the sheep'. Speaking of an explosion in Johannesburg, he writes of 'limbs picked up' by the survivors 'for miles around'. Many of the tales in Sketches Old and New are of mutilation and death. In 'My Bloody Massacre,' the failure of a satire is described as being due to the fact that people neglect the telling detail and hasten instead 'to revel in the bloodcurdling details and be happy'. One need but turn the pages of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, or The Prince and the Pauper, to learn to what degree Mark Twain's mind was occupied by sadistic themes.

So much for Sawyer. What about Tom? This is a more intricate problem, and the evidence of unconscious determination is but slightly less convincing. Tom, after all, is a very common boy's name—a pleasant name, short, simple and wholesome—but I am convinced it was more than that for Mark Twain. His choice of Tom was determined in two ways: by general association with social usage and folklore, and by personal association.

Tom as a name and in its combined forms is second only to Jack and its derivatives in popular usage in the English language. It is used to distinguish the male of certain animals, as tomcat and tom turkey, and in the sexually-reversed form, tomboy. It is also used to designate the common run of mankind, as Tom, Dick and Harry, or Tom Tyler and, in a limited sense, Tom Brown, the typical British schoolboy; also Tommy Atkins, the British soldier. A third group of usages includes tomfool, often Tom Fool, with the derivatives tomfoolery and tomfoolishness; Loony Tom; Tom Noddy; Tom Tram, a jester or professional fool; and Tom o'Bedlam, one truly mad. A special form is Tom Thumb, still a popular figure though first noted in a ballad of 1630, which places him in King Arthur's court. Mark wrote of that court, and must have heard much of Tom Thumb in the mid-nineteenth century when a midget so-named was one of P. T. Barnum's chief attractions. Another special case is Tom Pepper, a nautical term for a remarkable liar. He is mentioned by Twain in A Burlesque Biography as an ancestor, along with Nebuchadnezzar, and Baalam's Ass—they all belong to our family'.

The word 'tommyrot', while defined simply as 'nonsense', probably stems from both the idea of stupidity of the masses and of decay (putrefaction and corruption). It is interesting that our present day teen-agers use Tom currently to mean 'lousy', 'fouled up', or 'moldy', as opposed to George, meaning 'super', 'terrific', or 'just right'.

There are other Tom derivatives, but those of greater currency describe: 1, maleness; 2, the common man, in a derogatory sense; 3, foolishness (amateur and professional!), nonsense, stupidity and madness; 4, smallness; 5, untruthfulness; 6, the quality of being typical. Mark Twain holds selfishness to be the controlling element in man's nature, but in his complaining, bitter condemnation of the damned human race' he speaks frequently of man's stupidity, puny insignificance, falseness and hypocrisy—and he writes almost exclusively about the male sex and is a male identifying himself with the average representative. Tom would seem to be just the right name for a male member of Mark's 'damned human race'.

One of the most familiar usages is the term Peeping Tom. There is no English word for the activity this term designates nor do we know how the name Tom became here, as in so many other forms, associated with the socially unacceptable: the shady activity of guilty sexual spying.

Scoptophilic and exhibitionistic impulses are, of course, present in everybody and are included among the 'partial instincts'. There is an economic balance between these opposing impulses: whenever we find clinical evidence of the presence of the one we eventually come upon the other in approximately corresponding quantity; also, whenever one of the pair is represented consciously we discover it to be, in some degree, a defense against the opposing impulse in the unconscious. Mark Twain was notoriously exhibitionistic both in his appearance and his activities. In his later years, for instance, he gave up conventional dark clothing entirely and always appeared in immaculate white suits, with a black necktie to mark the boundary between his body and his head with its shock of curly white hair. His biographer, Paine, tells how he would demur to the suggestion that they make an inconspicuous entrance in Peacock Alley of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and insisted upon walking down the great staircase before the admiring eyes of the crowd. He took great pride in his appearance, particularly in his thick, curly hair which, as it changed color from red to white, was allowed to become longer and thus increasingly impressive. He also took pride in his stage presence while lecturing, in his facial control, and particularly in the 'dead pan' delivery of his humor. He found great gratification in the admiration of his audiences and was always more or less on display.

One does not find evidence of Peeping Tom impulses in significant quantity in Mark Twain's writings, but his manifest exhibitionism forces one to conclude that there must have been a corresponding quantity of unconscious Peeping Tom impulses. The psychodynamics of the writer have been studied in some detail by Hanns Sachs [in his The Creative Unconscious, 1942] and by Edmund Bergler [in his The Writer and Psychoanalysis; 1950]. The latter quoting Rank says:'… the writer has always been suspected, analytically, of a "shameless urge to reveal himself "', and goes on to say that the exhibitionism 'is but an inner defense against an even deeper repressed voyeurism'. Sachs expressed a similar conviction in his earlier publication, although it was less clearly formulated. I agree with this hypothesis and it seems to me possible that unconscious peeping impulses may have been a factor in Twain's selection of the name Tom for his personal representative. This suggestion is based upon the general psychological tendency toward unwitting revelation of subliminal knowledge of repressed impulses, the result of minimal outbreaks of the repressed into conscious fantasy.

The first personal Tom in Mark's life was Tom Blankenship, the ne'er-do-well son of an impoverished and disreputable family of the town of Hannibal, Missouri, in which Mark was raised. This Tom has been spoken of as the model for Huck Finn and was described by Mark, in his later years, as a 'kindly young heathen'. In an unpublished manuscript he lets us know that Tom's sisters were charged with prostitution—not proven'. On the same page he speaks of a 'Tom Nash [who] went deaf and dumb from breaking through ice', and, 'his two young sisters [who] went deaf and dumb from scarlet fever'. So the name Tom was early associated with disaster not only to one's self, but also to those close to one. Mark Twain had a feeling of responsibility for the welfare of his family and a strong inclination toward self-accusation. At the time of his younger brother's death his assumption of guilt became grotesque. Henry died as a result of being severely burned and perhaps internally injured in a steamboat explosion, but the older brother went to great lengths to find reasons for reproaching himself for what had happened. He blamed himself for Henry's presence aboard the boat, for not being himself aboard to help and protect him (this required the presumption that he, himself, would not have been injured) and, finally, for what he feared might have been an overdose of morphine which he urged a young doctor to give for the relief of pain shortly before Henry's death. There were no valid reasons for Mark to consider himself guilty in this instance, nor in connection with the death of his son, or of his daughter, many years later; nevertheless, he spoke of having killed his son because a carriage robe had blown off him for a few minutes one day about the time he contracted diphtheria, and he held the mismanagement of his 'entire life' the cause of Susy's death from meningitis.

Other connections with the name, Tom, turn up in Pudd'n-bead Wilson. The core of this story is the exchange made by a Negro mother of her own white-appearing child for the truly white infant of her mistress. This replacement is not discovered for many years, but the child of mixed blood, despite advantages of wealth and background, turns out to be cowardly, cruel, selfish, corrupt and weak. Mark gives him the name Tom Driscoll. This picture bears no relation to Mark's feeling about Negroes for whom he had respect and sympathy. Tom Driscoll, however, is a man who was only 'by a fiction of law and custom a Negro', for he was thirty-one thirty-seconds white. The black portion, however, was the determinant of his character in this parable for, as his mother said relative to this black one thirty-second: 'en dat po' little one part is yo' soul' It seems that Tom Driscoll, with his black soul, is not merely a character in his own right, but a paradigm of Mark's conception of all men—an example of what he repeatedly refers to as the 'damned human race'.

Mark Twain's conviction that he, himself, was evil from birth is made dramatically clear in his notes on the illness of his epileptic daughter, Jean. He tells that, in 1892, Jean's nature underwent a sudden and unaccountable change'. She had been 'affectionate, gentle and joyous', but became 'wilful, stubborn, rude, conceited, insolent, offensive'. During the early stages of her illness and before she suffered her first convulsion, Mark had 'concluded that the great change had been merely the development, in due course, of her real nature, and her former lovable nature an artificial production due to parental restraint and watchfulness'. With the diagnosis officially pronounced, he was happy to be able to 'perceive … that the real nature was the early one'. Mark's conviction regarding Jean's 'real [evil] nature' shows his masochistic identification with his daughter and we see that he feels his basic nature to be as 'black' as Tom Driscoll's. It is interesting that the story, 'Those Extraordinary Twins,' a story of a monster with two heads, four arms and two legs, upon which Mark had been working for some months, crystallized into Pudd'nhead Wilson in the late fall of 1892. When, in 1899, Mark wrote the story of Jean's illness he stated that the change in her nature first appeared in 1892 t Tolz, in Bavaria, while Mrs. Clemens was undergoing treatment, probably in the summer or fall. It is possible that Twain's interest in the Siamese twins was increased by the appearance of the mystifying changes in Jean's character but that this very closeness to his personal problem prevented completion of the story at that time. In Pudd'nhead Wilson the 'twins' are separated into two ordinary twins and have only a loose relationship to the main plot. In fact, the inclusion of Pudd'nhead was his final alteration of the story and, although his name titles the book, he appears on but a few pages and his only significant role is to identify the criminal, Tom Driscoll, by means of his thumbprint. A thumbprint is a man's individual, distinctive mark, and a part of his biological inheritance. Jean had become a 'monster', had begun to show evidence of her heritage: a black soul. It seems clear that Twain felt the criminal responsibility for this should be placed upon himself: Jean's evil nature is the imprint of his own nature; she is the 'fingerprint' that reveals his guilt. In the story, Mark writes, 'From the very beginning of his usurpation', Tom Driscoll became 'a bad baby'. Tom Driscoll changed when his mother rejected him, and the description of this change in his nature parallels Mark's description of the change in Jean's nature. Can it be that maternal rejection is the cause of the evil in the damned human race'?

In connection with Twain's interest in twins, it is interesting that the substitution of Tom Driscoll for the child of the master is made possible by the twinlike similarity in appearance of the two babies. It would be interesting to know whether Clemens was familiar with the derivation of the name 'Tom' from the Aramaic, meaning 'twin'.

Tom Driscoll is one of three important Toms in Twain's writings; the others are Tom Sawyer, of the 'autobiography', and Tom Canty, of The Prince and the Pauper. Interestingly enough, with but one exception this name is not used for minor characters, other than for a few who are disposed of in a line or two. The exception concerns a Tommy, rather than a Tom, who is the hero of the second story of 'Two Little Tales.' His 'was the lowest of all employments, for he was second in command to his father, who emptied cesspools and drove a night-cart'. In spite of his humble station, he manages to get medical advice to the sick emperor and save the royal life. The prescription: to eat watermelon!

A lowborn Tom whose works are good and who has some relation to royalty is the theme of The Prince and the Pauper, where the third important Tom appears. Tom Canty lived 'up a foul little pocket called Offal Court, out of Pudding Lane', a London slum, but he is as fundamentally good as Tom Driscoll is bad. While the true prince experiences the unhappy lot of the ordinary citizen and discovers the baseness of human nature, Tom, in the role of prince, brings justice and fair play into the courts of the realm and in his own way exposes the venality, greed, and inhumanity of those in high places. This is an evangelical Tom, but he is none the less involved in the perfidy of the 'damned human race'—a kind of dichotomous literary twin of Tom Driscoll.

The three Toms other than the one directly representative of Mark Twain are made, it would seem, of rather poor stuff. Tom Canty was the product of Offal Court, Tommy was the child of a collector of excrement, and Tom Driscoll was 'black', the color symbolic of excrement. The name, Tom, is used for a depreciated person, but, more specifically, for a child of anal origin. These Toms have overtly or covertly suffered rejection. Tom Sawyer was an orphan.

The book, Tom Sawyer, tells about an active, inventive, death-fearing, typical boy of the mid-nineteenth century mid-frontier. Under cover of the liberty given boys of his age he lives out the wild, defiant and fearful imagery of his daydreams. These are covertly oedipal, but untinged by overt sexuality. Tom struggles more or less successfully against the 'damnation' of the human race, but engages in hypocrisy, fraud and cruelty which would not be acceptable in a grown-up hero. Despite his brave rebellion, his success depends upon the social acceptance of his activities as the larks of a preadolescent boy—although he destroys the villain and becomes a real hero in the end. This theme was most dear to Mark Twain. It produced, also, not only a sequel, Tom Sawyer Abroad, one of his best stories but, many years later, another book which seems to have served him as an unconscious release, at least in part, from a long period of guilt, depression and masochistic exhibitionism: The Mysterious Stranger. Through these literary expressions of deeply repressed fantasies he seemed, for a while, freed of his burden. But such freedom was always incomplete for Mark Twain. In spite of his conscious feelings of guilt, his confessions of weakness, his 'affectations' (as his friends called them) of self-depreciation and self-condemnation, he was actually not able to assume frank responsibility for what he considered his personal failures. In this respect he seems never to be mature enough. His failures he always thought, or secretly felt, were due to fate. They were his lot as a member of the damned human race'. In these moods he was the Tomchild, anal in origin, rejected by his mother, and the victim of a relentless conscience. As Huck Finn says, 'it don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway. … It takes up more room than all the rest of a person's insides, and yet ain't no good, nohow. Tom Sawyer he says the same.' With the debt to his conscience paid by self-punishment, he could become the Sawyer-child, the ego ideal struggling toward freedom, independence and self-determination. Mark Twain, in his literary life, tried both to work out and to cover his basic unconscious conflict. In a simpler way his white dress served the same function in public life, for it not only covered his black soul' (Tom) but rendered him pure, lily-white (Sawyer), and deserving of general approbation.

Samuel Clemens's life and works show that he felt himself, more than do most of us, to be two people: he was, indeed, twain. With this in mind, we can better understand his pre-occupation with twins, and can believe that the selection of his pen name was not merely the accidental result of his exposure to nautical terminology. We can also sense the deeper meaning of his pun before the Authors' Club, of London: 'Since England and America have been joined in Kipling, may they not be severed in Twain'.

Barry A. Marks (essay date 1959)

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SOURCE: "Mark Twain's Hymn of Praise," in English Journal, Vol. XLVIII, No. 8, November, 1959, pp. 443-8.

[Marks is an American educator and the editor of a critical anthology on Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the following essay, Marks argues that, while Tom Sawyer begins by satirizing social convention, the novel ends with an affirmation of the human need for society.]

"A hymn, put into prose form to give it a worldly air" is the way Mark Twain once described Tom Sawyer, and of course he was right. The book is a song of praise and adoration—not only of the Mississippi Valley in the mid-nineteenth century but of life itself. One way of alluding to the novel's special dimensions is to note that it becomes a hymn rather than is a hymn. It begins in tones of amused cynicism and only becomes joyful affirmation as the total composition takes shape. A full appreciation of Twain's novel therefore requires a careful inspection of the process of its development.

The first half of the book is a double-edged satire. The omniscient author directs his irony at both the romanticism of childhood and the conventionality of adulthood. He criticizes the adult world for being dishonest, self-centered, and dull; he criticizes childhood for being dishonest, self-centered, and unrealistic in its compulsive search for an antidote to dullness.

Mark Twain's critique of adulthood begins on the very first page where he describes Aunt Polly's spectacles. "She seldom or never looked through them," he says, "… they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for 'style,' not service—she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well." Gentle satire, to be sure, but satire nonetheless. Adults, for all their talk of common sense and virtue, are at least as guilty as children of false posturing. The point is clear in the chapter, "Showing Off in Sunday-School," where the chapter title applies explicitly both to the pupils and to the faculty and administration. The point is equally clear in the chapter describing "Examination Day" at the public school. The schoolmaster's desire to have his pupils perform better than they are able is, like the wig that he wears, another turn on the theme established by Aunt Polly's glasses. The bases of the satire on conventional society are several. The first is of course the plain dishonesty of its behavior. More fundamental however is that adult dishonesty is usually self-aggrandizing. This is clearly the case with Injun Joe's effort to blame the murder of Dr. Robinson on Muff Potter. It also characterizes the school officials and even the "honesty" of Tom's good brother Sid. Sid's tattle-taling support of the established order becomes, in the fictional world of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, equally as reprehensible as plain dishonesty because it stems from selfish motives.

Beyond self-aggrandizement, the major failure of the sleepy Missouri town is precisely that it is asleep, that it is dull, sterile, inhuman. Adults live mechanical lives: they get up in the morning, eat, wash, and sleep at just the same times every day, they conform superficially to standards of behavior that they don't really believe in, and they force their children into the same mold. They do not permit themselves to experience human emotions. Certainly, they know neither love nor beauty nor joy. The images of the machine with which Mark Twain described the school Examination night suggest his attitude.

The exercises began. A very little boy stood up and sheepishly recited … accompanying himself with the painfully exact and spasmodic gestures which a machine might have used—supposing the machine to be a trifle out of order. But he got through safely, though cruelly scared, and got a fine round of applause when he made his manufactured bow and retired.

The same images and the same attitude inform the treatment of the minister who delivers his sermons with a total disregard for their meaning and who is yet the town's most revered interpretative reader. And they inform also Huckleberry Finn's at least partially justifiable strictures against the Widow Douglas, who leads her life by a rigid system of bells. Mark Twain's diagnosis of the town is pictured most sharply, however, in the town's inhuman joy over the murder of Dr. Robinson and the capture of Muff Potter. Quite apart from the fact that Potter is actually innocent, Mark Twain stresses that in St. Petersburg the citizens see evil primarily as a break in the mechanical routine of life. It inspires, therefore, neither fear nor pity but rather holiday rejoicing!

Of these weaknesses of conventional society Tom Sawyer and his childhood friends are keenly aware; yet they, in their turn, are satirized precisely for the keenness of their insight. The satire is based largely on the boys' "romanticism." The language of the following description of Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper on their Jackson's Island adventure clearly suggests Twain's attitude: it is a parody of romantic nature poetry, a parody of Bryant or perhaps Cooper.

It seemed glorious sport to be feasting in that wild free way in the virgin forest of an explored and uninhabited island, far from the haunts of men, and they said they never would return to civilization. The climbing fire lit up their faces and threw its ruddy glare upon the pillared tree-trunks of their forest temple, and upon the varnished foliage and festooning vines.

That this is Mark Twain adopting the pose of stock romanticism is clear to anyone who has noticed the contrast between "they said they never would return to civilization" and the way Huck actually says it later on in the book:

'Don't talk to me about it, Tom. I've tried it, and it don't work; it don't work, Tom. It ain't for me; I ain't used to it. The widder's good to me, and friendly; but I can't stand them ways.'

Or, to return to the Jackson's Island fire whose glare has now reached the "varnished foliage and festooning vines" and to the paragraph which immediately follows, Mark Twain's intention is perfectly clear as he here strains for a final effect:

When the last crisp slice of bacon was gone, and the last allowance of corn pone devoured, the boys stretched themselves out on the grass, filled with contentment. They could have found a cooler place, but they would not deny themselves such a romantic feature as the roasting campfire.

Both explicitly and implicitly then Mark Twain tars and feathers Tom Sawyer and his friends for the stereotyped nature of their romantic attitudes. In a sense Tom's objection to society is just as dull and conventional as the dullness and conventionality that he rejects.

Mark Twain satirizes Tom's romanticism on grounds other than its stereotyped nature, however. He stresses, in addition, Tom's insincerity. Both his joys and his sorrows are blatantly inflated beyond what his experiences call for, and repeatedly Mark Twain throws cold water on his romantic posturing. In one of Tom's many melancholy withdrawals from the "haunts of men," for example, the author describes at some length his young hero's speculation on the advantages of death as an escape from the miseries and injustices of life. He points up Tom's basic insincerity, however, by concluding the passage, "Ah, if he could only die temporarily!"

And, on one occasion, a few chapters before the passage just cited, the "cold water" that Mark Twain throws on Tom Sawyer is not my metaphor but Mark Twain's. Tom is lying on the ground under Becky Thatcher's window, dreaming of himself as dead and unloved, and Mark Twain describes his thoughts this way:

oh! would she drop one little tear upon his poor, lifeless form, would she heave one little sigh to see a bright young life so rudely blighted, so untimely cut down?

The window went up, a maid-servant's discordant voice profaned the holy calm, and a deluge of water drenched the prone martyr's remains!

The insincere self-inflation that characterizes Tom's romantic melancholy defines equally his romantic adventuring. Repeatedly, Mark Twain makes clear that Tom's role as Robin Hood or as the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main is unrealistic and, further, that Tom depends on its being unrealistic. When, for example, the boys need provisions for the excursion to Jackson's Island, they organize a highly stylized pirate raid on a raft tied up to the shore. Mark Twain carefully points out, however, that the boys proceed in the complete safety of the raftsmen's absence.

This then is the nature of the double-edged satire that Mark Twain establishes in approximately the first half of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The conflict between the adult world and Tom Sawyer can be stated in terms of a familiar series of opposed values: civilization vs. adventure; society vs. self; tradition vs. individualism; dullness, convention, and "style" vs. excitement, naturalism, and functionalism; work vs. play, etc. And of vital importance is the author's technique of playing one set of values off against the other, apparently rejecting both sets with evenhanded justice. The conflict and mood can perhaps be summarized as the simultaneous rejection of both romanticism and anti-romanticism.

If this is where The Adventures of Tom Sawyer begins, however, the book as a whole is a complex but nevertheless clear and steady progression toward reconciling the two poles of value and relaxing the satirical tone. In the first place, the character of the town develops during the course of the novel. In the beginning, the town was rigidly antihumanist. It found artificial joy in temperance parades, minstrel shows, and Fourth of July celebrations; otherwise it could respond with genuine pleasure only to evidence of violence and pain, such as the murder of Dr. Robinson or, even earlier in the book, the church-aisle suffering of a dog bitten by a beetle. To a large extent the structure of Tom Sawyer is defined by the town's increasing capacity to experience joy and love simultaneously. This development can be measured by contrasting the early incidents just cited with the two reunion scenes that mark respectively the middle of the book and the end. Chapter 17, "Pirates At Their Own Funeral," is the reunion that follows the Jackson's Island escapade. The town as a whole experiences a new sense of the value of life—and its communal joy exists in spite of the knowledge that Tom and his chums have perpetrated a huge hoax. The "sold" congregation, Mark Twain says, is almost willing to be fooled again in order to re-experience the joy that went with singing the doxology. The funeral-turned-joyous-reunion is almost exactly paralleled at the end of the book when Tom and Becky return from the cave. The great difference in chapter 32, "'Turn Out! They're Found!'" is that this joyful reunion is unqualified by any practical jokes. Though it is the middle of the night, the townspeople parade to the river and back to meet the children, blowing horns, beating pans, sweeping "magnificently up the main street roaring huzzah after huzzah!"

As the town is revivified through the infusion of genuine human emotion, so Tom himself develops. Both his joys and his sorrows discover attachments in the real world as he learns to reduce the primacy of self. His withdrawal into self-indulgent melancholy in chapter three is a response to Aunt Polly's having punished him for breaking the sugar bowl that he did not actually break. Tom is in that instance victimized, to be sure, yet his escape to the river where he enjoys a riot of self pity is far out of proportion to the importance of the incident. That his response is a self-pitying over-response is made evident by contrast to the incident in chapter twenty in which he is mistakenly punished for spilling ink on his spelling book. By chapter twenty Tom has undergone important maturing experiences. Through public confession he has exposed himself to what Melville called the "universal thump." Confessing, for example, his knowledge that Injun Joe rather than Muff Potter had murdered Dr. Robinson, he risked Injun Joe's revenge. As a result Tom has established valid relationships with his Aunt Polly, Muff Potter, the community, and himself. With these maturing experiences behind him, it is no surprise to find him taking even unjust punishment with equanimity. Mark Twain says, "Tom took his whipping and went back to his seat not at all brokenhearted, for he thought it was possible that he had unknowingly upset the ink on the spelling book himself, in some sky-larking bout."

