growth and maturation
the first part of the novel, Tom indulges in many pranks and adventures, giving
little consideration to the consequences. Fortunately, those consequences never
seem to be more serious than causing annoyance to authority figures. Everything
changes when Tom and Huck witness the murder in the graveyard and Injun Joe
frames Muff Potter, who is innocent of the crime. Suddenly, the boys' actions
could make the difference between justice being done or an innocent man being
hanged. Tom at first remains silent but has to appease his conscience by taking
small gifts to Potter in jail. This shows some moral growth, but not sufficient
to quiet Tom's bad conscience. This thread is finally resolved when Tom
testifies against Injun Joe. Doing the right thing has overridden his fears for
his personal safety. Tom's reward is the adulation he receives from the local
incidents fuel Tom's growing sense of right and wrong, notably his realization
of how badly he has hurt Aunt Polly by staying on the island without telling
her he was alive. He resolves this situation by reassuring her that he cares
about her, and she forgives him. That Tom matures through this episode is clear
when he selflessly takes on Becky's punishment in school - even after Becky has
been rude to him. His development continues when despite his irresponsibility
in getting himself and Becky lost in the cave, he keeps his head, selflessly
looks after Becky, and gets them both out unscathed, once again finding himself
lauded as a hero.
culmination of the 'Injun Joe' and 'courtship of Becky' threads is Tom's
discovery of the treasure in the cave. An ordeal involving the hero's journey
into a cave or labyrinth is an ancient convention of many 'coming to manhood'
stories. The treasure is both Tom's reward for proving that he is worthy of the
status of a man and, more prosaically, a symbol of the adult economic system
which he is now entering.
also undergoes a moral growth. For most of the novel he is concerned with the
necessarily selfish business of survival, but one night he finds himself alone
when the time comes to track Injun Joe. When he finds that Injun Joe intends to
attack the Widow Douglas, he recalls her kindness to him and commits an
entirely selfless act, alerting Mr Jones and thus saving her from Joe.
Huck allows himself to be persuaded by Tom to give up his freedom for a life of
being civilized by the Widow Douglas. Some critics say that Tom's championing
of conformity, and Huck's grudging acceptance of it, mark both boy's
maturation. This interpretation depends on equating respectability with
maturity - something that Twain satirizes in the townsfolk. Others view the
boys' conversion as a sad capitulation or a failure of imagination on Twain's
part (he did not know what else to do with Tom). One thing is certain, however:
the boys' final subjection to the restraints of civilization is a necessary
rite of their passage into adulthood and into society.
traditions and conventions of romantic adventure fiction
Tom is an avid fan of romantic adventure
stories, such as those of Robin Hood, pirates and robbers. He and his friends
give each other such names as "the
Black Avenger of the Spanish Main."
Tom remembers the
plot and even long sections of dialog of such stories in detail, and
regurgitates them faithfully in play-acting with other children. This is the
more remarkable in a boy who is unable to memorize even a single Bible verse.
He is preoccupied with pirates who steal money and kill people - though not
they do not kill women, because they are "too noble."
stories prefigure the 'real life' events that befall Tom: he witnesses Injun
Joe's robbing of a grave, attempted extortion, and murder. When Injun Joe's
accomplice begs him not to kill the Widow Douglas, Joe replies that killing is
not the way to get revenge upon a woman: "you go for her looks. You slit her
nostrils - you notch her ears like a sow's." Like Tom's pirates, Injun Joe will
not kill women. But in a departure from the romantic tradition of the fictional
pirates, Injun Joe's motive for stopping short of killing women is not
nobility, but a more exquisite form of revenge.
implication is that fiction to some extent mirrors real life but is ultimately
less tidy and high-minded than fiction. But these romantic conventions may have
another purpose in the novel. The criminal activities that Tom and Huck witness
are horrific, but they do not seem overwhelmed or traumatized by them. In part,
this shows the more casual attitude towards children's psychology in Twain's
time. But it is also possible that Tom and Huck have been psychologically
prepared by play-acting the stories of pirates and robbers.ï¿½
as Tom's favorite stories often culminate in the hero's discovery of treasure,
so does his own story. This is a pleasing, if somewhat unbelievable, meeting of
the romantic adventure story tradition and Tom's 'real life.'
the novel, freedom is equated with standing outside society's rules. Good behavior, as defined by adults,
means a loss of freedom. It means whitewashing the fence on Saturday, having to
while away tedious hours in school, church and Sunday school, and dressing in
ridiculous and restrictive clothes like those of the new boy whom Tom beats up
for being overdressed. Huck, who does not have to do any of these things
because there is no one to tell him to, is admired by the other children as a
symbol of freedom.
Tom occupies a
position between the free and the imprisoned. Under Aunt Polly's orders, he
attends school, church and Sunday school. But whenever he can, he escapes, most
notably to the island, where he lives with Huck and Joe Harper as a pirate.
Paradoxically, Tom defines his leisure activities with his own strict rules: there
are things that are done and not done by pirates and robbers; and Tom's
superstitions demand absolute adherence to correct procedure.
