There are those who argue that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is merely a loose compilation of autobiographical material, and while some evidence supports this claim, most scholars agree there is deliberate manipulation and arrangement of these episodes by the author to emphasize various themes—often related to Tom’s growth toward maturity (Hill 385).
Oh, there’s a deliberate arrangement of the episodes, but this arrangement is not just about growth toward maturity. Tom Sawyer is on a journey–a hero’s journey that is rooted in Mark Twain’s own identity which “depended heavily upon values embedded in home and hearth” (Kiskis 15). It is this domestic identity that is developed in Tom in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell claims a “marvelously constant story” (3) is present in the world’s great myths and, indeed, in all human stories. At the heart of these stories is a hero on a journey in search of something. Campbell calls this universal pattern the monomyth—and, regardless of the objective, a by-product of this journey is the constitution of the hero’s identity. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer contains the elements of the monomyth: the world of the common day, the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, and the road of trials. On the road, Tom endures the characteristic trials: the encounter with the temptress, the brother battle, and the battle with the dragon. And the journey ends with what Campbell calls the atonement with the father.
Through tests and trials, consistent with the stages in the hero’s journey as articulated by Campbell, Tom eventually abandons the lure of complete independence and instead, accepts the idea of “home, the boundaries of home, and the freedom gained by belonging (Kiskis 15).
In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell articulates the recurrent pattern found in the world’s hero myths. The hero’s story begins with a character living in the ordinary world, or “the world of common day.” The hero’s journey is set in motion by means of a supernatural event, which pushes or pulls the hero toward a goal: this is “the call to adventure.” At this point, the individual is presented with a choice: to either accept or refuse the call. Those who choose to accept it begin the journey and once it is underway, the hero faces many tests on “the road of trials,” which stand between him and the ultimate goal.
Campbell identifies specific kinds of tests the hero often faces which produce a change in the hero. Among them are the “woman as temptress,” the “brother-battle” and the “battle with the dragon.” These tests are not always physical; they may also be mental, emotional, or spiritual. The hero is said to be in “the belly of the whale” when he experiences a symbolic death and resurrection and through this ordeal, he is transformed. This transformation results in the “atonement with the father.” Those who are able to pass the tests of the journey itself are rewarded with what Campbell called the “ultimate boon.” More important than achieving the ultimate boon is the ability to return to the community from which the journey began and communicate what has been learned. If he is able to understand the meaning of the experience and communicate the benefits of the journey to the community, then the hero’s journey is complete.
The hero’s journey begins in the world of the common day. This world is the context from which the hero will sally forth on his adventures, and it establishes a point of comparison between itself and the special world into which the hero moves. In the world of the common day, we see Tom caught between his need for a stable home environment and personal independence. On the one side are the forces that would socialize Tom—Aunt Polly in the home; the church and school do so as representatives of the larger community. At the center of the rules and regulations that govern the community of St. Petersburg is the Judge (N. Campbell 128). Opposed to these forces is the lure of freedom and independence—exemplified by the life of Huck Finn. It is in the tension between these two forces that we find Tom in his world of the common day.
Tom, clearly caught between these opposing forces, is not yet able to commit to one or the other. Placing Tom in the home of his aunt rather than his parents weakens the lure of home and hearth. In the first chapter, we find Tom chafing against the restrictions of home life, but he does so in the context of the stable home Aunt Polly provides. His rebellion manifested in the pilfering of homemade jam, and the revelation that he has skipped school discovered at family dinner shows that Tom is caught between the two worlds of complete freedom and social restriction. Later in the first chapter, he fights the well-dressed stranger whose dainty cap and necktie “ate into Tom’s vitals” (Twain 6). The real confrontation is symbolic of the battle against the alternate image of boyhood that the opponent represents (N. Campbell 130) for this child’s clothing reflects his acceptance of community standard. This fight shows Tom rejects the expectations of society but his rebellion is not complete. He is not transgressive, but only digressive (N. Campbell 131) meaning Tom works within boundaries as he tests them. The famous fence-painting scene illustrates this superbly: Tom does not transgress in that the fence is ultimately painted, but he does digress by not doing the work himself. In a similar way Tom chafes under the socializing forces imposed by the Church and School.
