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.
For a children’s adventure story,
This obsession with alcohol fits into the larger themes of the novel because