The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Literary, adventure, satire, children's literature
Approx. 70,500 words
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The good bad boy
In our world the escapades of young Tom Sawyer are recounted in the shadow cast by his more famous friend, Huckleberry Finn. Yet, during author Mark Twain's life, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was his most popular work.
Which should not surprise us. Today Twain is known and revered for his abrasive wit, his deft parody, his social criticism, his cynical humanism. But in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer he couches it in stories that upset only enough to make their resolutions all the more comforting. We can skim over the disturbing material to get to the parts where we can chuckle over what a lovable rascal that Tom is.
And that's how we mostly think of the character, isn't it? As a mischievous tyke with a heart big enough to match his imagination? We wink at his outlandish schemes as nascent Yankee derring-do, his manipulation of friends and family as frontier enterprise, his rebellions against social and religious order as the inevitable pranks of boys who inevitably mature into responsible men.
The only episode that seems to work against this response is near the beginning when Tom takes on the new kid in town and beats him, just because he's the new kid in town and dresses nicely. We're probably supposed to take this as childish oneupmanship, the kind of scrapes all boys get into. But Tom in this incident comes across as the village bully. It's hard not to agree with the new kid's mother when she denounces him as vicious. Perhaps Twain hadn't quite got the main character down yet.
Most accounts of the novel, though, slide past this episode quickly to get to the famous scene in which Tom has to atone for his behaviour by whitewashing the fence. Here he shirks the work, tricks his friends into doing it for him and exploits them for whatever they can pay him for the privilege—a genuine and ingenious con that he gets away with entirely. And which endears him to readers.
After this, Twain is careful to make sure whatever trouble or pain Tom causes, he manages to come out on the side of generosity, displaying the writer's patented combination of cynicism and sentimentality.
Our wayward childhoods
The year before publishing Tom Sawyer, Twain had written two broadly cynical pieces, "The Story of the Good Little Boy," about a sermon-spouting lad who ends up getting blown to bits, and "The Story of the Bad Little Boy," about the worst scoundrel in town who is later elected to the legislature.
Tom Sawyer is a more realistic combination of both the good and bad boy. Never a goody two shoes, and never seriously wicked.
But the parody of moralistic children's literature in the two stories still plays out in Tom Sawyer. Tom escapes meaningful punishment for his misdeeds and wins acclaim and affection for dubious acts of contrition.
Twain's writing genius in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is to have the reader on Tom's side all the way through. Despite the third-person narration, we are drawn into the small real world and larger imagined worlds of a boy in a town on the Mississippi River in the mid-1800s. It's as though we are recalling our own wayward childhoods when the world seemed huge and full of potential adventures, full of possible lives we could live, regardless of whether we grew up in a world remotely like that fictional boy's life.
We laugh when Tom lures his friends into running away to an island to become pirates, steal food and plan bloody raids. (We could imagine ourselves at least wishing we could do something like that when we were kids.) We squirm a bit when the boys realize their loved ones thinks they have drowned. (We remember thinking they'll regret it when we're gone.) We cheer at their staged reappearance at their own funerals. (We'll show them!) And then we melt when Tom's Aunt Polly, who raises him, convinces herself the boy means well and really loves her.
You can also find plenty of real death in the novel—when you count the bodies that pop up among the boy's adventures. One serious overarching plot tangled up with the episodes in this very episodic novel involve a violent gang whose leader has it in for Tom. The boys' games have a way of spoiling Injun Joe's criminal endeavours. Like when their play in a cemetery leads them to witness a murder. Or when their ludicrous efforts to find buried treasure brings them to uncovering the gang's actual stash.
This merger of playacting and real-life drama throughout Tom Sawyer lets Twain make fun of the fantastic adventure stories of his time while still deriving the entertainment value of those stories. Tom and Huck actually win great riches (by their standards) at the end of the novel, just as in any potboiler of Twain's day.
In some later novels, namely Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, Twain would carry this parody-and-reality mix into genres further afield. Though in the immediate sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain creates something entirely new.
Unlike The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, all three sequels are narrated in Huckleberry's unpolished diction. It's interesting to see in this first novel the author being drawn increasingly to Huck.
In the early stages, Joe Harper is set up as the titular character's best friend, though he has little personality beyond a proclivity for going along with whatever Tom suggests. Huck though adds something interesting as he develops in the course of the book from a loose member of Tom's group to his bosom buddy. The barefooted boy is basically growing up alone, impoverished, an outsider to the town's decent folk. But he's got a heart as big as Tom's, if less calculating. And his honest responses can give vent to Twain's disdain for the norms of upright society—without cleverness or meanness.
In the last chapter Huckleberry has become the most intriguing character of the novel, the moral centre if you will. It's Huck who, with his discomfort at being pressed into civilized living, undercuts the too neatly wrapped up happy ending. It's no wonder Twain turns to Huck's voice for the following adventures.
I know, I haven't touched yet on the most disturbing aspect of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when read today: its casual racism.
Taking place about twenty years before the abolition of slavery in Missouri, the story (actually written a decade after abolition) scarcely mentions blacks except with a few references using the N-word. Jim, the one slave who is featured in more than a couple of lines, is stereotypical and an object of fun. Moreover, the villain of piece, Injun Joe, is described as a "murderous half-breed," as if his having native blood were responsible for his violent criminality.
There's no point denying these are racist elements of Tom Sawyer. They are typical of the racist language of Mark Twain's place and time. We can dispute whether the author was making a racist statement or expressing his own views about race, but we cannot deny the book reflects a racist society. Twain later came to regret he had been so oblivious in his early work to the ongoing issue of race that he had included such references without delving into their consequences. The man also became a great defender of the rights of blacks and native people.
But what do we do now with those words written in 1876? Do we censor, revise or ban them, as some have urged?
We can discuss this question further when we get to the more complex sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But right now, we can note that revising a classic work for current purposes is not completely out of the question. It's been done for millennia.
But my personal preference is to let the text stand as it is and treat it as offering, as teachers say, a learning opportunity. It's useful for people to have access to how prejudice—or obliviousness to prejudice—has been embedded in societies over the years. Even in societies that have included some of the best, most enlightened people like Mark Twain.
— Eric McMillan