Tom's final withdrawal, in the cave episode which leads directly to the book's denouement, is of course the most real of all. For if the danger of Injun Joe's revenging himself on Tom is potential, the danger of Tom and Becky's starving to death in the cave is imminent. And as Tom fronts life in its darkest depths, not now self-deludedly but objectively, so he is prepared for a symbolic rebirth. Like Jonah and Little Red Riding Hood who return from the bellies of animals or, more closely analogous, like Theseus' eturn from the minotaur's labyrinth, Tom returns to the light of day from the darkness of the cave. Here is Mark Twain's account. Tom, he says,

closed with a description of how he left Becky and went on an exploring expedition; how he followed two avenues as far as his kite-line would reach; how he followed a third to the fullest stretch of the kite-line, and was about to turn back when he glimpsed a far-off speck that looked like daylight; dropped the line and groped toward it, pushed his head and shoulders through a small hole and saw the broad Mississippi rolling by!

Tom's withdrawals become then progressively less sentimental, less founded on self-inflation and more founded on objective reality and, finally, form the basis for a vitally maturing life experience. Simultaneously, he grows in his conscious awareness of the proper relationships between adventure and conventional behavior, play and work, and self-love and other-love. At the conclusion of the famous whitewashing-the-fence incident which comes in the very beginning of the novel, Mark Twain makes this comment: "Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain." In a crucially important sense, the whole book can be described as Tom Sawyer's progressive understanding of the meaning and validity of this law. What after all does he learn from the Jackson's Island escapade in the middle of the book? He and his friends learn that the life of high adventure very quickly leads to emptiness and boredom without the contrasting pressure of obligation; they learn that they need other people to love them and admire their exploits; they learn perhaps even that they need other people to love. Indeed the whole adventure would have collapsed in total disillusionment if Tom had not developed a plan for their ultimate return to the village. Equivocal and half understood as it was, the ultimate significance of the incident lies in the paradoxical principle that the life of romantic adventure has meaning only if it is based on the love, warmth, and security of home and community; and, on the other hand, the meaning of home and community is revivified when conjoined with the life of romantic adventure.

Tom reveals his quite conscious understanding of this principle when, in the last chapters of the book, he explains to Huck his plans for organizing a robber gang. The similarity between the robber gang and the pirate gang of the first part of the book is striking, but there is also a crucial difference. Tom explains his vision and Huck replies, "'Why, it's real bully, Tom. I b'lieve it's better'n to be a pirate.'" Tom's answer is, "'Yes, it's better in some ways, because it's close to home and circuses and all that.'" And, of course, it is this closeness to "home and circuses and all that" which makes it essential for Huck to live with the Widow Douglas and become "respectable" before he can hope to become a member of Tom's gang. Finally, it is Huck Finn's acceptance of society's terms, in the last line of the book, which provides even him—miserable, frightened, and lonely as he has been throughout the book—with hope in his soul." 'I'll stick to the widder till I rot, Tom';" he says, "'and if I get to be a reg'lar ripper of a robber, and everybody talking 'bout it, I reckon she'll be proud she snaked me in out of the wet.'"

Ultimately, then, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is, on the level of action, a series of withdrawals and returns on the part of its central character. This pattern of action consists in a progressively more significant, to use Thoreau's term, "adventuring on life," a process which issues in Tom's maturation. Tom plays at romance, but when his play leads him to a discovery of the real nature of isolation with its concomitants—violence, darkness, evil—he learns the value of basing romance in a firm attachment to society. From persistent denial of obligation in the interests of sentimental individualism—which Mark Twain tells us is essentially self-love—Tom moves to an affirmation of social conventions in the interests of that highest form of joy which is founded on other-love. But The Adventures of Tom Sawyer involves also, as we have seen, the "maturation" of the community. So that when Tom encourages Huck to accept the widow's rigidities by telling him, "Come along, old chap, and I'll ask the widow to let up on you a little," the reader is willing to believe that the widow may indeed let up, that, in other words, the renewed life of the community need not be merely temporary. What Tom Sawyer finally affirms, then, is that life at its best is an amalgam of the independent and the dependent, play and work, the life of adventure and the life of commonplace obligation. Where in the early pages of the book Mark Twain satirized, for example, Tom's adventures, because they were really based on safety and security, on his essential attachment to his society, in the late pages this conjunction of opposites is what he affirms as an ultimately valid mode of life.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer lacks the sense of a fully realized fictional world that distinguishes Huckleberry Finn. It is not so toughminded as Huck Finn. It is not so distinguished a work of comic art. Its capacity still to appeal to a modern reader lies, I think, in the quality to which Mark Twain referred in calling it a hymn. Inherent in its structure is a song praising mankind—praising his weakness and need for love and security as well as his strength and capacity for achievement, but mostly praising the life which permits man's conflicting motives to exist together in ultimate harmony.

Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: "Tom Sawyer and the Use of Novels," in The Curious Death of the Novel: Essays in American Literature, Louisiana State University Press, 1967, pp. 88-99.

[Rubin is an American critic, educator, and novelist. In the following essay, he argues that Tom Sawyer presents a unique portrait of American life.]

Because Mark Twain is so important a figure in American literary history, and because The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) is his first work of fiction, there is the temptation to dwell on the historical aspects of the novel. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), it can be approached as a guide to what life was like along the Mississippi in the years before the Civil War, as a mirror of the pivotal position the Missouri region occupied in the slavery controversy, as a species of "frontier humor," and so on.

Such investigations are often extremely interesting. Yet when one is finished, this question remains: what can Tom Sawyer tell us about American life that any of a half-dozen almost forgotten but "representative" novels could not do better? Or that diaries, letters, memoirs, newspaper accounts could not do with much greater authenticity? And does not the frontier humor approach place an American classic such as Tom Sawyer on exactly the same plane as a much less accomplished work such as the Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi?

In other words, if we use literature as history, then the more imaginative the work of literature, the less "accurate" it seems to be as history. So that if history is our subject, might it not be wiser to eschew Mark Twain's novels in favor of those by men less imaginative and more literal in their writings?

All that is literary in one very naturally rebels against such a conclusion. Our major writers should be able to tell us more about our country's life than their less perceptive contemporaries, and if it seems to work out the other way, then perhaps the fault may lie not with our major writers but in the way we try to use their work. It may be that, in attempting to study American life as portrayed in Tom Sawyer, we fail to consider it as a novel at all, but as a document. We treat it as a compendium of raw material for research, as an accumulation of facts, when the truth is that the chief reason for paying any attention at all to Tom Sawyer is that it is not merely an accumulation of facts. It is a story; it is a unit. It is a work of art.

It may be, then, that in using Tom Sawyer as a factual guide to life on the big river, we neglect it as literature, when it is precisely the literary considerations that give the novel its excellence. The one question we should be asking about it first of all might well be, What happens? What is the plot of the novel? Who are the characters, in particular who is the protagonist, and what happens to them and to him? What, in short, is this novel about as a novel?

A small boy grows up a little during one summer in a town on the Mississippi. He is a romantic, highly imaginative little fellow, who enjoys playing at pirates, outlaws, and other fanciful pursuits. He lives with his Aunt Polly, a long-suffering lady whose prosaic outlook on things causes him no little inconvenience. His closest friend is a devil-may-care lad named Huckleberry Finn, who accompanies him on his adventures. Tom has a girl, too, whom he wants mightily to impress.

In the course of his summer's activities he searches for buried treasure, sees a dastardly murder perpetrated by a half-breed named Injun Joe, testifies in court as to what he saw, discovers a real treasure, goes off on a picnic with Becky Thatcher, is lost in a cave, finally makes his way to safety, and returns in triumph to claim his share of the treasure.

At the beginning of the novel, Tom is just another boy, distinguished chiefly perhaps for the quality of the devilment he can plan. In the eyes of the townsfolk—those who notice him at all—he is a child, with absurd, romantic dreams of success and grandeur, and one whose conduct is not beyond reproach.

Yet when the summer is over and the novel closes, what is Tom's station in life? He has won the eternal fealty of his girl friend. He is exceedingly wealthy. He has solved a murder mystery. He is the town hero. From being just another boy, he has risen to be someone quite important in community affairs.

This is what happens in Tom Sawyer, then. In effect Tom has changed his world. He has made reality conform to his conception of what it should be. No longer does reality consist of life in a humdrum river town, in which he must grow up obscurely and insignificantly, being made to be good, attending church, studying tedious lessons at school. Rather, reality for Tom Sawyer has come to mean pirates, treasure, heroism, and glory.

It is toward that end that the events of Tom Sawyer have been directed, and if one will look over the various episodes comprising the novel, he will find that nothing happens therein which does not directly or indirectly contribute toward the impact of that result. This is the form of the novel. The plot structure of the novel is directed toward that end.

So much, for the moment at least, for plot development. Plot structure is the framework on which words, scenes, and episodes are arranged. What of these constituent parts: the style, the conversations, the description, the events? The novelist made his book out of them; they are the texture of his story, the flesh on the bones, giving the novel its content and meaning. We know the plot of the story that Mark Twain told, but how did he tell it?

First of all, the story of Tom Sawyer is not presented in a vacuum. It is told in a very specific place, and the place is a part of the novel. All novels take place somewhere, of course, but in this instance the somewhere is very important. So let us look at it. How does Mark Twain depict the scene of Tom Sawyer's exploits?

Notice how carefully Twain sets a scene before he allows Tom and the other characters to appear. Here is the beginning of Chapter II, the renowned fence whitewashing episode:

Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step. The locust trees were in bloom and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation, and it lay just far away enough to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.

It is against this backdrop that Tom Sawyer will conduct his celebrated feat of getting the board fence whitewashed by his friends and becoming rich in worldly goods in the process, in utter defiance of the customary attitudes toward fence-painting prevalent among the young of St. Petersburg. Tom is not himself conscious of the natural beauties of a summer day along the Mississippi for very long or very often, but the reader is, and for the reader Mark Twain has placed the episode in its tranquil, summery context so that Tom's manipulations can take place in the warm light of that lovely Saturday morning, with the green, dreamy backdrop of Cardiff Hill overlooking the children's activities.

Cardiff Hill—how often do we catch sight of it in the novel. Here is another typical scene, that which opens Chapter VII and precedes Tom's courtship of Becky Thatcher:

The harder Tom tried to fasten his mind on his book, the more his ideas wandered. So at last, with a sigh and a yawn, he gave it up. It seemed to him that the noon recess would never come. The air was utterly dead. There was not a breath stirring. It was the sleepiest of sleepy days. The drowsing murmur of the five and twenty studying scholars soothed the soul like the spell that is in the murmur of bees. Away off in the flaming sunshine, Cardiff Hill lifted its soft green sides through a shimmering veil of heat, tinted with the purple of distance; a few birds floated on lazy wing high in the air; no other living thing was visible but some cows, and they were asleep.

There we have the same image as before: summer, somnolence, nature drowsing, for all the world as if the author had read the opening lines of Piers Plowman, 'In a summer's season, when soft was the sun,' and had merely substituted Cardiff for Malvern Hill. It is extraordinary how often Mark Twain does this sort of thing in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, so we might very well pay some attention to the function of this kind of composition of place in the total effect of the story. It cannot be a mere accident that Twain has chosen to tell his story against a background of nature, and has interspersed in his narrative so much gentle but persistent scene setting and good-natured humor.

Before we examine this any further, however, we should consider the other part of the picture, too: the human action and events that take place against the background. Here we get something quite different. There is a great deal of action throughout the book, and a great deal of dialogue. These contrast directly with the background. Take for example the scene in Chapter X, after Injun Joe and Muff Potter have attacked and killed the doctor in the previous chapter, while Tom and Huck watched aghast. The two boys raced back toward town, and finally fell panting inside the old tannery, where at last they caught their breath:

"Huckleberry, what do you reckon 'll come of this?"

"If Dr. Robinson dies, I reckon hanging'll come of it."

"Do you though?"

"Why, I know it, Tom."

Tom thought awhile, then he said: "Who'll tell? We?"

"What are you talking about? S'pose something happened and Injun Joe didn 't hang? Why he'd kill us some time or other, just as dead sure as we're a-laying here."

"That's just what I was thinking to myself, Huck."

"If anybody tells, let Muff Potter do it, if he's fool enough. He's generally drunk enough."

The language is sharp, alive, unadorned. It is the speech of everyday life, spoken the way children would speak it. The dialogue—and Mark Twain uses it to a greater extent than almost any previous American novelist—is completely realistic. Unlike that in Longstreet's Georgia Scenes, there is no feeling of condescension, of strained exaggeration for humorous effect. Though the sentences are short, not complex, the language is in no sense lifeless or monotonous, either. Twain the literary artist has managed to make the dialogue both lively and appropriate. In other words, Mark Twain does not treat these young Missouri boys primarily as quaint local color types. For Twain, life in St. Petersburg is real, not merely picturesque.

So, from what we have seen so far, we might attempt to summarize the novel this way. It is an essentially realistic novel, describing the process by which a youngster changes the community and his life to suit his tastes. However, the realistic action is placed in a rich, timeless context in which the natural world seems to lie in the sun forever, back of the activities of the characters. The matter-of-factness of action and dialogue are thus contrasted with an underlying sense of never-never-land fable. The image of Cardiff Hill in the background, green in the sun, is of complete inaction, of timelessness. We leave Tom Sawyer with Tom and Huck talking of how they will eventually go off for good and be outlaws; Tom's dreaming, which has turned into the everyday plot of the novel, is once again the romance and fantasy of a child.

Thus The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a kind of dualistic work. It is an action story, in a definite situation with a definite plot, and it is also a fable of boys in childhood. Tom is the practical young man, and he is also dreamer in the sun.

Is there any one scene that exemplifies this dual nature of the book and of its protagonist? Some lines at the outset of Chapter VIII, when Tom is rebuffed by Becky Thatcher and steals out of town to meditate, will do:

Half an hour later he was disappearing behind the Douglas mansion on the summit of Cardiff Hill, and the schoolhouse was hardly distinguishable away off in the valley behind him. He entered a dense wood, picked his pathless way to the center of it, and sat down on a mossy spot under a spreading oak. There was not even a zephyr stirring; the dead noon-day heat had even stilled the song of the birds; nature lay in a trance that was broken by no sound but the occasional far-off hammering of a woodpecker, and this seemed to render the pervading silence and sense of loneliness the more profound. The boy's soul was steeped in melancholy; his feelings were in happy accord with his surroundings. He sat long with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, meditating.

It seems to me that this image is the heart of the novel, as Mark Twain wrote it. Here is Tom, reflecting upon his earthly woes, very much concerned with the situation that comprises the plot of the book, and at the same time Tom is also outside the immediate action, there in the wood near Cardiff Hill where nature lay in a trance all about him, and he is outside, too, of the community and its immediate concerns. This is the essential Tom as the author created him. Mark Twain seemed to see young people such as Tom as both caught up in the worldly time and place and events, and part too of that timeless world of sun and summer and Cardiff Hill.

Which world is real: the daily life of St. Petersburg and of Tom Sawyer, or the natural world of Cardiff Hill? Both are real, and the boy Tom is a part of both. Here in that passage Tom is aware of both worlds. An adult would not have been, could not have been. Adults in St. Petersburg are prosaic creatures, very much occupied with their mundane pursuits. Tom can look to no adult in the town for help in the matters which most concern him.

What Mark Twain really does in the novel is to defy adulthood, defy the world of practicality, by proving that Tom Sawyer's child's world, with its pirates, robber bands, buried treasure, and Cardiff Hill green and still in the sunlight, is valid too. In a very real sense, Tom Sawyer arrests the progression of time, holds onto childhood instead of conforming to the values and habits of adults.

Actually, however, it is only a delaying action. It is over when the novel is over, and the eventual victor is the mundane world, for Tom will of course grow up. "So endeth this chronicle," Mark Twain writes in concluding the novel; "it being strictly a history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go on much further without becoming the history of a man." The ultimate triumph will be the community's, the adult's; Tom will cease retreating to the woods beyond Cardiff Hill, and cease hunting for buried treasure. Yet while the novel lasts, Tom Sawyer holds on to life on a child's terms, and forces the community to accept it.

Thus a brief thematic and textual analysis of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, read not as a document, but as a story, in order to see what the story means. What, then, of the use of the novel as a help in understanding American life?

For such a purpose, I think that what we have found in the course of this literary analysis offers rich material. Take, for instance, the idea of success. For Tom Sawyer, life on the Mississippi has indeed been a place where all things are possible, where a man can change the world. Tom Sawyer adjusts the conditions of life to suit his tastes. He looks on the world not as a settled, fixed community, but as a place of boundless possibilities. Is not this novel a very good interpretation of a typically American attitude? Tom is not merely lucky. He makes his opportunities. Far more so than with the shallow, stereotyped novels of Horatio Alger, this story is an American success story. Individualism, the will to succeed, the cult of success even, are exemplified in the theme of this novel. It is built around and it explores on many planes an idea that we accept as entirely appropriate to nineteenth-century America.

Yet compare The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to a European novel of childhood, and note the difference. When we analyze novels about young boys growing up in Germany, England, France, what do we get? Wilhelm Meister, with its heavy intellectual adventure toward maturity and adjustment with the world. Tom Brown's School Days, with all its cruelty and reforming intentions. The Red and the Black or The Charterhouse of Parma, with their cynical, preoccupied attitude toward achieving success in a given jaded situation, and their notion of an almost Nietzschean superman-like approach to destiny. Where in any of these novels is there room for that happy serenity of Tom Sawyer, for gazing out of the window and observing the sun and the shadows and the sleeping cattle on Cardiff Hill? n these European novels, it seems to me, there is a basic feeling of the world being what it is, and the young man's growth a process of becoming adjusted to its essential limitations. By contrast, Tom Sawyer changes his world, and that was possible because the author was able to conceive of the world as a place of boundless possibilities.

Yet as we have noted, it has been only a temporary victory that Tom has been able to achieve. He will grow up; he will have to conform; he will make his way on adult terms, in a community. The triumph has been bittersweet. Tom has gained renown and riches and romance, he has become somebody, yet he is in the process of losing as well as gaining. He is losing that moment in the woods beyond Cardiff Hill; he is steadily growing away from the world of childhood, of timeless nature and sun and green hillside, that "Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting." It is most reminiscent of a passage in Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River, in which the protagonist is seated at a restaurant in a French town and hears the sound of workmen going home after the day's labor. Instantly it makes him think of another sound, "a suddenly living and intolerable memory, instant and familiar as all this life around him, of a life that he had lost, and that could never die." And Wolfe goes on to describe that memory:

It was the life of twenty years ago in the quiet, leafy streets and little towns of lost America—of an America that had been lost beneath the savage roar of its machinery, the brutal stupefaction of its days, the huge disease of its furious, ever-quickening and incurable unrest, its flood-tide horror of gray, driven faces, starved, brutal eyes and dull, dead flesh.

The memory of that lost America—the America of twenty years ago, of quiet streets, the time-enchanted spell and magic of full June, the solid, liquid, lonely shuffle of men in shirtsleeves coming home, the leafy fragrance of the cooling turnipgreens, and screens that slammed, and sudden silence—had long since died, had been drowned beneath the brutal floodtide, the fierce stupefaction of that roaring surge and mechanic life which had succeeded it.

Wolfe was writing of childhood in Asheville, North Carolina, while Mark Twain was describing childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, seventy years before. Yet in both passages there is what Wolfe called "the time-enchanted spell and magic of full June," and in Wolfe's first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, there are numerous passages that remind one of those scenes in Tom Sawyer.

When we think of Mark Twain, that practical man, popular lecturer, eager businessman, who childed the South for its improvident romanticism, and we think of his practical, eager country of booming business and material prosperity, well on its way to becoming the richest nation on earth, does not this sense of spiritual loss in the very act of practical, adult achievement seem important? In the moment of attaining success and renown, Tom Sawyer is losing contact with the natural world of Cardiff Hill. There is achievement—and there is paradoxically the denial of achievement. Just as in Robert Penn Warren's poem, "The Ballad of Billie Potts," young Billie goes west and achieves success, something is yet lost in the very act, and he must come back east to find it. As Warren described it,

Though your luck held and the market was always satisfactory,
Though the letter always came and your lovers were always true,
Though you always received the respect due to your position,
Though your hand never failed of its cunning and your glands always thoroughly knew their business,
Though your conscience was easy and you were assured of your innocence,
You became gradually aware that something was missing from the picture,
And upon closer inspection exclaimed, "Why, I'm not in it at all!"
Which was perfectly true.

We see this theme in Warren, in Wolfe, and we have found it in Mark Twain. Not the repudiation of success and practicality, but the achievement of it. Tom has succeeded. He has changed his world. He is rich, and famous, and heroic. He would not have it differently, and neither would his creator. Yet along with it there is the sense of something impractical and spiritual lost in the doing.

If this theme has any relevance for understanding American life, and of course it does, then it follows that its presence at the heart of a great nineteenth-century American novel has some significance for us. It shows us something that we did not perhaps see so well before. It is not documentation, but analysis. It tells us what to look for.

A great novel creates its art by synthesis, not by fragmentation. It is in the novelist's ability to fuse complex experience into a single artistic entity, to make a whole out of parts, that his art achieves its goals. It took a Mark Twain to show us how the meaning of success, and of loss, lies at the heart of American experience. To deny ourselves the insights of our major writers in our search for knowledge of our country's life, is needlessly to impoverish and weaken the quality of our understanding. Documentation can tell us what, but fiction tells us why. It may not provide us with all the facts we want about American life, but it can do something at least equally as useful. It can draw muititudinous experience together into one coherent artistic image, and tell us what American life means.

Robert Tracy (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4729

SOURCE: "Myth and Reality in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," in Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 530-41.

[Tracy is an American educator, critic, and translator. In the following essay, he explores Twain's use of mythological imagery and universal archetypes in Tom Sawyer.]

With prophetic malice, Mark Twain began Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by threatening any critic who should find motive, moral, or plot in his narrative. But he began The Adventures of Tom Sawyer rather more gently, with some helpful information about the characters and story, and with a statement wrung from him by Howells, that the book "is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls." The statement has frightened off critics far more effectively than the No Trespassing sign posted in front of Huckleberry Finn. Few critics have bothered to discuss Tom Sawyer other than as a prelude to Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's unsuccessful dress rehearsal of the subject matter and method which he was to use in the later book. As a character, Tom interests them only because of his adventures in the sequel or because he shares some traits with his creator.

