The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

by: Mark Twain

Individualism versus Conformity

1

The girl “put him to rights” after he had dressed himself; she buttoned his neat roundabout up to his chin, turned his vast shirt collar down over his shoulders, brushed him off and crowned him with his speckled straw hat. He now looked exceedingly improved and uncomfortable. He was fully as uncomfortable as he looked; for there was a restraint about whole clothes and cleanliness that galled him.

Early in the novel, Tom reveals his conflict with societal constraints when Mary requires him to clean and dress well for church. While Tom puts up with the cleaning and dressing, he reflects on how his attire makes him feel trapped and uncomfortable. Worse, Tom despises their destination, Sunday school. He experiences visceral annoyance doing what he doesn’t want to do. Having a strong sense of individuality, Tom struggles with conforming to the expectations of society or anything that represents society, such as church, school, or dressing up.

2

They felt no longing for the little village sleeping in the distance beyond the majestic waste of water. A vagrant current of a slight rise in the river had carried off their raft, but this only gratified them, since its going was something like burning the bridge between them and civilization . . . They came back to camp wonderfully refreshed, glad-hearted, and ravenous[.]

Tom, Huck, and Joe have run away to Jackson’s Island, secluding themselves from the village and civilization. As described by the narrator here, in the beginning of this adventure, they feel happy to escape society and its constraints. However, readers learn that the boys become homesick and think about returning, making their choice between individuality and society a real struggle. They must weigh their profound joy and relief of their first days at camp against the comforts of home and family in the village.

3

He was unkempt, uncombed, and clad in the same old ruin of rags that had made him picturesque in the days when he was free and happy . . . He said . . . “Don’t talk about it, Tom. I’ve tried it, and it don’t work; it don’t work, Tom. It ain’t for me; I ain’t used to it. The wider’s good to me, and friendly; but I can’t stand them ways[.]”

Later in the story, the Widow Douglas tries to take in Huck Finn and conform him to civilized ways. However, after only a few weeks, Huck runs away because he’s just not used to living under constraint. Here, Huck tries to explain to Tom why he ran away and how he never wanted to fit into society’s boundaries. Huck’s entire character represents the primacy of the individual over society. Tom will put up with some of society’s constraints, but Huck simply longs to live on his own and do what he wants.