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.
“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
“Like it? Well I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”
That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticized the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:
“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”
This interchange between Ben Rogers and Tom occurs during the whitewashing episode from Chapter 2. One of Tom’s earliest exploits in the novel, the whitewashing scam gives us a thorough initial look at Tom’s ingenious character. Most evident in this dialogue with Ben Rogers is Tom’s consummate skill as an actor and his instinctive understanding of human behavior. In these moments of prankish virtuosity, Tom always keeps one step ahead of his victims, anticipating their reactions and cornering them verbally into the response he desires. In painting these scenes, Twain draws on the American folk tradition of the trickster. (The Br’er Rabbit tales are another well-known example of this type of story.)
This episode also gives Twain a chance to advance the idea that certain values are as much a matter of convention as anything. The moral with which Twain concludes this amusing scene is, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and . . . [p]lay consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” The arbitrariness of many conventions and the absurdity with which people desire things just because they are forbidden are facts of life that Twain scrutinizes again and again in the novel.
Mr. Walters fell to “showing off,” with all sorts of official bustlings and activities. . . . The librarian “showed off”—running hither and thither with his arms full of books. . . . The young lady teachers “showed off”. . . . The young gentlemen teachers “showed off”. . . . The little girls “showed off” in various ways, and the little boys “showed off” with such diligence that the air was thick with paper wads and the murmur of scufflings. And above it all the great man sat and beamed a majestic judicial smile upon all the house, and warmed himself in the sun of his own grandeur—for he was “showing off,” too.
This Sunday school scene from Chapter 4 shows the height of Twain’s leveling satire. While Twain makes explicit jabs at the religious spirit and the structures of organized religion elsewhere in the novel, in this scene he directs his mockery toward human nature in a more generalized way. Much of the comic effect of this scene stems from the uniformity of the ridiculous behavior exhibited by teachers, students, boys, and girls. So strong is the human need to impress and to win approval that not even Judge Thatcher is exempt from the temptation to “show off.” Twain suggests that the desire to stand out is universal, which means that in their efforts to distinguish themselves, people wind up all looking alike.
For the adults, “showing off” means attempting to conceal the rough edges of their schoolroom establishment, prettifying the Sunday school so that the judge will get an enhanced sense of what is normal there. Such sugarcoating of reality is a particular object of Twain’s contempt, and it is exactly what he does not want his fiction to do. Twain is committed to realism, to depicting the everyday world with all its irregularities and imperfections. In fact, Twain’s penchant for roughness and variation makes his satire more tender and compassionate than it might otherwise be.
Tom was a glittering hero once more—the pet of the old, the envy of the young. His name even went into immortal print, for the village paper magnified him. There were some that believed he would be President, yet, if he escaped hanging.
The community’s assessment of Tom in Chapter 24, after his testimony against Injun Joe, implicitly acknowledges the close relationship between Tom’s misbehavior and his heroism. If Tom had not sneaked out at night to carouse in the cemetery with Huck, he would never have been present to witness Dr. Robinson’s murder—as by all rights he should not have been. Tom’s consistently bold and risky behavior puts him in the position to save the day. Distinguishing himself from the conventional, run-of-the-mill behavior that is accepted as the standard in his community is an achievement that cuts both ways, as it makes Tom exceptional in both the good and the bad sense: an extreme character like his is bound to lead either to greatness or to ignominy; as the town puts it, he either will become president or hang.
Huck Finn’s wealth and the fact that he was now under the Widow Douglas’s protection introduced him into society—no, dragged him into it, hurled him into it—and his sufferings were almost more than he could bear. The widow’s servants kept him clean and neat, combed and brushed…. He had to eat with knife and fork; he had to use napkin, cup, and plate; he had to learn his book, he had to go to church; he had to talk so properly that speech was become insipid in his mouth; whithersoever he turned, the bars and shackles of civilization shut him in and bound him hand and foot.
This passage from Chapter 35 is perhaps the clearest description of the way Huck’s life changes after the Widow Douglas takes him in. Though told by the narrator rather than by Huck himself, the passage nevertheless renders the situation as it appears through Huck’s eyes. This technique—rendering a limited, childish point of view as though it were objective—is one Twain uses throughout the novel to help us identify with the boys more than with the adults of the town. Much of the force of Twain’s heavily nostalgic narrative comes from the way it tugs at the memories most adult readers have stored away, however deeply, of what it was like to be a child. We are thus able to view the events of the novel from a double perspective: from a child’s point of view and from a wider perspective that sees the limitations of that view and, most likely, its charm as well. The ordinary quality of the things the Widow Douglas compels Huck to do is meant to shock us out of our own assumptions. We realize afresh how unorthodox Huck’s life has actually been. This realization in turn forces us to contemplate more intently the way a life of normalcy could feel like a prison after a life of such radical freedom.