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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
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Approach this chapter as you would another world-one that existed nearly a century and a half before you were born. Try to imagine the people who live there. You meet two of the book's major characters: Tom Sawyer and his Aunt Polly. You also meet two minor characters who act as Tom's "foils"- people who make him look better. One is Sid, Tom's half-brother. The other is a boy with a "citified air" who is a stranger in town.

As Twain opens the book, Aunt Polly is calling her nephew, Tom. The fact that he doesn't answer is a clue to his character: either he isn't where he is supposed to be, or he's just not listening.


Mark Twain took great pride in being able to hold the attention of audiences he lectured to. With this simple opener, he shows he knows how to hook readers too. Tom's situation-being the object of an adult's shout-is one anyone can identify with. Most people can remember, with a mixture of pain and warmth, the emotions they felt when called away from a private task by a familiar parental voice. Twain no doubt knew this. And he probably suspected that Polly's shout would capture the attention of many adults by its appeal to nostalgia-their longing for experiences of the past.

From the start, Aunt Polly is a comic figure, but one that Twain portrays warmly. Vain, like other mortals, Polly wears spectacles "for 'style,' not service." To see, she has to peek over or below them.

Tom doesn't seem to be inside. Polly pokes under the bed with a broom but raises only a cat. Nor is Tom outside in the garden, a tangle of tomato vines and smelly jimson weeds. Only when he tries to sneak by her does Polly realize that he has been hiding in a closet. From the "truck" (rubbish) on his mouth and hands, she knows that he has been helping himself to jam.

Polly decides to flog him, but Tom is too quick for her. "Look behind you, aunt!" he says, and as she does so, he leaps over the fence. This is only the first of many practical jokes he will play on her. Tom's escape makes Polly laugh. His tricks amuse her, though she is troubled that she allows herself to be charmed by him. Tom is her "own dead sister's boy." She accepts the fact that he is full of the "Old Scratch" (the devil), but she feels responsible for his upbringing. Still, she can't bring herself to whip him.

Tom plays hooky from school. He returns home just in time to do his chores-helping a slave boy, Jim, saw wood.


Twain calls Hannibal, his boyhood home, St. Petersburg-St. Peter's place, a reference to Heaven. However, it isn't Heaven for everyone, and the appearance of Jim is a clue. Jim-modeled after Sandy, a slave the Clemenses kept in Hannibal-is Polly's slave. As previously mentioned, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state in 1821. Twain dealt with the injustices of slavery in two of his most famous books, Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson. However, he almost completely avoids such weighty issues here, in this pleasurable romp through childhood. In any case, you should note the role of such figures as Jim in the novel.

At dinner, Polly pumps Tom for clues to his whereabouts during the afternoon. Tom has nearly convinced her that he didn't go swimming when Sid points out that Tom's collar is sewn shut with black thread, although Polly had sewn it with white thread in the morning. (In his Autobiography, Twain says that his mother used to sew his shirt tight to keep him from skipping school for a swim.)

Tom darts out the door, vowing to beat up Sid for giving him away. Twain adds a comment, telling you-as if you didn't already know-that Tom "was not the Model Boy of the village." Why does Twain tell you something you already know? First, he's setting up a joke, whose punch line is, "He knew the Model Boy very well though-and loathed him." Second, he's giving you a clue to one of his goals in writing Tom Sawyer. By making a "bad boy" a hero, Twain is making fun of books that present boys and girls with perfect behavior as models for their readers.

Tom comes upon a newcomer-a dressed up boy whose "citified air" irks him. It's Friday, and the boy is wearing shoes, something Tom would do only on Sundays. What bothers Tom most is that the boy's clothes make Tom feel "shabbier and shabbier." His first comment to the newcomer is a challenge: "I can lick you!"

The boys fight, and Tom wins. He chases the boy home and waits outside his house until his enemy's mother orders him away. Tom tries to sneak into his own house after dark by climbing through a window. But Polly is waiting for him, determined to punish him.


Twain never specifies Tom's age. Sometimes-as when Polly catches him with jam on his face-he seems no more than eight. Other times, as when he curses his bad luck and wrestles with the overdressed boy, he seems considerably older, maybe twelve or thirteen. Later, he seems even older. Why doesn't Twain keep Tom's actions consistent with those of a particular age group? Some readers see this inconsistency as a flaw. Others dismiss the question by suggesting that Twain is recreating, in the time frame of a few months, all of boyhood-a stage of development that takes years.

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

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