The Church and School are community institutions dedicated to socialization of the young—teaching them “to do right and be good” and here too we see Tom caught between the restrictions of community and the lure of freedom. In Sunday school they must sit “straight and pretty … the way good little boys and girls should do” (Twain 33). One little girl is chastised for looking out the window—a symbol of the domain of freedom. The learning of memory verses is a part of the process of socialization and with the help of Mary, Tom attempts to learn his verses, but without success. Still, through his own cleverness, he is able to secure a Bible (the reward for memorization) and he receives commendation, under false pretenses, from the Judge—the symbolic centre of the community.
In Tom’s ordinary world we find the process of socialization juxtaposed with the alternate impulse “toward the transgressive and to all that exists outside the disciplined and controlled precincts of St. Petersburg” (N. Campbell 129). In the church service, Tom is made to sit furthest away from the window and the “seductive outside” (Twain 40). Tom being drawn toward the “seductive outside” functions throughout the novel as the archetypical Temptress of the hero’s journey as it attempts to lure the hero away from his ultimate goal. This “tension is vital to the novel, for it indicates the precise position of Tom, caught between the pull to the outside and the comforting controls of supervision from community” (N. Campbell 129). This is the world of the common day for Tom Sawyer.
This ordinary world is static, but it is by no means stable (Vogler 99) and into this unstable world a new force appears. Joseph Campbell calls this unsettling force the “herald.” Its presence no longer allows the hero to maintain the status quo because it brings crisis that requires a decision. The crisis that results from its appearance is the call to adventure. The call “rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth… the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand” (J. Campbell 51). For Tom Sawyer, it is the appearance of Becky Thatcher that brings about this crisis—she invites Tom to cross the threshold. Becky takes on supernatural importance to Tom when he first lays eyes on the “lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair.” The language Twain uses for this encounter gives it religious significance—“[h]e worshipped this new angel” (Twain 20). For Tom, the call to adventure is an invitation toward resolution of the tension that exists in his ordinary world—to accept domesticity and the security found within community.
Because the journey is fraught with danger, the hero does not always accept the call, at least not immediately. Tom does not accept the call to embrace community immediately because he is spurned by two important representatives of domesticity. Aunt Polly falsely accuses Tom for breaking the sugar bowl—when Sid dropped the bowl Tom was in “ecstasies” in anticipation of the punishment that Sid would receive, but instead Polly assumed that Tom was responsible and the “potent palm” fell upon him (Twain 23). Following this domestic injustice, Tom leaves in a sulk and finds himself near Becky’s home and he wonders if “the sacred presence” is there. As he waits by the window, Tom’s “holy calm” is “profaned” by the voice of a maidservant and he is deluged with washing water. Then at school, he declares his love for Becky and even receives a kiss. However, he blunders in referring to his previous engagement to Amy Lawrence and Becky cries. He tries to offer her his most prized possession, “a brass knob from the top of an andiron,” (94) but she refuses the gift. This is the last straw and Tom leaves, not only the school but the community altogether. Immediately after he receives the call to adventure to commit to home, he is spurned by its representatives and so he balks at the call and flees.
