The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is constructed on a loose framework whose major elements include games of death and games of resurrection. (Both meanings of resurrection apply here: resurrection as grave robbing and resurrection as return to life from apparent death. ) Indeed, the world of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain’s remembered and reinvented world of childhood – appears to be piquant and sweet largely because it is seen in chiaroscuro – a bright world set off by the shadowy terrors of danger, death and conformity.
Young Tom – and obliquely through him the self-recreated young Sam Clemens – seems to exist on the manic edge beyond which lurks the menace of destruction and the unknown. Tom is a manchild continually living at risk in this child’s world where the adults often appear to be custom-bound conformists with whom Tom has no quarrel provided they do not threaten him or interfere too much with the hijinks he shares with his juvenile companions. Inevitably, however, he is nourished by the values of this adult world.
(1) Young Tom is no budding John Keats, but his romantic soul is titillated by the bittersweet thought of his own death.
Twain delightfully captures those emotional moments in a child’s life when the thought of one’s own demise seems to loom like a dark cloud – moments upon which the adult self may look back in bemused fascination. And true romantic that he is, Tom relishes these moments. On the Saturday evening following his triumphant ploy in persuading his young friends to whitewash his Aunt Polly’s fence and his subsequent feeling “that it was not such a hollow world, after all,” he becomes depressed and sulky because his aunt has wrongfully blamed him rather than his pampered kid brother Sid for breaking a cookie jar. 2) Recognizing her look of tearful contrition when she realizes her error, Tom bolsters his male ego by playing a consoling and satisfying game of death, imagining that he is “lying sick unto death” and not speaking a word to his grieving and repentant aunt. “Ah, how would she feel then? ” he fantasizes.
To vary the fantasy, he also imagines that he has been brought home after he has drowned in the river, “a poor little sufferer, whose griefs were at an end,” and imagines that his grief-stricken aunt lies ill, broken with anguish over her mistreatment of him. So satisfying is this game of nursing his self-mourning that rather han risking its disruption by cheerful thoughts he runs off (like a nineteenth-century romantic poet cultivating his Waldeinsamkeit) to be alone with his tremors of mortality. This “agony of pleasurable” suffering is augmented when he imagines that Becky Thatcher (the pretty classmate on whom he has developed a crush) is grieving for him (pp. 54-55). But the outside world proves less satisfying than his private fantasies. Tom’s euphoria of pleasurable grief is dispelled when, standing under the window of his “adored Unknown,” he is doused by a “deluge of water” thrown from the beloved’s second story window by the Thatcher housemaid (pp. 5-56). On the blue Monday following an exciting weekend, and in a ruse to ditch school, Tom again pretends to be dying, upsetting his brother Sid and his Aunt Polly, but he backs off when the old lady threatens to pull one of his loose teeth (pp. 71-73). Later, surreptitiously playing with a tick at school, he taunts his buddy Joe Harper with the prospect of his own death: “He’s my tick and I’ll do what I blame please with him, or die” (p. 82).
Still later that day, disappointed over his estrangement with Becky Thatcher, he again reverts to the game of imagining himself dead, so that she will be sorry for cruelly spurning him: “Ah, if he could only die, temporarily,” he is supposed to have thought (p. 87), thus sounding the keynote for the sort of resurrection game that the author will twice develop and dramatize in the course of the novel to form its most exciting episodes and which he, Twain, will one day introduce into his autobiography, imagining himself enjoying a post mortem tete-a-tete with his future readers long after his own death.
At midnight of that same Monday – to the ominous sounds of a cricket and a deathwatch beetle – Tom sneaks out of the house and goes with Huck Finn to the decaying Baptist graveyard. Frightened to be among the spirits of the dead, they watch in terror as three would-be resurrectionists – Dr. Robinson, Injun Joe, and Muff Potter (respectively a young physician, an arch-villain, and a slow-witted drunkard) – prepare to snatch the body of Horse Williams from its grave. In the darkness, Injun Joe picks a quarrel with Dr. Robinson and murders him, then puts the blame on Muff Potter (pp. 2-97).
Thus the game of death that had been enjoyable as long as Tom could invent his own scenario with himself as the imaginary tragic hero turns horrifying and grim when objectified in the “real” world. And Tom’s sense of guilt for hiding the fact that Muff Potter is innocent of Dr. Robinson’s death, suppressed because of his fear of Injun Joe, almost devours him during the following weeks as he internalizes what he has witnessed. By way of contrast, his schoolmates, playing a pleasant childhood game of death, hold mock “inquests on dead cats” (p. 08). The episode of grave robbery, of course, is the stuff of melodrama and, as Walter Blair suggests, Mark Twain may have borrowed the incident from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities wherein a lad gets out of bed at night, goes to a graveyard, and sees three men rob a grave.
