1. How does Tom Sawyer change over the course of the story?
The beginning of the novel shows Tom as a crafty, intelligent, and imaginative boy with excellent theatrical skills and an intuitive understanding of human nature. He expends his immense personal resources mainly on tricks and games—on getting into and then out of trouble in the real world and on elaborate flights of make-believe. He rarely takes anything seriously and seems to have no real conflicts.
The murder of Dr. Robinson is the first serious conflict to present itself in the story, and we see Tom begin to change after he witnesses it. His anxiety and guilt about Muff Potter’s fate are plain in the scenes in which he tries to get Huck to reconsider their vow to secrecy. The decision he finally makes is independent by every indication, however. Tom decides to follow his conscience despite the ties that have bound him—his devotion to loyalty, superstition, and his personal safety.
Tom’s disregard of his own interest prepares us for even greater transformations in his character. In taking Becky Thatcher’s punishment, Tom exercises a preliminary heroism that conforms more to his storybook notions of chivalry and romance than it resolves a real conflict. His chivalry and competence while he and Becky are trapped in the cave, however, represent a more meaningful, adult version of the same lesson in self-sacrifice and concern for others. When Tom encourages Huck to return to the Widow Douglas’s house in the final scene, his transformation is complete. Though he does not cease to be a playful and fun-loving character, he has learned through experiencing various dangers and mistakes to value the resources of home and community and to accept a certain measure of outside authority.
Analyze the character of Aunt Polly and her relationship to Tom.
Though Tom and Aunt Polly position themselves as foes within the family—he as the troublemaker and she as the disciplinarian—they are actually similar in many ways. Aunt Polly has a humorous appreciation for Tom’s cleverness and his antics that often prevents her from disciplining him as severely as she should. At times, she tries to beat him at his own game—for example, when she tries to trick him into confessing that he has gone swimming instead of to school. But, despite their superficially adversarial relationship, there is a real bond of loyalty and love between Tom and Aunt Polly. The worst punishment she can inflict on Tom is to cry or be hurt by his behavior. Similarly, the misdeed of Tom’s that she reacts to most strongly is his inconsiderate allowance of her suffering when she thinks that he is dead. Tom spies on the scene of the family’s mourning for him, and Aunt Polly finds the piece of bark with the message on it in Tom’s pocket—each character is extremely gratified by discovering indisputable evidence of the other’s affection. Aunt Polly thus embodies a more positive kind of authority than the rest of adult society because her strictness is balanced with real love and concern. Like Tom, she exhibits the truly positive elements of social relations, without all the hypocrisy and insincerity.
3. What role do alcohol and images of drunkenness play in the novel?
For a children’s adventure story, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is rich in references to drinking and alcohol. Huck’s father and Muff Potter are both alcoholics. Tom and Huck accidentally find whiskey in the back rooms of the Temperance Tavern. Tom joins the Cadets of Temperance organization but then quits because it is too stringent. Even Aunt Polly dabbles innocently in alcohol, which is likely the main ingredient of the “patent medicines” she administers to Tom (and which he, in turn, administers to the cat).
This obsession with alcohol fits into the larger themes of the novel because The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is in many ways a story about pushing the limits of acceptable social behavior. Muff Potter is more or less tolerated, largely because he does very little harm. Huck’s father, Pap, is a more ambiguous character because his debauchery has serious implications for his son. The issue of drinking also allows Twain to expand on the charges of hypocrisy that he levels against so many social proceedings. The temperance violations offer a prime example of the kind of transgressions people may hide under a surface of respectability. Even the schoolmaster, who should be a role model for the children, turns out to be a heavy drinker. Twain’s focus on performances, charlatanism, and various kinds of false advertising finds another instance in the quack medicines of which Aunt Polly is so enamored. Unlike those who pretend to be sober but are not, Aunt Polly would probably be horrified to realize what she is actually getting for her money.
Take a Study Break!