In terms of absolute literary merit this neglect is justified, to be sure, but in the very failure of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a work of art there are important clues to Mark Twain's methods and preoccupations, and to some of the attitudes of his contemporaries. Tom, he tells us, is "drawn from life … but not from an individual … and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture"—the highly eclectic style so popular among nineteenth century American builders, found at its startling best in the "English violet" house in Hartford, where the book was completed in a wing built to resemble the pilothouse of a Mississippi steamboat. Twain's comment about the origin of his character is, in fact, probably an unintentional description of his method in Tom Sawyer and most of his other novels—a composite method which tries to combine reality and romantic melodrama, just as the architects of the day added fantastic spires and turrets and wooden lace to the basic structure of an ordinary house. There is a similarity of method in nineteenth-century American literature and architecture, because writers and architects alike tried to make a democratic and uniform landscape more interesting by adding a dimension of history or romance to a land that seemed destitute of both qualities. Melville compares the forecastle of the Pequod to a cathedral crypt, Poe invokes vaults and gloomy castles, Tom Sawyer turns a Sunday school picnic into an Arab caravan and doughnuts into heaps of jewels, F. E. Church created a "provincialized Persian" villa on the Hudson, the "architectural composer" Alexander Jackson Davis built Gothic cottages, and Leopold Eidlitz turned an ordinary design into the fantastically domed and minareted "Iranistan," P. T. Barnum's home in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Mark Twain's method is precisely that of the composite architect. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is basically realistic, "mostly a true book, with some stretchers," as Huck describes it. Tom lives in the sentimental but carefully rendered atmosphere of St. Petersburg. But he also has extraordinary adventures with robbers and murderers who disrupt his placid routine of school and childish games. Two worlds, one of reality and one of melodramatic romance, are continually interpenetrating in the book. The substance of the book is this interpenetration. To control this novel of diametrically disparate elements and to relate these elements to one another, Twain employs a third element which can share in both the real world and the romantic world—archetypal myth, which can unify the two kinds of experience with which the book deals and at the same time can give them an added significance. The presence of myth brings into the work a dimension of human experience which mere realism or mere melodrama cannot supply; the realistic and the melodramatic events of the book are given importance and resonance in terms both of universal human myths and of the particular national myths which disturb the American consciousness.

Mark Twain is not alone among American writers in thus combining realism, romantic and bookish melodrama, and archetypal myth. Cooper's Indians have a degree of reality, but at the same time they derive from the literary traditions of the Noble Savage and the outlaws of Walter Scott, and from the traditional body of demonic lore. Irving combines accurate sketches of Hudson River village life with obvious and often explicit elements from literature and from Germanic mythology. Moby-Dick is at once a realistic depiction of life aboard a whaler, a storehouse of literary allusions, and an archetypal quest. Hawthorne combines a picture of life among American artists in Rome with echoes of Gothic novels and elements of classical myth in The Marble Faun; James revises the combination in Daisy Miller, merging his realistic Americans abroad with such romantically literary scenes as the Castle of Chillon and the Coliseum, and with the Proserpina myth in a properly classical setting.

This attempt at a coalescence of realistic observation, literary echoes, and myth is clearly a common method among American writers of the last century, and it is not surprising that Mark Twain should use it. It is almost a commonplace to recognize the simultaneous presence of all three elements in Huckleberry Finn, but a reminder of how they operate in the better known novel is a useful preamble to an examination of Tom Sawyer. We can apply to both books the song sung by the townspeople in "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg": "the Symbols are here, you bet!"

Huckleberry Finn is a realistic portrait of life along the banks of the antebellum Mississippi and a commentary on the moral problem of slavery. These elements are combined with a reworking of traditional picaresque material, and the whole is given resonance by the continual presence of mythic themes. An obvious example is the archetypal theme of resurrection, which begins with Huck's careful staging of his own murder, and his birth or resurrection out of a hole (Pap has already risen from the dead on one occasion, and resembles a corpse). Huck rises into freedom, and the episode is bookishly parodied in Jim's "escape" from the Phelps farm, this time with Tom Sawyer at hand to "throw in the fancy touches." The first of these is a spontaneous act by Huck, the natural man, and he comments ruefully on how much more literary Tom Sawyer would have made it. The parody escape is contrived by the overbookish and overromantic brain of Tom, already corrupted by literature and by social conformity. Mark Twain also introduces into Huckleberry Finn such recognizably mythic themes as the lost prince (doubled by the presence of the Duke and the Dauphin), and the buried treasure guarded by its dead owner for the rightful heirs. Even the "Royal Nonesuch," with its overtones of a ritualized sexual indecency, contributes to the book's mythic dimension and helps it to touch depths below that of the conscious story. Mark Twain has successfully fused mythic, literary, and realistic elements, and if one theme is the confrontation of the romantic mind and the moral mind, another is the coalescence of romance, reality, and myth.

In its balanced use of these elements Huckleberry Finn (written 1876-84, published 1885) represents a transition between the more realistic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (published 1876) and such determinedly symbolic works as Puddn'head Wilson (published 1894), "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1898), and "The Mysterious Stranger" (1916). Only in Huckleberry Finn does Mark Twain have complete control over the three elements which he has employed, and over the relationship between them. The presence of this control causes the book to stand out sharply from the novels which immediately preceded and succeeded it, The Prince and the Pauper (1882) nd A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), where one element or the other is overstated and the work is flawed.

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain's earliest novel, we find the same striving for a balancing of the three elements of reality, bookish romance, and myth. The presence of reality and romance in the book is obvious enough. We have the subtle insight into the mind of boyhood and the careful evocation of the little Southern town, while Tom's literary imagination, nourished on tales of chivalry and adventure, provides a romantic counterpoint to the story's incidents. Mark Twain's sentimental idealization of childhood introduces another romantic element. But what of myth? In what sense does this book, so much shallower and barer than Huckleberry Finn, contain the motifs which indicate the presence of myth? What is the mythic element, and how is it evoked? What universally archetypal figures and motifs appear, and what specifically American preoccupations does the book reflect?

First of all, there is the overt element of folklore in the carefully presented superstitions current among the children and slaves of St. Petersburg. These are mere fragments of an older and infinitely more complex set of European and African beliefs in sympathetic magic, witchcraft, and the like. They are introduced primarily as local color, secondarily as a means of giving the story atmosphere and a sense of past experience and tradition—a usable past, in James's sense. They have more important functions, however, for they also add a certain darkness to the story, a shading which prepares us for the uncovered corpse in the moonlight, the murder of Dr. Robinson, and the sight of Injun Joe in the depths of the great cavern. Twain also uses them to add a supernatural dimension to the child's sense of being at the mercy of inexplicable adults and their mysterious laws, and to provide a kind of ironic undertone, a supplement to the central myths of the book.

These central myths are the resurrection of the dead, the golden age, and the capture of the demon's hoard. The operation of this ironic relationship between these major themes and the minor key of folklore used to provide local color can be seen in the graveyard episode, where Tom and Huck fear devils only to find themselves present while a corpse is exhumed and Dr. Robinson is murdered by Injun Joe. The episode follows an hourglass pattern: a dead man is brought to the world of the living, a living man is sent down to death, while the unconscious Muff Potter is halfway between the two states. This neat pattern emphasizes the motif of resurrection, to be utilized more elaborately later in the Island episode and in the Cave episode. It is introduced through the boy-slave folklore of the little town. The corpse of a dead cat, so Tom and Huck believe, can cure warts. Their superstition is an ironic childish parody of Dr. Robinson's belief that the corpse of a recently dead man will help him to cure. In his search for this cure, Dr. Robinson is killed by Injun Joe and Muff Potter comes close to death; Tom's search for a cure for warts has led him into the same danger of death at the hands of Injun Joe. The boys have waited for devils to come for the dead Hoss Williams's soul, and they plan to hurl their cat corpse after the devils; instead grave robbers come to take the dead man's corpse, and the boys witness a murder.

It is round the savage figure of Injun Joe that the mythic elements of the book most obviously cluster, and, not surprisingly, he appears when the superstition about dead cats has led the boys to expect the appearance of a demon. Child folklore is thus used to introduce into the novel a figure who will satisfactorily play the role of an archetypal demon. At the same time, Joe is a figure out of specifically American myth. He is half Indian and so a token of the enigmatic savagery and wildness that lurks at the center of the American experience. He is related to Cooper's Indians and to savages like Tashtego and Queequeg, but unlike them he is all savagery and malevolence. Dispossessed, he does not function as guide, friend, and companion to the white man, as do the savages of Cooper and Melville, or Faulkner's Sam Fathers. He is an enemy. A half-breed, he has retained only the savagery of the Noble Savage, and has none of the nobility. His resentment against white civilization for its mistreatment of him is explicit in his murder of the Doctor, and in his cynical foisting off of the deed on drunken old Muff Potter.

As a savage, Injun Joe is related to the universally mythic elements in the book. As an Indian he is an American mythic figure, related to the book's theme of retreating to the wilderness which is expressed in the Jackson's Island episodes. The Island-Forest represents the American dream of untamed and uncivilized wilderness, the "territory" of Huck Finn's final words, even while Tom is busily insisting that it is also Sherwood Forest, the place of bookishly idyllic and romantic happenings. Idyllic, the island is a sharp contrast to the grim and dangerous and sordid life of St. Petersburg, while that life, which is civilization, represents a double threat—a threat to freedom and happiness, and a threat to life itself. Civilization masks savagery as well as restraint, as it does more obviously in the river towns of Huckleberry Fnn. Only in the wilderness is there safety from the comic threat of school and the serious threat of death. The pirate life of the island, an attempt to live a bookish romance, masks the fact that the boys are living a very American myth of freedom. They also play at being Indians while on the island; ironically, the real Indian-outlaw is hiding in the sleepy little village itself.

But Injun Joe is not only a figure out of American myth. The characters of Tom Sawyer live and move in a world that is simultaneously the Missouri of the 1840s and the landscape of universal myth: the River, the Wilderness, the Island, the Cave. Deep in the cave, at the heart of its mystery, the figure of Injun Joe appears again, guarding a treasure like all the legendary dark malevolent figures who lurk in the earth—trolls, gnomes, kobolds, Fafnir, Grendel, all, like Joe, treasure guardians who are also representatives or survivors of a once dominant race. The American myth of the savage and the European myth of the dark underground dweller have coalesced.

Injun Joe's treasure-guarding functions are obvious. His demonic nature is also quite explicit throughout the book, and contributes largely to the graveyard scene. "When it's midnight a devil will come, or maybe two or three, but you can't see 'em, you can only hear something like the wind, or maybe hear 'em talk." Thus Huck explains the conditions necessary to cure warts, and his speech, delivered in the language of myth, is an accurate prophecy of what really does happen. It is also a clue to the book's method, which depends in large part on a kind of thematic resonance or echo: a myth, a superstition, or an incident from romance is evoked, and this is followed by a sudden startling realization of that myth or romance. The boys pretend to be pirates and find themselves tracked by a murderer. They speculate about treasure according to Tom's half-baked romantic ideas, and behold, a treasure appears. The haunted house is haunted, by dangerous criminals. They dream of a "Delectable Land" of freedom, and with the Jackson's Island episode they really do sojourn in that land. Tom imagines situations in which he will die for Becky, and then finds himself in a situation in which he must truly act heroically to save her life. The robbers' cave is available for the boys' games only after a real robber has died trying to escape from it. Reality is continually interpenetrated by the mythic and the romantic worlds. Tom himself, ironically, remains unaware of this interpretation. Like American writers of the day who dreamed only of Europe, or like the Southerners who redefined their lives in the clichés of Sir Walter Scott, Tom goes through a drama of the Old Southwest with his eyes firmly fixed on the drama in his books, hardly recognizing his own drama. At the end of Huckleberry Finn we find him still making the same mistake, ignoring the saga of Huck and Jim on the raft and restaging Jim's heroic escape in effete literary terms.

The unexpected appearance of the grave robbers to satisfy Huck's folk-medicine need for devils is perhaps the most typical use of this method of thematic resonance. When Injun Joe first appears he is described by Huck as "that murderin' half-breed" (Chapter IX) and "That Injun devil" (X) and the word devil is applied to him on almost every one of his subsequent appearances. From his arrival in the graveyard Joe carries with him the aura that surrounds the devil in legend, and we are not at all surprised to find him showing blue lights in the haunted house (the traditional demon-haunted ruin), or dwelling in the depths of the earth beneath a cross.

There is perhaps more than a hint of Caliban in the continual association of Injun Joe with the earth, with graves and burial. We see him first at Hoss Williams's opened grave, later digging the treasure from beneath the hearthstone of the haunted house or hiding deep in the earth in McDougal's Cave. Prospero addresses Caliban as "Thou earth," and Caliban upbraids his master in words that the corrupted Indian might have used to reproach the white world: "You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse." There are other curious and probably accidental resemblances to The Tempest in Tom Sawyer. Both works preserve a dream of the innocent new world, the Delectable Land, and it is worth recalling that the new world was a part of Shakespeare's inspiration in that play, for Prospero's island owes something to the newly discovered Bermudas and Caliban is in part a response to the news of the Indians. Both works portray a golden age; both present an island which is a haven out of the world of men and affairs; both present civilization as a place of danger. Prospero's Island and Jackson's Island are both miniature golden ages. One moves Gonzalo to a meditation on the legendary golden age, the other is used by Mark Twain to invoke a double golden age, boyhood before it has been swallowed by adult conventionality and the wilderness before it has been spoiled by civilization. Other elements which recall The Tempest are the false deaths of the boys, the real violence which threatens them in their innocence, and the obsession with death by water which is so marked in both works.

Jackson's Island performs a further mythic function in providing a still center to the story, a place that is outside the stream of time, like Rip Van Winkle's hollow or Poe's Maelstrom. It is no-man's-land, belonging neither to the town nor to the forest nor to the river, and Tom and his friends return from the island after they have been considered dead, just as Rip Van Winkle returns from the green knoll in the Catskills, or the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus return from their cave. Like Rip and the Sleepers, Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper have been out of life in a dream. Their return is a return not from the world of the dead but from the world of those who are dead to life. They return to the world of the living across the symbolic river which keeps the two worlds separated, just as Avalon or the islands visited by Oisin in his wanderings are separated from the ordinary world by water, and they become marvels to the village for doing so.

River, Wilderness, Island, Cave. The first three of these traditional mythic landscapes are chiefly present in the Jackson's Island episodes (the name of the island may suggest frontier democracy, just as the village's name, St. Petersburg, suggested despotism and slavery to nineteenth-century Americans). In all three landscapes the idyllic tone persists, and it is reinforced by the return from paradise to ordinary life, from the happy other world to the life of the village.

In many traditional legends the Cave has a similar role. In it the hero often finds that long sleep which is not death; it is often a place of a temporary dropping out of life. Mark Twain chooses to use it rather differently, however. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the Cave suggests that visit to the underworld which is part of the adventures of Dante, Aeneas, Odysseus, and other epic heroes, an underworld ruled over by a devil. The word labyrinth is often used, and the Cave's echoes turn cries for help into meaningless peals of laughter, just as Forster's Marabar Caves turn all sounds to a meaningless "boum … oum." The Cave is dark and meaningless and unexplored. It is a place of horror and death. But, although a place of symbolic death and burial, the Cave resembles the catacombs in The Marble Faun in that it is also a symbol of birth or rebirth. A new Tom emerges from the Cave after his care for Becky makes him a true hero. Like Aladdin (after whom one of the chambers in McDougal's Cave is named) and Ali Baba, he emerges rich, leaving the evil criminal trapped inside.

For the Cave is also the dwelling-place—"No. 2, under the cross"—of Injun Joe. It is there that he dies, and with his death there is a glimpse of a complex series of references. The demon's death frees the treasure, and it can be taken up into the outside world of everyday and "put … out at six per cent" interest. We learn that the treasure which the Indian has guarded will be used to send Tom to West Point and then to law school, where he will learn to extend civilization by the arts of war and peace. Huck's share will be used to civilize him, to enchain him in conformity. Tom assists this chaining process, for he refuses to allow Huck to join his projected robber gang unless he conforms. Indulgence in the romantic pretense of robber-hood is only for the respectable. Free Huck would make a mockery of it.

The treasure, then, found and guarded by the doubly mythical Indian-devil, a coalescence of American myth and universal myth, becomes a servant of conformity and progress, an enforcer of civilization's mores, and the relevance of all this to the ambiguous American myth about the conquest of the wilderness is not hard to see. Like Faulkner's Bear, the Indian and his treasure have kept the wildness alive and have helped the atmosphere of a quest to continue. But the Indian dies and the treasure disappears into a bank—a neat and accurate symbol for the fate of the trans-Mississippi frontier. Civilization's progress exorcises the devils, exterminates the Indians, and banks the proceeds.

To the identification of Injun Joe with the archetypal devil Twain has thus added some elements which relate him to the American myth of the Indian, and he hints at the mixture of guilt and fear which the American feels in the presence of this dispossessed owner of the land. Injun Joe's hatred of whites is savage, but motivated. He hates Dr. Robinson because "Five years ago you drove me away from your father's kitchen one night, when I come to ask for something to eat, and you said I warn't there for any good; and when I swore I'd get even with you if it took a hundred years, your father had me jailed for a vagrant. Did you think I'd forget? The Injun blood ain't in me for nothing." As for the Widow Douglas, Joe plans to "slit her nostrils … notch her ears like a sow" because her late husband "was rough on me—many times he was rough on me—and mainly he was the justice of the peace that jugged me for a vagrant. And that ain't all. It ain't a millionth part of it! He had me horsewhippedl—horsewhipped in front of the jail, like a nigger!—with all the town looking on! HORSEWHIPPED!—do you understand?"

Mark Twain thus expresses the American's ambivalent attitude towards the Indian, presenting him as devil and victim at the same time, an evil figure to be sure, and a threat, but a figure whose evil has been provoked by white injustice and mistreatment. This ambiguous attitude is given its fullest expression at Injun Joe's death, and Tom's response to the fact:

When the cave door was unlocked, a sorrowful sight presented itself in the dim twilight of the place. Injun Joe lay stretched upon the ground, dead, with his face close to the crack of the door, as if his longing eyes had been fixed, to the latest moment, upon the light and the cheer of the free world outside. Tom was touched, for he knew by his own experience how this wretch had suffered. His pity was moved, but nevertheless he felt an abounding sense of relief and security, now, which revealed to him in a degree which he had not fully appreciated before how vast a weight of dread had been lying upon him since the day he lifted his voice against this bloody-minded outcast.

The whole of the American attitude towards the wilderness and the Indian is summed up in this passage—the fear of the wild and the unknown, the mixture of relief and regret at the passing of that wildness. Civilization, represented by the Doctor and the late Judge Douglas, has motivated Joe's crime by treating him as an outcast. His death is caused by another manifestation of American civilization, an artifact imposed upon the wilderness, that "big door sheathed with boiler iron … triple-locked" with which Judge Thatcher has closed the entrance to the cave. A machine-made barrier closes the path to the underworld, to mystery, and that barrier imprisons the Indian and so kills him.

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Mark Twain attempts a subtle interplay of reality, bookish romance, and myth in order to express an ambiguous attitude to both American civilization and the savage American wilderness. He exploits a universal human fear, the fear of demons, and simultaneously evokes the American myth of the Indian who is civilization's threat, victim, and rival attraction. The problem is ultimately a moral one, and for Mark Twain, as for Tom Sawyer, it is insoluble. Tom endorses freedom and conformity in almost the same breath. His creator submerges the book's moral problem and heightens the melodrama in order to conceal this evasion. It is perhaps this evasion that causes us to rate the book below many of Twain's other books, but it is important to remember that in Tom Sawyer he has set himself a moral problem more complex than the problem of slavery which is at the center of Huckleberry Finn. His problem is that of defining an attitude towards American civilization and progress, a problem he returns to, again unsuccessfully, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). A mixture of freedom and restraint characterizes boyhood life in St. Petersburg, and the boys' discovery of the treasure is a triumph and a captivity. The archetypal figure of the Indian summarizes this ambiguity, for the book views him as a devil and a threat, an object of fear. "There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree," Hawthorne's Goodman Brown speculates as he travels through the forest, "What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!" Mark Twain invokes the same set of fears, but simultaneously he looks at the Indian as a figure out of romance, a victim whose destroyers feel a slight twinge of pity and a slight stirring of conscience, a mythic figure evoking fear and then discomfort. The Cave—that "blackness ten times black" that Melville recognized in Hawthorne—swallows and becomes a prison for the Indian, in Whitman's phrase a "dusky demon and brother," whose brotherhood is denied and whose demonhood is exaggerated. And to justify and deepen this local myth and this specifically American attitude, Mark Twain invokes continually the archetypes of universal myth.

Steven Karpowitz (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: "Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain: Fictional Women and Real in the Play of Conscience with the Imagination," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXIII, No., 1973, pp. 5-12.

[In the following essay, Karpowitz demonstrates how Twain's attitudes toward women are revealed in Tom Sawyer.]

A year after Mark Twain finished Tom Sawyer (1875) he wrote to his boyhood friend, Will Bowen, criticizing him for counting too heavily on future profits and sentimentalizing his past.

Your reckless imaginations are always eating feasts that are never to be cooked …

Do you know that this is simply mental and moral masturbation? It belongs to the period usually devoted to physical masturbation, and should be left there & outgrown.

One of the recurring problems for a student of Mark Twain is to distinguish the author's own reckless fantasies from his more fruitful ones.

Women played a large part in Samuel Clemens' daydreams. In his letters, in the jokes of his early journalism, and in actual relationships to his mother and his wife, one finds a feast which his imagination cooked and occasionally digested well, as in his first novel on boyhood. Tom Sawyer struggles with a conscience rooted in the fact of his orphancy, and embodied in his life and death games with Aunt Polly and Becky. The boy's imagination finds spellbinding the symbols these mental struggles foster, most notably those connected with McDougal's cave. Mark Twain, as well as his fictional prodigy, frequently combined thoughts of fame and death with a woman's suffering. Behind the writer's Victorian image of a pure woman was the vindictive wish to see her in pain. His infamous bouts with remorse were largely a reflection of these imaginary and verbal attacks against the women of his life, and the ghosts of them he harbored in his mind. He believed (and probably with good reason) that their legacy to him was the plague of ambition. The author often warded off his murderous wishes by comically disguising them in fiction, as in the character of Tom Sawyer. The boy would appear to be lost or dead. The women would feel remorse for ever having wished him harm. Mark Twain could keep his distance and gently make fun of them all.

Clemens' literary games with women began when he worked the real mines of the old west. While mining for treasure in Nevada, he wrote in a conventional style, with a measure of self-awareness. Still his Nevada pieces of the 860s were made-up of characteristic daydreams. They were fantasies which eventually gave rise to whatever imaginative and symbolic force Tom Sawyer may have. In collecting these writings, Henry Nash Smith sees their curious mixture of the fantastic and the real, especially in the letters Clemens sent his mother (often published, shortly after they were received, in the Keokuk Gate City). Many of them involved the legendary prodigal son who would rescue his mother from financial chaos. For example, Clemens reported that a man offered him five feet of land worth $400 per foot, but he had carelessly failed to pick up the certificates. "I don't care a straw for myself, but I ought to have had more thought for you. Never mind, though, Ma—I will be more careful in future. I will take care that your expenses are paid—sure." Another letter more accurately represented his use of burlesque, but it too was linked to a promise to receive his mother in style once the fortune was made. He was describing a fantastic view of Carson City's surrounding mountains, and his mental relation to them.