In Our Mutual Friend, a book that Twain knew well, Dickens had used the theme of body snatching as both horror and comedy. But one might wonder why, unless Dr. Robinson was engaged in a little extracurricular anatomizing, the grave robbery occurs in the area of St. Petersburg, for no such incident is known to have happened in Hannibal, and there was no medical college closer than St. Louis. (3) In fact, Mark Twain recorded the information that a close relative of his, Jim Lampton, had attended the Missouri Medical College in St. Louis, whose chief, Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell, like the directors of so many medical schools, apparently procured corpses for dissection from suspect sources. (4) Throughout the last century, the stealing of corpses was a common source of bodies for dissection.
Before the English Parliament passed the Anatomy Act in 1832, grave robbery was almost the universal source of corpses for medical research in Great Britain. (5) Similarly, as the supply of bodies of dead paupers and prisoners became inadequate to meet the needs of medical students in the American Midwest, three-man crews of grave robbers, usually working stealthily and rapidly by night, and accurately represented in the novel’s grave-robbing scene, procured and delivered freshly disinterred corpses to anatomists before putrefaction set in. Favorite targets were village cemeteries located not far from a medical school. 6) When paupers’ graves could not be found, the robbers – frequently members of criminal gangs – looted the graves of respectable citizens (like the novel’s Horse Williams). One such grave robbery of a distinguished person, that of Alexander T. Stewart, the retailing tycoon, formed part of the basis of Mark Twain’s “The Stolen White Elephant,” the original version composed in 1878. (7) The face of the “resurrected” corpse in TheAdventures of Tom Sawyer is said to be “pallid”; Horse Williams was a white man. But many vandalized cemeteries, especially in Eastern urban centers, were the final resting places of Blacks.
Thus in Chapter 15 of Twain’s first novel The Gilded Age (a chapter attributed to Charles Dudley Warner) the young Quaker medical student Ruth Bolton arrives one night at a woman’s medical college in Philadelphia, terrified to find on the dissecting table a dead black man whose face “seemed to defy the pallor of death, and asserted an angry life-likeness that was frightful” and appeared to cry out: “Haven’t you yet done with the outcast, persecuted black man, but you must now haul him from his grave, and send even your women to dismember his body? (8) Prior to the passage of the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act in 1882, Philadelphia medical colleges systematically purchased bodies “from the superintendent of the Lebanon Cemetery, a burial ground for Negroes in the lower part of the city. ” This type of clandestine activity had been going on for at least ten years. (9) Grave robbing had become a national scandal, and thus it may have helped to nourish the rich complex of ideas that underlay the scene of graveyard desecration in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
St. Petersburg/Hannibal was too far removed from any medical school to make Dr. Robinson’s body snatching efforts plausible, but Mark Twain transferred the practice to St. Petersburg in order to provide Tom, Huck, and the townspeople with an eerie and somber variant of the game of death. Besides, Twain’s novels, travel books, sketches, and notebook jottings reveal an abiding fascination with corpses and with corpse humor. 10) Twain’s depiction of the grave robbery appears to be rapidly sketched, and more important for Tom’s and Huck’s reaction to it than as a violation of civic morality. Oddly enough, although the murder of Dr. Robinson, and particularly the secret of the true murderer, continues to haunt Tom for a long while, neither he, the townspeople, nor the author seems troubled by the act of grave robbing itself; there is no expression of shock or outrage concerning that matter. And Dr. Robinson, resurrectionist and murder victim, appears to be of little further interest to the novelist.
As Mark Twain fumbled for a method to organize and develop the novel, he must have realized the potential of games of death as major structural devices. Indeed, the two climactic episodes of the remainder of the novel involve Tom in games of resurrection – the first one played out as sentimental and idyllic comedy, the second as terror-filled melodrama. As Frank Baldanza has pointed out, “the situation of being thought dead” is an “organizational device” in both The Adventures of Torn Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 11) The first of these resurrection game episodes is the idyll of Jackson’s Island, where three boys – Tom, Huck Finn, and Joe Harper – have secretly escaped from the adult world to the carefree place where, for a while, time stands still and adults seem powerless to interfere. Seated by the campfire on the deserted island, which to their young minds is an earthly paradise, Tom wonders, “What would the boys say if they could see us? ” To which Joe Harper’s reply suggests that the thought of death is never far away: “Say? Well, they’d just die to be here” (p. 18). Earthly bliss, it would appear, is only understandable against a background of death – a concept that would pervade Mark Twain’s later writings. And when the boys observe the boat that is searching the river for their presumably dead bodies, they relish the idea of being thought dead and grieved for by their families and friends. Thus is acted out a much grander version of the game that Tom had played in his moments of moping and mock-grief for his “dead” self. As Mark Twain phrases the feeling: They felt like heroes in an instant.
Here was a gorgeous triumph; they were missed; they were mourned; hearts were breaking on their account; tears were being shed; accusing memories of unkindnesses to these poor lost lads were rising up, and unavailing regrets and remorse were being indulged; and best of all, the departed were the talk of the whole town, and the envy of all the boys, as far as this dazzling notoriety was concerned. (pp. 124-25) Twain’s series of breathless independent clauses catches the sheer excitement of this game of death played in the sequestered, if ephemeral, paradise of Jackson’s Island.
