Tom Sawyer and American Identity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1740

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an extremely difficult work to approach analytically because it is so embedded in the reader's own childhood. It is read in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world, and has become iconographic of childhood itself—especially American childhood. Indeed, this has been its reception from its initial publication. The first review, written by William Dean Howells in 1876, called it "a wonderful study of the boy-mind" which exists beyond the control or comprehension of adult society. His comments appeared in Atlantic Monthly before the book was even published, and thus set the framework for the way in which the novel would be read. Clemens himself did not read his book this way, a fact that is suggested by his initial conviction that the story was written for an adult audience. Though his wife persuaded him to publish it as a children's book, Tom Sawyer's story can still be recovered as a novel for adults—a savage satire on adult hypocrisy and American cultural identity.

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Tom Sawyer is generally read as the first truly American novel: a cathartic attempt by Clemens to write his own childhood and the childhood of America into a coherent literary whole. His success is attested to by the timeless status of Tom as a sort of "Every-Boy" for American culture—the literary epitome of the ingenuity, imagination, and pluck which form the basis of America's understanding of its own national character. In this reading, Tom's flouting of authority is a paradigm for American self-determination in the face of tyranny, his character expressing the intrinsic essence of freedom from tyranny and restraint. If we accept this and then look more closely at the structural motifs and internal parallels of Clemens' novel, a very different picture of the national character begins to emerge. The novel, like the village in which it is set, seems to be bathed in perpetually fair weather and sunshine. There is, however, always a darker side. Just as the sunshine of the village is belied by the dank, labyrinthine caves, so the novel has deeper and more disturbing resonances than are at first apparent.

To find this darker side, we must start by questioning the validity of Howells' distinction between the adult and the child mind in the novel. Are Tom's behavior, responses, needs, and follies really any different from those of the adults around him? In two early scenes this distinction would seem to be untenable. The first is the Sabbath School scene where Tom's "wily fraud" wins him a Bible. Several direct parallels are made here between the behavior of the adults and the children. Faced with the unexpected appearance of a guest of honor, adults and children alike respond with the same show of self-importance:

Mr. Walters fell to "showing off". The librarian "showed off". The young lady teachers "showed off". The little girls "showed off" ... the little boys "showed off" ... and above it all the great man sat and beamed ... for he was "showing off" too.

The only thing that differentiates the individuals in the Sabbath School is the method with which they express the same desire to be noticed. This series of comparisons suggests that public altruism, making spit-wads, enforcing discipline, and fulfilling the duties of public office should all be understood as essentially the same act. More subtly, the language that Clemens uses to describe Tom's actions in this episode is insidiously reflective of the adults that surround him. Tom's successful and hard-nosed bartering for the chits that will win him a Bible is described in the language of the adults' economy. In this way, the chits become "certified checks," which represent "warehoused" knowledge on the "premises" of Tom's brain. Judge Thatcher encourages him to say that he would rather have this "warehoused" knowledge than "any money" he could be offered, which draws the analogy tighter.

Tom's gathering of this paper "wealth" is done to elevate himself above his peers and impress the powerful. If this wealth performs the same function in the adults' economy as it does in the children's, then the acquisition of money is being presented as foolish, egotistical, and child-like.

The second incident again takes place in church. Bored during a long service, Tom falls back on teasing a pinch-bug and then watches with smothered amusement as it torments a stray poodle. Despite their public show of faith and piety, the adults of St. Petersburg partake of exactly the same feelings:

Other people, uninterested in the sermon, found relief in the beetle and they eyed it too ... the whole church was red-faced and suffocating with suppressed laughter.

Just as the Temperance Tavern in the village contains a secret and squalid whisky-drinking den, so the church-going community hides its secret boredom beneath a show of public faith. Just as Tom goes to church because his Aunt compels him, so the villagers go to church because the need to appear acceptable to their peers compels them. In this insistent parallel, the motivations of human beings are presented, again, as identical in essence. The desire to show off and the compulsion to go to church are both shown to be expressions of the same need to be accepted. Further, because it is the adults' own need that compels them, they are shown as more willfully self-deluded. After all, the children have no choice but to be told what to do. The adults give up their own pleasure on purpose.

