Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Study Guides on Works and Writers
(Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing, 1876)
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), better known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain, is a major figure in American and world literature. Born in Hannibal in the slave state of Missouri, Clemens grew up hearing a rich mixture of dialects: African American, Missourian (several), Southern (numerous), as well as Northern dialects of those traveling up and down the river. He developed a keen ear for the multifarious sounds of the human voice in conversation. He developed, too, a keen sense of irony, drawn partly from the inherent contradictions of living in a country that prided itself on freedom and independence even while keeping slaves in bondage. As a boy he was confronted by this stark contradiction early and often, as his family kept slaves. When Clemens was six years old, his father sold a slave for ten barrels of tar.
Like Benjamin Franklin, Clemens began his literary career early by working for his older brother’s newspaper. In the 1850s he wrote many humorous pieces drawing on the variety of types once experienced in a village on the Mississippi River. Throughout his career, his life in Hannibal contributed to his literature. Nowhere is that contribution so profound as in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Twain’s young hero is a brash, self-confident raconteur who quickly wearies of humdrum routines and longs incessantly for excitement and escape. Along with his friend Joe Harper, he often skips school to fish. With Huckleberry Finn, the outcast son of the town drunk, Tom and Joe play Robin Hood on Cardiff Hill, pretend to be pirates on Jackson’s Island, and explore McDougal’s cave. Tom is cared for by his Aunt Polly and Cousin Mary. His cousin Sid, the perfect child, provides a foil for Tom’s mischievous antics.
Clemens based the character Tom and the book itself on several models. One such work was The Story of a Bad Boy (1869), by his friend Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Readers will find it illuminating to read some of Clemens’s earlier works such as “The Story of the Bad Little Boy That Bore a Charmed Life” (1865) and “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” (1870). In such works Clemens burlesqued the genre known as “Sunday School books,” moralizing tales that were intended to model proper behavior for children. In lampooning this genre, Clemens often rewarded bad behavior and punished good behavior, as evidenced by the perverse titles he chose.
One sees the influence of these early burlesques on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Structurally, the book is interesting because of its inherently episodic nature, typical of childhood, in which one event follows another, interrupted only by the occasional obligations of church and school. Beyond this natural structure, however, one sees as well the importance of Sunday School books to the story. Such books told of good little children who always did right and who were rewarded, often on earth, but if they died, certainly in heaven. Twain inverts this by telling stories of good little boys and girls who came to grief and of bad little boys and girls who made good. One sees this element in the character Tom Sawyer, who always emerges victorious, regardless of how bad he has been. This is most obvious in the famous whitewashing episode in chapter 2. Found to have played hooky, Tom is punished by having to spend Saturday whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. Tom turns the punishment to his advantage by conning other boys to do the work for him—and to pay him for the privilege. In so doing he amasses a small fortune: a one-eyed kitten, a broken piece of blue glass, and a dead rat on a string, among other treasures.
One of Twain’s great achievements was the use of first-person narration in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). For this reason, Ernest Hemingway said in The Green Hills of Africa (1935) that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” After completing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain felt that perhaps he had made a mistake in using a third-person, omniscient narrator. But just as it is now impossible to imagine Huck’s story told in the third person, it is difficult to imagine Tom’s story told in the first person. Much of the charm of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer stems from the adult narrator’s restrained but mordant commentary on the story. The disjuncture between Tom’s sensibility and the ironic awareness of the adult narrator helps to develop several important themes, particularly those involving religion and slavery. Clemens wrote other works featuring Tom as a character, including Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896). Tom also features prominently in the unfinished works “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians” (written circa 1885), “Tom Sawyer’s Conspiracy” (written between 1897 and 1900), and “Tom Sawyer’s Gang Plans a Naval Battle” (written circa 1900). Indeed, so compelling is the character Tom Sawyer that Mark Twain could never entirely forget him; neither have critics or readers.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. “Church ain’t shucks to a circus,” as Tom Sawyer phrases it, sums up the attitude toward divine services in the book. As a form of entertainment, church has little to recommend it—except when untoward events happen. One of these is when Tom’s pinch bug gets loose and pinches a dog on the nose during the sermon. The dog becomes a “wooly comet” that adds a bit of diversion to the usual Sunday fare. Twain’s depictions of church services in the book stem from a letter he wrote his wife, Olivia, in 1871 in which he recounts attending a small country church that transports him back to his childhood. His description of the pastor, the unruly choir, the bored children, and others directly contributed to his writing of such scenes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Discuss Twain’s attitude toward religion in the novel. Is he critical or simply using the solemnity of the service as a means of characterizing Tom?
