Summary: Chapter 36
Late that night, Tom and Huck, after much fruitless effort, give up digging with the knives and switch to pick-axes instead. The next day, they gather candlesticks, spoons, and tin plates. Tom says that Jim can etch a declaration of his captivity on the tin plate using the other objects, then throw it out the window for the world to read, just like in Tom’s novels. That night, the boys dig their way to Jim, who is delighted to see them. He tells them that Sally and Silas have been to visit and pray with him. Jim does not understand the boys’ fancy scheme but agrees to go along. Tom convinces Jim’s keeper, Nat, who believes witches are haunting him, that the only cure is to bake a “witch pie” and give it to Jim. Tom plans to bake a rope ladder into the pie.
Summary: Chapter 37
Aunt Sally notices the missing shirt, candles, sheets, and other articles Huck and Tom steal for their plan, and she takes out her anger at the disappearances on seemingly everyone except the boys. She believes that perhaps rats have stolen some of the items, so Huck and Tom secretly plug up the ratholes in the house, confounding Uncle Silas when he goes to do the same job. By removing and then replacing sheets and spoons, the boys confuse Sally so much that she loses track of how many she has. The baking of the “witch pie” is a trying task, but the boys finally finish it and send it to Jim.
Summary: Chapter 38
Tom insists that Jim scratch an inscription bearing his coat of arms on the wall of the shed, the way the books say. Making pens from the spoons and candlestick is a great deal of trouble, but they manage. Tom creates an unintentionally humorous coat of arms and composes a set of mournful declarations for Jim to inscribe on the wall. Tom, however, expresses disapproval at the fact that they are writing on a wall made of wood rather than stone. The boys try to steal a millstone, but it proves too heavy for them, so they sneak Jim out to help. As Huck and Jim struggle with the millstone, Huck wryly notes that Tom has a talent for supervising while others do the work. Tom tries to get Jim to take a rattlesnake or rat into the shack to tame, and then tries to convince Jim to grow a flower to water with his tears. Jim protests against the unnecessary amount of trouble Tom wants to create, but Tom replies that his ideas present opportunities for greatness.
Summary: Chapter 39
Huck and Tom capture rats and snakes to put in the shed with the captive Jim and accidentally infest the Phelps house with them. Aunt Sally falls into a panic over the disorder in her household, while Jim hardly has room to move with all the wildlife in his shed. Uncle Silas, not having heard back from the plantation from which the leaflet said Jim ran away, plans to advertise Jim as a captured runaway in the New Orleans and St. Louis newspapers—the latter of which would surely reach Miss Watson in St. Petersburg. Tom, partly to thwart Silas and partly because the books he has read say to do so, puts the last part of his plan into action, writing letters from an “unknown friend” that warn of trouble to the Phelpses. The letters terrify the family. Tom finishes with a longer letter pretending to be from a member of a band of desperate gangsters who are planning to steal Jim. The letter’s purported author claims to have found religion, so he wishes to offer information to help thwart the theft. The letter goes on to detail when and how the imaginary thieves will try to seize Jim.
Analysis: Chapters 36–39
In these chapters, Tom, Huck, and Jim revert, in many ways, to the roles they played at the beginning of the novel. Tom once again gets caught up in his romantic ideas of valiantly rescuing Jim, which, though humorous, are frustrating when we see how long they delay Jim’s escape. Tom gets so enmeshed in his imagination that he and Huck almost forget why they are going to so much trouble. Huck, for his part, reverts to the same follower status in relation to Tom that he held at the beginning of the novel. Normally the voice of reason and conscience in his dealings with Tom, Huck seems to have totally forgotten his principles and his friendship with Jim. Both Tom and Huck get so enthralled in their game that they seem to forget that Jim is a human being. To the boys, he becomes almost an object or a prop, to the extent that they even ask him in all seriousness to share his quarters with snakes and rats. Imprisoned in the shed, Jim is just as captive and powerless as he was before he originally escaped.
The return of this old dynamic between the boys and Jim clouds our view of the boys and of Huck’s development in particular. Indeed, it seems in many ways that Huck, in his decision to follow Tom’s plans, forgets many of the lessons he has learned with Jim on the raft. In a sense, Tom and Huck, in their manipulations of Jim, descend to the level of those who own or trade slaves. The boys’ thoughtlessness and callousness contrast with the behavior of Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas, who, though themselves slave owners, frequently visit and pray with Jim. At the same time, however, Sally and Silas plan to return Jim to a life of imprisonment and cruelty, while the boys, despite their toying with Jim, are nevertheless trying to free him. This moral confusion becomes even deeper when we see how the boys dupe and victimize Aunt Sally as much as Jim. In the end, the moral confusion evident in these characters’ interaction is so great that Twain leaves us with little basis upon which to make any substantive judgment.