The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Essay Q&A

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1. Discuss the relationship between Tom and the other children in the novel.
Tom is a leader, and is generally in charge of plots, games and mischief involving himself and other children. He has at least two talents that set him apart from the others. The first is his romantic imagination, which enables him to memorize and improvise stories of robbers and pirates, cast his friends in the various roles, and regurgitate dialog as needed.
The second, often used in combination with the first, is his remarkable psychological insight, which exceeds that of adults as well as other children. This enables him to manipulate others into doing what he wants. For example, he persuades other children to do his whitewashing by persuading them that it is a rare privilege: "He had discovered a great law of human action... that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain." He is also able to persuade Huck and Joe Harper to stay on the island long enough for them to make a theatrical entrance at their own funerals. He does this, in the face of severe homesickness, by seducing them with ever-more enchanting pastimes. These include going swimming, learning to smoke, and finally, playing supporting roles to his starring role at the funeral service.
Tom is loyal and honest in his relationships with other children, even when this entails suffering, such as when he takes on Becky's punishment in school. This aspect of his behavior is contrasted with that of Sid, who is an outwardly well-behaved child who repeatedly 'sneaks' on Tom, getting him into trouble.
2. Discuss the role of friendship in the novel.
In the cases of Tom and Joe Harper, their families and schoolfellows sometimes fall short in providing the emotional support and understanding that they need. Tom and Joe decide to leave town for the island when Tom is rejected by Becky and Joe is rebuked by his mother for a misdemeanor he did not commit. Huck, being the son of a drunk and an outcast, has no one in his life apart from his friends. It is hardly surprising that friendship assumes a central place in the lives of these boys, to the extent that their families occupy a peripheral role. Tom determinedly defends his right to be friends with Huck in spite of society's disapproval. In playing with Huck, he disobeys his Aunt Polly, and in boldly admitting that he stopped on his way to school to talk to Huck, he gets a whipping from the teacher.
While Tom regularly disobeys authority figures, he is completely loyal to Huck, and faithful to the rules and agreements they make together. After witnessing the murder, they swear a blood oath to keep silent. Even after Tom's tortured conscience forces him to tell the lawyer the true story the night before the murder trial, he takes care to protect Huck by not talking publicly about his witnessing the affair.
The blood oath that Tom and Huck take about the murder, and the roles of partnership they adopt in their games of pirates and robbers, are ways of reaffirming and codifying their friendship.
Tom begins the novel admiring Huck for his parentless and therefore free status. But when they return from their stay on the island, Tom realizes that there is no one to welcome Huck home, and says, "Aunt Polly, it ain't fair. Somebody's got to be glad to see Huck." Aunt Polly is happy to fill the gap. Later, Tom persuades Huck to accept the Widow Douglas's care against Huck's instincts, surely because, at root, he knows that every boy needs to be taken care of.
3. Discuss the relationship between adult society and children's society in the novel.
At first glance, mischievous children like Tom, Joe and Huck seem to occupy an alternative world from that of the adults. The children seek to undermine adult authority, to puncture adult pomposity, and to assert their independence in any way they can. Examples are Tom's disruption of the sermon in church with the bug; the schoolchildren's prank against Mr Dobbins with the cat; and Tom's leading Huck and Joe off to the island. The children have their own system of belief - a limitless collection of superstitions, and their own trading system, in the form of the bartering of all sorts of 'treasures.'
However, the two worlds are more closely connected than they first appear. The adults join in with the mirth over Tom's bug because they find the bug's antics more interesting than the sermon. Mr Dobbins' vanity is deflated by the cat trick, but he provoked this act of revenge because he was being unduly harsh with the children in an attempt to produce a good showing on "Examination" day - to feed his vanity. In addition, he gave the children an opportunity to paint his head gold by sinking into a drunken stupor. In both incidents, adult pretentiousness and hypocrisy is being punctured by the children; there is a natural justice in the process.
In many respects, the children's world mirrors the adult world and acts as a kind of apprenticeship to it. The children's trading system, using bits of trash which are viewed as "treasures," provides practice for the adult economic system. This is made especially clear when Tom and Huck discover and become the owners of a hoard of real money, marking their transition into the adult world.
Similarly, the children's superstitions are set alongside the adults' religious beliefs and share certain similarities. Both appear equally ridiculous. After his superstition regarding his lost marbles fails to work, "Tom's whole structure of faith was shaken to its foundations." Both religion and superstition in Twain's portrayal emphasise the importance of form and playing by the rules (for example, ensuring that one follows a wart charm to the letter; and the adults' emphasis on attending church, regardless of the fact that a bug is of more interest to them than the service). Both have an element of faddishness and convenience: the children can pick and choose from a huge stock of superstitions according to which suits the situation they are in; and the religious "revival" that sweeps through St Petersburg is enthusiastically embraced and then forgotten about when it loses its charm.
