I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I’m a-laying up sin and suffering for us both, I know. He’s full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him, somehow. Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks.
This quotation is from Chapter 1, when Tom has just escaped Aunt Polly’s grasp once again. Aunt Polly’s mixture of amusement and frustration at Tom’s antics is characteristic of her good humor. She attempts to discipline Tom out of a sense of duty more than out of any real indignation. In fact, she often seems to admire Tom’s cleverness and his vivacity. Her inner conflict about her treatment of Tom is summed up in the final sentence of this passage.
The faithful re-creation of regional dialects is a characteristic element of Twain’s style. Aunt Polly uses a colloquial vocabulary and pronunciation that may be difficult for a reader unfamiliar with these speech patterns. Twain’s minute attention to language is an important aspect of his realism—his project of capturing the uniqueness of American frontier life. Twain carefully studied the speech of his local Missouri community and experimented with different ways of rendering it in writing. Furthermore, he attended closely to the internal variations in speech even within such a small town as Hannibal (rendered in his fiction as St. Petersburg). The differences between the language of rich people and poor people, and between the language of blacks and whites, often find expression in Twain’s dialogue. In addition to its distinctive idiom and accent, Aunt Polly’s speech is peppered with clichés and folk wisdom, mixing Scripture and local sayings in a way that gives structure and meaning to her experience.