By mentally measuring these mountains, and comparing them with things of smaller size, you begin to conceive of their grandeur, and next to feel their vastness expanding your soul like a balloon, and ultimately find yourself growing, and swelling, and spreading into a colossus,—I say when this point is reached, you look disdainfully down upon the insignificant village of Carson, reposing like a cheap print away yonder at the foot of the big hills, and in that instant you are seized with a burning desire to stretch forth your hand, put the city in your pocket, and walk off with it.

James M. Cox discusses Clemens' psychological use of convention in this letter [in his Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor], prefacing his interpretation of Tom Sawyer.

The comic impulse of the letter exploits the inadequacy of the cliches of travel literature to describe the desolation of a new landscape. But the humor, the emotional quality of the letter, emerges from the point of view. The person writing the letter is not angry or disillusioned by the discrepancy; he discharges both anger and disillusionment by exaggerating the discrepancy, thereby converting it into an imaginative playground—a field for invention.

Clemens had known he was the fool of his illusion, Cox argues, and in this awareness there was "no direct communication of disillusion or despair." Extending this idea of play, Cox sees Tom Sawyer as an objectification of Freud's pleasure principle.

Tom's play defines the world as play, and his reality lies in his commitment to play, not in the involuntary tendencies which are often attributed to him.… What he does have is a perennial dream of himself as the hero and a commitment to the dream which makes it come true not once, but as many times as he can reorganize the village around his dream. The truth the dream invariably comes to is play—a play which converts all the serious projects in the town to pleasure and at the same time subverts all the adult rituals by revealing that actually they are nothing but dull play to begin with.

An interpretation of play and fantasy and fiction is central to my understanding of Clemens' work as well. But Cox seems unaware of the observation that children's play is often grounded in significant relations with reality: in a wish to master it, in the needful and recurring expressions actively of what a child has had to endure passively.

It will become clear that the motherless Tom and Huck live in a world dominated by mothers (in the guise of aunts and widows). Tom's most prominent fantasy is the punishment of Aunt Polly or Becky by feigning death in the hope that they would feel responsible and suffer the pain of a vindictive conscience. It was strange play and stranger reality, for Tom's fearful anxieties vacillated between a comic's hysteria and a boy's corrective conscience—both of which Mark Twain gently satirized.

Samuel Clemens consciously coupled fame with the praise of women. Just before embarking on the Quaker City voyage in 1867 he wrote a series of letters on this subject. For the present I mention only those referring to wives and marriage. The reader should remember how grievously and repeatedly Mark Twain lamented the death of his daughter Susie and of his wife as if they were treasures lost and he a bank destitute of its funds. The prototype of these associations are to be found in his memory of his father's deathbed promise of landed-treasure (a subject I have discussed in an unpublished essay on "The Mysterious Stranger"). To Will Bowen he described a wife as a

treasure you have long ago learned the value of. I wish I had been as fortunate. To labor to secure the (sic) world's praise or its blame either, seems stale, flat & unprofitable, compared with the happiness of achieving the praise or abuse of so dear a friend as a wife.

In 1866 he had written Bowen, with childish self-deprecation,

Marry be d—d. I am too old to marry. I am nearly 31. I have got gray hairs in my head. Women appear to like me, but, d—m them, they don't love me.

Critics are too quick to regard the role of Mark Twain's women in relation to his writing as being entirely constrictive or deeply benign. Van Wyck Brooks is right in saying [in his The Ordeal of Mark Twain] that he directed much of his energies into "worshipping the hearth as a symbol of … piety." But Brooks does not notice that the most frequent symbol of that hearth in his writing is the burning of "a most sentient house" (like the contemporary images in Silas Lapham's vision or in The Spoils of Poynton). Clemens did not, as Brooks thought, literally accept his mother's values and thereby repress his own deepest instincts.

On the other hand, James Cox and Justin Kaplan regard Livy's censorship of Mark Twain's writings as a liberating force. Kaplan describes her [in his Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain] as an "idealized superego which frees [Clemens] rom the taint of adolescent experiments and frontier lawlessness and allows him to experience a productive tension between the social order he has become a part of and the boyhood reality he can never leave behind." Cox interpolates this view into his idea of Mark Twain's humor, writing that he "required such a resistance in order to create the dream of freedom.… The censorship which he invited [Livy] to impose upon him, far from restricting his imagination, actually freed it to move toward the 'approved' world of childhood, which was at once the past of Samuel Clemens and the future of Mark Twain." I would emphasize the subject of Mark Twain's work, in the case of Tom Sawyer, rather than the role of the censor. Certainly fame and approval motivate much of the action in Tom Sawyer's life and in Samuel Clemens.' Yet Tom's feelings, which are implicit in his repeated fantasies of death as a means to achieve notoriety as well as to punish Aunt Polly, determined Mark Twain's writing of the novel more effectively than did the censorship Cox proposes. Later in Huckleberry Finn, what opened the gates of fiction's dream for Mark Twain was the subject of a boy whose conscience is formed through a river-journey with the motherly and black Jim.

Tom Sawyer begins with a description of Aunt Polly's modest division of feelings between a "deformed conscience and a sound heart," that is, between the prevailing code of child-rearing and her deeply felt sympathy for the motherless Tom. She does not feel as if she is doing her "duty by that boy." "Everytime I let him off my conscience does hurt me so; every-time I hit him my old heart most breaks.' "It is precisely this capacity for remorse that Tom consistently plays on. His most characteristic form of play is imagined or feigned death and exile. Sequentially this play leads him into situations of real danger or pain. At times, however, the pain he feels resembles more the working of sympathetic magic, suggesting an unrealistic and powerful belief in his own daydreams.

Concurrently, the novel dramatizes certain relations between work and play that assume as their distinguishing criterion a sense of obligation, a feeling of compulsion quickened by conscience) that makes work unpleasant. In one of the story's most famous episodes Tom dutifully begins whitewashing his fence. Playfully, Ben Rogers comes by, pretending to be a steamboat. Mark Twain's description exemplifies my understanding of the function of play: pleasure is derived from the ego's sense of active accomplishment and the temporary alleviation of the duties of conscience.

As he drew near, he slackened his speed, took the middle of the street, leaned far over to starboard and rounded to ponderously and with laborious pomp and circumstance.… He was boat and captain and engine-bells combined.

Being duped by Tom's appeals, Ben was vainly willing to believe white-washing a finer sport. The episode ends with a witty and truthful moral: "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and […] play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." But Huck, at the novel's close, voices a principle of contrasting adult pleasure, which Tom is incapable of grasping. He urges Tom to take his share of treasure, arguing that he "don't give a dern for a thing 'thout it's tollable hard to git." Effort and resistance, he suggests, offer pleasures different from the conflicts caused by obligations, and such satisfaction is more fruitful than either a burdensome task or Tom's quick gratifications of fantasy. With this, the subject of Huckleberry Finn is already apparent. Nevertheless the Tom Sawyer of the earlier novel is more complex than his antics here indicate.

Tom's first encounter with real displeasure, which lead to his earliest fantasy of dying, involve a paradigmatic scene of childhood: the pleasurable pain of being unjustly wronged. He is punished for Sid's breaking the sugarbowl; and then he extends, in fantasy, the gains of knowing he is in the right. Initially he takes careful note of Aunt Polly's growing remorse for her too quick temper. But Tom wants more.

He pictured himself lying sick unto death and his aunt bending over him beseeching one little forgiving word, but he would turn his face to the wall and die with that word unsaid. Ah, how would she feel then? And he pictured himself brought home from the river, dead, with his curls all wet, and his sore heart at rest. How she would throw herself upon him, and how her tears would fall like rain, and her lips pray God to give her back her boy.

Of course, the author is making gentle fun of Tom's sentimentality. Yet the illusion is too appropriate—to Tom's character and to Mark Twain's—to be considered only an instrument of indulgent irony. Tom's imaginings lead to real tears, albeit the moral masochist's tears of unconscious guilt. Although, as we learn, such is a luxurious petting of his sorrows, Tom's unconscious wishes went unrecognized by Mark Twain. He was unaware of Tom's sentimental form of sadism—the self-pitying and glorious thought of watching his aunt mourn for him. The orphaned Tom seeks an appropriate revenge for his own sense of desertion by re-enacting the leading role for himself. The boy whose mother died and left him will himself leave home to feign death over and over again. His play is sadly in earnest—to gain a mastery over that helplessly endured past. The author who nursed an hysterical wife and the fictional dreamer of death and remorse share an ambiguity of feeling toward their women.

Following an argument with the wealthy Becky Thatcher, Tom again turns to pictures of dying.

It seemed to him that life was but a trouble, at best, and he more than half envied Jimmy Hodges, so lately released; it must be very peaceful, he thought, with the wind whispering through the trees and caressing the grass and the flowers over the grave, and nothing to bother and grieve about, ever any more.… She would be sorry someday—maybe when it was too late. Ah, if he could only die temporarily!

In spite of the ironic and polite prose, Mark Twain begins here to nurture the growing kernel of sadness that comes to define the tragic aspects of Huck Finn whose imaginary dialogues with the ghosts of his past are prominent in the voices of his conscience.

Tom's romantic exile to Jackson's Island is one enactment of his dreams of fame and his unconscious cruelty toward women by pretending to be lost. Becky's spiteful rejection of his childish love-play serves him as an immediate motive to run away. The climax of these fantasies which Tom is trying to act out comes at his witnessing his own funeral. But also during this sequence, Tom and the reader discover the pervasive reality of the river. "The mighty river lay like an ocean at rest."

They felt no longing for the little village sleeping in the distance beyond the majestic waste of water. A vagrant current or a slight rise in the river had carried off their raft, but this only gratified them, since its going was something like burning the bridge between them and civilization.

Tom Sawyer, however, would never wish to burn those bridges. More characteristically he disperses his sadness with the realization that the town believes him and his comrades (Joe Harper and Huck Finn) dead. The boys enjoy a "gorgeous triumph":

They were missed; they were mourned … accusing memories of unkindness to these poor lost lads were rising up, and unavailing regrets and remorse were being indulged; and best of all, the departed were the talk of the whole town, and the envy of all the boys as far as this dazzling notoriety was concerned.

Primarily, this illusion (which becomes a reality in the novel) describes Tom's imagined triumph over Aunt Polly. It is a thinly disguised attack—as his daydreams of dying, in part, always were—against his surrogate mother. She herself tries to describe his intent when she speaks of his selfish ability to laugh, but never to pity. One may compare their exchange with Jim and Huck's following the latter's mindless practical jokes. Yet for all Tom's literary romances of pirates and thieves, it is these ambivalent fantasies of cruelty and fame which give rise to his feelings of compassion and conscience; and this distinguishes him from his namesake in Huckleberry Finn.

Tom's formative conscience leads him to point an accusing finger at Injun Joe during the murder trial. From then until the novel's close, his mental and actual wanderings involve him less in images of dying than in a sense of rebirth. His successes encourage these latter feelings—Becky's admiration, his escape from McDougal's cave, his discovery of treasure (an event which legend usually associates with the good fortunes of escaping death and winning a woman).

The multiple meanings of Tom and Becky's journey into McDougal's cave make it an appropriate symbol of the young fantasist's feelings toward women. He has dreamt of being buried in the imagined abundance of their love. Sentimentally, he has longed to be dead so that he may awaken into fame. He has wished for wealth at the expense of women's joy—or now through the discovery of gold in the cavernous bowels of mother-earth. In the course of these daydreams and adventures, the growth of his conscience is aborted; and the rich themes of his story are too readily simplified into those of a fairy tale. I suspect that Mark Twain had not thoroughly examined this division in Tom Sawyer—that of the myth and the fairy tale. In part, this limitation may have been due to his failure to objectify adequately those feelings in himself which remind us of young Tom.

In 1897 he recalled his most frequent dreams. They existed in his childhood and still occurred:

I get lost in caves and in the corridors of monstrous hotels; I appear before company in my shirt; I come to the platform with no subject to talk about, and not a note.…

[In Sam Clemens of Hannibal] Dixon Wecter summarizes the comic and fearful character of these dreams as experienced by the young Sam.

He was plagued by nightmares, and walked in his sleep, "a terror to his whole family." Dreaming that robbers were trying to steal his bed-clothes, he would get up, strip off the sheets and blankets, hide them carefully, and returning to bed lie there shivering in his sleep until the cold woke him up. Then he would cry and call for his mother.

The restless anxiety of the sleepwalking youth suggests a boy in pursuit of goals his waking self denied him. Whether these aims involved the Oedipal quest for the mother's place or were fearfully exciting wishes of wanting to see and be seen as the naked actor (or, perhaps, later the satyr) re matters for reasonable speculation. It is a fact that Mark Twain lived a life in dreadful fascination of the somnambulist's search for forbidden fruits and the histrionic's call to fame or disgrace.

Tom's cave adventures are akin to these oneiric caverns of Samuel Clemens. They suggest the sensual underground from which Theseus worked his way to the light with the help of Ariadne's thread. They epitomize the female world of Tom Sawyer. McDougal's cave is a primal chaos of "rifts and chasms … that [Tom] might go down, and down, and still down, into the earth, and it was just the same—labyrinth under labyrinth, and no end to any of them." No one knew their workings better than Tom. But with Becky at his side he is tempted to follow a stream behind a waterfall—an entrance into the "secret depths of the cave." Their retreat blocked by bats, they find themselves in a place where "the horror of utter darkness reigned." Mark Twain's description of Tom's escape from this dangerous darkness is unambiguous. Groping his way toward a speck of light, "he pushed his head and shoulders through a small hole, and saw the broad Mississippi rolling by!" So is born a mythic figure, characterized by an American exaggeration of immediate manhood and majesty, and associated with the birthgiving rush and power of the Mississippi. As before, Tom's play is a serious attempt actively to control those feelings toward Aunt Polly or Becky which he has had passively to endure. Such play combines the imaginative, and in that sense mythic, wish to master his boyhood world, with the real deed of discovering the cave's secrets. His cave adventure evokes what Erikson has called the "intermediary reality between phantasy and actuality [which] is the purpose of the play" [Childhood and andactualitySociety].

For Tom, personally, very little of the kind has occurred. The security of his future is mediocre and uninteresting. Considering the simplicity of his romantic illusions at the end, and his fairy tale success, one wonders if it was not primarily Mark Twain's dream that led to Tom's triumphant return to the maternal cave to search out its treasure. He and Huck had to return to uncover Injun Joe's buried gold. They enter through Tom's previous exit. "Tom proudly marched into a thick clump of sumac bushes and said: 'Here you are! Look at it Huck; it's the snuggest hole in the country. You just keep mum about it. All along I've been wanting to be a robber, but I knew I'd got to have a thing like this.…" Comically, this reminds me of Clemens' memorandum saved by Paine: "It is at our mother's knee that we acquire our noblest & truest & highest ideals, but there is seldom any money in them" [Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography]. Tom's coming of age is allied in Mark Twain's unconscious with a triumphant looting of the mother-lode. For Tom, the nouveau riche, it is only a start toward a profession: a final caricature of his childhood fantasies outlined by his now proud and future father-in-law Judge Thatcher. For Mark Twain it was a mingling of fact and fantasy, of unconscious wishes and a curiously coherent fiction.

Lyall Powers (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: "The Sweet Success of Twain's Tom," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 53, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 310-24.

[Powers is an American educator and critic who has written several studies of Henry James's works. In the following essay, he explores Tom Sawyer's particular appeal to the American temperament.]

For almost a century Mark Twain's novel of American boyhood, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, has enjoyed great popularity and earned a place as one of our foremost popular "classics". Its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, may justifiably be held in greater esteem by the learned reader but has probably not yet usurped the honored place of Tom Sawyer in the popular imagination—nor, perhaps, in the heart of many a learned reader. Everybody knows Tom's story whether he has actually read the book or not: it is somehow un-American not to know it. Critics have been ready to account for and justify the book's popularity; certain explanations are now familiar and fully persuasive, yet some other features remain to be noted—especially the informing pattern of this charmingly "artless" novel. Those other features cast an instructive light on the society which has delighted in the fable of Tom Sawyer and taken it to its heart. And in rehearsing the familiar features we can prepare to appreciate the "other" features I mention.

There is, to begin with, the charming nostalgia of the novel's setting—a rural summer scene of boyhood days. The golden glow of an almost Edenic atmosphere pervades Tom Sawyer, making St. Petersburg and its environs seem a kind of midwestern land of lotus eaters. The initial paragraph of the famous whitewashing episode Chapter II) well exemplifies that atmosphere:

Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step. The locust trees were in bloom and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation; and it lay just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.

Tom enters the clear sky of that darling Saturday morning like a dark cloud full of storms: he has the fence to whitewash. But like all the clouds in the novel, this one proves to have a silver lining; the sweet atmosphere is soon reestablished. The fence finished, Tom repairs to Aunt Polly to claim his release; and Chapter III begins as Chapter II did:

Tom presented himself before Aunt Polly, who was sitting before an open window in a pleasant rearward apartment.… The balmy summer air, the restful quiet, the odor of the flowers, and the drowsing murmur of the bees had had their effect, and she was nodding over her knitting—for she had no company but the cat, and it was asleep in her lap.

Clearly, this is "a land in which it seemed always afternoon". Aunt Polly would have been satisfied with 20 per cent of the job and expects less, so we thrill sympathetically with Tom's little triumph: he has put one over on his aunt as he has on all the neighborhood boys. The peaceful life and the gratifying boyish triumphs characterize the novel's tone and are responsible for much of its appeal. Tom, we feel, is a real boy and therefore warmly sympathetic: we recognize our boyish selves in him as he goes through his typical adventures of Robin Hood and piracy, of falling in love, and of unjust but unsevere punishment and how readily we understand his wish for temporary death to make everyone feel sorry for him!). There are, to be sure, threatening dark clouds in the novel—the horrors of the graveyard and the cave—but even these turn out to be lined with silver, or, indeed, with gold.

Here, then, is another reason for the novel's attractiveness: in addition to the Edenic atmosphere of the scene there is the fact of the happy issue of every one of Tom's adventures. Every escapade ends happily. Since William Dean Howells made the observation in 1876, many critics have recognized that Tom's adventures are wonderfully wishfulfilling—his dreams come true: "he is a boy, and merely and exactly an ordinary boy on the moral side. What makes him delightful to the reader is that on the imaginative side he is very much more, and though every boy has wild and fantastic dreams, this boy cannot rest until he has somehow realized them" [Atlantic Monthly. XXXVIII May 1876)]. Again and again Tom's play becomes real; the romance hardens into reality. Not only, then, does Tom act out for us the dreams of our own boyhood, the course of the novel moves them from the frivolous realm of play to the serious realm of real life. And as Tom's imagination involves him in play at romantic heroism, so the actual realization of his dreams results in heroic achievement.

This aspect of Tom Sawyer has led critics like Walter Blair to conclude that the novel is a working out in fictional form of the notion of a boy's maturing, that its structure reveals "a way of characterizing and a patterning of action which showed a boy developing toward manhood" ["On the Structure of Tom Sawyer," in Modern Philology 37 August 1939)]. Not only do Tom's adventures begin in play and end in reality but, Mr. Blair points out. adventures begun as some gesture of social rebellion end as acts which earn Tom the approval of the society of St. Petersburg. Whether or not the novel is indeed the depiction of a boy's maturing we can attempt to decide in a moment; it is clear, however, that insofar as the reader has identified sympathetically with the heroic young Tom, the social approval Mr. Blair mentions is additionally gratifying and further contributes to the book's appeal.

Yet one of the odd features of the novel discourages accepting Mr. Blair's appraisal at face value. There is some sense of Tom's developing and maturing, all right, but it is a development that occurs outside of time. Mr. Blair is almost aware of that fact, as he seems to imply in his puzzling explanation of Tom's unspecified age: "The fact that the action of the book requires only a few months seems irrelevant, since fictional rather than actual time is involved."

But the real point to be recognized is that Tom's age is unspecified because he is of no particular age—or rather that he is all ages that a boy can be. Tom is young enough to be still losing his baby teeth yet old enough to be as interested as he is in Becky Thatcher: if he finds buried treasure he plans to buy "a new drum, and a sure-'nough sword, and a red necktie and a bull pup, and get married"; yet the nature of his attention to Becky suggests some years' more maturity than that. The pleasant summer of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is in truth a palimpsest of all the summers of boyhood. That feature of the novel is largely responsible for giving the adventures a universal and timeless dimension, and to Tom himself a truly representative role. Tom emerges, James Cox rightly observes [in his Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor], "as the figure, the character, of the Boy". Dwight Macdonald carries the idea a step further [in "Mark Twain: An Unsentimental Journey," in The New Yorker, 9 April 1960] in calling Tom the All-American Boy: "The first chapters [of Tom Sawyer] are fascinating, for here … we can see a mass-culture hero taking form." (The value of that particular extension we will consider below.)

Now while Tom is of unspecified but all-encompassing age and his adventures a palimpsest of all ideal boyhood summers, the illusion of a single summer is artfully created by Twain's specific and indeed meticulous attention to superficial chronology at three instances in the novel. The convincing realism of the passing days of a specific summer in one boy's life depends on Twain's carefully counting off days and even hours for us. The first eleven chapters lead us step by apparent step from Friday to Tuesday. The first chapter opens with Tom's escaping Aunt Polly's clutches by a simple ruse, which surprises and then delights her until she worries about her failure of responsibility: "I'll just be obleeged to make him work, tomorrow, to punish him. It's mightly hard to make him work Saturdays.… "After supper Tom is out again, meets the well-dressed stranger—"He had shoes on—and it was only Friday"—licks him and gets home late. The chapter ends with reiteration of Aunt Polly's "resolution to turn his Saturday holiday into captivity". Chapter II begins "Saturday morning was come", and relates the whitewashing episode. Chapter III sees Tom free, his view of the new girl (Becky), and his elaborate attempts to impress her: he hangs about the Thatchers' "till nightfall". He is unjustly punished at supper and wishes he might die, picturing himself "brought home from the river, dead"; returns to the Thatchers' at "half-past nine or ten o'clock", and goes home to bed. Chapters IV and V treat of Sunday School ("from nine to half past ten") and church service "About half past ten the cracked bell of the church began to ring"). Chapter VI begins "Monday morning found Tom Sawyer miserable", and relates the episode of the loose tooth and the beginning of his romance with Becky; Chapter VII depicts their first lovers' quarrel "when school broke up at noon". And so on, into Chapter XI which begins "Close upon the hour of noon"—we know it is Tuesday), the latter half of which blurs chronology—"at breakfast one morning Sid said"; "Every day or two, during this time", etc.

The strict account of chronology picks up again in Chapter XIII, just at noon on a Tuesday, as Tom, Joe, and Huck plan their escapade on Jackson Island. They meet and set off at midnight; "About two o'clock in the morning" they are landed and finally fall asleep. Chapter XV begins "When Tom awoke in the morning", and tells of the hunt on the river for someone drowned and of Tom's excited realization that "it's us!" Twilight draws on, the night deepens, and Tom makes his stealthy visit home: "This was Wednesday night". And so on through the eight chapters devoted to the boys' adventures on Jackson Island, ending on Monday afternoon, in Chapter XX, where Tom takes Becky's punishment. (Chapter XVII contains the funeral and the triumphant resurrection of the three "dead" boys on Sunday; Chapter XVIII allows Tom his ruse of the dream "At breakfast on Monday morning"; etc.)

