The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

by: Mark Twain

Chapters 21–24

In a footnote, Twain claims that the flowery, overstated compositions presented in the Examination scene are not his own creations but rather “are taken without alteration from a volume entitled ‘Prose and Poetry, by a Western Lady.’” One composition begins “Dark and tempestuous was night” in a pretentious version of the clichéd first line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Twain is criticizing the shallowness of small-town intellectual pretension, but his footnote suggests that his criticism is specifically directed toward women, and this scene is somewhat misogynistic (woman-hating). However one may interpret it, the Examination scene criticizes the same flaw to which the character of Dobbins falls prey: trying to be something one is not.

Like the Sunday school scene in which Tom claims a Bible, Twain ends the Examination chapter with a shocking event—the cat lifting the wig—but avoids describing the event’s aftermath. There may be several reasons for Twain’s omission of the specifics, but one explanation concerns the novel’s universality. Twain’s criticism is generally directed toward universal human foibles; importantly, he leave blanks for us to fill in, so that each reader ponders the events within his or her own frame of reference.

In Chapter 22, Twain again pokes fun at the fickleness of the townspeople’s religious belief. When a revival sweeps town, all the boys “get religion,” but they go back to their old ways within a few weeks. Tom’s understanding of God evolves out of his superstitious way of viewing the world—when a thunderstorm strikes, he believes that God has aimed it at him as a personal punishment.

Tom’s decision to testify at Muff Potter’s trial marks an important moment in his process of maturation from childhood to adulthood. His fear for his physical safety and his superstitious unwillingness to go back on his blood oath with Joe Harper are what have kept him from doing the right thing. Both are sentiments associated with childhood. While Twain does not give us a direct depiction of Tom’s internal moral crisis, he builds an atmosphere of increasing anxiety and indicates that Tom’s silence may have serious implications for the wrongly accused Muff Potter. When Tom eventually changes his priorities and acts out of concern for Muff instead of out of concern for himself, he conquers his fear and achieves a greater level of maturity.

If Tom Sawyer were a simple bildungsroman, a narrative of moral and psychological growth, then Tom’s decision to testify would be an appropriate ending. However, Tom Sawyer is also an adventure story, and to add suspense and danger to the plot, Twain allows Injun Joe to escape. Psychologically, Tom may be on the road to adulthood, but he still has to conquer Injun Joe outside the courtroom before his adventures can conclude.