The fact that both of these scenes take place within the church is indicative of an implicit critique of the role of religion in St. Petersburg culture that threads throughout the text—a critique that finds its main expression through the subtle development of the role of books within the text. Again, this is created through a series of oblique parallels. Tom's relationship to books and the Book (the Bible) is contrasted throughout. While he cannot successfully commit a single verse of the Good Book to memory, he has whole pages of his favorite books memorized. The deliberate juxtaposition of these failures and feats of memory suggests a basic similarity among all of the books in question—a sneaky way, as it were, of suggesting that all of the books in question are nothing more or less than fiction. With this juxtaposition firmly established, Tom's relationship to fiction becomes more understandable as satire. Just as the adults of the church act out their public lives in accordance to the teachings of the Book, so Tom acts out his public life in accordance with books. The charity that the village women want to posthumously extend to Injun Joe is thus performance, in the same way that Tom's posturing and playing is a performance of his favorite stories. The language of the Bible pervades the language of the adults and the language of adventure novels pervades Tom's language. The comparison that this provokes, like the comparisons between adult and child public behavior, devalues and deflates the self-importance of adult life.

There are darker aspects to these parallels. The single most important aspect of Tom's vivid fictions is that they are all actualized during the course of the novel. Tom is saturated in the lore of swashbuckling, Robert Louis Stephenson-style adventures. This is harmless until one by one his obsessions take form in village life. Tom dreams of piracy and buried treasure. Lo and behold, there is an actual theft and real buried treasure hidden by a man who, like Tom's pirates, wears a patch over one eye. Tom fantasizes about a literary-romantic version of his own funeral. By the end of the novel his real funeral has only been averted by luck. Tom stages and provokes mock-battles and wars.

Almost immediately he is witness to an actual fight, with real bloodshed, resulting in a horrible murder. If we maintain the implicit conjunction between the Bible and Tom's books, this can be read as a very serious critique of the abuses of religion. Tom's utter belief in fiction shapes the world around him for the worse, and by extension, the adults' utter belief in the Bible is shown to warp the world in which they live. Biblical stories and romantic yarns become one and the same thing—both of them foolish and dangerous when they are acted out.

Ultimately, then, the reader is forced to ask questions that have painful answers. What does it mean if, as so many readers and critics have said, Tom is, in some essential way, America; if his story is America's story, and his character America's own? When we look at the bare bones of Tom's life and the evidence outlined above, it means that Clemens' America is an orphan country of unknown origins that begins—like the novel—in medias res. It has no history and no future, existing in the framed bookends of the author's comments at the beginning and end of the tale. As he says:

It being strictly the history of a boy it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man.

If Tom is America, then America too will never have a "man's history." In place of history it has only narrative—fictions and performances through which it lives out a permanent pre-adolescence with no possibility for maturity. The adults of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are as childish as the children are adult—there is no distinction to be made, and hence no maturing wisdom to be counted on. We open where we end—in the middle of a fiction, with the end of an adventure and the start of a new one. In this disturbing world, the danger of these imagined adventures, as Tom's story so vividly illustrates, is that every last one of them comes true. Writing in the 1870s in the aftermath of the Civil War, Clemens has set his novel in the 1840s. Tom's blustering aggression, his acting out of battles, and his fascination with death and heroism become far less amusing when we keep these dates in mind. Seen through this lens, the book becomes a savage indictment of a country that has brought itself to the brink of death because it is infatuated with vainglorious stories of heroism, battle, and divine sanction. What is more, because it has learned nothing from its experiences, it is—like Tom—doomed to repeat them.

Source: Tabitha McIntosh-Byrd, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

The Lack of Male Role Models in Tom Sawyer

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Initially Twain had intended [The Adventures of Tom Sawyer] 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 to [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 school-master 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...

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 re-birth 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 pre-history—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 sur-mounted 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.

Source: Cynthia Griffin Wolff, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: A Nightmare Vision of American Boyhood," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXI, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 637-625.

Childhood and Parental Responsibilty in Tom Sawyer

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3054

Mark Twain once said of Tom Sawyer, "It is not a boys' book at all. It will be read only by adults." We can suppose he was speaking defensively, with the extravagance of an irritated author. He had brought to the book his full powers of serious communication and he had no wish for it to be thought of as a mere children's book, what publishers call a "juvenile." Yet ever since its publication in 1876 until quite recently, the audience for Tom Sawyer has of course been primarily a youthful one. In fact, the American public has regarded it as one of those books peculiarly apt to induct any sensitive boy, and even any spirited girl, into the wholesome pleasures of reading.

