A Contradiction Between Heroism and Human Society: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Flaws of Human Nature

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a nineteenth century novel by Mark Twain, is at its core a Bildungsroman; a story that focuses on the mental and spiritual growth—the coming of age, of the protagonist from his or her youth into his or her maturation. In the case of Twain’s novel, the titular Tom Sawyer is taken on a journey that sees him go from an immature child to a young man capable of making rational decisions. Tom’s unruly nature sends him (and those he drags along with him) through a series of increasingly dire situations that provide him with opportunities to define himself as a person throughout. As Tom travels deeper and deeper into darkness (both literally and metaphorically), he comes to gain understanding in a world where others constantly seek to fill his head with their flawed conceptions. Eventually, Tom comes to embody the traits of what Twain defines as a hero. Through Tom’s adventures, readers come to understand that heroism manifests when people diverge from group human behaviour and focus on what they as individuals have to offer. Through overcoming society’s conception of what it means to be human, Tom is able to achieve a greatness and heroism that is independent of what others expect of him.

Tom throughout the novel is faced with many people who seek to teach him how to conduct himself. There is his Aunt Polly, the minister, and the school master Mr. Dobbins employing a variety of methods to teach Tom how one should behave. However, these characters are not the ones who truly teach Tom by the end of this novel, and it is ironically through the very aspects of his personality that they want to temper that Tom accesses his sense of heroism. It is through his curiosity and sense of adventure that he stumbles upon the scene of Dr. Robinson’s murder, it is because of his willingness to lose favour with authority that he accepts Mr. Dobbin’s punishment in Becky’s stead, and it is through his cleverness that he is able to convince his friend Huckleberry Finn to accept his civilized life towards the novel’s conclusion. Twain conflates Tom’s heroic and scoundrel natures when the narrator states of Tom (when word of his heroism has spread) “There were some that believed he would be President, yet, if he escaped hanging” (Twain, 73). It is through Twain’s characterization of characters like Tom that he exposes fascination with the conman. With Tom’s exploits, he “reveals his self-conscious engagement with the conman mythology” as he uses them to serve as “commentaries on the conflicting ideologies in late nineteenth-century America” (Seybold, 138). By utilizing characters that operate outside of what human society considers the norm, conmen like Tom Sawyer for example, Twain can provide moral insight that may not be visible otherwise. To contrast with moments of moral insight that Tom and even his friend Huckleberry Finn, the townspeople consistently prioritize merely appearing as good people rather than actually being so. We see this with Mr. Walters and his obsession with impressing the local celebrity (Judge Thatcher) which leads him to almost awarding an undeserving Tom with a bible despite knowing of his inadequacy in the arena of religion. The character of Judge Thatcher in general is used as a vehicle for exposing the faults of the townspeople, as there is a lengthy passage describing several parties building a desirable façade for themselves in order to “show off” to the town celebrity who is apparently “showing off too” (Twain, 18). Everyone is attempting to make an impression in order to stand out, which puts them all on the same level in spite of their concentrated effort to avoid that exact conclusion. Twain uses this to solidify to the readers that even though these people have an authority over Tom, it does not necessarily mean they have a greater level of understanding than him. This is made explicitly clear when Tom takes a corporal punishment in the place of another student (and the judge’s daughter); to the readers this is unquestionably a heroic act, while to the authority figure, Tom is merely a troublemaker getting his just deserts. It is because of incidents like these that the nature of Tom’s heroism comes through to the audience; which is his ability to say and do things other people can’t.

