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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
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Tom, the novel's hero, appears in almost every scene. Poorly behaved, scrappy, and often thoughtless in his pursuit of the spotlight, he triumphs in spite of his bad behavior.

One of Tom's great strengths is his ability to turn everything- from fence-painting to death-into play. He is also a born leader. Again and again, he persuades his friends to do his bidding. Under his command, they become fence painters, soldiers, and English knights. Tom's leadership ability stems in part from his wide reading of romantic literature, which makes him an "expert" on such childhood pleasures as treasure-hunting, pirating, and the lore of Sherwood Forest. Tom also succeeds by trickery. He makes fence-painting seem like so much fun that boys pay him for the right to do it.

Tom is not without qualms, however. His Presbyterian upbringing and his superstitious nature often give him bad dreams and feelings of guilt.

Tom is basically a good boy, in spite of his continual warfare with adults. He apologizes to Polly for embarrassing her. To protect Becky, he takes the blame for the page she tore. He loves his aunt and tells her so-although tardily.

Do you feel, as some readers do, that Tom matures as the novel progresses? Or do you think he simply joins the society whose ways he tested throughout the novel? Perhaps both views are valid-that is, as Tom matures, he realizes how senseless it is to remain, like Huck, at odds with "civilized" society. The novel gives you abundant evidence to support all three views.

Curiously ageless, for most readers Tom stands as a symbol of boyhood on the threshold of the adult world.


The novel's heroine, Becky Thatcher, is as complex a figure as Tom. Like Tom, her age is not clear-anywhere from nine to thirteen. She has blue eves and blond hair. As the book begins, she is a new-comer in town, on an extended visit to her uncle. As the book ends, it appears-Twain is unclear on this point-that her family has settled in St. Petersburg. Her father is a judge, well off and highly respected by all citizens. Twain modeled Becky after his first sweetheart, Laura Hawkins.

Becky reflects her upbringing. She is polite, respectful of her elders, and so well-behaved that she has never been whipped in school. Yet in some ways she is no more a "model girl" than Tom is a "model boy." She can be cruel. She feigns interest in Alfred Temple when it enables her to taunt Tom. She can be vindictive. She doesn't stand up for Tom when he's accused of spilling ink on his spelling book because she wants him punished. She can be disobedient. Behind her mother's back, she agrees to Tom's plan to visit Mrs. Douglas' house. She can be a pest. She "teased" her mother to win her consent for the picnic. She has a quick temper, as Tom discovers several times.

Still, Becky is basically warm and considerate. Lost in the cave, she regains hope in order to make Tom stop blaming himself for their plight. She appreciates Tom's efforts on her behalf and says so, to Tom and her father. Yet she is generally presented as so strong-willed that some readers are startled by the speed with which, at the outset, she gives up hope in the cave. This passive acceptance of fate seems out of character. During Twain's time, however, women were considered the weaker sex, and their characterization in fiction reflected this view.


The sister of Tom's dead mother, Polly is modeled after Twain's mother, Jane Clemens. Twain claimed that, besides having Polly speak in dialect, he couldn't "think up other improvements" for his mother. However, Twain's mother was stubborn, proud, and quick-witted; Polly is none of these. Some readers believe that Polly is partly modeled after Mrs. Partington, a character in one of Twain's favorite books, Benjamin P. Shillaber's Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington. A strict Calvinist, Mrs. Partington nevertheless cannot bear to discipline her orphaned nephew, Ike, who outwits her at every turn. Similarly, Polly believes it her duty to discipline Tom, yet she is too soft-hearted to do it regularly.


Huck is in many ways Tom's opposite. Part of St. Petersburg's outcast community-a group that includes slaves, drunks, and criminals-Huck represents all that the village's "respectable" citizens abhor. He is dirty, lazy, uneducated, and the son of a town drunk. He is a follower, not a leader. Untouched by formal religion, he is not harassed by his conscience as Tom is. He puts his own safety first until, near the end of the novel, he aids Mrs. Douglas. The ways of civilization hold no joys for him, as he learns when he becomes "rich" and Mrs. Douglas tries to mold him into a sort of "model boy.

Twain modeled Huck after a boy named Tom Blankenship, someone he remembered as "the only really independent person-boy or man-in the community." But some readers believe Huck's relationship with Tom is based on Twain's reading of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha, a seventeenth century burlesque of popular Medieval romances of chivalry. Huck, like Quixote's sidekick, Sancho Panza, is uneducated and matter-of-fact. Twain develops his character more fully in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, whose popularity caused Huck to overshadow Tom in the public's imagination. Here, however, Huck is clearly subordinate to Tom.


Twain uses Tom's half-brother, Sid, to make good boys look bad. Sid stays out of trouble yet never tires of reporting Tom's infractions to Polly. He is sneaky and mean-spirited, gaining attention at the expense of others.

Twain's younger brother, Henry Clemens, served as the model for Sid. However, Twain defended his brother by calling Henry "a very much better and finer boy than Sid ever was."


Tom's cousin, Mary, is an even-tempered teenager who is the fourth member of Aunt Polly's household. She is kind to Tom, who likes her. A patient girl, she rewards Tom for his successes instead of scolding him for his mistakes. Mary is thought to be modeled after Pamela Clemens, Twain's sister, who, after their father died, taught piano to help support her family.


The only evil character in the novel, Injun Joe is one of St. Petersburg's outcasts. He is of mixed Indian and white parentage, like the man of the same name who lived in Hannibal during Twain's youth, and whose worst crime was getting drunk.

Injun Joe is driven by a desire for revenge. He murders the young Dr. Robinson because Robinson's father had him jailed as a vagrant some years earlier. He wants to disfigure Mrs. Douglas because her late husband, a justice of the peace, had ordered him whipped on the same charge. Some readers see the "murderin' half-breed" as the victim of racial injustice and his actions as a product of that injustice.

Some readers feel that Injun Joe is not a totally believable villain. They see him as a comic book caricature of a villain- more amusing than threatening. Do you agree or disagree?

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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

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