The chronology grows vague again through chapters XXI-XXVIII, although some specific references occasionally occur; Chapter XXVIII hustles us through several days in a few lines ("Tuesday the boys had the same ill luck. Also Wednesday. But Thursday night promised better".) as Tom and Huck pursue Injun Joe. Then with Chapter XXIX strict chronological accounting is resumed and maintained until the end of XXXII, wherein Tom and Becky are found—i.e. from Friday to the Monday ten days later. The brief concluding chapters (XXXIII-XXXV and Conclusion) are again chronologically vague and generally timeless.

It is evidently not mere caprice that prompted Twain to attend so carefully to accounting for the passing hours and days in these three sections of the novel. In addition to heightening the realism and making the story more convincing and immediately dramatic, the particularity of the quotidian chronology lends pace and peculiar emphasis to those sections of the novel. It is appropriate in the opening chapters to move us quickly and convincingly into the story within a familiar temporal framework. The Jackson Island episode, which is physically central in the book, is thematically and functionally central as well; it enacts in terms of play, romance, rebellion, and escape, the concluding episode of the novel; and it prepares by anticipation and forecast the comedic resolution of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. By the same token, the particularity of chronology in Chapters XXIX-XXXII paces and emphasizes the important comedic ending. The brief remaining chapters and the Conclusion serve as a kind of coda.

Chronological emphasis given to the opening, central, and climactic episodes of the novel indicates the existence of a formal patterning in the novel that is somewhat less obvious than that provided by the sketchy and lately developed "plot". The realistic detailed chronology serves to "anchor" the mythic or mythopoeic (or at least heuristic) aterial. Those sections where chronology is most strictly followed are the crucial sections of the novel in that they concern the important stages of development of the novel's meaningful pattern. Principal items in the formal patterning—which carries the burden of the novel's significant expression—include the three main narrative themes. First, the romance of Tom and Becky; second, the escapades of Injun Joe; third, Tom's relation to Huckleberry Finn.

This third item needs an additional word of explanation. The other side of the coin is, to give it a complementary title, Tom's relation to society or to civilization. Huck obviously enough represents the wild (not the bad, mind you) side of Tom Sawyer: Huck belongs in the heart of Nature—not quite that Nature in the bosom of which Hawthorne's Hester and Arthur plan their escape from society ("that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth"), but certainly a Nature very like it. His polar opposite in the novel is Sid—almost the other extreme. Huck's characterization in the novel makes it clear why Tom must succumb at last to civilization and respectability. The frightened exchange between the two boys on the occasion of the dire prophecy uttered by the howling dog (Bull Harbison), after Tom and Huck have witnessed the murder of Dr. Robinson, offers an example of that characterization:

"Dad fetch it! This comes of playing hooky and doing everything afeller's told not to do. I might'a' been good, like Sid, if I'd 'a' tried—but no, I wouldn't, of course. But if ever I get off this time, I lay I'll just waller in Sunday schools!" And Tom began to snuffle a little.

"You bad!" and Huckleberry began to snuffle too. "Confound it, Tom Sawyer, you're just old pie, 'longside o' what I am. Oh lordy, lordy, lordy. I wish I only had half your chance."

Amidst all the romance and make believe of Tom's play there is something dreadfully real about Huck. While Tom thinks it would be great naughty fun to smoke a pipe, Huck regularly smokes; while Tom thinks it splendid to escape (now and then) the bonds of home and society, Huck is already really quite outside those bonds. In a word, while Tom plays at rebellion against social mores, Huck is the rebel succeeded—willy-nilly. And so on. Tom's relationship to Huck is, then, a narrative theme of crucial importance in the novel's pattern of development, and we shall return to it again.

These three principal narrative themes are developed concurrently in the novel; they frequently cross and finally merge for their related resolution and denouement in the splendid concluding episode of the book. All three themes are begun in the initial block of strict chronological narration in Chapters I-VIII. The first four chapters establish Tom in our eye, and in Chapter III Becky Thatcher is seen to float into Tom's ken. In Chapter VI, however, all three narrative themes together are actually set in definite motion: en route to school on Monday morning Tom meets for the first time in the novel) "the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn … cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad … "—and the theme of Tom and Huck is begun. Their conversation about Huck's dead cat leads to their plan to go to the graveyard—"when it's midnight a devil will come, or maybe two or three … [and] you heave your cat after em … "—where Tom becomes involved in the escapades of Injun Joe. Third, as the chapter heading promises, "Tom meets Becky"; and the chapter ends with Tom's written profession to Becky "I love you."

The pattern of the novel is reenforced by three recurrent motifs which predominate in the story's progress: the motif of death, the motif of quest for hidden treasure, and the motif of romantic heroic adventure. These motifs are developed, like the principal narrative themes, according to the system that obtains in the episodic progress of the story: each motif begins as play or romance or rebellion; what is playful becomes earnest, romance hardens into reality, the rebellious is regularized into the respectable. The motifs, furthermore, are interwoven and coalesce with each other and with the main narrative themes—(Tom and Becky, Tom and Injun Joe, and Tom and Huck)—and especially during the three sections of strictly chronological narration.

The motif of death is introduced early in the opening block of chapters, with Tom's typically boyish wish that he might die and make people feel sorry that they had been mean to him. In Chapter III—where he catches his first glimpse of Becky—he is unjustly whacked for breaking a sugar bowl (Sid actually did it) and wishes for death, especially by drowning: "He pictured himself brought home from the river, dead, with his curls all wet and his sore heart at rest". He imagines himself dying from toothache, in Chapter VI, but is sent on his way—he meets first Huck and then Becky. Repulsed by Becky after their first lovers' uarrel (at the end of Chapter VII), Tom flees in Chapter VIII to the solace behind Cardiff Hill—the Delectable Land—and there yearns to die, to die temporarily. (Incidentally, our sympathies are humorously enlisted with Tom as we recall our own childish wishes for our death as punishment to those who loved us; and Twain's indulgent narrative tone contributes wonderfully to this effect.)

But in the next chapter (IX) Tom and Huck are witnesses to the very real and permanent death of Dr. Robinson at the hand of Injun Joe in the graveyard. This horror is quickly enough submerged, and by Chapter XII Tom's interest is again turned to Becky Thatcher, who has stopped attending school. Yet that horror lurks just below the surface, is reflected playfully in the Jackson Island episode, and will soon thereafter reappear and persist to its finale in the adventure in the cave.

The Jackson Island episode gives (as I say) a playful, wishfulfilling realization of Tom's yearnings: along with Huck and Joe Harper, Tom has died in the eyes of society—and, furthermore, only temporarily! Another rebuff by Becky has determined Tom's escape, notice; and much of the satisfaction of this episode derives from the boys' early recognition that St. Petersburg does indeed believe they have drowned. They set off at the outset of Chapter XIII and gain the island; before the end of the next chapter Tom has determined the significance of the flotilla on the river and the firing of the cannon from the ferryboat: "Boys, I know who's drownded—it's us!" Not only does this second block of chapters fulfill Tom's wish for a "temporary" death, it also anticipates Tom's adventure in McDougal's Cave—the concern of the third block of strictly chronological narration—which ends the book.

The motif of heroic romance begins in Chapter VIII (after Becky's first rebuff of Tom) and is there associated with the motif of death: Tom wants to die "temporarily". The romance suggests itself as an escape from the life of St. Petersburg: Tom decides to be a pirate, to become famous as the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main and return one day in all his grisly finery to astonish his old village. But on the appearance of Joe Harper Tom becomes Robin Hood to Joe's Guy of Guisborne, and they play out that romance until Guy refuses to fall dead. Once again this motif is entwined with the death motif when these two boys join Huck and set sail as pirates for Jackson Island.

Becky's rebuff of Tom has again sent him off (at the end of XII as at the end of VII), and she is quite definitely in Tom's mind as he sails away: "The Black Avenger [that's our Tom] stood still with folded arms, 'looking his last' pon the scene of his former joys and his later sufferings, and wishing 'she' could see him now, abroad on the wild sea, facing peril and death with dauntless heart, going to his doom with a grim smile on his lips". And while on the island the question of real pirates comes up and the possibility of discovering real treasure there: "I bet there's been pirates on this island before, boys.… They've hid treasures here somewhere. How'd you feel to light on a rotten chest full of gold and silver—hey?"

And thus the third major motif is also stated in the central episode of Jackson Island. This motif has perhaps begun in a somewhat different form as early as the whitewashing episode of Chapter II, when Tom discovers unexpected treasure in the pockets of boys who came to jeer but remained to whitewash. It is picked up again in Chapter XXV as Tom and Huck start their quest for buried treasure that leads them again into contact with Injun Joe; and it reaches its culmination in the episode of McDougal's Cave when the real treasure is finally discovered.

The development of these major motifs runs parallel to and reinforces that of the principal narrative themes; and that combined development in the novel is comedic—and seriously so, I take it. Quite consistently, playful action matures into earnest action; the romantic hardens into reality; rebellion is regularized into respectability. Thus, wishes are fulfilled (Tom's and, consequently, the reader's) and initially naughty behavior turns into praiseworthy achievement in the eyes of St. Petersburg. After the triumphant return of the "drowned" boys Tom soon finds it does not follow that Becky falls at his feet. Two chapters later, however, Tom performs a more legitimate act of heroism in taking Becky's punishment for the torn book. The reality of that act does bring Becky back to him—"Tom, how could you be so noble!. … "—and their romance is on again. And then further, in Chapter XXIII, Tom courageously testifies in Muff Potter's trial against Injun Joe, thereby putting himself in earnest on the side of right and justice and opposed to the Satanic figure of evil in the novel. "Tom was a glittering hero once more", but this time far more seriously than ever before; and there is nothing playful or simply romantic in this achievement.

Almost immediately afterward the motif of quest for hidden treasure is given similar development and joined in grim earnest to the motifs of death and heroism as all three coalesce with the narrative theme of Injun Joe's escapades and, of course, with that of the Tom-Huck relationship). The romantic game of treasure hunting (Chapter XXV) urns terrifically real as the boys are confronted by real robbers and real treasure—and Injun Joe. As this turn of events seems about to achieve its climax (in Chapter XX-VIII), the strict chronological accounting begins to reappear, and at the outset of Chapter XXIX the concluding episode is set in motion—but with an apparent collapse of thematic unity:

The first thing Tom heard on Friday morning was a glad piece of news—Judge Thatcher's family had come back to town the night before. Both Injun Joe and the treasure sank into secondary importance for a moment and Becky took the chief place in the boy's interest.

But the collapse of unity is merely apparent, for with the completion of the episode that runs from XXIX—Friday morning—to the end of Chapter XXXII, we find that the principal narrative themes and the major motifs of the novel have indeed tightly coalesced and been brought to a neat comic resolution. Tom's romantic interest in Becky, which takes precedence over other interests no matter how serious (as the quotation above clearly specifies), leads him and Becky into the depths of McDougal's Cave, confronts them with the horror of being lost and the threatening evil of Injun Joe, and gives Tom the opportunity really to act out the pattern of the typical career of the Hero. As usual, Tom is ever ready to play the hero:

at once the ambition to be a discoverer seized him. Becky responded to his call, and they made a smoke mark for future guidance, and started upon their quest. They wound this way and that, far down into the secret depths of the cave, made another mark, and branched off in search of novelties to tell the upper world about.

The language of this paragraph—especially the words I have italicized—assumes a significant resonance that echoes the mythic narrative of the questing Hero. Tom's chivalrous care of Becky—far beyond his endearing gesture of taking her punishment in school—is put to the ultimate test (in the novel's terms) at the confrontation with Injun Joe:

… a human hand, holding a candle, appeared from behind a rock! Tom lifted up a glorious shout, and instantly that hand was followed by the body it belonged to—Injun Joe's! Tom was paralysed; he could not move. He was vastly gratified the next moment to see the "Spaniard" take to his heels and get himself out of sight.

Not only is Injun Joe put to flight here, he will never leave the lower world of McDougal's Cave. Tom's triumph over Injun Joe gains in significance from the novel's persistent association of Injun Joe and Satan; the act of triumph then has a familiar mimetic quality. Joe and Satan are associated in the reader's eye from the outset of the Injun Joe theme (Tom and Huck go to the graveyard with the wart-fetching dead cat and await the arrival of the Devil—Injun Joe appears), to the last word about Joe, in Chapter XXXIII ("Injun Joe was believed to have killed five citizens of the village, but what of that? If he had been Satan himself … "). In Chapter XI Tom and Huck are amazed at Joe's lying testimony and refrain from interfering for "this miscreant had sold himself to Satan and it would be fatal to meddle … [They were] confirmed in their belief that Joe had sold himself to the devil". And so on. This would seem to add up to the imitation of the action of the Hero overcoming Evil.

Particular emphasis is given the final features of the ordeal of Hero Tom and his consort—emphasis which contributes further to the defining of Tom as familiar Hero. Twice Twain specifies the duration of Tom's sojourn in the cave: at the close of Chapter XXX ("Three dreadful days and nights dragged their tedious hours along … "), and again at the close of Chapter XXXII ("Three days and nights of toil and hunger in the cave were not to be shaken off at once".) This insistence on the three-day duration of the adventure recalls the famous three-day experience of Christ. Then, the treasure's being found "under the cross" tends further to lend the particular cachet of the Christian Hero to our Tom.

And of course his triumphant return with Becky at his side clinches the successful, comic ending of the Hero's career.

But where has Huck been all this time? Huck has been safely left to his own devices, and is following, on his own, a line roughly parallel to Tom's. The significance of his being separate from Tom at this crucial juncture is that Huck can, so to speak, be trusted; he is redeemed. Since Tom has left him keeping watch for Injun Joe and the treasure, Huck is led to the point of wonderfully saving the Widow Douglas. The dramatic presentation of Huck's achievement is eloquent. At the close of Chapter XXIX Huck, the outcast from society, "the juvenile pariah of the village", bangs on the Welshman's door—

"Let me in—quick! I'll tell everything."

"Why, who are you?"

"Huckleberry Finn—quick, let me in."

"Huckleberry Finn, indeed; it ain't a name to open many doors, I judge! But let him in, lads, and let's see what's the trouble."

Then, at the beginning of Chapter XXX, almost the same scene is reenacted; but the minor difference is instructive:

As the earliest suspicion of dawn appeared on Sunday morning, Huck came groping up the hill and rapped gently at the old Welshman's door.…

"Who's there?"

Huck's scared voice answered in a low tone.

"Please let me in! It's only Huck Finn!"

"It's a name that can open this door night or day, lad!—and welcome!"

These were strange words to the vagabond boy's ears, and the pleasantest he had ever heard. He could not recollect that the closing word had ever been applied in his case before.

Huck raps softly; he says "Please"; he is welcomed in—and not only into the Welshman's but into the Widow Douglas's finally as well. This is of course a new Huck—good, certainly, but not as opposed to his earlier "bad": the point is that his wildness is tamed, he is civilized and redeemed for respectable society. The old Huck is gone.

The sense of that is expressed first as Chapter XXX develops. The Welshman notices that Huck is "white and jaded—you ain't well a bit". As the chapter closes we find that Huck's career has also realized the motif of death: he is, we can well believe, at death's doorstep. "The widow burst into tears. 'Hush child! I've told you before, you must not talk. You are very, very sick!' t" This is the result of his heroic gesture, the gesture that earns him society's admiration. Huck's illness is, of course, almost symbolic: that Huck who has represented all the attraction that Tom's "wild" side responded to, that has indeed threatened to win Tom away—away from respectability, from his "better" self—that Huck is overcome.

This impression is reenforced by Tom's watching over Huck's recovery. The turn of events in the careers of both boys has left Tom strong and Huck weak. Tom assists at Huck's recovery—his virtual resurrection or rebirth. Once Huck can get about again, Tom takes him to the treasure so that he can share in Tom's good fortune—the Hero's boon. Then Huck's acceptance by society is reenacted as he and Tom are given new clothes by the Widow Douglas—"Now wash and dress yourselves. Here are two new suits of clothes—shirts, socks, everything complete".—at the end of Chapter XXXIII. Of course a certain reluctance persists, vestiges of the old pariah personality remain in Huck and he wants to "slope". But the assurance given him by our hero rings with peculiar eloquence. Tom says, "It ain't anything. I don't mind it a bit. I'll take care of you" (XXXIV; my italics). Huck's old ways raise their head once again, and Tom must once again "take care" of him—and his persuasion involves the telling bargain in the book's final chapter.

We have passed beyond the last attention to strict chronology and back into that timeless summer that is all summers, in which Tom is forever redeeming Huck—capturing him for respectability. Chapter XXXV and the Conclusion are simply a coda, the gentle unwinding and letting down after the climax has been reached and the myth's point established.

The principal narrative themes have been brought together in the final chapters for satisfactory resolution. Tom has won his Becky, at the same time he has ended (by triumphing over them) the escapades of Injun Joe, and by the same token he has triumphed over and redeemed Huckleberry Finn. This is the goal toward which the episodic movement of this apparently formless novel has been urging us. And there the major motifs are likewise joined for comic (though serious) resolution. To say it again, the development of narrative themes and motifs has followed the pattern of dream realization: the playful, the romantic the rebellious turn to the serious, the real, the respectable; the heroic game becomes impressively the Heroic reality.

And we recognize in all this that the charmingly artless and casually informal novel is rigorously informed by the consistently developed themes and the steadily sustained motifs (death, quest for treasure, and romantic heroism) hich complement them. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is, then, quite formally organized despite its "relaxed" appearance. Its formality is also aided by the careful attention to chronology in the three large sections of the novel, as I have indicated.

The strict chronology, furthermore, gives an impressive edge of realism to the adventures which the novel narrates; it lends conviction as well as dramatic pace to those adventures and, most important, it effectively contains the nostalgia and romance that give those adventures their appeal and makes them even more deliciously palatable. But it also contains and anchors that figure of the timeless and ageless boy-hero and his palimpsest career: it seems to bring to us with dramatic, temporal immediacy the mythic account of that perennial heroic figure. That combination, I contend, has been largely responsible for the profound appeal of Tom Sawyer and his wonderful adventures.

Let us take another look at our hero and attempt to see more clearly what his defining features are—and so recognize what he has to show us about ourselves in our fond admiration. He is first of all, and indeed last of all, a regular boy. In spite of Twain's early intentions, Tom is the working out of the idea of the good bad boy—with a vengeance; he plays the right games ("by the book"), acceptably breaks the rules like a regular guy, and reaps his merited reward—the Judge's daughter and a nest egg of 6,000.00. So he can safely be trusted to fulfill our nostalgic wishes because as his dreamy play hardens into reality his acts of pseudo-rebellion mature into strict respectability. And we recognize in grateful joy the accents of his rhetoric, especially as it swells to persuasive eloquence in overcoming Huck, taming him, capturing him for us. Huck lingeringly complains—

"The widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she gits up by a bell—everything's so awful reg'lar a body can't stand it."

Tom is ready with his antiseptic reply: "Well, everybody does that way, Huck". He adds the grateful assurance—"if you'll try this thing just a while longer you'll come to like it". Then he turns to his bargain: Huck can join Tom Sawyer's robber gang if and only if he remains civilized and respectable.

"Huck, we can't let you into the gang if you ain't respectable, you know."

"Now, Tom, hain't you always ben friendly to me? You wouldn't shet me out, would you, Tom? You wouldn't do that, now, would you, Tom?"

"Huck, I wouldn't want to, and I don't want to—but what would people say? [!]

And all opposition falls, as it must, before this compelling rhetoric.

So there he stands, Tom triumphant; and we rejoice as we inhale the sweet smell of his success. It is the safe and acceptable and respectable realization of our dreams—perhaps indeed of the American dream. And at the same wonderful time it is the resolution of the great American paradox. The ideal hero is the stout individualist, the nonconforming natural man, American Rousseau, who yet lives snugly in suburbia as a regular fellow. He will assert his individual heroic self by dressing in distinctive and exclusive clothing (as the ads tell him)—just like everyone else. His American name is legion!

That is the statement of Twain's almost too-divine comedy. It is the romance we are brought up on. We love its hero, who may well grow up to be president, or one of us precisely, or at least George Babbitt (whom Sinclair Lewis loved as Samuel Clemens loved his Tom). The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, from its disarming surface to its alarming depths, is as American as quick-frozen, ready-mixed, "home-made" apple pie. And in the appeal of its telling authenticity it is a major reflection of ourselves.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5719

SOURCE: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: A Nightmare Vision of American Boyhood," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXI, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 637-52.

[Wolff is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, she asserts that Tom Sawyer is a protest against the female-dominated moral code of Twain's day and the lack of suitable masculine role models for boys.]

Twain's second book of boyhood has more or less cornered one segment of the American Dream. Read with admiration (read during the long years when Moby Dick was relegated to obscurity), it captured both our lofty goals and our tragic weaknesses; and if it is not "the" American epic, it has epic dimensions. By comparison, its predecessor seems unworthy of serious attention (a "comic idyll of boyhood," says Leo Marx dismissively, on his way to a lengthy analysis of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)—no more than idealized reminiscences, pulp fantasies of an "Everyboy." Yet Huck himself is more particular about his antecedents: "You don't know about me," he says at the beginning of his story, "without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly." In the first instance, this is where he has "been before"—the world of this other fiction—and one explanation for the questing need that fills Huck's own tale must be found here, in the fabricated town of St. Petersburg on the Mississippi.

We are certainly correct to see Huck as heroic—an American Odysseus (or Hamlet); but if, for the sake of contrast, we diminish the complexity of Tom Sawyer's world—relegating it to the simplistic category of "All-American Boyhood"—we will find ourselves led seriously astray.

It is no easy thing for an adult American reader to get at the "real" world of this novel. Our culture has provided us with too many colorful, fleshed-out reproductions of it: a bicentennial stamp depicting Tom and the whitewashed fence; commemorative plates and pictures; and countless stage and film productions—each one full of life and merriment, each exuding the security of childhood-as-it-ought-to-be in small-town America. And every one of these sentimental evocations is false to the original.

In fact, Tom's world would be difficult to capture faithfully on film—impossible, perhaps, on stage: it is a phantom town inhabited largely by ghostly presences. Consider, for example, the buildings that actually appear in the novel; consider all of them. To begin with, there are private dwellings: Aunt Polly's house, Jeff Thatcher's house where Becky visits), the Douglas mansion, the Welshman's farm, and the "haunted" house where Tom and Huck so nearly lose their lives. Then there are institutional buildings designed specifically to bedevil an active boy: the church and the schoolhouse. However, all of these—houses, church, school—are places from which an average, energetic male youth is expected to flee: "his" world, the world to be explored and conquered, lies beyond—in lush Edenic woods, a river, and (presumably) a healthy, industrious town of tolerable size. And here the shadow world begins. There is a river; there are woods. But of the town, only menacing fragments await. Two taverns (one housing criminals), a courthouse, a jail, and a deserted slaughterhouse. Nothing more.

Let us be more specific. No stores are mentioned in the novel. No blacksmiths. No livery stable. No bank. Mark Twain, who renders the steamboat's arrival so vibrantly in Life on the Mississippi, put no busy wharf in the world of this fiction—no commercial steamboat traffic at all. Every bit of the bustling business that an impressionable reader might impute to Tom Sawyer's world is, in fact, notably absent from the novel; the only downtown buildings that actually do appear in the St. Petersburg of Twain's creation are those few grisly emblems of crime and punishment. Two taverns, a courthouse, a jail, and a deserted slaughterhouse.

