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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
Twain continues to "rehabilitate" Tom in the eyes of those readers who might think Tom went too far in some of his earlier pranks. For the first time, you see Tom make a real sacrifice and not just dream about doing so.
As the noon break ends, Polly has sent Tom back to school in high spirits. His good mood prompts him to apologize to Becky for being mean to her that morning. But Becky is unforgiving. In the schoolyard, the two exchange insults, and Becky can't wait to see Tom flogged for the ink Alfred Temple spilled on his book.
Soon Becky is in a fix herself. Before school resumes, she sneaks a look at the schoolmaster's anatomy book, which he keeps under lock and key. Tom surprises her, and she accidentally rips the page on which a naked figure was printed.
NOTE: HINT OF SEX
As previously noted, Tom is a curiously ageless boy, seeming anywhere
from eight to fourteen. You may think this is a flaw in Tom's characterization,
as many readers do. But others point out that by making Tom's age indeterminate,
Twain freed himself to write about boyhood instead of a single boy.
This broader approach may explain why the subject of sex is so blurry in Tom's world. In Chapter 7, Tom explains kissing to Becky, who acts as if she's never heard of the practice before. Here, Twain fails to tell you whether the "stark naked" figure in the anatomy book is male or female.
As Twain first wrote it, this scene did have the children confront the mystery of sex. Twain emphasized the nature of the picture as much as the rip in the page. "How could I know it wasn't a nice book?" Tom originally said. "I didn't know girls ever-." And Becky, after worrying about being whipped for tearing the page, told Tom: "But that isn't anything-it ain't half. You'll tell everybody about the picture, and O, O, O!" In revision, Twain deleted these words and a passage in which Tom realizes how the revelation might shame Becky.
From what you know about late nineteenth-century attitudes about morality, why do you think Twain made these changes?
Becky tells Tom how terrified she is of a whipping. "I never was whipped in school," she says. This assertion indicates that she fears the pain less than the indignity of the punishment. Becky assumes that Tom is going to tell on her. She tells him ominously, "I know something that's going to happen. You just wait and you'll see!"
Sure enough, Tom gets whipped for the mess Alfred Temple made of his spelling book. Becky refuses to intervene because she's sure Tom will tell Dobbins what she did to the anatomy text.
An hour later, Dobbins discovers the tear in his book. He begins to ask individual students if they're to blame. Becky is "white with terror" and seems about to give herself away when Tom springs to his feet and shouts, "I done it!" Though Tom had no selfish motive-he wanted only to protect Becky-he is well rewarded for his bravery. He takes his flogging in front of Becky's adoring eyes.
Tom goes to bed that night plotting vengeance on Alfred Temple, whose deed Becky has told him about. As he drops off to sleep, he remembers Becky's words: "Tom, how could you be so noble!"
NOTE: BECKY'S VENGEFULNESS
Becky's less-than-model character was noted in the discussion of Chapter 18. In Chapter 20, she lets Tom take the blame for something she knows he didn't do. Twain provides her with a motive-she fears Tom will tell on her and wants to see him hurt, too. But the contrast between her behavior and Tom's selfless action raises several questions. Does Becky's motive excuse her behavior? Why doesn't Tom seem angry about the deceit? Finally, what do you make of the fact that for once Tom has become a model boy? Is he maturing?