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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
In this chapter, Twain recounts one of the most famous scenes in American literature. Take a few moments after reading the chapter to decide how he makes whitewashing a fence such a memorable experience.
Saturday morning brings Tom's punishment. Aunt Polly has 2ordered him to whitewash ninety square yards of fence. To make matters worse, the weather is gorgeous. Notice how Twain sets the scene in the opening paragraph. The summer morning is "bright and fresh" and "brimming with life." Cardiff Hill, just north of the village, seems "dreamy" and "inviting."
NOTE: A "DELECTABLE LAND"
Twain compares Cardiff Hill to the Delectable Mountains in John Bunyan's religious allegory, Pilgrim's Progress, published in 1678. In the mid-19th century most literate Americans were acquainted with Pilgrim's Progress, one of the great works of literature, whose symbolic place-names, characters, and action were designed to teach a lesson in Christian moral values. Why do you think Twain introduces this reference to a moral story as a preface to the whitewashing scene?
Tom steps into this blissful scene armed with a bucket of whitewash and a brush. His depression deepens when he compares his first stroke with the "far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence." He sits, moping, on a box built around a tree to protect it.
Jim comes by, and Tom promises to do Jim's chore-fetching water-if Jim helps paint the fence. But Jim won't consider risking Polly's wrath until Tom offers him an alabaster marble- a "white alley." It's a "bully" (slang for excellent) "taw," a large, fancy marble normally used for shooting. By relying on these unusual terms, Twain reminds you that the world of childhood has its own language. How does Twain's use of these words help make his story seem true-to-life?
When Tom tops his offer by promising Jim a glimpse of his sore toe, Jim can't resist. But Polly kills the deal by appearing out of nowhere, swatting Jim's rear with a slipper, and sending him on his way and Tom back to work.
Ben Rogers, one of Tom's friends, "hove in sight" (came into view)- a sailor's term that indicates Ben is lost in the fantasy that he is a steamboat. Notice the loving detail with which Twain presents Ben's fantasy. He recreates the tooting of the fog horn and the ding-dong of the ship's bells, the captain's orders, even the motions of the pilot at the wheel.
Tom pretends to be engrossed in his own project. Ben says he is going swimming, but Tom refuses to take the bait. He keeps working as if he enjoys it. Pretty soon, Ben asks if he can "whitewash a little," and Tom consents in exchange for Ben's apple. Other boys come by, and Tom manages to sell them the chance to whitewash the fence too.
By midafternoon, the fence has three coats of whitewash on it, and Tom is "literally rolling in wealth." For the right to whitewash the fence, St. Petersburg's boys have given him their most valuable possessions.
How did he do it? According to Twain, he discovered "a great law of human action": that you can make people want something by making that something hard to get. Twain-"the writer of this book"- steps into his own story here with a definition of work ("whatever a body is obliged to do") and play ("whatever a body is not obliged to do"). The comment doesn't seem out of place because Twain introduces it with irony- saying one thing (that he is "a great and wise philosopher") and meaning another (that he is not a philosopher at all).
What does this chapter teach you about Tom? It's clear that he is a clever actor and a leader. But he is still a child, able to cherish items that adults would consider worthless: a piece of broken glass, a brass doorknob, and a knife handle.
NOTE: THE SCENE AS SATIRE
Some readers feel that Twain satirizes (makes fun of) adult society throughout Tom Sawyer. It's an interesting point of view and one that finds support in this scene. Here, some readers feel, Twain uses comedy to ridicule the acquisitive instincts that seemed to rule American society after the Civil War, when Twain wrote the novel. With double-talk, Tom manipulates his friends into doing his work and ends up "rolling in wealth." But the wealth is just things-worthless things, at that.