Placed against this somber background is a complex society of children, so tightly knit and so emotionally engaging that it tends to dominate the reader's attention. Ben Rogers and Billy Fisher and Joe Harper and Amy Lawrence and Jeff Thatcher: such names in this novel attach to people with specific histories and relationships, friendships and enmities, all of the subtle qualities that make them seem distinctive and "real." The slow accretion of this children's world renders Tom's and Huck's activities with a kind of palpable, three-dimensional plausibility.

"Say—what is dead cats good for, Huck?"

"Good for? Cure warts with."

"No! Is that so? I know something that's better."

"I bet you don't. What is it?"

"Why spunk-water."

"Spunk-water! I wouldn't give a dern for spunk-water."

"You wouldn't, wouldn't you? D'you ever try it?"

"No, I hain't. But Bob Tanner did."

"Who told you so?"

"Why he told Jeff Thatcher, and Jeff told Johnny Baker, and Johnny told Jim Hollis, and Jim told Ben Rogers and Ben told a nigger, and the nigger told me. There now!"

The very vividness of these children, then, makes all the more remarkable the peculiar air of vagueness, of faceless generality, that permeates Twain's evocations of most adult gatherings.

Consider these paragraphs describing Muff Potter's capture:

Close upon the hour of noon the whole village was suddenly electrified with the ghastly news. No need of the as yet undreamed-of telegraph; the tale flew from man to man, from group to group, from house to house, with little less than telegraphic speed.… Horsemen had departed down all the roads in every direction and the Sheriff "was confident" that he would be captured before night.

All the town was drifting toward the graveyard. Tom's heartbreak vanished and he joined the procession.… Arrived at the dreadful place, he wormed his small body through the crowd and saw the dismal spectacle.… He turned, and his eyes met Huckleberry's. Then both looked elsewhere at once, and wondered if anybody had noticed anything in their mutual glance. But everybody was talking.…

"Poor fellow!" … "Muff Potter'll hang for this if they catch him!" This was the drift of the remark; and the minister said, "It was a judgment; His hand is here."

Now Tom shivered from head to heel; for his eye fell upon the stolid face of Injun Joe. At this moment the crowd began to sway and struggle, and voices shouted, "It's him! it's him! he's coming himself!"

"Who? Who?" from twenty voices.

"Muff Potter!"

People in the branches of the trees over Tom's head said he wasn't trying to get away—he only looked doubtful and perplexed.

"Infernal impudence!" said a bystander.

Here we have a convocation of most of the townsfolk. Yet not one is given a name (only the "outsiders"—Muff Potter and Injun Joe). Instead, there is a torrent of collective nouns: whole village, man to man, group to group, horsemen, all the town, the crowd, anybody, everybody, the crowd, voices, people, a bystander. Even the dignitaries remain nameless; they are merely "the Sheriff" and "the minister." When it is compared with the density of the scenes depicting children, this collection of citizens becomes vaporous: as "people" within the novel, they can scarcely be said to exist. No more than anonymous shadows—appropriate, indeed, to the illusory town of which they are citizens. Small wonder, then, that films and pictures falsify. Of necessity they give substance to entities—buildings and businesses and hurrying, excited people—that either do not exist at all within this fictional world or are, at best, only partially realized.

Since this is a boy's story, it is only fair to ask what a boy in such a world might make of himself. Given the character of the town Twain has created, given the social possibilities of St. Petersburg as we know it through this novel, what will Tom Sawyer become when he is a man? The question cannot be answered.

Initially Twain had intended the novel 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 o [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 schoolmaster 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 vindictive pleasure in punishing the least shortcomings.

If the village itself (with taverns, courthouse, jail, and deserted slaughter-house) is composed of the elements of crime and punishment, then Mr. Dobbin might be construed as one of the executioners—disarmed at only the final moment by the boys' "revenge" and exiting to catcalls and laughter. The joke is a fine exercise in imaginative power, but it does not fully succeed in countering the potency of the masculine "muscle" that is used with such consistent vindictiveness and violence.

Violence is everywhere in Tom's world. Escape to the island does not answer: random, pitiless destruction can find a frightened boy just as lightning, by chance, can blast a great sycamore to fall on the children's camp and signify that catastrophe is never far away.

Clearly, Tom is a major figure in the play of violence, yet his part is not clear. Is he victim or perpetrator? Is the violence outside of him, or is it a cosmic reflection of something that is fundamental to his own nature?

His games, for example, have a most idiosyncratic quality; the rebellion and rage that never fully surface in his dealings with Aunt Polly and the other figures of authority in this matriarchal world find splendid ventilation in fantasy. Richly invigorated by his imagination, Tom can blend the elements of violence and control exactly to suit his fancy. Acquiescent to society's tenets in real life, in day-dreams Tom is always a rebel.

The idea of being a clown recurred to him now, only to fill him with disgust. For frivolity and jokes and spotted tights were an offense, when they intruded themselves upon a spirit that was exalted into the vague and august realm of the romantic. No, he would be a soldier.… No—better still, he would join the Indians, and hunt buffaloes and go on the warpath in the mountain ranges and the trackless great plains of the Far West, and away in the future come back a great chief, bristling with feathers, hideous with paint, and prance into Sunday-school, some drowsy summer morning, with a blood-curdling war-whoop, and sear the eyeballs of all his companions with unappeasable envy.

Safe in his own fictional world, Tom participates in carefully constructed rituals of devastation. He and his cohorts may be outlaws of any kind; however, whatever roles they choose, there are always careful sets of regulations to be followed. In games, control reigns supreme: "'Guy of Guisborne wants no man's pass. Who art thou that—that—' 'Dares to hold such language,' said Tom prompting—for they talked 'by the book,' from memory."

The real import of these rules—this rigid regimentation of boyish fantasy—becomes clear several times in the novel as the children play. "Huck said: 'What does pirates have to do?' Tom said: 'Oh, they have just a bully time—take ships and burn them, and get the money and bury it in awful places in their island.…' 'And they carry the women to the island,' said Joe; 'they don't kill the women.' No,' assented Tom, 'they don't kill the women—they're too noble.'" And at the conclusion:

"Tom Sawyer's Gang—it sounds splendid, don't it Huck?"

"Well, it just does, Tom. And who'll we rob?"

"Oh, most anybody. Waylay people—that's mostly the way."

"And kill them?"

"No, not always. Hide them in the cave till they raise a ransom."

"What's a ransom?"

"Money. You make them raise all they can.… That's the general way. Only you don't kill the women. You shut up the women, but you don't kill them.… It's so in all the books."

Pirates and robbers and Indians. Such are the figures of Tom's creation; and so long as they remain merely imaginary, governed by the "code" of play, they are clearly harmless. "You don't kill women.… It's so in all the books."

Given the precarious balancing of control and violence in Tom's fantasies, we can easily comprehend his terrified fascination with Injun Joe's incursions into the "safety" of St. Petersburg. Accidentally witness to Injun Joe's murderous attack, Tom's first response is characteristic: he writes an oath in blood, pledging secrecy. "Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer swears they will keep mum about this and they wish they may Drop down dead in Their tracks if they ever tell and Rot." It is an essentially "literary" maneuver, and Tom's superstitious faith in its efficacy is of a piece with the "rules" he has conned from books about outlaws. However, Injun Joe cannot easily be relegated to the realm of such villains. It is as if one element in Tom's fantasy world has torn loose and broken away from him, roaming restlessly—a ruthless predator—genuinely and mortally dangerous.

He has murdered a man, but perversely, he does not flee. Instead, he loiters about the town in disguise, waiting for the moment to arrive when he can take "revenge." Humiliated once by the Widow Douglas's husband (no longer available to the Indian's rage), Joe plans to work his will upon the surviving mate. "'Oh, don't kill her! Don't do that!'" his nameless companion implores.

"Kill? Who said anything about killing? I would kill him if he was here; but not her. When you want to get revenge on a woman you don't kill her—bosh! you go for her looks. You slit her nostrils—you notch her ears like a sow! … I'll tie her to the bed. If she bleeds to death, is that my fault? I'll not cry, if she does."

It is almost a parody of Tom's concocted "rules" for outlaws; even Injun Joe flinches from killing a woman. Sadistic torture (of a clearly sexual nature) is sufficient.

His grievance is twofold: against the absence of the man who would be his natural antagonist; and then against the woman who has inherited the man's property and authority. Seen in this light, his condition is not unlike the hero's. Tom, denied the example of mature men whom he might emulate, left with no model to define an adult nature of his own. Tom, adrift in a matriarchal world—paying the continuous "punishment" of guilt for the "crime" of his resentment at genteel restraints, conceiving carefully measured fantasies within which to voice (and mute) his feelings. Injun Joe is Tom's shadow self, a potential for retrogression and destructiveness that cannot be permitted abroad.

Yet genuine vanquishment is no easy task. No other adult male plays so dominant a role in the novel as Injun Joe. Indeed, no other male's name save Huck's and Tom's is uttered so often. The only contender for adult masculine prominence is that other angry man, Mr. Dobbin. But the schoolmaster's vicious instincts are, in the end, susceptible to control through humor: he can be humiliated and disarmed by means of a practical joke. After all is said and done, he is an "acceptable" male, that is, a domesticated creature. The Indian, an outcast and a savage, is unpredictable; he may turn fury upon the villagers or act as ultimate executioner for Tom. When Tom's tentative literary gestures prove insufficient, desperate remedies are necessary. Twain invokes the ultimate adventure. Death.

Death has several meanings for Tom. On the one hand, it is the final loss of self—a relinquishment of control that is both attractive and frightening. Confronted with reverses, Tom sometimes longs for the blissful passivity of death, deterred primarily by the sneaking fear that "guilt" might be "punishable" even in the unknown land to which he would travel.

It seemed to him that life was but a trouble, at best, and he more than half envied Jimmy Hodges, so lately released; it must be very peaceful, he thought, to lie and slumber and dream forever and ever, with the wind whispering through the tree and caressing the grass and the flowers over the grave, and nothing to bother and grieve about, ever any more. If he only had a clean Sunday-school record he could be willing to go, and be done with it all.

On the other hand, properly managed, "death" might be the ultimate assertion of control, the means a boy might use in this puzzling female world to win a satisfactory "self" after all. "Ah," Tom's fantasy runs, "if he could only die temporarily !"

The triumph of "temporary death" and the fulfillment of that universal fantasy—to attend one's own funeral and hear the tearful eulogies and then to parade boldly down the aisle (patently and impudently alive)—is the central event in the novel. The escapade is not without its trials: a terrible lonesomeness during the self-imposed banishment and a general sense of emptiness whenever Tom falls to "gazing longingly across the wide river to where the village lay drowsing in the sun." Yet the victory is more than worth the pain. Temporarily, at least, Tom's fondest ambitions for himself have come true. "What a hero Tom was become, now! He did not go skipping and prancing, but moved with a dignified swagger as became a pirate who felt that the public eye was on him." He has definitely become "somebody" for a while—and he has achieved the identity entirely upon his own terms.

Yet this central miracle of resurrection is merely a rehearsal. Its results are not permanent, and Tom must once again submit to death and rebirth in order to dispatch the specter of Injun Joe forever.

The escapade begins light-heartedly enough: a party and a picnic up river into the countryside. Yet this moderated excursion into wilderness turns nightmare in the depths of the cave. "It was said that one might wander days and nights together through its intricate tangle of rifts and chasms, and never find the end of the cave.… No man knew' the cave. That was an impossible thing." Existing out of time, the cave is a remnant of man's prehistory—a dark and savage place, both fascinating and deadly. Once lost in the cave, Tom and Becky must face their elemental needs—hunger, thirst, and the horror, now quite real, of extinction. For Tom alone, an additional confrontation awaits: he stumbles upon Injun Joe, who has taken refuge in this uttermost region. The temptation to despair is very great; however, "hunger and wretchedness rise superior to fears in the long run.… [Tom] felt willing to risk Injun Joe and all other terrors." Thus he begins his long struggle out. Holding a length of a string lest he be separated from Becky, he tries one dark pathway, then another, then "a third to the fullest stretch of the kite-line, and was about to turn back when he glimpsed a far-off speck that looked like daylight; dropped the line and groped toward it, pushed his head and shoulders through a small hole and saw the broad Mississippi rolling by!" Born again upon his beloved river, Tom has earned his reward.

Afterwards, as Tom recounts his adventures to an admiring audience, he becomes a "hero" once again—now the hero of his own adventure story. Even more, he has become rich from finding buried treasure; Judge Thatcher conceives a great opinion of his future and says that he hopes "to see Tom a great lawyer or a great soldier some day." Endowed with an excess of acceptable identities which have been conferred upon him as the result of his exploits (no clearer, certainly, about the particulars of the adult male roles identified by them, but nonetheless christened, as it were, into the "rightful" inheritance of them), Tom seems to have surmounted the deficiencies of his world.

Yet it is a hollow victory after all. Just as Tom must take on faith the pronouncement of his future as a "great lawyer" or a "great soldier" (having no first-hand information about these occupations), so we must accept the validity of his "triumph." The necessary condition for Tom's final peace of mind (and for his acquisition of the fortune) is the elimination of Injun Joe. And this event occurs quite accidentally. Taking the children's peril as a warning, the villagers have shut the big door to the cave and triple-bolted it, trapping Injun Joe inside. When the full consequences of the act are discovered, it is too late; the outcast has died. "Injun Joe lay stretched upon the ground, dead, with his face close to the crack of the door.… Tom was touched, for he knew by his own experience how this wretch had suffered.… Nevertheless he felt an abounding sense of relief and security, now."

Tom's final identification with the savage, valid as it certainly is, gives the lie to the conclusion of this tale. What do they share? Something irrational and atavistic, something ineradicable in human nature. Anger, perhaps, violence, perhaps. Some unnamed, timeless element.

The poor unfortunate had starved to death. In one place near at hand, a stalagmite had been slowly growing up from the ground for ages, builded by the water-drip from a stalactite overhead. The captive had broken off the stalagmite, and upon the stump had placed a stone, wherein he had scooped a shallow hollow to catch the precious drop that fell once in every three minutes with the dreary regularity of a clock-tick—a dessert-spoonful once in four-and-twenty hours. That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was "news." It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history and the twilight of tradition and been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion… It is many and many a year since the hapless half-breed scooped out the stone to catch the priceless drops, but to this day the tourist stares longest at that pathetic stone and that slow-dropping water when he comes to see the wonders of McDougal's Cave. Injun Joe's cup stands first in the list of the cavern's marvels; even "Aladin's Palace" cannot rival it.

Whatever Injun Joe represents in this fiction—whatever his complex relationship may be to Tom—he cannot be dealt with by summary banishment. Shut up by fiat; locked away. It is an ending with no resolution at all.

Taken seriously as a psychological recommendation, the ultimate disposition of the problem of Injun Joe offers no solution but that of denial. Lock away the small boy's anger; lock away his anti-social impulses; shut up his resentments at this totally feminine world; stifle rebellion; ignore adult male hostility: they are all too dangerous to traffic with.

Thus Tom's final "self" as we see it in this novel is a tragic capitulation: he has accommodated himself to the oddities of his environment and given over resistance. A resolution to the story is established not by changing the bizarre quality of the fictional world (not even by confronting it), but by contorting the small hero into compliance. He becomes that worst of all possible things—a "Model Boy"—the voice of conformity in a genteel society. Huck complains. "'The widder eats by a bell.… Everybody's so awful reg'lar a body can't stand it.'" And Tom responds. "'Well, everybody does that way, Huck.… If you'll try this thing just awhile longer you'll come to like it.… Huck, we can't let you into the gang if you ain't respectable you know."'"

He has even lost his sense of humor.

The fault is Twain's, of course. Tom has earned the right to "be somebody"; but his creator's vision has faltered. Twain averts his attention from the struggle that should be central and shrinks from uncivilized inclinations. In the end, his hero must settle for security in a world that will always be run by its women.

However, Huck continues doubtful. And in his own book, he pursues the quest for fathers. Fully to understand his needs, we must know—exactly—where he has been before. Here, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

John Seelye (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8290

SOURCE: "What's in a Name: Sounding the Depths of Tom Sawyer," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XC, No. 3, Summer, 1982, pp. 408-29.

[Seelye is an American novelist and the author of The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a reworking of Twain's classic. In the following essay, he interprets the psychological symbolism in Tom Sawyer.]

Tom Sawyer is a name as familiar to us as our own. We grow up with it, perhaps are weaned from lesser literature on the book of that title, so that eventually the name and the story attached to it become part of our collective memory, stored away like a half-remembered experience. If one of the pleasures in rereading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the discovery of new, sometimes startling dimensions—for Huck, as Lionel Trilling observed in 1948, grows up as we grow, changes as we change—one of the joys of rereading Tom's Adventures is rediscovering things just as they were. It is like returning to a homeplace preserved under glass—or in aspic. Contra Thomas Wolfe, you may go home again, to find both time and the river unchanged. But because Tom does remain a boy, we are inclined to shrug him off as a lesser creature, as an instance of arrested development, especially when he is compared to the much beloved Huck Finn. Yet it won't do to turn Tom Sawyer away with a shrug. He bears careful attention. Like Hamlet he deserves studying.

As Louis Rubin, Jr., long ago observed, the reputation of Mark Twain's first boys' book would be far greater had the author never written the sequel. For the problem is not so much that Mark Twain went on to write a continuation in which Tom plays a lesser and even a foolish role, but that the sequel is superior to the original. A marvelous amphibian, Huckleberry Finn is a book that can be read and enjoyed by both adults and children, an accomplishment next to which Tom Sawyer can only suffer by comparison. To judge the earlier novel with the canons of adult literature is unfair, for Mark Twain himself declared to William Dean Howells that it was "professedly and confessedly a boy's and girl's book"—at least by the time he had cut out all the "dirty" parts; and it should be evaluated on the author's terms. Certainly Mark Twain at times can be caught talking to the reader over the head of his little hero; at times he condescends, as when he describes the process by which the pirates of Jackson's Island become homesick little boys. Yet we need only as adult readers reach the Jackson's Island episode—the literal as well as the symbolic midpoint in the book—to acknowledge the power of the genius who is arranging the action.

At that point, moreover, Tom Sawyer is literally in charge of the plot, becoming an early example of the auteur principle. A prankster from the start, by the middle of the book he has mounted a huge hoax, a scenario which will bring the residents of St. Petersburg to the threshold of tragedy only to yank them back into comic relief and laughter. He is the resident Puck of St. Petersburg, funbent with a jug of magic drops that often bring tears—of grief then mirth; and as such he is clearly the agent of the author. A psychoanalyst has pointed out that Tom means twin, and that a sawyer to a river pilot like Mark Twain was a submerged tree trunk and a hazard to navigation. As both a mischief-maker and an author of self-starring dramas Tom Sawyer is a subliminal projection of Sam Clemens, firmly rooted in obscure depths from which the book bearing his name draws considerable power. To dismiss the book as not being great adult literature may be easy, but few readers, of any age, can set Tom Sawyer aside once they start to read it.

By contrast Huckleberry Finn has a much slower and less intriguing development, in which a suspenseful plot is set aside for a leisurely episodic one. In both novels the influence of Charles Dickens is obvious, but the element of cliff-hanging gothicism is more nearly dominant in Tom Sawyer, from the grave-robbing scene ("borrowed" from A Tale of Two Cities) to the extended ordeal of Tom and Becky in McDougal's Cave. When Tom catches his glimpse of Injun Joe deep underground, like Oliver Twist awakening to see Fagin peering in through his bedroom window at the Maylies' house, he is frozen in a frame that most of us, having shared the vision as children, will carry with us to the grave. Like Dickens, Mark Twain had an undeniable skill at scaring the daylights out of us, and he was in this regard a man with a golden arm, to which were affixed a hand and fingers of sterling silver.

Mark Twain (again like Dickens) resorted for his effects to sometimes shabby tricks, to what were by 1876 wornout stage properties; and like the creator of Oliver Twist Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer relies too often on chance and strained coincidence for his turns of plot. And yet, paradoxically, the staginess and the sleights-of-hand are engaging to children, who are willing to take their wonders where they find them; nor can we detach the theatrics from the melodrama which lends both books their special power. As adult readers we may object to these elements, but as children we did not; and in returning to Tom Sawyer we can enjoy it most if we regard it as an excursion into a zone created by few works of fiction. Huckleberry Fnn may be a classic of adult literature, yet it is in that regard but a small room in an enormous house of fiction. But how few are the books of children that have managed to endure beyond the decade in which they were written. Tom Sawyer is one of that select company, and the boy would appreciate the honor—no small accomplishment.

If in the marvelously flexible voice of Huck Finn there is abstracted the eternal innocence that was the romantics' notion of childhood, then in the shape of Tom Sawyer there is centered a darker, yet more vital force, the demonic power we associate also with Dickens. He expresses an urge that mingles love and hatred, creativity and destruction, energies identified with poltergeists and juvenile delinquents, an urge expressive of the midpoint between childhood and adolescence—puberty. Tom is in that connection much closer to the Artful Dodger and Master Bates than to pusillanimous Oliver. But where we view Huck Finn's world through Huck's eyes and descend into his troubled soul, we are seldom treated to more than a momentary glimpse of Tom Sawyer's motivation. The deepest we get is into a cliche, the semiparodic portrayal of the miseries of young love, the all-too-familiar world (to adults) of Romeo and Juliet. It is a territory from which we (as adults and children) are happily rescued by a timely discharge of slops from the place where the balcony should stand; and we are returned thereby to the picaresque world once again—as if by the hand of Juliet's nurse. But about the hidden springs motivating Tom's repeated attempts to gain attention by performing stunning feats of showmanship we hear very little, which suggests that we are here very close to the "twin" in Tom Sawyer—and to the "sawyer" also—that is to Sam Clemens himself.

In his old age Clemens as Mark Twain raged against Theodore Roosevelt for his imperialism and political theatricality, but when the old man in the white suit attacked the president for being a "fourteen-year-old" and a "showoff," he was more self-revealing than he knew. Mark Twain's Roosevelt was but Tom Sawyer grown older, and Tom Sawyer old was also Sam Clemens, on both a literal and figurative level. That demonic power of which I have spoken is in literature often expressed through melodrama, a genre dealing in the terrific opposition of emotional forces; and if Tom Sawyer's world is rife with the anxieties of puberty, it is also explosive with melodramatic encounters. Adolescent anxieties and volatile melodrama express the soul of the man who was known by his friends for his fits of rage and was called Youth by his wife. If we learn little directly of the inner workings of Tom Sawyer, we catch glimpses of those of Sam Clemens, who shared with Dickens the capacity to communicate subliminally his private terrors by projecting them upon a melodramatic stage.

In a number of ways much of Samuel Langhorne Clemens's life approximated theater, once the former printer's apprentice from Hannibal, Missouri, became the chief writer-in-residence in Hartford, Connecticut. Having expended his youth and young manhood searching for a career—the most satisfactory period being the years he spent as a riverboat pilot—Clemens had by 1870 seen his newspaper penname gain worldwide recognition. Thenceforth he became a substantial if not always steady citizen, taking to himself a wife who produced several charming daughters, a family customarily on display in a Hartford mansion often compared to a riverboat, which soon came to resemble most the kind of boat called Show. Increasingly Mark Twain became the best-known and most beloved author in America, displacing those venerable Fireside Poets Longfellow and Whittier with something much more in tune with the Gilded Age, a process that was completed when Mark Twain also became white-haired and oracular.

