Summary—Chapter 4: Showing Off in Sunday School

Mr. Walters fell to “showing off,” with all sorts of official bustlings and activities. . . . The librarian “showed off”. . . . The young lady teachers “showed off”. . . . The little girls “showed off” in various ways, and the little boys “showed off.” 

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Sunday morning arrives, and Tom prepares for Sunday school with the help of his cousin Mary. As Tom struggles halfheartedly to learn his Bible verses, Mary encourages and entices him with the promise of “something ever so nice.” Tom’s work ethic then improves, and he manages to memorize the verses. Mary gives him a “Barlow” knife as reward. Tom then dresses for church, and he, Mary, and Sid hurry off to Sunday school, which Tom loathes.

Before class begins, Tom trades all the spoils he has gained from his whitewashing scam for tickets. The tickets are given as rewards for well-recited Bible verses, and a student who has memorized two thousand verses and received the appropriate tickets can trade them in for a copy of the Bible, awarded with honor in front of the entire class.

Judge Thatcher, the uncle of Tom’s friend Jeff Thatcher, visits Tom’s class that day. The judge’s family includes his daughter, Becky—the beautiful girl Tom notices the previous afternoon. The class treats the judge as a celebrity—the students, teachers, and superintendent make a great attempt at showing off for him. As usual, Tom is the best show-off—by trading for tickets before class, Tom has accumulated enough to earn a Bible. Mr. Walters, Tom’s Sunday school teacher, is flabbergasted when Tom approaches with the tickets. He knows that Tom has not memorized the appropriate number of verses, but since Tom has the required tickets, and since Mr. Walters is eager to impress Judge Thatcher, the Bible-awarding ceremony proceeds.

The Judge pats Tom on the head and compliments him on his diligence. He gives him the chance to show off his purported knowledge, asking him, “No doubt you know the names of all the twelve disciples. Won’t you tell us the names of the first two that were appointed?” Tom does not know their names, of course, and eventually blurts out the first two names that come to his mind: David and Goliath. The narrator pleads, “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”

Summary—Chapter 5: The Pinch-bug and His Prey

After Sunday school comes the church service, which includes a long, tedious sermon. At one point, the minister describes how, at the millennium (the 1,000-year period during which Christ will reign over the earth, according to Christianity) the lion and the lamb will lie down together and a little child shall lead them. Tom wishes that he could be that child—as long as the lion were tame.

Bored, Tom takes from his pocket a box containing a “pinchbug,” or a large black beetle. The insect pinches him and slips from his grasp to the middle of the aisle at the same time that a stray poodle wanders into the church. The dog investigates the pinchbug, receives one pinch, circles the insect warily, and then eventually sits on it. The bug latches onto the poodle’s behind, and the unfortunate dog runs yelping through the church until its master flings it out a window. The general laughter disrupts the sermon completely, and Tom goes home happy, despite the loss of his bug.

Summary—Chapter 6: Tom Meets Becky

On Monday morning, Tom feigns a “mortified toe” with the hope of staying home from school. When that ploy fails, he complains of a toothache, but Aunt Polly yanks out the loose tooth and sends him off to school.

On his way to school, Tom encounters Huckleberry Finn, the son of the town drunkard. Huck is “cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town,” who fear that he will be a bad influence on their children. But every boy, including Tom, admires Huck and envies him for his ability to avoid school and work without fear of punishment. Huck and Tom converse, comparing notes on charms to remove warts. Huck carries with him a dead cat, which he plans to take to the graveyard that night. According to superstition, when the devil comes to take the corpse of a wicked person, the dead cat will follow the corpse, and the warts will follow the cat. Tom agrees to go with Huck to the cemetery that night, trades his yanked tooth for a tick from Huck, and continues on to school.

Tom arrives late, and the schoolmaster demands an explanation. Tom notices an open seat on the girls’ side of the room, next to Becky Thatcher. He decides to get in trouble on purpose, knowing that he will be sent to sit with the girls as punishment. He boldly declares, “I stopped to talk with Huckleberry Finn!” The horrified teacher whips Tom and sends him to the seat next to Becky.