Flight is an option for all heroes, but it is a particular characteristic of the American hero. “The presence of escape, or flight, in the modern American novel has long reflected a dominant mood in American life” (Bluefarb 3). Tom’s escape to Jackson’s Island, his refusal of the call, is an attempt to resolve the conflict between domesticity and freedom in favour of freedom. On Jackson’s Island, the first stop on the road of trials, the conflict is intensified as Tom learns the joys, but also the significant drawbacks of freedom from community. Tom and his friend Joe Harper and Huck escape the confines of society and go to Jackson’s Island where they plan to “lead a life of crime” (Twain 108)—they will be pirates. As Tom wakes up the first morning he peacefully observes an inchworm, then ants hauling dead spiders, and later a ladybug, images showing how natural and serene complete independence is compared to the rigid rules imposed by society. Symbolic of their rebellion, Huck teaches Tom and Joe how to smoke, but they become violently ill—symbolic of the excesses of freedom. Further, Tom “could not keep back thoughts of certain persons at home” (Twain 123); so, unable to completely ignore the draw of home, Tom secretly returns and spies on the grieving Polly and he was “touched by his aunt’s grief” (Twain 128). He returns to the island only because he has plans for a more dramatic return home. That night the island has become less hospitable; at midnight “there was a brooding oppressiveness” (Twain 139). The ensuing storm was violent; it was “a wild night for homeless young heads to be out in” (italics mine)(Twain 141). According to Hamelin, it was Twain’s plan to have Tom leave Jackson’s Island and embark on adventures in many lands, only to return years later. This adventure he saved for Huckleberry Finn because Tom was not the right character for such an adventure (387-9). Twain realized that Tom, as this first test on the road of trials shows, could not ignore the security, in spite of its restrictions, that human society affords (N. Campbell 131-132). The boys’ return to the community is during their own funeral service symbolizing a resurrection. Mythically, a transformation occurs through rebirth/resurrection, and in his case, it is Tom’s acceptance of the call. Although he is not yet aware of it, the boon at the end of his journey will be the acceptance of domesticity and incorporation into community.
Once the hero accepts the call he “undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending … into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (J. Campbell 101): the temptress, the brother, the dragon.
The role of temptress is filled by the “seductive outside”—the appeal of independence—which pulls Tom in the world of the common day. This force is present in each of the encounters on the road of trials.
The conflict between Tom and Huckleberry Finn represents Joseph Campbell’s brother-battle and in this battle, Tom struggles against his desire for the independence that Huck represents. Huck shares a love for freedom and adventure with Tom, but lives outside of the community. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and Tom envied “his gaudy outcast condition” (Twain 51). Since he is the son of the rarely seen town drunkard, not only is Huck independent of any parental restriction, he also remains free from the towns socializing institutions, School, and the Church. “In one way, [Tom] vicariously realizes this dream [to freedom] through his friendship with Huck, for the latter’s enviable freedom largely arises out of an irrevocably lost homelife” (Grove 389).
The relationship between Tom and Huck changes gradually over the course of the novel, however, as Tom progresses further on his journey toward accepting community. Initially, Tom looks up to Huck with admiration and “uses this friendship to make his own life seem more rebellious and less domestic” (Grove 389) but through the brother battle the relationship between the boys is inverted and Tom becomes leader and Huck the follower. One day the “raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure” (Twain 194) comes upon Tom and he seeks Huck to assist. On this quest, Tom is clearly the leader and the source of all the knowledge regarding the nature and location of buried treasure. His leadership continues as the boys plot to secure the treasure they hear that Injun Joe has hidden away. The shift in the relationship between the two boys shows Tom’s progression toward community and away from the independence that Huck represents. When Tom decides to testify in court regarding the death of Dr. Robinson, he follows his conscience to uphold the law and justice. Tom testifies to Muff Potter’s innocence and declares Injun Joe’s guilt, but in doing so he breaks the vow of silence he makes with Huck indicating a split between the two (N. Campbell 132). In his decision to testify, Tom declares his loyalty to community, rather than the independence that Huck demonstrates by his willingness to remain silent.
One of the more significant trials the hero must undergo is the slaying of the dragon—often a symbol of the hero’s own suppressed internal monsters and in overcoming the dragon, the hero is cleansed of the monstrous within him. Where Huck represents a marginal transgression of community rule and security, Injun Joe is symbolic of the “limitless capacity for violation” (N. Campbell 132) of community and the law—thus, Injun Joe represents what Campbell calls the dragon. Injun Joe “lives forever beyond the margins of the community” (N. Campbell 132) as is illustrated in his temporary occupation as body snatcher and in his violence and murder of the doctor, an important person in the community. When Tom makes his appearance in court and tells the truth about Injun Joe’s guilt, he chooses the side of justice and the restrictions of freedom found in society. The latter escapes from the court through a window, still representing the “seductive outside.” From that point on the shadow of Injun Joe begins to ‘infest… all [Tom’s] dreams’ (Twain 192) and the inevitable confrontation between Tom and this dragon builds throughout the novel to the extent that in one heightened instance he almost stepped on Injun Joe’s hand (Twain 220). The final confrontation with the shadow occurs in what Campbell calls the belly of the whale.
