Mark Twain - Victorian Commentary and Personal Themes in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer
In the late eighteen hundreds, Mark Twain wrote a veritable trilogy about a young kid named Tom Sawyer and his exploits and adventures with an industrious and enterprising cast of characters. The three books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, serve to highlight Twain’s emerging theme and commentary upon society and its Victorian ideals. With that said, a close look will be taken into the themes within Tom Sawyer, with a focus on the first adventure, followed by an analysis of Twain’s satirical commentary.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer can almost be read as Mark Twain’s memoirs growing up in Hannibal, Missouri. Of course, it must be taken into account that it “is far from being purely a reminiscence, for the author freely modified the accounts of his own experiences with material from his reading” (Gerber, 4). Further, it is well known that Twain viewed “the boys with undisguised affection. By his own admission he was writing about himself and his boyhood companions” (ix). So, while some credence can be given to the authenticity of the tales, much more must be considered about the meaning behind them. In everything Twain committed to writing, there rings a definite parodical or satirical sound. The boys are just a bit too clever, the stereotypes are just a bit to definite, and the motivations are just a bit too impulsive.
Perhaps most telling of all is that Twain’s treatment and feelings towards the boys within his tales changed dramatically over the three stories and it can be seen as “the result of his realization by the 1890’s that the boys were too frail to carry what had become his deepest convictions. Adequate for entertainment and even social satire, Tom and Huck could not be used successfully to dramatize the forces that determine existence and render it largely meaningless” (Gerber, ix). Even more, “against the background of Mark Twain’s increasingly cynical ideas about the nature and importance of man, therefore, the three narratives…create a larger narrative with its own culmination, decline, and collapse” (ix). In this evolution of style and characters, Twain was able to raise his level of satirical ambition and define his true theme once he understood that he could do more with his story than maintain a certain type of readership.
Further, an analysis of Mark Twain’s critical commentary “poses special problems…[because] he was a humorist, and criticism is notoriously helpless in the presence of writing that is really funny” (Smith, 1). Indeed, Twain’s “readers and lecture audiences felt themselves to be in direct communication with a personality whose tastes and attitudes seemed identical with their own, a voice that spoke for them as well as to them” (2). He said what they were feeling about society, while at the same time; he made them laugh with the exploits of Tom Sawyer and his friends.
Since “Mark Twain was thoroughly on record by 1880 as hating purveyors of dusty antique wisdom—imperious tour guides, Old World priests, sorcerers, romancers, unimaginative teachers, repetitious bores…[he was] also on record…[on] that kind of oppression, as they offered power, respect, and a furnished mind, and all in the service of change, of attending to and comprehending realities altered or made new every morning” (Michelson, 82). Twain’s beliefs and attitude toward a Victorian (and even industrialist American society) were well-known within the public dialogue, making the production of his works a sensationalized event as people expected to review his expose on scandal and hypocritical politics.
The story of Tom and Huck’s exploits are complex, but the essence has readers following Tom as he schemes his friends into doing his chores, gets engaged to a cute little girl named Becky Thatcher (who soon renounces their engagement because he had been engaged to another girl), runs off with Huck and Joe Harper to become pirates, are involved in a trial—of which they had witnessed the crime and confess—then they find a wealth of treasure in a haunted house, and Huck gets adopted. The story ends with Huck planning to renounce his adoptive mother because he wants to live the life of a free man, to which Tom convinces him that life would be best as a civilized young man, and if he stays, he could have the honor of also joining Tom’s gang.
Now, with the events of the story at hand, a reader has begun to realize that either a) Tom is purely a fictional character meant to serve no other message then to amuse and entertain the reader, or b) that Tom and his exploits represent a greater theme, or a comment upon some aspect of civilized society. In truth, the Tom Sawyer adventures are a combination of both. Twain used the stories of his childhood in a sensationalized manner to demonstrate his greater theme of the hypocrisy of society, demonstrated by Tom’s symbolic walk between his exploits and justice in the adult world.
Tom, Huck, and Joe serve to demonstrate the disenfranchisement of authority as they, much more clever than adults, are able to play pranks, skip school, and break an untold amount of laws in their exploits and adventures. However, it is in Tom’s wisdom (because he is a literary man at heart) and guidance when he establishes his rule as a pirate that highlights this theme most profoundly. For, in his complete mistrust for authority, Tom becomes the ultimate example, making up his own pirate laws and criteria that would establish his gang as, really, a righteous version of the local police force.
Even more, as powerful young men, the boys serve to define Twain’s comment upon Victorian ideals and masculine assumptions. Indeed, it is well known that Twain has been “revealed as essentially Victorian in many ways, yet he had learned the ‘facts of life’ on the frontier and on the river” (Long, 49). More, his “innate sense of conduct demanded by good breeding kept [Twain] from the grosser indulgences of his environment” (49-50). In this, Twain was able to express his true feelings for his Victorian beliefs by engendering them in the characters of Tom, Huck, and Joe.
Even knowing Mark Twain’s purpose, “it depends on a Tom Sawyer license to raid the realms of fact without obligation to them, to move at whim in and out of the imagination, from raw reality to exuberant make-believe. This racing back and forth is essential to Mark Twain’s creative freedom here, as well as to our pleasure” (Michelson, 73). In fact, Twain can be seen as a master of creativity, employing clever boyhood adventures as a powerful parody of the hypocrisy of society and the assumptions that mark the decent into a masculine Victorian ideology.
