Summary—Chapter 3: Busy at War and Love

Aunt Polly is pleasantly surprised to find the work done, and she allows Tom to go out in the late afternoon. On his way, he pelts Sid with clods of dirt in revenge for his treachery in the matter of the shirt collar. He then hastens to the town square, where a group of boys are fighting a mock battle. Tom and his friend Joe Harper act as generals. Tom’s army wins the battle.

On his way home for dinner, Tom passes the Thatcher house and catches sight of a beautiful girl. He falls head over heels in love with her. Quickly forgetting his last love, a girl named Amy Lawrence, Tom spends the rest of the afternoon “showing off” on the street. The girl tosses him a flower, and, after some more showing off, Tom reluctantly returns home.

At dinner, Sid breaks the sugar bowl, and Tom is blamed. Tom’s mood changes, and he wanders out after dinner feeling mistreated and melodramatic, imagining how sorry Aunt Polly would be if he turned up dead. Eventually, he finds his way back to the beautiful girl’s house and prepares to die pitifully beneath her window. Just then, a maid opens the window and dumps a pitcher of water on his head. Tom scurries home and goes to bed as Sid watches in silence.

Analysis—Chapters 1–3

The first word of the novel—Aunt Polly’s shout of “TOM!”—immediately establishes Aunt Polly’s role as disciplinarian and Tom’s role as troublemaker. Tom and Aunt Polly’s initial confrontation quickly characterizes Tom as clever enough to escape punishment and Aunt Polly as someone who threatens harsh discipline but who, for all her bluster, is really quite fond of her nephew. “Every time I hit him,” she says, “my old heart most breaks.” Aunt Polly knows that she must discipline Tom in order to help him mature successfully into responsible adulthood, but there is a part of her that balks at impinging on the freedom of such a creative and headstrong child. That the softhearted Aunt Polly is Tom’s only authority figure in the home explains Tom’s relatively large degree of freedom. Huckleberry Finn, the son of the town drunk, offers an even more extreme example of a child who lives outside of the normal structures of authority, whether parental, social, or legal.

By depicting the fighting, playing, and trading in which the children engage as elaborate rituals, Twain emphasizes that the world of childhood is governed by its own social rules, which serve as a kind of practice for, and microcosm of, adulthood. The reality of the surrounding adult social world manifests itself in the brief appearance of the slave boy, Jim, abruptly reminding us that the novel is set in the slaveholding South. Unlike Twain’s later novel Huckleberry Finn, however, slavery and criticism of slavery exist in Tom Sawyer only in the background; Tom’s idyllic childhood adventures remain the novel’s focus.

The scene in which Tom persuades his peers to do all his whitewashing work establishes Tom’s position as a leader among his peers and as an initiative-taking mastermind. Though a troublemaker, Tom at times presents a hint of maturity that his comrades lack. Joe Harper, Tom’s friend who acts as the opposing general in the mock battle, serves as a sidekick throughout the novel, mostly following Tom’s lead. Because of his comparatively dull nature and flat characterization, Joe highlights Tom’s vibrancy. Sid, Tom’s half-brother, is presented as Tom’s opposite—whereas Tom is a mischief-maker with a noble heart, Sid is a well-behaved child whose heart is basically evil.