But with old age came something other than good grayness—the fireside manner—for the course of true fame seldom runs smooth, and Sam Clemens's bankruptcy in his middle years seems to have taken away more than his money. He regained his wealth, yet Hamlin Hill in treating the last part of Clemens's life has called him a Lear, once again driving home the essential theatricality of the man's mature life, here tragic. The white suit associated with this last phase was first displayed when Mark Twain appeared before a congressional committee to argue for international copyright, a gesture that convulsed Howells with embarrassment, but that was typical of the man who displaced Phineas T. Barnum as Connecticut's chief showman. Though professing to despise the lecture circuit and to be uncomfortable with his popularity as a humorist, Mark Twain was very good at working an audience into gales of laughter; and his written work often projects real or metaphorical bits of comic or melodramatic theater, whether the burlesque Shakespearean dramatics of the duke and dauphin in Huckleberry Fnn or Colonel Sherburn's address to the lynch mob in the same book. Among the home amusements enjoyed by the Clemens girls playacting ranked high. Though The Prince and the Pauper provided the basis for one such home drama, being a book with a distinctly Dickensian and melodramatic character, it is Tom Sawyer which of all Mark Twain's books for children most resembles a play in its shape. This novel is so theatrical in form and mood that an apocryphal tradition exists that it was once framed as an actual drama.

First of all, where so many of Mark Twain's books, fiction or otherwise, are travel books, the adventures of Tom Sawyer take place near town, and all of the hero's excursions, whether to Jackson's Island or McDougal's Cave, eventually end with his return home. Consequently the action of Tom Sawyer has the conventional limits of a stage play, even to observing (loosely) the classical unities of time and place. No new characters of any importance are introduced after what amounts to the climax of the first act, the graveyard episode. Thus Mark Twain's celebration of boyhood's free spirit is one of the most carefully controlled (and contrived) of his fictions, in which the picaresque impulse to break and run is checked. As Dixon Wecter and others have shown us, Tom Sawyer is rich in autobiographical details—the matter of (and with) Hannibal—most of which are transformed only slightly to meet the exigencies of fiction. That those exigencies are nearly neoclassical in rigidity suggests one good reason why we should give Tom Sawyer a closer look.

The theatrical aspect of the novel is introduced in the opening pages, wherein Aunt Polly delivers a dramatic monologue as from a stage. At a critical point, as on the stage, Tom is dragged out of a closet, and by a clever boy's stratagem he escapes punishment. The first scene ends when Tom streaks over the backyard fence with the agility of a small animal, and he will be seen performing this trick several times in succeeding chapters, ending with his flashing vault over Judge Thatcher's fence after he has thrown a rock through the window whence came his shower of slops. The image of Tom scrambling repeatedly over a fence is a lovely bit of theater, identifying him with both mischief and precipitous escape, much as the fence itself—so symbolic of organized society—will serve as a stage prop attesting to his abilities of managing the arena in which he appears.

Much of what follows is likewise the stuff of theater, whether the comedy of grade-school graduation ceremonies or the sentimental set piece of Muff Potter's pathetic praise of his loyal little friends. Most notable, perhaps, is Tom's series of invented dramas, most of which embody the spirit of misrule; as during the Christmas season in medieval times, the summertime world of the book establishes a charmed zone in which children are in charge. As in the loving complaint by Aunt Polly that opens the action, what the children produce by way of entertainment is mostly mischief, a creative turmoil over which Tom Sawyer rules supreme. In a certain sense the Feast of Misrule survives as Halloween, and Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an extended series of Halloween pranks, played against a backdrop of childhood and other haunts, as Tom's Sherwood Forest gives way to a graveyard which becomes a haunted house opening into a haunted cave.

The original seed for this aspect of Tom Sawyer may be found in Mark Twain's notebook for 1866, a list of childhood superstitions recalled from his youth. The early chapters of the book are a virtual compendium of folklore about popular enchantments, which reaches a high point with the first appearance of Huck Finn, superstition incarnate, lugging a dead cat. There follows the priceless debate between the boys concerning the best way to get rid of warts, facetious fun (on the author's part) that results in the trip to the graveyard, where the boys go to settle the point. This establishes a pattern repeated throughout the book, in which childish games turn into often grim reality. Thus the repetition of superstitious matter leads directly to the first appearance of Injun Joe, whose murder of Dr. Robinson and false testimony against Muff Potter will provide one of the chief threads if not the most important strand of the plot. Thenceforth the matter of childish superstitions is tied to the melodramatic stuff of dime novels—and melodramas, a darkening action providing counterpart to the sentimental love story centered by Becky Thatcher; these apparently disparate directions are finally joined by the climactic episode in McDougal's Cave.

Another strand is provided by Tom's penchant for playacting, beginning with his rendezvous with Joe Harper in the forest on Cardiff Hill, where the two boys play Robin Hood. The most extended episode in this theatrical strand involves the stay on Jackson's Island, where the boys pass the time by playing pirates and Indians, preparing for their dramatic return to society as their own funeral ceremonies are unfolding. Thus the "natural" theater of a funeral is usurped by the drama of a surprise resurrection, which strikes the townspeople as a marvel but which is the careful work of Tom Sawyer, who chooses the most dramatic moment in which to appear. While the boys are still on the island, Joe Harper is the first to threaten defection because of homesickness; and though he is tempted back, he will be dropped from the action thenceforth, to be replaced by Huck Finn as Tom Sawyer's comrade. Joe is last seen distributing Sunday-school literature from a basket. He is not enough of an outlaw for Tom Sawyer's melodramatic purposes.

What follows next is among the least satisfactory (though one of the most memorable) parts of the book, involving the torn frontispiece of Mr. Dobbins's anatomy book and ending with the extended parody of schoolhouse ceremonies. Containing sublimated sexuality that verges on the sadomasochism associated with Victorian pornography, it ends with a burlesque that quotes the turgid romantic prose Mark Twain associated not only with sentimentalism but with the feminine "literary" sensibility of his day. During this sequence Becky Thatcher is at her most unattractive, and the love between the two children is expressed by mean and hurtful tricks. That is, having been returned from the theatrical (and male) world of Tom's imagination to the domestic (female) world of St. Petersburg—from a zone of unrestrained boyhood to an erotic comedy of manners in which lies and deception characterize boy-girl relationships—we are brought very close to psychic depths beyond the sounding of children.

On the superficial (i.e. chivalric) level, Tom does the "right" and gallant thing, and takes Becky's whipping for her. The lovers are reconciled, and the schoolroom sequence closes with the comic ceremonies. But the series of adventures that follow are shared not by Tom and Becky but by Tom and Huck, a darkening melodrama haunted by the specter of Injun Joe much as the village theater is centered by the loving and tearful Aunt Polly. As it was on Jackson's Island, the bond being celebrated is the male one, a union which the drunken derelict Muff Potter blesses by his symbolic laying-on of hands through the bars of his cell window. Potter, as his name suggests, is a vagrant, a pitiful symbol of freedom gone bad, and is an adult counterpart to Huck Finn. Though innocent of the crime for which he is to be tried, he is guilty of robbing graves, and is a real outlaw—not the romantic one Tom is ambitious to become. Reaching out through his bars, he is a symbol of "good" badness in restraint; and it is Tom who, soon after the world of summertime vacation begins, will effect Potter's freedom, thereby starting the second phase of the Injun Joe sequence, that will end with the "imprisonment" and death of the truly guilty malefactor. Operating almost entirely outside the limits of town—with side trips to such out-of-bounds places as the old tannery and the "Temperance" tavern—the action of the last part of the book is a symbolic extension of the world of pirates and Indians which Tom earlier established on Jackson's Island, a world made up entirely of boys and men.

Soon after his recovery from the measles—a well-timed separation from a society in the throes of evangelical salvation—Tom more thoroughly cleanses his own soul (and conscience) by testifying on behalf of Muff Potter, a sudden little drama that repeats the theater of the boys' earlier resurrection. It also launches Tom on his next adventure, a search for hidden treasure following the stage directions of Edgar Allan Poe which nearly drops the two boys into the vengeful clutches of Injun Joe. Thenceforth thoughts of the half-breed will seldom fade (though they have earlier), and as Tom and Huck travel through the world of summer the novel is supposed to celebrate, the action turns out to be something of an Indian summer too. The domestic comedy of the village stage increasingly gives way to melodrama, and the matter of Hannibal that is evoked moves away from cats and pain-killer to much darker memories of village life.

Dixon Wecter tells us that the original Injun Joe was a respectable member of the lower levels of Hannibal society, but Indians hoping for good press may count on little help from Mark Twain. From Roughing It onward, the American aborigine is presented as a subspecies of Yahoo, largely because Sam Clemens's own experience with Indians was limited to degenerate tribes in Nevada and California. What he read in books, magazines, and newspapers published during the 1870s, a period during which the Sioux and Apaches were waging bloody warfare in defense of their homeland, certified (even sanctified) his notion that Indians were brutes worthy only to be exterminated. But the Indians for whom he reserved his most savage contempt were the Indians of Fenimore Cooper—Cooper's Indians he called them—who were guilty not so much of inhuman torture of their hapless white victims as of literary offenses beyond the pale of civilized behavior. Injun Joe is little more than an escapee from Cooper's fiction, for like the Mingo named Magua in The Last of the Mohicans he has vowed revenge because he has been horsewhipped by whites. In Cooper's novel Magua attempts to avenge himself against Colonel Munro by forcing Cora, his daughter, into unholy wedlock, while Injun Joe plans on tying the widow of the man who whipped him to her bed and mutilating her; and both situations convey considerable sexual implication. Wecter traces the episode to an incident in which actual rape may have been threatened, one scarcely suited, as he notes, to a children's book. Yet to the adult reader the image of a woman tied to a bed is hardly subliminal.

Injun Joe—again like Magua—is much more than a sexual menace: he is evil personified, who does bad things because he likes to. In Cora Munro, who has a touch of negro blood that makes her attractive to other dark people, Cooper created an American counterpart of Scott's Jewish heroine Rebecca, and in the half-breed Injun Joe there is much that evokes Dickens's Fagin. He is an avatar of satanic malevolence, a dark figure haunting the boyhood Eden, the summertime world of green and gold. Curiously enough we never do learn what Injun Joe looks like. In contrast to Huck's description of Pap at the outset of his own adventures (and Pap in many ways is Injun Joe crossed with Muff Potter—or Fagin with Sikes), in which personified evil appears like a corpse bobbing up from the depths of the river, Injun Joe is mostly a psychological presence, not a physical being. This is true of most of the characters in the book, who are known by a few symbolic properties—Aunt Polly's thimble or Becky's golden braids—or, most important, by their costumes.

Here again is the theatrical property, as when Huck first appears in his ragged outsized clothes; and Injun Joe is recalled most vividly in terms of his disguise, as a ridiculously bearded, bewigged, deaf-and-dumb Spaniard, who halfway along changes "green goggles" for "an eyepatch." Where Dickens is a skillful user of disguises, making of Monks a ubiquitous figure of evil who haunts the action, Mark Twain's use of the device is so outrageous as to suggest he is past believing in his own technique. Yet the white-wigged, green-goggled half-breed is the kind of Halloween character which in the hands of the more skillful but no more powerful) melodramatist Robert Louis Stevenson will become Blind Pue; and as a figure of pure fright Injun Joe certainly anticipates, as he may well have inspired, that subsequent specter.

What is most fascinating about Injun Joe, however, is not what repels but what attracts, for the boys are drawn to him, even as they are tensed to flee, by the outlaw's association with the fabulous treasure he has found. The gold dug up in the haunted house, moreover, links Injun Joe in turn with the legendary river pirate James Murrell, a cutthroat celebrated by Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi as a transcendent villain, who put the vaunted Jesse James of later times in the shade. Murrell's gold has been bought with human lives, yet it becomes the grail which Tom and Huck set out to discover (more however as amateur detectives than as knights of the roundtable—not until Philip Marlow will the two combine), a search that brings Huck to true heroics and that ends in an accidental and unsuspected way. Injun Joe's accidental discovery of the treasure provides a wonderfully comic yet frightening scene, purely theatrical, as our attention is divided between what is going on downstairs in the haunted house and what is occurring above. On one part of the stage, as it were, the outlaws stumble upon the gold, while on another the boys, like frightened angels, witness the event unseen, an audience of two that has no desire to enter the action below, but that entertains a powerful wish to get hold of the gold.

The melodrama will continue as they attempt to solve the meaning of "Number 2," but it is Huck who increasingly dominates this strand of the narrative, as the boy outlaw turned detective trails the Indian outlaw through the darkened village to the rendezvous atop Cardiff Hill. Tom's further association with Injun Joe picks up literally where Huck's leaves off, not on the hill but down in the cave, where melodrama becomes intensified until it takes on the quality of nightmare. In the cave episode, moreover, Mark Twain gives the complex mixture of terror and desire with which Injun Joe is associated yet another and deeper dimension, evoking age-old myths and plunging his young hero into shadows much darker than any summoned up on the stage. In a certain sense McDougal's Cave lies under Cardiff Hill, for as the hill earlier provided Tom Sawyer his stage for playing at Robin Hood—a stage that for Huck turns into a real scene of banditry—so what lies below it is a playground suddenly converted into a place of terror, a tunnel of love become a house of horrors. It is a nightmare world focused by the lost children and haunted by the specter of Injun Joe, the pastoral yet tragic tale of the babes in the woods reset in a distinctly American yet universal scene, a limestone cave that evokes primordial caverns, measureless to man but all too familiar to children.

Walter Blair first pointed out that Adventures of Tom Sawyer is composed of different stories that take their separate narrative ways, often independent of one another. Like the distinct divisions between the various zones of Tom Sawyer's world, from Aunt Polly's parlor to the hidden chambers of the cave, these narratives may be seen as essentially disjunctive, and in terms of literary craft they are; but in the final episode of the novel Mark Twain manages to bring most of them together in a way that testifies to the unconscious artistry that was his greatest gift. In the cave the story of Tom and Becky merges with the story of Tom, Huck, and Injun Joe, as the schoolroom, graveyard, and haunted house are suddenly telescoped. Tom's greatest joke on Aunt Polly and the village involves his mysterious disappearance with Huck and Joe Harper and the fears that he and his friends have been drowned, and the cave episode repeats the situation, with the villagers once again turning out to search for the missing children. This time it is no joke, and the pair are perilously close to being entombed when Tom finds the back entrance to the cave, an act of real heroism that brings him even more celebrity. Little of what has happened earlier is not repeated thematically in the cave episode, and even Injun Joe's presence there is a direct effect of Huck's otherwise independent adventure on Cardiff Hill. This climactic joining of strands results in a transcendent example of children's literature, which ends with the vastly satisfying discovery of the hidden gold, converting the nightmare of menace into a dream of wish-fulfillment.

Before going on to explore the depths of the cave episode, we must first put Tom Sawyer into context, the better to understand the implications of the story's conclusion. If Tom Sawyer is put in the shade by the book by Mark Twain that followed it, its shadowy aspect can be all the more appreciated by looking at the novels for boys written by other authors which preceded it, chief among them being Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy (1869). Aldrich's Tom Bailey (as the boy's name suggests) is like Tom Sawyer an autobiographical projection, and like Mark Twain's Tom he is a maker of ornate mischief, having a superabundance of natural energy which is pitted against the conformist rigidity of a New England village. P. T. Barnum in his Autobiography (1855) had portrayed his own Yankee youth in much the same light, and there is more than a touch of Barnum in Tom Bailey, who like Tom Sawyer is something of a showman, given (like Barnum) to staging elaborate hoaxes.

Barnum explained to his readers that the tricks he had played on people were "educational," that he was a "philanthropist" at heart; and Tom Bailey likewise is not really bad but merely fun-loving, like Tom Sawyer expressing the healthy subversiveness of boyhood. And where the two Toms aim their mischief at a "proper" and restrictive society, Aldrich and Mark Twain devoted their books to exploding the "Good-Little, Bad-Little Boy" dichotomy that in the form of moral tales—Sunday-school literature—had assisted for a century in the enforcement of that society's restrictions. Begun by Thomas Day's Sandford and Merton (1783-89), a book which Mark Twain several times thought of burlesquing, and continued in the first half of the nineteenth century by so popular a writer as Captain Marryat, the Good-Boy, Bad-Boy tradition had been dying a lingering death ever since Dickens created the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates, "bad" boys who are really good at heart.

Where the Dodger is incapable of reforming and is transported to Botany Bay, Master Bates is transformed by the excesses of Bill Sikes's villainy and mends his ways. The Dodger and Master Bates are reunited in the new world, however, by Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick (1867), in which a street urchin is inspired by not a bad but a good example to reform himself and become a hard-working and responsible young citizen. Tom Bailey likewise ends his days of boyhood pranks by going to work in his uncle's counting-house, while Jo March of Little Women, female counterpart to this pattern, behaves similarly by getting married. Thus in the stories of Alger, Bailey, and Alcott the progress from "bad" to "good" is equated with work, wages, and putting aside the playthings of youth. Yet Alger had rebelled against the minister's life his father forced him into, and became the best-selling writer of stories about boys who sought the middle-class, conforming life that he resisted. Aldrich likewise, having tasted the boring life of the business world, left it quickly for the world of letters; and Louisa May Alcott may have drudged for her father, but she never became the ordinary if exemplary good wife and (adoptive) mother that is the fate of Jo March. Leslie Fiedler has called the youths that Aldrich and Mark Twain created "Good Bad Boys," but, as we shall see, a distinction may be made, starting with the fact that Tom Bailey like Alger's manly little heroes does not end his story rich but instead gets a decent salary and a chance to work up the company ladder—with a little help from his uncle, and Alger's stories are filled with metaphorical uncles.

We may, as does Walter Blair, list all the points Tom Sawyer shares with the boys' books already in circulation by 1876, but it is the difference that is most important, and the difference turns on the last chapters of the book. Tom Sawyer, having saved Judge Thatcher's daughter from a terrible fate, would have been rewarded by Horatio Alger with a modest position in the judge's law office, thereby meriting Thatcher's prediction that he will grow up to be "a great lawyer or a great soldier some day"; and the judge does promise to look into having Tom entered at West Point. But Tom's reward far exceeds that of most Alger heroes, for his share of the treasure, six thousand dollars, transforms him into a well-heeled citizen. As Mark Twain points out, though there were some men in town worth more than twelve thousand dollars in terms of property, none had before seen so much money in one place; and the allowance the two boys enjoy, a dollar a day, is "just what the minister got"—when he could get it.

The Horatio Alger stories which come closest to granting such great rewards (Alger never wrote a book called "Rags to Riches," nor was that his usual formula) are his California tales, the first of which, Joe's Luck, appeared serially in 1878, too late to influence Mark Twain. Indeed the upping of the ante in Alger's stories may have been a response to the inflationary excess in Tom Sawyer, nor did Mark Twain need inspiration in that regard, having been a prospector in Nevada and California in the 1860s. Dixon Wecter tells us that Sam Clemens as a boy had been inspired by the California gold rush to dig for gold near the mouth of McDowell's (i.e. McDougal's) Cave; and though Tom gets his treasure by a bit of Poesque ratiocination, thereby further gothicizing the event, in effect he does "dig" it up. Yet where Alger's young miners wisely invest their nuggets in real estate or use it to pay off a widowed mother's mortgage, Tom has his invested at 6 percent and has fun with the money thus earned.

Having promoted himself from rapscallion to rich boy, Tom does not have to assume the responsibilities normally attending the transformation from bad to good—quite the reverse. Instead he goes to work on his next theatrical production, converting the cave into a stage-set for his robbers' gang. When we last see Tom, he has successfully convinced Huck that he must return to the care of the Widow Douglas and become a "good boy" so that he may be admitted to the secret society of bad boys playing at robbers. Though Mark Twain ends the book by promising a sequel in which he would portray his characters after they had grown up (an idea expressed in his earliest notes for the book that became Tom Sawyer), he never did carry out the promise, but went on to further celebrations of Tom Sawyer as an unredeemable (as opposed to Huck Finn, the eternal) child.

Leslie Fiedler, who has defined for all time the Good Bad Boy, speaks (despite his habitual iconoclasm) for many other critics when he suggests that Judge Thatcher's prediction is correct, that Tom Sawyer "can only grow into goodness, i.e. success, for his 'badness' is his boyhood and he cannot leave one behind without abandoning the other." But my point reverses Fiedler's logic, for Tom does not grow up to be a judge or a soldier because he just doesn't grow up. Louis Rubin makes a similar point when he declares that Tom Sawyer was incapable of becoming in T. S. Eliot's words) "'an eminently respectable and conventional member' of 'conventional society.'" Yet Rubin grants Tom a measure of maturity by projecting an adulthood in which he becomes a writer—becomes, that is to say, Mark Twain.

I wish to take Rubin's logic one step further (or backward) nd suggest that Tom Sawyer remains forever a boy, being the immaculate conception of a man who himself only imperfectly grew up. Where writers like Aldrich, Alcott, and Alger all rebelled against society's norms by becoming artists who created children who eventually come under the sway of the laws of work and wage, Mark Twain, who spent much of his adult life trying to convince the world that he was as much a responsible businessman as an artist, created two boys who in quite different ways embody irresponsibility: Huck, the permanent refugee from civilization, and Tom, the everlasting player of games of his own invention. At the story's end the Good Bad Boy has become a Rich Boy also, and may thenceforth become a Playboy, which is indeed what he does. But Huck, soon after his own adventures begin, forswears his wealth and resumes the tattered rags of perpetual flight.

Set against the dominant myth of success as celebrated by Horatio Alger, the story of Tom Sawyer is clearly subversive, having less to do with hard work than with good luck abetted by a quick wit. Ben Franklin, the archetype of Alger's boys, had plenty of luck and wit to use it also, but he had to work long and hard to attain the "competency" that enabled him to retire in his middle age. Tom Sawyer realizes the American dream at the threshold of adolescence. He does so, moreover, by striking it rich California style, imitating in small the gold rush that Mark Twain persistently regarded as the national event which signaled an end to the old American dream of pastoral contentment—Franklin's happy mediocrity—even while, as Sam Clemens, he did everything he could to increase his personal fortune, plowing the profits from his book into ill-fated investments, most of which were aberrant expressions of the technological spirit that Ben Franklin had helped set in motion and that scotched the old Jeffersonian dream of rural bliss. Which turns out after all to be no more than the dull placidness of St. Petersburg on a summer's day, as peaceful and as boring as Eden before the Fall. Henry Nash Smith observed that the Jeffersonian plan was not conductive to the production of exciting literature, and Tom Sawyer is but one in a long line of American heroes whose adventures are, in Anthony Hilfer's phrase, a revolt against the village.