This situation has now significantly altered. In the last few decades there has been a considerable change in American child life, so that Tom Sawyer has come closer to fulfilling Mark Twain's prophecy than at any previous time in its history. Much more than it is now thought to be a book for children, it is regarded as a classic of childhood, especially to be read by adults of college age with an interest in the American past. It would seem that American youngsters can no longer empathize—to borrow the language of current psychology, which is not without its responsibility for the change—with Mark Twain's little hero. For the big-city child in particular, there is a barrier to be got over before he can find his counterpart in Mark Twain's remembrance of himself as a small boy.

The nature of the difficulty is obvious enough. In today's most advanced view of what constitutes emotional health in the young, Tom is little less than certifiably disturbed. If he is not entirely committed to delinquency, he is manifestly deficient in those restraints upon instinctual conduct which have come to define a young person's potentiality for life in society. From the first chapter of the novel, in which Tom ducks out of the house for a day of truancy from school, a deed in defiance of his good Aunt Polly which he at once embellishes by lying and cheating and then compounds by beating up a boy who happens to walk toward him on the same road, we are in the company of someone whose relation to authority must seem to us to be alarmingly negative, who respects no principle of behavior other than the demand for the quick gratification of desire. In conduct like Tom's, from the very outset of the book, the young reader of our time is bound to recognize a deviation so extreme that he tolerates it only at a certain risk to his own moral well-being. Would Tom Sawyer, as Mark Twain introduces him, be welcome in a contemporary American school, especially an enlightened one? Clearly not. So much at odds with himself and society, Tom Sawyer can be sympathetic only to the view of history.

And as Tom's story progresses, his author can give us but small promise of his rehabilitation. Tom fails dismally at school: unable to concentrate on his age-appropriate job of learning, he squanders his mental powers in infantile sadomasochistic fantasies. For the teachings of religion he substitutes wild primitive superstitions; reality has but the weakest hold on this unhappy victim of magical thinking. Tom has no proper goals of achievement and his exhibitionism is insatiable: he schemes to win a prize he does not deserve. He chooses his friends as we might expect: his great crony is Huckleberry Finn, the outcast ambitionless son of a drunkard, a boy who likes to sleep in empty hogsheads and beg for his food and idle away his days on the river. And with such as Huck, Tom indulges in dark rituals of blood-brotherhood, prowling the graveyards and back alleys of St. Petersburg, consorting with the lowest of low village characters. Witness to a murder, he conspires to keep his guilty knowledge a secret. He runs away from home, inflicting cruel suffering on his family. And when remorse strikes him, as occasionally, miraculously, it does, he handles his emotional conflict by still further indulging his antisocial impulses. Yet such is the behavior his poor, deluded author can allude to as Tom's "adventurous, troublesome ways," and in which he would have us see his own beginnings. And not only see them but celebrate them.

It was not until 1884, eight years after Tom Sawyer, that Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn. As between the two books it is of course Huckleberry Finn that has always been the more admired, rightly so since it is the larger, more complex work. But Mark Twain retained a special affection for his earlier effort to recapture the scene of his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. In a letter of his later years he wrote of Tom Sawyer: "It is simply a hymn, put into prose form to give it a worldly air." When Mark Twain calls Tom Sawyer a "hymn" he precisely intends the double connotation of music and sacredness, and certainly the book is nothing if not sung: the human voice is Mark Twain's instrument. And it is also nothing if not a celebration of something sacred, despite its funniness. What is sacred is the condition of grace in which we find Tom in early life. The hymn is a celebration not of God, nor of man as he has attained to what we are pleased to call his civilized maturity, but of boyhood. In every page of Tom's history Mark Twain proclaims his passionate belief that civilization, as it erodes instinct, destroys that which is most valuable in man: affection, honor, loyalty, manly pride, joy, imagination, community with nature. The book is first a hymn; second, with almost religious conviction, it is doctrine.

Mark Twain's position in American letters is so high, and his reputation for humor so prevailing, that we are likely to forget that this most amiable of authors seldom had a good word to say for any man, any full-grown man; women are of course something else again. Throughout his writing, maturity is virtually synonymous with corruption, hypocrisy, meanness, bombast; the men in Tom Sawyer are prime examples of Mark Twain's law of deterioration through growth. Alone among the male adults who touch Tom's life, Muff Potter, the town drunkard, boasts even the virtues of generosity and helpfulness; and Muff, like Jim in Huckleberry Finn, is still a child in spirit. The schoolmaster in Tom Sawyer is an ignorant bully, the Sunday-school superitendent a pious toady, the eminent judge a pompous ass; the owners of temperance taverns traffic in whiskey and harbor the town's most villainous ruffians. Such are the good citizens of St. Petersburg—and always ready for a good clean hanging even if, like Muff Potter, the victim is guilty only of the crime of never having joined their respectable masquerade.