The pursuit of
freedom, however illusory, has its price, as when Tom upsets Aunt Polly by his
staying on the island without telling her he is alive. Tom's growing sense of
responsibility, combined with his discovery of the treasure, makes him give up
at least some of his wild ways and submit to the restrictions of society.
However, he still intends to set up a robbers' gang, which naturally has strict
rules about who may and may not join: tellingly, only "respectable" people are
The fact that
Tom begins the novel admiring Huck for his life of freedom and ends it
persuading him to give up his freedom shows that he has accepted that life has
to be led with due consideration of the effects of his actions on wider
Muff Potter and Injun Joe all live to varying degrees on the fringes of
society. Huck, being the son of the town drunk, has no parental authority
figure to tell him what to do. His lawless, idle lifestyle makes him "the
juvenile pariah of the village," hated and dreaded by the mothers, and admired
by the children.
Huck saves the Widow Douglas from being maimed by Injun Joe, he is welcomed
into society as a hero. The Widow intends to keep him within society's fold by
housing and educating him, and finally setting him up in business. Huck's story
shows that outcast status is not a fixed state, but is fluid, because of
society's forgiving nature. Tom too is a beneficiary of this social fluidity,
moving from a much-disapproved of status to that of a hero through a mixture of
theatrical sensibility and a genuinely heroic and selfless streak.
Potter, another drunk, is also taken back into society's embrace after his
innocence becomes apparent. Though guilty of grave-robbing, he is essentially
kind-hearted and, we feel, deserving of indulgence.
deserving ability does not, however, apply to Injun Joe. While his "half-breed"
race (half native American, half Caucasian) undoubtedly plays a dominant part
in his outcast status in a slave-owning, racist society, he does nothing that
remotely merits indulgence or forgiveness. Prepared to kill and maim people for
slight reasons, he has a malevolent heart. But in spite of the fact that he is
believed to have killed five townspeople, a group of "sappy women" petition the
governor to pardon him. Here, Twain satirizes the unreasoning and sentimental
sectors of society that fail to discriminate between those deserving and
undeserving of forgiveness. Fortunately, Injun Joe's death puts a stop to the
petition for pardon, with fate, rather than human wisdom, ensuring that justice
the beginning of the novel, a tension is set up between discipline and
indulgence, condemnation and forgiveness, regarding the relationship between
Aunt Polly and Tom. She says, "Every
time I let him off my conscience does hurt me so; and every time I hit him my
old heart 'most breaks." The conflict is between head and heart, or duty and
love. She seems not to want to discipline Tom too severely, perhaps because
part of her sympathizes with his free spirit.
The theme of condemnation
and forgiveness is taken up as it applies in wider society. Huck moves from
being an outcast to being a hero for saving the Widow Douglas. Tom moves from
being viewed as a mischievous child, also to a hero, for his part in saving
Muff Potter from being hanged for a crime he did not do, as well as for his
theatrical entrance at his own funeral. Muff Potter himself is taken back into
society's embrace in spite of his faults and petty criminal tendencies: the
fact that he means well counts for much.
In general, Twain presents
this tendency towards forgiveness as a beneficent aspect of society. Though he
mocks society's "fickle unreasoning" in its U-turn in attitude towards Muff
Potter, he adds, "But that sort of conduct is to the world's credit; therefore
it is not well to find fault with it" (Chapter 25).
Only once is forgiveness
taken to absurd extremes: a group of "sappy women" sentimentalize Injun Joe, a
man who has probably killed five people, and want him pardoned. Injun Joe does
not deserve forgiveness because he shows no remorse for his crimes and holds
only malice in his heart. The women are rightly foiled in their aim by Injun
this novel, all of society's great institutions are present in microcosm, and
all are satirized: public morality, the law, education, religion,
medicine, and economics.
beginning assumption is that institutions and the people who represent them
should be what they seem. If there is a gap, they are a fair target for satire.
If a tavern is a Temperance Tavern, then it should not have a secret whisky
den. A Sunday school is supposed to inculcate scripture and Christian values in
children, not to enable children and teachers to "show off" before Judge
Thatcher. Judge Thatcher, as the highest representative of the law in the
county, should not be "showing off" at all, least of all in the Sunday school.
Churchgoers should be more interested in the sermon than in the antics of a
bug. Schoolteachers should be concerned with the education and well-being of
the children in their charge; they should not, as Mr Dobbins does, flog the
children in a desperate attempt to make a good showing on "Examination" day and
get drunk before the event. The medical establishment should not hype the
latest 'cure' at the expense of honesty and concern for the patient's
well-being. Finally, society's equating money with status is questioned. It is
suggested that society should evaluate people for what they are, not how much
money they have; after Tom and Huck come into their money, the townspeople
suddenly begin to see the profoundest sense in all their sayings, which they
often helped by his child characters, punctures the self-delusion of each of
the hypocrites, revealing them for what they are - from the collection of
grown-up children giggling in the church at the bug, to the sad, undignified,
drunk and de-wigged Mr Dobbins.