- 2. Serious thematic concerns about religion include the hypocrisy of religious people who seem much more devoted to the “letter that killeth” than they are to “the spirit that giveth life.” The book’s chapter 4 is a perfect example. Oblivious to the beauty of the natural world that has its own “benediction,” Aunt Polly delivers a “grim sermon” that seems Mosaic in its legalism. Despite such depictions, Twain’s book is not antireligion per se. Indeed, the author lavishes such attention to the details of organized religion that one must say the tone is affectionately ironic. Does Twain feel that the devout characters in his book are better than their religion?
- 3. Twain wrote his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), as a sequel of sorts to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but chose to foreground issues of slavery and racial justice in the later work. By comparison, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has suffered from the assumption that it has little to say about race. The books do differ, of course, but the earlier book has its own ways of bringing up issues of race. In some instances the African American characters are used primarily for their “comic darky” aspect common to literature of the time. The figure of the slave Jim, for example, rises above caricature in some instances in the later work, but in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer he remains ever the gullible, superstitious slave, incapable of even reflecting on his involuntary servitude. Does Twain’s attitude toward race differ in the two novels?
- 4. Despite the fact that Tom and Huck are close friends, in chapter 27 the narrator informs readers that Tom does not like to be seen with Huck in public. In the very next chapter Huck, though at the very bottom of white society, is seen to have his prejudices as well. Despite the fact that a slave named Uncle Jake generously provides him food and shelter, Huck is anxious not to have that fact widely known, for “A body’s got to do things when he’s awful hungry he wouldn’t want to do as a steady thing.” Discuss the divisions of class and race that exist even among Petersburg’s most honest citizens, and pay particular attention to the children.
- 5. Mark Twain is one of the most written about American writers. Books and articles on the writer and his work abound. The most important book-length treatments of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are Charles A. Norton’s Writing Tom Sawyer (1983), which includes chapters on the composition history of the work, Clemens’s involvement in adaptations of the book for the stage, and early reviews of the work. Walter Blair’s Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Huck, and Tom (1969) is important for bringing together many of the working notes and related material. Research the composition of the novel. How did Twain’s method of composition affect his novel?
Samuel L. Clemens, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990).
Reflects on his childhood in Missouri and provides invaluable commentary on his own life and work.
Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966).
The classic biography of Mark Twain, more critical in its judgments than Paine’s important work.
Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography (New York: Harper, 1912).
The official biography. Paine had unparalleled access to the author and his records. At the same time, his judgments are frequently hampered by that intimacy. This work remains an indispensable resource but should be supplemented by other biographies.
Dixon Wecter, Sam Clemens of Hannibal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952).
A meticulously researched volume that is an invaluable scholarly tool and eminently readable story of the author’s early years. The work includes many obscure facts about Twain’s family and background that other biographers have overlooked.
Walter Blair, Mark Twain and Huck Finn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960).
A critical and analytical work that is important for understanding the relationship between The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Blair, ed., Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Huck and Tom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
An important compendium of many of Clemens’s working notes for his various projects involving Tom Sawyer.
Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957).
Helps situate Twain between the aesthetic practices of Romance and Realism. Chase also discusses the character Tom in relation to the “good boy” and “bad boy” in American literature.
Joe B. Fulton, The Reverend Mark Twain: Theological Burlesque, Form, and Content (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006).
Discusses the structure of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, paying close attention to the generic contributions such as the Sunday School book.
Charles A. Norton, Writing Tom Sawyer: The Adventures of a Classic (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1983).
Provides a valuable discussion of the book’s genesis and development as well as a discussion of Twain’s other projects involving the character Tom Sawyer.
—Joe B. Fulton