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

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain uses language that is, for the most part, simple, direct, and unpretentious. In most of his sentences, every word has a job. "The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them, about the room," he writes in Chapter 1; "then she put them up and looked out under them." A typical Twain sentence, it describes a comic action- Aunt Polly's glasses were useless-with precision and not a word more than needed. No wonder his spare (lean) style influenced so many writers who followed him, including Ernest Hemingway, who once said that all American literature begins with Mark Twain.

Twain's style in this novel is not consistently spare, however. In places, his style becomes indirect, wordy, and unnecessarily "fancy." Sulking in Chapter 3, Tom "wandered far from the accustomed haunts of boys, and sought desolate places that were in harmony with his spirit. A log raft in the river invited him, and he seated himself on its outer edge and contemplated the dreary vastness of the stream...."

This is one of the many passages that Twain might have simplified but didn't. He probably wanted to mock Tom's romantic posturing by using the type of overblown prose that writers such as James Fenimore Cooper used. However, no such reasoning can explain complicating his prose with such words as "ambuscade" and "adamantine"- both found in one sentence at the end of Chapter 1. Compared with the simple words Twain uses most of the time, these words seem phony, an attempt to sound "literary."

Twain himself preaches against "fine language" and "prized words" in Chapter 21. In general, he heeds his own advice and sticks to simple words and sentences.


Twain's imagery-mostly visual, sometimes auditory and tactile (pertaining to touch)- is never flashy. It is most evident when his attention turns to nature, as on Jackson's Island in Chapter 14. Tom awakens to a "cool gray dawn" (tactile and visual) and observes "beaded dew-drops" (visual) on the leaves. "A white layer of ashes covered the fire, and a thin blue breath of smoke rose straight into the air" (visual). The birds awaken, and "presently [Tom hears] the hammering of a woodpecker" (auditory).

There's nothing forced about such images. They are as simple and as natural as Twain's informal language. Yet there's a beauty to their simplicity that gives them power. It might be useful to jot down the first ten images that make an impression on you and ask yourself why they are memorable.

Much of the book's humor comes from the several dialects (variations of local speech) that Twain's characters speak. "Hang the boy, can't I never learn anything?" Polly asks herself in Chapter 1. "Ain't he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? But old fools is the biggest fools there is."

By recording the way people actually talked on the Missouri frontier, Twain makes his characters both believable and funny. He points up the humor in everyday situations. Such a writer is called a "comic realist"- someone who portrays life humorously but faithfully.

Twain faces the everyday world as a frontier humorist, a writer (or lecturer) who masks his sophistication behind an unassuming "aw-shucks" demeanor. This air of innocence enables Twain to deliver social criticism in an offhanded, almost unintentional way. "A robber is more high-toned than what a pirate is-as a general thing," Tom tells Huck in Chapter 33. "In most countries they're [robbers are] awful high up in the nobility-dukes and such." With a seemingly innocent remark, Twain pokes fun at society's upper crust by suggesting that it is made up of thieves. This aspect of his humor can be seen as, ultimately, subversive.

Twain can evoke terror as well as laughter with his descriptions. You will notice that much of the power of Chapter 31, in which Tom and Becky are lost in the cave, comes from Twain's ability to direct your attention to key details. "Under the roof," he writes, "vast knots of bats had packed themselves together, thousands in a bunch; the lights disturbed the creatures and they came flocking down by hundreds, squeaking and darting furiously at the candles." Twain's simple descriptive style is a flexible tool, and he uses it masterfully to tell his story and guide your reactions to it.

POINT OF VIEW

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is told by a third-person omniscient (all-knowing) narrator. Some readers believe that Twain made a mistake by writing in the third person. They feel the use of the third person forced him to use a more formal vocabulary than he was comfortable with. As you read Tom Sawyer, you might want to ask yourself if a retelling by Tom, in the first person, would have made certain scenes more effective.

The narrator is perhaps Tom's most ardent fan. Some parents might scold their child for conning his friends into doing his work and having them pay for the privilege. Twain doesn't censure Tom for that or for the thoughtless way he hurts Polly's feelings in Chapter 8. Instead, he looks on tolerantly, with a "boys-will-be-boys" attitude that is infectious.

Ordinarily, the narrator lets the material speak for itself. However, a few times he addresses you directly-an occurrence that many readers find jarring. In all, the narrator is a reliable reporter of the events in St. Petersburg. Yet, St. Petersburg is not Hannibal, the town after which it is modeled, and it would be a mistake to think so. A distance of thirty years allowed Twain to view his hometown-and boyhood-through rose-tinted glasses.

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