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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 4

This chapter concerns Sunday school and the preparations for it. The first chapter in which adults play an extensive role, it gives you a chance to compare the children and their elders-and perhaps to discover some resemblances.

Sunday morning begins with breakfast and family worship. The worship consists largely of biblical quotations and "a grim chapter of the Mosaic Law"- codes of conduct, including the Ten Commandments, handed down mainly in the Old Testament by Moses.

NOTE: THE NOVEL AS IDYLL

Many readers describe Tom Sawyer as an idyll-a composition in poetry or prose that paints a scene or episode, especially of country life, as one of tranquil happiness. The opening paragraph of this chapter defines such a scene. So does the first sentence of the chapter, when it evokes the "tranquil world" of a "peaceful village" on a Sunday morning. But what follows- Tom's escapades in Sunday school-may seem far from idyllic. Yet, his pranks are essentially harmless and playful, as are all activities that are ordinarily memorialized in idylls.

Before Sunday school, Tom focuses his energies on learning by heart five verses from the Bible. In Sunday school, the children earn a small blue ticket for every two verses they recite accurately. Once they have memorized 2000 verses, they can cash in their tickets for 40-cent Bibles. Mary earned two Bibles this way, and a boy "of German parentage" won four or five.


To get Tom to learn his verses, selected from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Mary offers him another prize. This turns out to be a "Barlow" knife-a single-bladed pocket knife of the type first produced in the 1700s by Russell Barlow. Delighted, Tom is about to test its ability to scar the bureau when he has to get washed and dressed.

NOTE: "A MAN AND HIS BROTHER"

Twain describes Tom after Mary has washed him as "a man and a brother, without distinction of color." This refers to a medallion that the English ceramics master Josiah Wedgwood designed in 1787. The medallion showed a black man in chains, his hands raised to Heaven, asking, "Am I not a man and a brother?" The motto was quite popular during Twain's youth. It appeared in a variety of places, including at the head of "My Countrymen in Chains," an anti-slavery poem that John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in 1835. What do you think Twain meant to suggest by this reference? Why do you think he compared Tom, when clean, with a slave?

At the church, Tom quickly trades the riches he gained in Chapter 2 for the tickets that could earn him a Bible. Inside, the Sunday school superintendent, Mr. Walters, introduces a distinguished visitor, Jeff Thatcher's uncle, Judge Thatcher. The Judge is accompanied by his wife and their child, Becky, whom Tom had tried so hard to impress the day before. Tom begins showing off the moment he sees her. Everyone else, from Mr. Walters to the little girls, tries to win the Judge's attention by showing off, too.

NOTE: SHOWING OFF

Throughout the novel, you'll note adults showing off as much as children. Twain makes fun of his characters' vanity in a gentle, indulgent way. Mr. Walters' fashionable dress is an expression of his vanity just as Aunt Polly's useless glasses are an expression of hers. Everyone in the Sunday school becomes a showoff, aiming their performances at the Thatchers. In what way might the Judge-a distinguished visitor from the town of far-off Constantinople, twelve whole miles away-be putting on a show, too? Where is his audience?

As usual, Tom finds a way to steal the spotlight. He steps forward and delivers his tickets to Mr. Walters, who must present him with a Bible. Now Tom is "elevated to a place with the Judge and the other elect."

Tom's heroism is short-lived. When the Judge asks him to name two of Jesus' Twelve Disciples, he can't name one. Instead, he comes up with the names of David, king of the ancient Hebrews, and the giant he slew as a boy.

Twain lets you imagine the way this embarrassing scene ended. What might this chapter have lost if he had provided an ending himself?

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