Much as Tom himself can never settle for a humdrum life of work and wage, so his Adventures soon runs out of village materials, and both book and boy head for the familiar gothic graveyard and the forest beyond. From Cooper's The Pioneers to Howe's Story of a Country Town this has been the traditional movement of American fiction with a small-town setting. The romantic and gothic elements are intensified during the episode in the cave, and though Tom's last and "real" adventure ends with the discovery of the gold, the novel ends with Tom's plans to use the cave as yet another theatrical backdrop. This sets the scene for the sequel, in which Tom Sawyer will be converted from a Lord of Misrule into a literary arbiter of "rules" second only to Aristotle. In terms of the unity of Adventures of Tom Sawyer the end returns us to an earlier point in the story, the cave being added to Cardiff Hill and Jackson's Island as a playground for the exercise of Tom's imagination. As a place, moreover, it is of a piece with Tom's forest arena, which is located in the "center of the woods" under a huge old oak, a setting which evokes druidical mysteries; and before it becomes just another clubhouse, the cave serves as an important arena of transformation, at a much deeper level than the one on top of Cardiff Hill. The connotations of woods and oak tree suggest that Tom is a pagan whose world is the wildwood beyond the boundaries of town, and the drama enacted deep down below seems part and parcel likewise of ancient adventures acting out even older mysteries.

The original cave in Hannibal was named for a Doctor McDowell, a fantastic eccentric who kept cannon stored in it for a projected invasion of Mexico and likewise placed there the embalmed body of (it was said) his own daughter in a copper cylinder. But life sometimes veers from the accepted decorums of fiction, and Dr. McDowell's fancies play no part in Tom Sawyer. What Mark Twain did with the cave in terms of contemporary literature was to scotch it, adapting the real place to the formulaics of Sir Walter Scott and Fenimore Cooper. American writers from Charles Brockden Brown on who wished to stage gothic fictions were forced to make do with the conditions of the American landscape, and lacking the ruins of the old world they resorted to the cliffs and caves of the new. In associating western caves with bandits and stolen gold Mark Twain had the real-life example of Cave-in-Rock, near where the Ohio joins the Mississippi, which was the sanctuary of the Brothers Harpe, notorious river pirates who operated in the early years of the nineteenth century. But most likely he (or at least Tom Sawyer) had in mind the literary cave that shelters one of Scott's greatest outlaw heroes, Rob Roy, the good man turned bad by adversity and therefore a Scottish equivalent to Robin Hood.

Mark Twain is on record about the "literary offenses" of both Scott and Cooper, yet Tom Sawyer and its sequel contain episodes clearly derived from the adventures concocted by those masters of the historical romance, never more so than in the depths of McDougal's Cave, even the name of which evokes Scott's hero-villain the Black Douglas. Thus the terrifying glimpse Tom catches of Injun Joe may evoke Oliver Twist's glimpse of Fagin, but it also recalls the horrifying moment in The Last of the Mohicans when "the malignant, fierce, and savage features" of Magua appear at the entrance to the cavern at Glen's Falls. Tom, like the heroes of the romances which are his favorite reading, eventually leads Becky to safety, his ordeal providing a three-day rite of passage from which he emerges a true champion. Yet it is a ritual that sets the romances of Scott on their collective ear, for unlike the Waverley heroes, who often end their romantic adventures convinced that a normal middle-class life is best after all, Tom Sawyer is never absorbed into the dominant culture; they mistake the romantic ideal for reality but then discover their errors and mend their ways, but Tom's romantic "illusions" are often verified, as with his recovery of the treasure. For Tom—to refer to the quixotic pattern important to both Scott and Mark Twain—windmills become true giants and barbers' bowls are gold helmets. Only in the sequel does Tom become a victim of his illusions—in his adventures all dreams come true. Suspended between the worlds of nightmare and wish-fulfillment, Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a book of dreams—which is why it is preeminently a book for children.

Once again it is the gold that turns the trick, and of the many ironies that unfold in Tom Sawyer none is more complex than when Tom and Becky flee deeper and deeper into the cave, escaping the bats who are no real danger save in the eyes of superstitious children: they are in effect not fleeing but advancing, both toward the "other" (secret) entrance and toward the place where Injun Joe has hidden the gold. Huck, in following Joe through the maze of village streets, is pursuing a parallel quest, but a false one that will erupt as his real adventure, from which he emerges a hero. Tom's flight brings him perilously close to Injun Joe also, with ultimately delightful results for himself and Huck. In the figure of the half-breed all mysteries converge, a coincidence that entails more than a convenience of plot. Up on Cardiff Hill Injun Joe is the conventional villain of melodrama, his evilness enhanced by his mixed blood, the half-breed being a miscegenetic type depicted in much nineteenth-century American literature as being inherently vicious. But down in the cave Injun Joe becomes something much deeper, a nightmare apparition associated with myth and fable.

Tom Sawyer, in using his kite string (a boyhood token of restrained flight as play) as a guide, with one end fastened close to the sleeping Becky, evokes the story of Theseus exploring the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne; and if McDougal's Cave has a resident minotaur, it is Injun Joe. But the Minotaur, the beast with the human head that feasts on maidens, is type and symbol for a legion of mythological monsters, the cannibalistic ogres who populate folk and fairy tales. Like the giant in "Jack and the Beanstalk" Injun Joe is not only a frightening monster willing to eat bats if not little children): he is also the guardian of a fabulous stolen treasure. As ogre, then, he is the kind that is not slain but outwitted; and though in the story Injun Joe dies from starvation, leaving his treasure to any who may wish to take it, Tom Sawyer alone has the knowledge and the wit to find the gold. In effect he acts out an age-old plot, a "real" adventure in which he steals the treasure from the thief, thereby merging his heroics with the archetypes whose adventures supply the original stuff of the oldest children's stories, fairy tales that are fragments of ancient pagan myths.

Mark Twain makes a subtle point when he shows that Tom Sawyer, who cannot even under duress commit the simplest bit of Scripture to memory, has easily memorized the adventures of Robin Hood so he can play by the book. Playing by the book is Tom Sawyer's greatest game, one that will be reduced to two-dimensionality in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; but in his own Adventures it is a guide to his essential character. Inside the village, whether in the schoolroom or parlor, he constantly resists playing by the rules: that is left to such good boys as Sid, Willie Mufferson, and Alfred Temple. But out in the forest, on the island, or eventually in the cave it is Tom who makes up the rules, and everyone must play by them. His scripture is the story of Robin Hood and its dime-novel equivalents, much as his religion is associated with the greenwood, his liturgy with superstitions. In this light—the green light—Tom Sawyer can be seen, if only for a flickering moment, as a devotee of Pan. Even though Tom is driven to reducing his reading to rules, as rules they become a version of chivalric code, the kind associated not with knights but with outlaws, whose code is distinctly their own.

This merely reinforces the most important point of the book, which is that Tom Sawyer, unlike the good bad boys who precede him (whether T. B. Aldrich's Tom Bailey or Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick), remains unregenerate, forever committed to the world of play. Though celebrated as a hero by the town, he refuses to accept the terms of the final act in all hero stories, whether spun by ancient bards or by Sir Walter Scott. Having found the gold he should also get the girl; but Becky, like Joe Harper before her, drops from sight thenceforth, as the courtship ritual is converted to Tom's courting of Huck, male bonding certifying the essential subversiveness of the story. Not only does Tom not marry Becky, but he in effect returns the action of the book to the Jackson's Island theme, the celebration of eternal boyhood; Tom simply will not grow up. As the Puck of St. Petersburg, of course, he cannot, and from the boyish Panjandrum of St. Petersburg to Barrie's Peter Pan is not a very long leap.

It is time therefore that we stop insisting that Tom Sawyer, boy and book, be other than what they are. We must leave them both alone, preserved forever like Dr. McDowell's daughter, whose heart stopped at the age of fourteen. We may, like the callous tourists recalled by Mark Twain in his Autobiography, haul the preserved child up out of storage and comment on his failings. But do not expect him ever to change: like him or loathe him, he forever remains Tom Sawyer, rooted deep in waters dangerous to uninformed pilots, whether critics or merely readers who make the mistake of traveling upstream from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We may dismiss Tom Sawyer as a case of arrested development, but the novel that bears his name is not so easily put down; and where children are concerned, that is the truest test of literature. Not a few of us grownups, like Tom Sawyer (and Mark Twain), are unredeemed children in that regard too.

Sanford Pinsker (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2721

SOURCE: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Play Theory, and the Critic's Job of Work," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1988, pp. 357-65.

[Pinsker is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he explores the concept of play in Tom Sawyer.]

Critics shy away from belabored readings of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for several understandable reasons: the denser, richer textures of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn loom ahead; scholarship about Twain's sources has dominated discussion of the novel; and perhaps most important of all, there is a legitimate fear that a work celebrating Play will be forever spoiled by too much heavy-handed critical "work."

Skeptical students are not the only ones who worry about these matters more than they should, who wonder if critics are not creeping up on this innocent text like net-wielders after a lovely butterfly. Perhaps it is time to admit freely that important questions lie just behind these resistances. Can deep reading and an idyll co-exist? How might the circumstances of its composition help us read the novel? What can—and should—a literary critic say about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?

One tack has at least the virtue of making its appeal to what strikes most readers as lying at the very center of Twain's vision—namely, an extended investigation into, and celebration of, play. All one need do is add the word "theory" to the proceedings and if that "one" is a critic, he or she is in business. Play theory has, after all, a very with-it ring and while there are those who might object that an oxymoron has been slipped into the discussion, those who might argue that talk about "play"—especially as Twain conceived of the phenomenon—requires a dab of horse sense rather than a gob of theory, the fact is that play theory has claims on our attention that, say, theories blowing around New Haven do not.

That much said, however, several caveats are in order. Nothing degenerates into the meaningless more quickly than the notion that "play" is omnipresent, unless, of course, one has had some innings with those who insist that every event, from a white, middle-class male professor assigning The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to a sparrow's unfortunate fall, is, by definition, political. As Bruce Michaelson shrewdly points out, "There are some theorists on play who claim that virtually every human act, or for that matter every cosmic event, is a gesture in some sort of grand game." Such broad definitions are so broad as to be meaningless. If it is true that everything is a game, then it is equally true that "nothing" is a game. As Huck Finn might say, "It's enough to give you the fan-tods." It is also how the next generation of deconstructions—if there is one—will be born.

Moreover, play theory will become an exercise in the obvious if it is merely applied to those scenes that, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, come equipped with Twain's narrative commentary. For better or worse, the fence-painting episode has moved from the pages of Twain's novel to our collective unconscious. Long before we heard the term "reverse psychology" in a lecture hall, we knew how the game worked and many of us had tried our hand at substituting younger siblings for Tom's gang and dinner dishes for a fence needing whitewash. To be sure, Twain had help—from Norman Rockwell, from versions of Tom on stage and screen, from the culture at large. Readers and non-readers alike know about Tom and his playful scam in the same mythopoeic way that they know about Little Eva crossing the ice or about Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi on a raft. The image is as indelible as its "moral" is self-evident. Twain, who could no more resist the itch to play Philosopher than he could the itch to engineer a Tom Sawyer-like effect, put it this way:

[Tom Sawyer] had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he could now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a treadmill is work, while rolling tenpins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement.

Homo Ludens (1950), Johan Huizinga's seminal study in the play element of culture, says much the same thing: "Play to order is no longer play… By this quality of freedom alone, play marks itself off from the natural process." In this regard, Judith Fetterley makes a telling point when she compares the respective adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn this way:

One of Tom's defining characteristics in Tom Sawyer, succinctly dramatized in the whitewashing episode, is his capacity to convert all work into play. In Huckleberry Fin the process is reversed: what should be play becomes work.

I shall return to other reversals in a moment, ones that speak to the shape and ring of Twain's canon, but for the moment let me concentrate on the difference between play that reigns supreme, that neither threatens nor is threatening, and play that turns cruel, turns nightmarish and, in adult hands, turns deadly. I am speaking, of course, about what makes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer a boy's book, one that, in George P. Elliott's wonderful phrase, turns everything—school, work, money, even sex—into a "kind of vacationing" and the darker rhythms of moral consequence that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn investigates. It is not so much that the Tom Sawyer of his book is a lovable scamp, a boy so full of life, and of devilment, that all of us—even the beleagured Aunt Polly—finally prefer him to the bloodless goody three shoes called Sid, but, rather, that Tom's itch for "adventure," his abiding sense of play, transmogrifies a dull St. Petersburg into a world more attractive.

In short, Tom is precisely the sort of rapscallion adults love, and secretly wish they could be. Today, it is the ritual of "Tom Sawyer's Gang"—complete with bone-chilling oaths, bloodcurdling screams and forbidden pleasures of smoking; tomorrow, the Moose Lodge! Put another way, Tom Sawyer livens up his sleepy Missouri town by superimposing the best, and the worst, of the Romantic tradition into its pedestrian, workaday landscape. Cervantes, Alexander Dumas, the Arabian Nights' Entertainments … these are the fragments Tom Sawyer has shored against his boredom.

For Tom, going by the Romantic book—what Huizinga calls the "play concept"—is an activity essentially unrelated to the getting-and-spending that comprises an adult day. Indeed, it is this boyish imagination that Twain both celebrates and allows to circumscribe the dreamy world we enter when we read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. As Huizinga suggests:

All play has its rules. They determine what "holds" in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt … as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play world collapses. The game is over. The umpire's whistle breaks the spell and sets "real" life going again.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, among other things, the umpire's whistle blown, the spell of play broken. Real life—in this case, a world where people tote guns rather than lath swords; where going by the romantic book means shooting down a defenseless drunk; where, as Huck rightly says, "People can be mighty cruel to one another"—reasserts itself in deadly earnest.

To be sure, Twain's attitudes about romance's power were as divided as his pseudonym. He could blame Walter Scott for the Civil War and take Fenimore Cooper to humorous task, but it is also true that Romanticism had an attraction he could never entirely shake. Tom Sawyer's penchant for style, for gathering up steam toward some grand effect, found similar expression in the public face Twain wore as lecturer, humorist, writer, world-class celebrity. Like any artist, he made what he did look easy—in his case, by yoking the playful with the preachy. The discipline, the sweat, in a word, the work was less obvious.

Which brings me to reversals of a different order. The arc of Twain's canon—from The Innocents Abroad to Roughing It, from Life on the Mississippi to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—moves steadily backwards, not only in chronology, but also in a need to recapture his childhood by reimagining it. One could argue, of course, that there is playfulness aplenty in Twain's debunking of travel book pieties in The Innocents Abroad or in his construction of a tenderfoot-as-schlemiel persona in Roughing It, but the "playful" is not synonymous with Play. Twain is one of American literature's great counter-punchers, which is to say, he took a great delight in letting artificial, highfalutin' language swing away at airy nothingness and then in knocking it flat with a well-aimed American lick. Romantic expectations were especially good candidates for Twain's playful deflations. The Scotty Briggs of "Buck Fanshaw's Funeral" who says: "Why, pard, he's dead!" is but one example; there are countless others, stretching from an apprentice piece like "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" to final ones like "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven."

Play, I would argue, was another matter altogether. Huizinga argues that the nineteenth century "lost many of the play-elements so characteristic of former ages." Always the cultural anthropologist, he attributes this fact to byproducts of the Industrial Revolution:

The 19th century [Huizinga insists] seems to leave little room for play. Tendencies running directly counter to all that we mean by play have become increasingly dominant. Even in the 18th century utilitarianism, prosaic efficiency and the bourgeois ideal of social welfare—all fatal to the Baroque—had bitten deep into society. These tendencies were exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution and its conquests in the field of technology. Work and production became the ideal, and then the idol, of the age. All Europe donned the boiler-suit.

However many "faults" Twain had—and the list of crimes, both real and imagined, was very long—being a Luddite is not among them. Like Franklin, Twain was a tinkerer, a believer in the proposition that gadgets of all kinds could make life better. Unlike Franklin, however, Twain was largely a flop—sometimes spectacularly, as in the case of the ill-fated Paige typesetting machine; sometimes modestly, as in his self-pasting scrap book (which actually turned a small profit) or the Mark Twain History Game (which did not).

In Twain's case, such dreams were fueled by the prospect of becoming rich, a condition that would allow him to pay his evermounting bills without the need either to lecture or to write. It is no small paradox, then, that lecturing and writing—both difficult, both draining, both products of dogged work on Twain's part—were the only activities he could finally depend on. His alternative careers—as a printer, a silver miner, a steamboat pilot, a journalist—provided material for the platform lecture and the blank page.

And with virtually each lecture, each book, Twain moved steadily backwards to Hannibal. "Old Times on the Mississippi," a series of articles that appeared originally in the Atlantic Monthly of 1875, is, in this sense, inextricably linked to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer published in the following year. Here, memory and desire mingle with History and technological advance—and always in ways that deeply divided and only settled, if indeed they are, in the making of fiction.

Not only was the prospect of becoming a steamboatman the "one permanent ambition" among Twain's boyhood friends, but it was also the one profession Twain presumably valued above all others:

If I have seemed to love my subject [Twain remarks in Life on the Mississippi], it is no surprising thing, for I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it. The reason is plain; a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that ever lived in the earth.

To be sure, the Civil War and the locomotive scotched that career long before Twain's "glory story" of how a wide-eyed cub became a sharp-eyed pilot could sink into the tedium, the work, if you will, of trip after trip along the same stretches of the Mississippi.

For Twain, the issue is complicated and inextricably tied to his notion of power. For all of Twain's relentless attacks on Romanticism—whether it comes dressed in the costumes of Walter Scott's historical romances or it stalks through imaginary forests wearing the mocassins of Fenimore Cooper—it was the grip of Romance, its sheer power—that held him spellbound. Bixby's hard lessons make piloting itself possible, but they come with a price tag. And we are hardly surprised when Twain, being Twain, wonders if the assets outweigh the liabilities:

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!

Unlike the world of Tom Sawyer, where "swaps" are restricted to dead cats and hoop sticks, "acquisitions" in the adult world are fraught with compromise. Twain found it easy to wax romantically elegiac about piloting and, later, to turn downright "philosophical" about Life with a very large L, but playfulness had a way of eluding him, except as a matter of will and childhood memory.

There is more to be said about this aspect of "play" in Twain because one could argue that a "willed playfulness" is also a desperate playfulness, that behind the dream of Tom Sawyer's fantastic play lies the nightmare of Huck Finn's death-haunted life. Henri Bergson argues that "the comic comes into being just when society and the individual, freed from the worry of self-preservation, begin to regard themselves as works of art." Bergson's savvy remark tells us much about, say, the Benjamin Franklin who set about the task of constructing [inventing?] his Autobiography and by oblique angles, about the Mark Twain who could only free himself from the worries of "self-preservation" in the guise of Tom Sawyer, and in the mode of Play. Unlike Franklin, Twain is so busy settling old scores, so consumed with self-serving, that his Autobiography strikes us as more "ledger" than legerdemain.

The image of unfettered freedom, of a radical independence, however, remained. One of its faces belongs to the Tom Sawyer who tests out the possibilities of Play in a sleepy, altogether conventional Protestant culture; another, of course, belongs to the Huck Finn Twain himself described as modeled on Tom Blankenship: "the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community." In a nineteenth-century world that equated progress with the boiler suit and an efficiency expert's watch, Adventures of Tom Sawyer is, I would submit, an extended counterargument on behalf of liberation-as-Play. Twain, who made the cause of freedom his life's work, alternately hoped and despaired about the role that technology, that "gadgets," might play in the pursuit of that happiness he called Progress. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain tests out the possibility of armor-as-boiler suit and discovers that it will, sadly enough, not suffice. In his case, the dynamo destroys not only the Virgin—that is, the established Church, with its legacy of superstition and its abuses of power—but also the very notion of human betterment. We are left with mountains of charred bodies and bitter laughter.

By contrast, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer insists that play can thwart figures of adult authority—parents, preachers, teachers—and certified villains like Injun Joe. The novel not only brought Twain back to the locale, and the source, of his greatest achievements, but it also reminds us—critics and common readers alike—of what Play can be, and how important that commodity still is.

Further Reading

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Criticism

Budd, Louis J. and Cady, Edwin H., eds. On Mark Twain: The Best from "American Literature. " Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1987, 303 p.

Collection of reprinted essays from the journal American Literature. Contains Hamlin H. Hill's study of Twain's notes and early drafts of Tom Sawyer that show the evolution of the final manuscript of the novel, as well as an analysis of "Mark Twain and the Endangered Family" by James Grove.

Byers, John R., Jr. "A Hannibal Summer: The Framework of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Studies in American Fiction 8, No. I (Spring 1980): 81-8.

Analysis of narrative structure in Tom Sawyer that focuses on the book's portrayal of the passage of time.

Cox, James M. "Remarks on the Sad Initiation of Huckleberry Finn." Sewanee Review LXII, No. 3 (July-September 954): 389-405.

Contends that Tom Sawyer functions as Huck's "other half," in both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

Farrell, James T. "Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer." In his The League of Frightened Philistines and Other Papers, pp. 25-30, New York: Vanguard Press, N.d. [1945].

Brief essay examining the characters of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as manifestations of Twain's democratic ideal.

Fetterley, Judith. "Disenchantment: Tom Sawyer in Huckleberry Finn. PMLA 87, No. 1 (January 1972): 69-74.

Analysis of Tom Sawyer as portrayed in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Fiedler, Leslie A. "Boys Will Be Boys!" The New Leader XLI, No. 17 (28 April 1958): 23-6.

Analyzes the ways in which the "good bad boys" portrayed in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn continue to influence American literature.

—. "Duplicitous Mark Twain." Commentary 29, No. 3 March 1960): 239-48.

Examines Twain's treatment of such themes as sexuality, violence, and death in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

France, Clemens J. "Mark Twain as an Educator." Education XXI, No. 5 (January 1901): 265-74.

Analysis of the educational value of Twain's boys' books as reading material for children.

Gerber, John C. Mark Twain. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988, 176 p.

Survey of Twain's life and major works that includes a chapter devoted to Tom Sawyer.

Gibson, William M. The Art of Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, 230 p.

Critical assessment of Twain's major works; contains a chapter that discusses Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Hinz, John. "Huck and Pluck: 'Bad' Boys in American Fiction." The South Atlantic Quarterly LI, No. I (January 1952): 20-29.

Analysis of the "bad boy" tradition in American literature that includes discussion of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Kesterson, David B., ed. Critics on Mark Twain. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1973, 128 p.

Survey of the critical response to Twain's works from 1882 to 1973; includes two commentaries on Tom Sawyer.

Peck, Elizabeth G. "Tom Sawyer: Character in Search of an Audience." ATQ 2, No. 3 (September 1988): 223-36.

Argues that Tom Sawyer represents Twain's satirical view of "the paltry human race" and is ultimately the narcissistic product of a hypocritical community of adults.

Stone, Albert E., Jr. The Innocent Eye: Childhood in Mark Twain's Imagination. N. p.: Archon Books, 1970, 289 p.

Book-length study of Twain's treatment of childhood in his major works.

Wexman, Virginia. "The Role of Structure in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn." American Literary Realism, 1870-910 6, No. I (Winter 1973): 1-11.

Comparison of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that focuses on Twain's depiction of the relationship between "the world of childish … fancy and the sphere of real actions with moral meaning.…

Additional coverage of Twain's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104,135; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 11, 12, 23, 64, 74; DISCovering Authors; Junior DISCovering Authors; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6; Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 6, 12, 19, 36, 48; World Literature Criticism; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.

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