For Campbell, the belly of the whale experience represents a symbolic entry and rebirth from the “worldwide womb”; the hero “is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died” (J. Campbell 90). This is not always a literal death, but symbolically a hero must die so that he can be reborn (Vogler 159). McDougal’s cave is “a psychological space wherein the seductive outside has been made tangible for Tom” (N. Campbell 133). It is “a vast labyrinth of crooked isles that … led nowhere” (Twain 225). Tom’s journey with Becky into McDougal’s cave is a symbolic death where he is taken completely out of the community. Tom faces not only his own death, but more importantly that of Becky; he “was appalled with the idea that she might die” (247-8). When they tried to comfort each other, “they talked of home, and the friends there, and the comfortable beds, and above all, the light!” (Twain 248). Tom’s concern for Becky’s life and the comfort they find in domestic images illustrates the extent of his transformation and is augmented as they chare their “wedding cake” (250) and share a kiss (254). While in the cave separated from community, Tom intensely experiences that which he values—Becky and the security of home that she represents.
Tom’s story parallels that of Injun Joe as the narrative alternates between their stories. While Tom worries about Becky, reflects on the security of domestic life, and eats wedding cake, Injun Joe plans an attack on the Widow Douglas. Here we see his most severe transgression of all social standards. He plans to “slit her nostrils” and “notch her ears” then “tie her to the bed” (Twain 229). His plans clearly have “undertones of deadly rape, for he plans to violate and deform two of her bodily orifices, her nose and her ears, then watch her bleed to death in the bedroom” (Aspiz 148). “Overt rape, of course, was hardly suitable stuff for a nineteenth-century boy’s book” (Aspiz 148), but this assault on the kind and helpless old woman is symbolic of Injun Joe’s disregard for community, and the extremes to which his expressions of “freedom” extend. Later the parallel between Tom and Injun Joe is strengthened when Tom sees Injun Joe in the cave. Tom emerges; Injun Joe does not. Symbolically, in the death of Injun Joe, the lure of complete freedom from society has also died within Tom. Through the ordeal Tom has died, and been reborn; through this rebirth, he has been transformed. The extreme transgression of community values that Injun Joe represents is dead and “the urge for security out of the indisciplined moment of crisis in the cave mark Tom’s final incorporation into the community” (N. Campbell 135).
After the ordeal in the cave, a significant moment in the hero’s journey is made possible—atonement with the father. Initially, in some symbolic way, the son sees the father as a rival; the father is alienated from the son as either a monster—a thing to be feared, or a god—something to be revered. The alienation from his father is emphasized in that Tom is an orphan, and atonement is achieved with his symbolic father—Judge Thatcher. Neil Campbell says, “Tom is enclosed in the world of Judge Thatcher” (135). Indeed the Judge, as its highest authority, represents the community into which Tom is being called. The relationship between Tom and Judge Thatcher is one of alienation. The Judge inspires awe when he visits the Sunday School—he was “altogether the most august creation [the] children had ever looked upon, and they wondered what kind of material he was made of, and they half wanted to hear him roar, and were half afraid he might too” (Twain 35). This description shows that to the children, the judge is both god and monster. Tom treats to the Judge as a rival and with a spirit of “showing off,” produces enough tickets to receive a Bible-prize. Tom is “elevated… to the judicial one’s altitude, and the school had two marvels to gaze upon in place of one” (Twain 36). In this scene, Tom sees the Judge as an adversary.