Oxford dictionary defines a hero as “A person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”, but in the world Twain created, true heroism almost runs contrary to that. The admiration of the people in Tom’s society is meaningless, and this is made abundantly clear several times over the course of the story. The most striking example of this, is the town’s reaction to the death of Injun Joe, a character who passes as this novel’s principle antagonist and one who is described by scholars as having “virtually no redeeming backstory or moments of humanizing indecision” (Clark, 300). Despite this, the town mourns his death and actually creates a pardon-petition that many sign for his sake. The crimes that the people are actively seeking a pardon for in his honour include murder, and one the town came very close to convicting the wrong person for as well. Readers at this point know that Joe is this world’s equivalent to the devil, a fact that does not escape the narrator as he states in response to their passion for him that “If he had been Satan himself there would have been plenty of weaklings ready to scribble their names to a pardon-petition, and drip a tear on it from their permanently impaired and leaky water-works” (Twain, 99). This incident, along with the town’s ever shifting opinion of Tom himself (which was emphasized at his unwarranted funeral by people who couldn’t stand him when they didn’t think he was dead) reveals the opinions of the towns people for what they are: meaningless. The reader is not supposed to care what the townspeople think, they are a frivolous lot whose thoughts on the matter of heroism have no value. We see this in the previously mentioned incident where Tom takes a punishment for Becky. In that instance, only the reader and Becky know of Tom’s heroism, and that’s all that matters. Similarly with the character of Huckleberry Finn, who protects Widow Douglas and becomes an anonymous hero, is seen as something of a pariah among the townspeople. As the son of the town drunk, Huck Finn is seen as more of a nuisance than Tom. Tom and Huck both overcome their fears of Injun Joe and the public’s perception of them to accomplish heroic feats, and in doing so, they are successfully able to rebuke them both. Injun Joe is shown as someone who is a slave to his id, his basest human instincts. He’s portrayed as perpetually greedy, irritable, and monstrously vengeful. There’s a streak of pettiness that follows his character throughout the story, with him actually uttering the phrase “I swore I’d get even with you if it took a hundred years” (Twain, 34), which proves to be as pathetic as it is unsettling. Tom and Huck’s foiling of Injun Joe serves as a way for them to reject his beastly nature, and their acts of heroism are meant to reject the town’s hypocritical nature. The very qualities they send away by banishing Joe are the same qualities the town’s people ascribed to the boys. From seeing this, it seems that the method in which Tom and Huck achieved greatness appears to be in their steadfast refusal to be like other people.

In many ways, Tom’s half-brother Sid is his opposite. He presents an illusion of good behaviour and kind heartedness to adults like his Aunt, when deep down he is mostly a vindictive child. With habits that include “glorying over Tom” (Twain, 13) during times where he is in an unfavourable position, the reader immediately sides with Tom in their conflict. Despite Tom’s delinquent behaviour, the reader is made aware of his ultimately good heart by the number of selfless deeds he performs throughout the novel, deeds one would be hard pressed to imagine Sid doing in the same position (even with his veneer of good-naturedness). The duality they present helps illustrate Twain’s point about heroism. Sid represents how humans are expected to behave, while Tom is a reflection of how they should behave. The freedom to be one’s own self, but also the decency to uphold certain moral duties regardless of glory (although Tom is eager to reap the rewards of such glory whenever it presents itself) are what Twain is advocating here. Our protagonist may reside in an “idle, shabby little Mississippi River town”, but the reader should feel by the end of the novel that “Tom belongs to the better sort of people in it” (Howell). Tom’s Aunt Polly is constantly exasperated with Tom’s activities, but on some level she is amused and often conflicted on what to do with him, being described by Twain as going “about her affairs with a troubled heart” (Twain, 13). Aunt Polly’s indecision on how to deal with a personality such as Tom’s is Twain’s way of showing us the merits hidden within his mischievousness. When Tom fools a group of boys into whitewashing a fence for him, it is meant as a showcase of the protagonist’s intelligence and resourcefulness and not as evidence of some form of moral deficiency. The power to Twain’s satire comes from his ability to show why Tom differs from the other residents in the town, and to make it clear why this is a good thing. He shows us the ugly truths of humanity with biting satire by presenting what society generally views as ugly in a positive light, and in this case, he puts that perceived ugliness directly against the true rot of this world. In a place with individuals with only superficial decency such as Sid, the Tom Sawyer’s of the world appear all the more necessary.