By drawing parallels between the adults' and children's worlds, Twain suggests that adult society is not reliably more mature than the children's society. This proven by the Sunday school scene in Chapter 4, where everyone, from children to teachers to Judge Thatcher himself, is only concerned with "showing off." The adults' behavior is as childish as the children's.
4. Discuss the role of Tom's romantic imagination in the novel.
Tom's ability to construct heroic scenarios, arrange for them to be played out, and subsequently bask in the glory, gives him many of the qualities of a theatre director. It is but a short step from theatre director to writer of fiction, and critics have noted this autobiographical aspect to Twain's portrayal of Tom.
Supporting this interpretation of Tom's character is the comment by the British novelist Graham Greene (1904-1991), that "There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer." Greene means that a writer will use even sad or tragic events for material, even to the exclusion of more human considerations. We see this quality in Tom, when he returns temporarily from the island and is about to reassure Aunt Polly that he is alive, when he decides not to, in the interests of making a grand entrance at his funeral: "'Twould a spoiled everything" (Chapter 19). Tom's theatrical and writerly instincts tell him not to let even his love for Aunt Polly stand in the way of a great story. Glory and adulation are "food and drink" to Tom, and none of his adventures are complete without the audience's positive feedback. The fact that he later comes to regret his decision not to tell Aunt Polly that he is alive is a mark of his growth in emotional maturity.
To some extent, Tom's imagined romantic adventures are a rehearsal for his 'real life' adventures. Without them, perhaps Tom would not have slipped so easily into his heroic behavior in supporting Becky in the cave and getting them both out safe.
5. Show how Twain uses satire in the Sunday school scene (Chapter 4) Twain begins his satirical treatment of the Sunday school session before Tom arrives. Tom's failure to remember a single Bible verse does not divert him from his determination to become one of the select few to win glory - and, of lesser importance to him - a Bible for memorizing verses. He has to prove that he has memorized enough verses by presenting enough of the tickets that are awarded by teachers for learning verses. He barters "treasures" - bits of trash - in exchange for other children's tickets, and gets enough to be awarded a Bible in front of the class.
By showing Tom's fraudulent methods of gaining the Bible - which is belittled as a cheap book worth only "forty cents" - Twain shows the meaninglessness of the time-honored tradition of making children memorize scriptures. Twain also ridicules the assumption that a child's ability to memorize scriptures reflects upon their worth or personal growth, and implies that it actually does harm, citing the example of "a boy of German parentage" who "once recited three thousand verses without stopping; but the strain on his mental faculties was too great, and he was little better than an idiot from that day forth."
Twain uses the appearance of the Sunday school teacher, Mr Walters, to satirize the beliefs and attitudes inculcated by the school. The teacher has a collar so tall and stiff that he can only look straight ahead, having to turn his whole body when a side view is required. This symbolizes a narrowness and rigidity of outlook. Twain delivers a savage backhanded compliment when he describes Mr Walters as holding sacred things "in such reverence, and so separated them from worldly matters" that his Sunday school voice "had acquired a peculiar intonation which was wholly absent on weekdays." The satirical implication is that Mr Walters is a 'Sunday Christian' only, adopting a holy demeanour for that day, as opposed to genuinely living his religion, in which case he would be a Christian every hour of every day.
The satirical tone escalates after the arrival of Judge Thatcher and his party. In an effort to impress the eminent Judge Thatcher, everyone, from children to assistants to teachers, takes to "showing off." This involves, on the children's part, displays of familiarity with the Judge or misbehavior; on the adults' part, it involves displays of stern discipline or of unusual sweetness towards the children. Even Judge Thatcher shows off, trying to look grand. Twain shows the adults behaving no better than the children, and all being motivated by vanity.
When Tom presents his tickets and demands a Bible, Mr Walters is aware that Tom cannot possibly have earned it. But so overweeing is Mr Walters' self-important desire to "exhibit a prodigy" in front of the Judge that he ignores Tom's lack of deserving ability and gives him the prize. The satirical climax of the scene comes with the Judge's fulsome speech in which he praises Tom's "knowledge," which is "worth more than anything there is in the world." He predicts that Tom will one day be "a great man and a good man" and that he will look back and realize that it is all owing to the "precious Sunday school privileges of my boyhood" and "my dear teachers that taught me to learn."
It is likely that the Judge's prediction was as unconvincing in Twain's day as it is now. Twain has shown us the connection between memorizing Bible verses and fraud, vanity, and idiocy (the case of the German boy); we have seen no connection between that activity and greatness. Even if there were such a connection, it would certainly not apply in the case of Tom, who, when the Judge asks him to name the first two disciples, comes up with the first two Biblical names to come to mind: David and Goliath. Twain's request that we "draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene" enables him to end with a punch-line and encourages the reader to complete the scene with his or her own reaction to Tom's public humiliation.


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