The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain: The Savage Noble

Nothing conjures up summer quite like a bully, sure-’nough treasure:

A kite, a dead rat and a string to swing it with, twelve marbles, part of a jew’s harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool-cannon, a key that doesn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog collar—but no dog—the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window-sash.

The golden green of a warm Saturday afternoon, the Eden of Children, glows in this bounty—or rather, this booty. This particular trove enumerates the whitewashing spoils of a very particular individual. An outlaw, wizard, knight, lover, pirate, and circus clown. In a word, a boy. And this particular boy’s name is Tom Sawyer.

tom-sawyerThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the written soul of summertime and salad days. Pig-tailed girls dressed in frocks chatter about chewing gum and true love. Scrapping boys dressed in rags cover themselves with dust and glory. Pranks are played and punishments applied. Wars are waged in the woods. Picnickers frolic near the ferry wharf. The Sunday-school superintendent asks who the first two disciples were. Tom Sawyer answers, “DAVID AND GOLIATH!”

The line between romanticism and realism blurs in a haze of summer sun.

No other book places dog-day youth on such a high and holy pedestal, stirring in every heart that was once young memories of innocent insubordinations when “all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life.” The Adventures of Tom Sawyer also captures the most important thing about being a child besides summer—growing up. Tom Sawyer’s boyhood drifts toward an inevitable end just as surely as do the days of Vacation. Just as surely as the child becomes a man, so must the childish world of miracles and mischief grow into to a world of tears, terrors, and joys—but no less full of adventure.

Mark Twain begins The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with a winking paean to the romance of being young. From hooking doughnuts to playing hooky, every trifling shenanigan is magnified to grandest proportion. Through the eyes of one Tom Sawyer’s age, Aunt Polly does not just don an angry expression when she discovers the broken sugar bowl; she stands “above the wreck discharging lightnings of wrath from over her spectacles.” When a boy hurls clods at his goody-two-shoes half-brother for ratting him out for going in a-swimming, the air is filled with a hailstorm of clods. When a young romantic spies a “lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two long tails,” he falls “without firing a shot” and swoons with all the passion of Sir Tristram.

Driving the first half of this vade mecum of the American Boy is a delightful and necessary waggery. Tom Sawyer is the archetypical imp and his dirty gang of rogues are outlaws by nature. They cannot memorize a single verse from the Good Book, but they know Robin Hood “by the book,” and more incantations than the Witch of Endor to boot. Weapons and wart removal with dead cats are all they swear by. Though they all agree that the purpose of life is to become a hero, they also agree that the best way to accomplish this is to fake your own death, go off to be a pirate on Jackson’s Island for a spell, and then return for your own funeral. Tom Sawyer is quite a rogue.

Then, quite suddenly, something happens.

After a cruel trick and an even crueler lie, Tom realizes a stirring truth for the first time—that his actions affect how other people feel; and that Aunt Polly is correct in her assessment, “Oh, child, you never think. You never think of anything but your own selfishness.” The cruelty of his own thoughtlessness and selfishness arrests the boy so absolutely he starts to act like a man. That same afternoon, Tom uncharacteristically assumes blame (and a flogging) to spare a terrified culprit for a mere accident. Soon after, he inexplicably testifies in public against the vengeful half-breed, Injun Joe, to save the life of a wrongfully accused simpleton. By the time Tom finds himself hopelessly lost in the bowels of a cave with that lovely little blue-eyed creature, there is less surprise when he magnanimously swallows his own terror to fan the hopes of his damsel in distress.

Tom Sawyer, though still given to pastimes such as treasure hunting and showing off, begins to behave in a manner suggestive of his destiny as a boy, thanks to his introduction to the moral life by Aunt Polly. He begins to consider the feelings of others through unfamiliar, but deeply instinctive, good deeds—deeds of justice, courage, and selflessness. The ne’er-do-well yields to something new, and we find ourselves asking Tom Sawyer the same question the beauteous Becky Thatcher put to her hero: “Tom, how could you be so noble?”

This mysterious movement from the impish to the noble is reflected not only in the escapades of Tom Sawyer, but also in the world where his escapades take place. Romance ultimately makes way for realism. The beautiful morbidity of a midnight graveyard is marred by a horrifyingly brutal murder. The ghostly haunted house turns out to be home to flesh and blood villains. Puppy love leads to loving sacrifice. Summer turns to fall. Roguery must face up to responsibility.

The question, however, remains: “Tom, how could you be so noble?”

William Wordsworth best phrased the answer: “The Child is father of the Man.”

The fascinating point that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer makes with its recurring pattern of romance and realism is that roguery is actually a type of preparation for nobility. Though without Aunt Polly to inspire moral awakening, this immature form of manliness is no more than the naughtiness that spoils both the child and the man he will beget. Wordsworth’s words strike the perfect chord. A man is called to be many things—a provider, a defender, and a builder, to name but a few. How can a child prepare to be any of these things if not through his play? The child fathers the provider by being a noble outlaw. The child engenders the defender by being a savage and a knight. The child brings about the builder in the castles he raises only to destroy. When he is sacrificial, however, the naughty child has begun to become the noble man he has theretofore impishly played the part of. Thus, Mark Twain ends his history of a boy with the acknowledgement that “the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man.”

Although it takes place in every one of our small lives, the rite of passage outlined in these pages is, in fact, material for an epic. Although just an ordinary boy, Tom Sawyer is, in fact, an Odysseus—employing his ways of twists and turns as he strives to find himself on a journey through wonders and perils, delights and despair, nightmares and dreams come true. With the help of a loving Muse—or an Aunt Polly—the hero can come to virtue and his great rooted bed. Although just a short book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is, in fact, an eternal evocation of the human adventure.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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