“Atonement (at-one-ment) happens when a hero abandons notions of the father as dragon-thought-to-be-God and dragon-thought-to-be-sin” (Campbell 130). Then father becomes “the initiating priest through whom the young being passes on into the larger world” (136). After Tom and Becky’s safe return from the cave, the Judge “conceived a great opinion of Tom” (Twain 277). When told of Tom’s lie which spared Becky a whipping at school, Thatcher transforms Tom’s “mighty lie” into one that is “noble … generous … magnanimous.” He goes so far as to compare Tom with George Washington—“Tom, through the interjection of the Judge’s discourse of communal and judicial law, has become akin to the Father of his Country, the very figure of America’s sense of honesty, truth and goodness” (N. Campbell 135). Thatcher continues to lay out Tom’s future; he will be “a great lawyer or a great soldier” (277). It is the future of any properly socialized individual in that it “conforms to the expectations of respectable, institutional professions and confirms Tom’s position in the group” (N. Campbell 136). By achieving atonement with this father figure, Tom achieves symbolic oneness with his community and he begins to live out of a new transformed identity. For the “ultimate aim of each son is to regain his identity, which is initially the identity conferred upon him by being his particular father’s son” (Stahl 209). It is his symbolic father that confers this identity on Tom.
Following the atonement, the son fills the fatherly “role of the initiator, the guide” (J. Campbell 137). The final stage in the hero’s journey is his return with the “ultimate boon” or “elixir” (J. Campbell 181). As a result of his journey, the hero has gained possession of a boon that is of benefit to others. Bringing back the elixir is the final test of the hero on his journey. It proves he has defeated death, and through his rebirth he has been transformed (Vogler 227). As through the entire novel, Tom’s position is finally contrasted to that of Huck Finn. Where Tom has been fully incorporated into the community by the words of Judge Thatcher, Huck experiences social control as “the bars and shackles of civilization [that] shut him in and bound him hand and foot” (Twain 278). “The enclosure that Tom accepts willingly, Huck resists” (N. Campbell 136). “[W]ealth … protection … society” threatens his need to live outside the community and he has to be ‘dragged … [and] hurled … into it’ (Twain 277). Symbolic of the elixir he carries, Tom becomes an advocate for the restrictions imposed by society for he sees also benefits of the security one finds in community. “To emphasize Tom’s total and overt conformity it is he who takes on the policing parent role with Huck, who tries to escape the new regime or order” (N. Campbell 136). “The rules of the community are internalized in Tom and find expression in his desire to control the waywardness of Huck who cannot accept ‘tem ways’ because they smother him with control” (N. Campbell 137). So Tom fills the father role as he attempts to initiate Huck into the community. At the end of the hero’s journey, Tom’s identity has been constituted as he accepts “home, the boundaries of home, and the freedom gained by belonging (Kiskis 15).
Tom Sawyer’s adventures are not merely a collection of Twain’s recollections from his childhood. They are events that taken en masse depict Tom’s heroic journey from a world in which he is caught in the tension between community expectation and individual independence. Through a series of tests and trials, he endures symbolic battles which test him. Through the climactic ordeal in the cave he dies and is “reborn out of the dark, womb-like cave into the masculinized world of his new father” (N. Campbell 137), after which he exhibits the transformation of his identity as he functions as representative of the community and the security of home.
Aspiz, Harold. “Tom Sawyer’s Games of Death.” Studies in the Novel 27 (1995): 141-153.
Bluefarb, Sam. The Escape Motif in the American Novel. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press. 1972.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon Books. 1949.
Campbell, Neil. “The ‘Seductive Outside” and the ‘Sacred Precincts’: Boundaries and Transgressions in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Children’s Literature in Education. 25 (1984): 125-138.
Grove, James. “Mark Twain and the Endangered Family.” American Literature 57 (1985) : 377-394.
Hill, Hamlin L.. “The Composition and the Structure of Tom Sawyer.” American Literature 61 (1989): 379-392.
Kiskis, Michael J. “Mark Twain and the Tradition of Literary Domesticity.” Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship. Eds. Laura E. Skandera Trombley and Michael J. Kiskis. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. 13-27.
Stahl, John Daniel. “American Myth in European Disguise: Fathers and Sons in The Prince and the Pauper.” American Literature 58 (1986): 203-216.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. London: Puffin Books, 1994.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Studio City, CA: M. Wiese Productions, 1992.
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