The high point in Tom’s development comes with the synthesis of his best traits as displayed in the novel’s conclusion. While Twain adequately explored the flaws of Tom’s approach to life when he and Becky almost starve in a cave, the culmination of his entire journey is shown during his final conversation with his friend Huck Finn. Being lifted from poverty and into a life that so many who are in Huck’s position would literally kill for, Huck shows a distinct lack of appreciation and even annoyance at his new civilized home. According to the narrator, “Huck Finn’s wealth and the fact that he was now under the Widow Douglas’s protection introduced him into society—no, dragged him into it, hurled him into it—and his sufferings were almost more than he could bear” (Twain, 105), a description of events that perfectly encapsulate the difference between Tom and Huck. While both are heroic, it is Tom who went through the journey to maturation, and it is up to him to use what he’s learned to save one last soul. Huck, having had enough of his new life, decides to leave it behind, but using his trademark quick wit, Tom fabricates conditions to a fictional band that involve not needlessly misbehaving as they’ve done in the past. This convinces Huck and spares him from potentially going on a life-threatening adventure of his own (for now that is). In a sense, it is Tom’s last act of heroism in the book and the one that shows how much he has grown the most. It is where Twain makes the distinction between doing the right thing and breaking the rules. Tom isn’t a hero because he continually breaks rules, nor is he a hero because of his newfound willingness to follow them. The aspect about Tom Sawyer the cements him as a heroic figure is his ability to act against what people expect of him while still retaining the will to be true to himself. Tom’s strengths are that he is clever and resourceful while the flaws in Tom are that he often uses those strengths recklessly. He achieves maturation when he is shown to direct those positive traits towards worthy causes, the heroism comes from the fact that he is able to do this in spite of the expectation of others or the potential danger to himself. The fascinating thing about the kind of heroism on display in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that it is exactly the kind that can be shown from even the smallest of towns; the everyday heroism that everyone has the potential to exhibit when in the right situation. Tom is given these opportunities because of his free spirit, and it’s through the experience that comes from such opportunities that he grows as a person. A balance between the dangerous and unhinged nature of Injun Joe and the orderly but often illogical nature of the townspeople is found by Tom in the end, and as a result, one can’t help but feel they’ve grown to understand more about human behaviour themselves. Perhaps Twain was trying to show that being able to understand one another is an act of heroism in itself.

The typical perception of heroism is a figure that is revered and praised by his people for his great and impressive deeds. Less common (but still prominent) is the hero that acts as a silent guardian and watchful protector to the innocent (we saw an extant of this with Huck Finn). In Twain’s novel we see a kind of heroism that is predicated on one’s ability to go against the whims of human nature and human society to achieve something great, and this is only the case because both human nature and human society (which is not where Tom learned how to correctly carry on in life) is deeply flawed. Despite the fact that Tom is praised and venerated for his deeds, great lengths are gone to show that this praise doesn’t mean a thing. The townspeople aren’t a true authority on things with gravity to them, which certainly means they have no understanding of what true heroism is. We see through behaviour that runs contrary to how Tom is presented that superficial “goodness” as defined by society is no indication of anything and that having qualities associated with “badness” doesn’t necessarily preclude one from being a goodhearted individual. Finally, it is in Tom’s ending synthesis of resourcefulness and responsibility that we see his potential as a figure of virtue and heroism. At the start of his adventures, the narrator states that Tom understands that “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do” (Twain, 11), and towards the end, the reader begins to understand through Tom’s actions that heroism consists of what one is obliged to do by no one but one’s self, through a lens of understanding concerned with what others may need. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain paints the portrait of a town filled with people lost in their own idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies, a monster enslaved by his darkest impulses, and a boy who finds a way to overcome all that by simply being himself. If Tom has taught us anything, it’s that heroism isn’t a trait that can be ascribed to someone, but rather, it is something that only has the potential to come from within.


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