Tom offers Becky a peach and tries to interest her by drawing a picture on his slate. Becky initially shies from Tom’s attentions, but she soon warms to him and promises to stay at school with him during lunch. Becky and Tom introduce themselves, and Tom scrawls “I love you” on his slate. At this point, the teacher collars Tom and drags him back to the boys’ side of the room.

Analysis—Chapters 4–6

Twain renders Tom’s cousin Mary as an idealized character whose total goodness leads her to forgive the faults of others. Unlike Sid, who behaves well but delights in getting Tom in trouble, Mary behaves well and attempts to keep Tom out of mischief. Her motherly caring for Tom is manifest not only in her eagerness for Tom to learn Bible verses but also in her name, which evokes that of Mary, mother of Jesus.

In the Sunday school scenes, Twain gently satirizes the tradition of making children memorize Bible verses. He points out the cheapness of the prize—“a very plainly bound Bible”—and relates the story of a German boy who “had once recited three thousand verses without stopping” and afterward suffered a nervous breakdown. In calling the boy’s collapse “a grievous misfortune for the school” (since the school relied on the German boy to perform for guests), Twain implies that the students are memorizing verses not for real spiritual growth but for the sake of making their teachers and superintendent look good. Twain furthers this implication by illustrating Mr. Walters’s eagerness to display a “prodigy,” or extremely talented youth, for Judge Thatcher.

Twain’s critique is compassionate, however. His intention is not to expose anything inherently unworthy in his characters but to point out universal human weaknesses. When Judge Thatcher visits, everyone at Sunday school shows off—the superintendent, librarian, teachers, boys, and girls—in an attempt to attract the local celebrity’s attention. Tom arranges to earn an honor he doesn’t deserve, teachers dote on students they usually treat severely, and the superintendent gives a reward to a child (Tom) whom he knows doesn’t deserve it. By exposing the superficiality of the Sunday school’s workings, Twain makes Tom’s own dramatic inclinations seem not a departure from, but an exaggeration of, his society’s behavior.

Read more about society’s hypocrisy as a theme.

As Twain describes the church service in Chapter 5, he again shows Tom’s faults replicated in the behavior of adults. Tom is restless and inattentive in the usual childlike manner, but he is not alone—the congregation as a whole drifts toward slumber, and “many a head by and by began to nod.” Tom’s desire to be the child leading the lion and the lamb, while misguided, demonstrates that he is at least listening to some of the sermon. That the rest of the congregation is so easily distracted supports the idea that Tom’s lack of interest in and misunderstanding of the sermon constitute the universal response to the monotonous minister.

By releasing the pinchbug and creating havoc, Tom succeeds in doing what the sermon cannot—he gets the congregation’s attention. With more people caring about the pinchbug than about the minister’s fire and brimstone, the church service begins to seem as ridiculous as the struggle between the poodle and the insect. Again, however, Twain’s satire is not cruel. Nobody is accused of being irreligious or wicked for falling asleep during the service. Rather, Twain exposes the comic and sometimes ridiculous elements of traditions, such as churchgoing, that bind the community together.

Read more about the motif of “showing off.”

In the scene following the church service, we meet Huckleberry Finn, one of the most famous figures in American literature. Huck enjoys what Tom and every other mischievous boy secretly wishes he could attain—complete freedom from adult authority. Unlike Tom, who is parentless but has Aunt Polly to limit his liberty, Huck has no adults controlling him at all. His father is the town drunkard, leaving Huck to wander as he pleases—“everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had.” From a boy’s perspective, Huck can do all the important things—swimming, playing, cursing, fishing, walking barefoot—without enduring the burdens of church, school, personal hygiene, or parental harassment.

Read an in-depth analysis of Huckleberry Finn.

Given Tom’s inability to keep his mind from wandering during the church sermon, Huck and Tom’s earnest enthusiasm for superstition in their conversation about the causes of warts is particularly notable. Tom may not be interested in memorizing Bible verses, but he and his companions are fascinated by the intricate details of charms, magical cures, and other varieties of folk wisdom. The boys’ unwavering belief in the efficacy of the wart cures resembles religious fervor in its dependence upon explanations that exist outside the bounds of human understanding. They want so strongly to believe in the supernatural that when a charm seems not to work, they are quick to furnish what they consider a rational explanation for its failure rather than concede that their charms don’t work at all.

Read more about superstition in an uncertain world as a theme.