And yet these people with so little claim to virtue have another aspect to their characters which Mark Twain reveals, as it were, unwittingly. When Tom and his cronies are off being pirates and the whole town thinks they have drowned, the men of St. Petersburg search hard and long for them before they give over to their grief, which is genuine. Or when Becky and Tom are lost in the caves, the men push themselves to extremes of exhaustion trying to rescue them, and with no histrionics of heroism.

Selflessness of this kind in people who are otherwise meanly self-engrossed is of course in the American pattern. Today, too, given the proper crisis, and especially if the drama involves a child, we can count on the sudden generous effort of people of ordinarily small spirit. But the difference is notable between the attitude that the townspeople in Tom Sawyer bring to their rescue missions and what we might expect today were children to be in difficulties like those of Tom and his friends. There is no word of reproach spoken of Tom for having been on the river when he should have been at home or in school, or for involving Becky in the adventure of the cave. No syllable of criticism is directed at Aunt Polly for having raised a boy so little to be relied upon. Twice Tom disappears, in circumstances where his fault is clear, but there is no hint on the part of neighbors or friends of adverse moral judgment on his character or upbringing. Corrupt and unfeeling as the adult world of St. Petersburg may be, it retains a concept of innocence—innocent childhood and innocent parenthood—which is now gone from American life. For, whatever our present-day concern with children—and it could scarcely be greater—we now bring to any violation of the childhood norm an extraordinary readiness of moral judgment, and on parents no less than on the child. In terms of "advantages," Tom and his friends may be markedly under-privileged compared to children today—to see the difference we have only to catalog the contents of Tom's pockets, the mad odds and ends of string and metal that make up his "worldly wealth." But Tom is accepted in all his quirkiness and error and mess as no boy today can hope to be. Indeed, the more serious the trouble in which Tom lands, the less, not the more, he is blamed.

Understandably, Mark Twain records this side of the life he knew as a child without conscious emphasis. In the 1870s he could have no premonition of a time when the idea that "boys will be boys" would be thought morally dangerous. It is not hard for us to imagine Mark Twain's horror if he had been told, for instance, that a century after Tom's boyhood, properly conscientious parents would signalize Halloween by providing their children with costumes, paper bags and lists of neighbors prepared to give them treats. But particularly in the character of Tom's Aunt Polly, he thoroughly documents the large faith that his society had in children, or at least the fatalism which underlay its refusal to assign ultimate blame when children misbehaved. His guardian's rearing of Tom rests on two beliefs: in God's mysterious ways and in childhood, or perhaps in progress. The strongest motive in Aunt Polly's character is her sense of duty: this together with her affectionateness; and the two are often in strenuous conflict. It is the burden of her duty to her ward to inculcate in him the moral and social law as it has been established in her cultural tradition, which is at the same time her religious tradition: he must not steal or lie, he must obey his elders (at least he must be aware when he does not), he must be polite and he must wash (if only on Sundays), and he must go to church (in decent attire) and learn the Scriptures (at least he must show the signs of effort), and he must go to school; he must also be punished when he does wrong, preferably with a whipping. And it is the burden of her profound love for Tom that she must impose upon him these requirements of proper conduct, to most of which he has, understandably, the greatest natural resistance. It is a particular trial to her spirit that she must punish him. The whippings she administers so regularly truly hurt her more than they do him; and when he escapes her switch, she is relieved.

Thus, the rod which is so ready to hand for Aunt Polly is never the extension of an adverse judgment on Tom for being such a troublesome little boy. It is the instrument of her defined duty to a child, any child in error, and it is an expression of her love—if you love a child, you want to do your best by him. For Aunt Polly, that is, the rules that govern a good woman in the rearing of her young have something of the same magical power that the rituals of superstition have for Tom. Often, as Tom goes through one of his elaborate mumbo-jumbos to fend off evil or to ensure the fulfillment of a wish, he is suddenly assailed by doubt that his method is really the right one, that it will work. But he has nothing with which to replace the tribal lore, and how can a boy risk not doing what his tribal lore prescribes? Just so, Aunt Polly questions the tenets of child-rearing in which she has been trained, but she dares not risk violating them.