On this path, Twain has created characters that transcend typical storytelling. Indeed, Tom and Huck are not mere boys who can do what they want without consequences, they are the men of a Victorian society, who have ultimate power and make their own laws—also without consequence. Even in looking at the women of the adventures, it becomes clear that Twain left them no character other than to serve the whims and means of the boys within the stories. Becky, for her part, manages to have a spine and stands up to Tom when she discovers that he is betrothed to another (the fact that they are mere children doesn’t even register here) and tells him off. But, even in this, Becky is not a character that grows or learns anything worthwhile within the story—she is essentially a plot device to demonstrate yet another of Tom’s many charms.
Further, Mark Twain was “a Victorian, one who might indulge in an Elizabethan freedom of expression in his unpublished manuscripts, but who in print observed the conventions. And it was just as well that he did; no editor would have wished to offend his readers, and one need no more expect Mark Twain to write with the verbal freedom of a Caldwell or Farrell than he might expect Robert Browning to exercise the same realism as Chaucer” (Long, 339). Even with that tendency and respect for the publishing world, Twain was able to slip in, by claiming the story was based upon his own personal recollections, a satire of American and Victorian society—one in which men (kids, really) had ultimate power and could do anything they wanted without repercussions. Truly, the only repercussion in Tom Sawyer is based upon the emotion of guilt, when Tom and friends confess to the crime that they had witnessed involving Injun Joe.
And though “the unpublished manuscripts of the Mark Twain Estate contain lengthy discussions of sexual intercourse, revealing a very un-Victorian frankness about its physical delight to women, when he published, Mark wrote for his age--just as Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote for theirs” (Long, 339). Indeed, Twain understood very well what it took to become a published author, and he wrote to their demands. But in his discourse he was able to include themes that transcend the written word, especially when that written word is handed down in comedic form.
Even more, “many present-day readers find pleasure in these overflowings of the Victorian dikes of propriety; we frankly delight in much that offended past sensibilities, even as our own taste will perhaps amuse posterity” (Long, 341). For the early nineteen hundreds, satirical comedy wasn’t as commonplace as it is today and it certainly wouldn’t have been read in that manner given Twain’s insistence that the stories were just that: stories. And, even if clever readers of his century were able to deduce his true intentions, the armor with which he was protected from criticism was his comedic sense and humor. Mostly, while Tom serves as the true dimension for the masculine image, he can be viewed, too, as a young boy who has the wits and time to create his own adventures. Overall, Tom is smart, quick-witted, educated, and has leadership qualities that most parents only dream of for their children to attain.
In this century, Tom Sawyer could run for president and get the votes to enter the White House—so powerful is his leadership ability. Even Huck who has some measure of intelligence and wit of his own wants so desperately to be in Tom’s gang that he will give up his individual freedom to do so. Tom is inspirational at his very core, yet he also has a conscience and the guts to stand up for the truth when his ethics demand.
Indeed, Twain’s character-building is extraordinary. While many “social constructionist readings of late work seek to describe Mark Twain as an ideology-constricted bourgeois Victorian, caught in social pathologies of his time with regard to gender, money, and race” (Michelson, 36), in truth Twain had greater ambitions for his literary canon. Surely he never imagined that his works would make the high school and college reading lists, but it is because of his ideals that his works remain sentient and relatable in today’s society.
It has been said that readers “are disturbed by [Twain’s] artistic unevenness; and his self-evident psychological and literary ‘doubleness’ apparently creates more critical problems than it solves” (Beidler, 136). Indeed, Mark Twain was either “an old-fashioned jester, Sir Dinadan dressed up as a moralist, or a moralist disguised as a jester to con his readers” (137). In truth, he was clearly a bit of both. A jester because he understood the art of an innuendo in comedy, and the proper timing for a clever bit of wit of commentary. And further, he used this affliction for comedy to serve his greater purpose which was to highlight the inaccuracies of both Victorian and American society.
And, unfortunately for Twain, “as we know, [this tight-rope walk between the two] also caused Twain much personal anguish, despite the support he received from Howells and his fellow humorists. He was primarily a ‘serious’ moralist and only secondarily a frontier humorist, albeit the most profoundly imaginative one of all, surpassing Artemus Ward and Josh Billings by virtue of his deeper insights into the foibles of human nature” (Beidler, 137).
In looking at his work, Mark Twain “was much more the conscious craftsman than is generally believed; but the phase of the subject which became most interesting…was the way in which Mark Twain’s work reflects his basic attitudes towards mankind, towards life itself” (Bellamy, vii). Twain, in using boys to tell his ideals, hit upon the most fundamental form of fiction that exists: the literary power of a story in which children are the main characters. Had Tom been a grown man, the story would have been a perverse tale of men who know that the world is theirs to overtake. But, in defining Tom and friends as children, the breaking of the rules and the childhood antics become clever anecdotes that relate more about life and society than, perhaps, Twain even imagined.
Mark Twain wrote a recollective memoir about his boyhood adventures and bottled them up into a trilogy about a boy named Tom Sawyer in the books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective. Twain’s arching theme of the hypocrisy of society based upon a comment on the masculine assumptions of a Victorian era is defined by his clever adoption of fantastical boyhood anecdotes alongside satirical commentary. In the end, Twain was able to write for his public while still employing his own ideals and interpretations of the double standards and duplicity in authority figures and social politics.
Beidler, Philip D., and Sara deSaussure. The Mythologizing of Mark Twain. University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1984.
Bellamy, Gladys Carmen. Mark Twain as a Literary Artist. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.
Gerber, John C, et al. The Works of Mark Twain. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.
Long, E. Hudson. Mark Twain Handbook. New York: Hendricks House, 1957.
Michelson, Bruce. Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer and the American Self. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.
Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.