“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.