The impact upon a child of a moral authority as benign and generalized as Aunt Polly's is very different, of course, from an authority rooted in individual judgment, and it is small wonder that Tom not only dearly loves his aunt but suffers no break in his attachment to her because of her frequent whippings. He accepts her punishments in the spirit in which they are administered: they are his aunt's duty to him and evidence of her devotion to his welfare; they convey no possible mitigation of her affection or of her essential and continuing approval of him. And, similarly, the beatings administered by the schoolmaster are part of the traditional, impersonal routine; they, too, leave no emotional scar; at their most severe, they scarcely hurt. While the schoolmaster no doubt brings to the exercise of his duty a certain nasty satisfaction that is wholly absent from Aunt Polly's corporal punishment of Tom, this represents no vital breach in the impersonal system of childrearing that Mark Twain knew as a boy. It merely describes a difference in the characters of the two persons.

The result is that a boy like Tom Sawyer who, in our contemporary view, is grievously at the mercy of impulse, in reality has enough conscience for any civilized man. In our present-day world we have come to think of guilt as a most undesirable state of feeling rather than what it is if it but be kept in sound proportion to instinct: the clue to our humanity. Certainly Tom's well-educated sense of wrong and the remorse he suffers when he seriously misbehaves and gives pain to others is the key to his special lovableness. It is conscience that makes it necessary for Tom to break his vows of secrecy about the murder and, at considerable danger, save Muff Potter from being hanged. It is conscience—the ability to confront his guilt without exaggerating it—that permits the particular tenderness with which Tom treats Becky when the two of them are lost in the caves. And it is guilt at the pain he has given his aunt by disappearing from home that makes him return in the night to leave her a note of reassurance.

That Tom decides not to leave the note because he is all at once struck by the beautiful possibility of attending his own funeral makes, finally, the difference between someone able easily to conform to social dictate, a "Model Boy," and the boy who grew up to be Mark Twain. It is the difference, to put it another way, between the ordinary, or ordinarily, decent youngster and a potential hero of the imagination. And it is not alone for Tom but for Huck, too, that the capacity for guilt and for love, or at least for genuine respect, live in the strongest connection. Unlike Tom Sawyer, Huck has known almost no adult affection in his life—none at all from his vagrant father, certainly, and little enough from the townspeople of St. Petersburg. What, we wonder, has molded his character so close to that of his friend and made him, too, so loving and brave and decent. It is an inquiry to which Mark Twain feels no need to address himself, except, perhaps, by negative implication.

Unimpeded by the influences of civilization, Huckleberry Finn has been free to develop nobly; he exists in a state of nature. He is boyhood pure, unindebted even to an Aunt Polly for his decency of feeling. When the Widow Douglas undertakes to adopt Huck and train him, like Tom, in the ways of society, Huck cannot make the compromise that Tom has made. He is full of gratitude and loyalty to this kindly woman, he honors her teachings, but he cannot submit to clothes and a bed and washing and having the Scriptures read to him. Civilization is almost literal death to Huck rather than the mere encumbrance it is for Tom. He chooses life and leaves society, and in making the choice becomes his author's new and greatest hero.

In Tom Sawyer the tension between the Model Boy principle and the Huck Finn principle is surely strong enough. But it is not yet fierce, and its product is Tom, a boy whose sweet geniality is unmatched in fiction but who represents compromise and therefore, for all his appeal, a sacrifice of stature. While his story unmistakably has its point of departure in doctrine, doctrine in Tom Sawyer is not yet as urgent as it will be when it is Huckleberry Finn's boyhood rather than Tom's that Mark Twain celebrates—in, Huckleberry Finn we will have more than a hymn, a choral symphony, with distant but sure echoes of tragedy. The special reverberations of the later book have, however, their chief source in nature. Compared to Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer is a town book. Its fields and woods are neighborly, the river lies beyond it. The river is where you go to from the main scene of action; it is not itself the main scene of action. It is not yet the great Mississippi.

Some years ago, crossing the country by train, I looked from the window and saw, below me, a narrow muddy river, bordered by a town. Suddenly I realized I was crossing the Mississippi into Missouri, into Mark Twain country. The catch I felt in my throat was for Tom Sawyer's place, not Huck's. This was not the real Mississippi I had reached so accidentally and casually. The real Mississippi, Huck's Mississippi, was yet for me to discover, and it would require a special expedition, for which my encounter with the world of Tom Sawyer was only a preparation.

Source: Diana Trilling, "Tom Sawyer, Delinquent," in her Claremount Essays, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, pp. 143-225.

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Critical Overview


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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