Eventually tiring of being away from the adult world and stricken by a conscience that was formed by that same adult world, Tom sneaks back home at night, hides beneath a bed, and has the perverse pleasure of hearing his Aunt Polly, his cousin Mary, Joe Harper’s mother, and even his pesky kid brother Sid linger over his merits and mourn his supposedly dead self. Tom, too, is silently bathed in tears when he hears his aunt praying for him. As evidence of his presence there, after leaving his hiding place under the bed, he kisses the lips of his sleeping aunt.
And to cap off this exhilarating phase of this game of death, he returns to the island in time for breakfast! (pp. 127-30). Apparently on Saturday, the fifth day of the Jackson’s Island idyll (and in rather cavalier shifting of the novel’s point of view), we see Tom’s little inamorata Becky Thatcher grieve and cry over the apparent loss of her young hero (p. 139). And village folk young and old ascribe to Tom and his companions the sort of virtues that one might expect to hear in a eulogy. But Tom, in his own right, is an incomparable showman. Like P.
T. Barnum, whose work Mark Twain admired,(12) and like Mark Twain’s later fictional heroes Hank Morgan and Young Satan, who combined the spectacles of their own resurrection with dazzling and fiery showmanship, Tom cannot resist climaxing this game of death with the spectacle of his own resurrection. Thus, on the last day of this game of death, on Sunday, in the village church nearly hushed in funereal gloom and despair, with Tom’s and Joe’s families dressed in mourning, and the church packed with mourners, the game reaches its triumphant climax.
Following a stirring hymn the minister, taking as his text “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” preaches a moving sermon glorifying the “lost” boys. As the “transfixed” minister looks upward to the church balcony he sees the three boys who have stealthily entered the church and “hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon! ” Then in a magnificent outburst of theatricality, the general ecstatic rejoicing over the resurrection of these presumably lost children becomes a vast community drama as the entire congregation sings “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” (pp. 140-41).
At this point Mark Twain may have been taunting his readers. Indeed, unless he had chosen to commit brazen sacrilege by setting the scene on Easter Sunday, he has carried this resurrection game about as far as he could without overtly mocking the Christian doctrine of resurrection. The episode is filled with tension, sentimentality, and suggestiveness. But we must not forget that the game is Tom’s game. For our budding young Barnum, “this was the proudest moment of his life. ” And using one of his favorite words, Mark Twain acknowledges that the adults of the town were “sold” – duped, deceived, made to look “almost . . ridiculous” by this mock-resurrection with its flaunted irreverence toward Christian religious views and village decorum. (The community might have felt a momentary twinge of shame or outrage or may have been tempted to question its value system, but the thrill of hearing the congregation sing “Old Hundred” outweighed any impulse to self-analysis. ) The town exists largely as a setting for Tom’s adventures, and in his eyes the wave of adulation among the townsfolk and children crested until “the very summit of lory was reached” – or almost reached as Becky, ignoring him, cast a faint shadow of death over him: “it maddened him to see, as he thought he saw, that Becky Thatcher never once suspected that he was in the land of the living. ” Nevertheless, Tom thought, “he would live for glory” (pp. 141-47). “This long episode,” says Everett Emerson, “ends with Tom’s pleasure at what many have wished for and few achieved – a triumphant return to his own funeral. “(13) But soon the St. Petersburg adults are disabused, the escapade is forgotten, and the game is over.
It was, after all, a glorious capstone to all those little private games in which Tom wished himself dead but still able to hang around to relish the grief and mourning of his loved ones. And although the reader might expect this resurrection to linger in Tom’s – and Mark Twain’s – mind, nevertheless, after a chapter or so, the author and his hero seem to forget about it and it is not mentioned again as they move on to other episodes. A game is not a game without an adversary – in this instance the supposedly unimaginative, sentimental, and vulnerable adults of St.
Petersburg. And the game of resurrection requires an artificial playing field – in this case the illusion of a homogeneous white society untainted by slavery (a black child assists briefly in the fence painting) – a classless, cohesive, reverent society of child-loving, rather obtuse adults and their ingenious children. And the game’s the thing: the Sunday resurrection in the village church is ultimately an inspired bit of chicanery akin to Tom’s tricking the village boys to whitewash his Aunt Polly’s fence and enjoy their work. In fact,” says Forrest Robinson, Tom Sawyer successfully conveys the illusion that all experience is ultimately reducible to entertainment. Murder, grave-robbing, the withholding of life-saving evidence, impulses to suicide, simulated disasters, numerous close brushes with death, the violation of sanguinary oaths, wrenching fear and guilt, and numberless suppressions of the truth and miscarriages of justice are all transformed, through masterful orchestration and narrative control, into entertainment. 14) But of all the novel’s entertainments the game of death is the most impressive and, perhaps, the most fun. Moreover, only when Mark Twain finally concentrates on death games does the novel acquire a measure of cohesive structure. Toward the novel’s end, the death games become very complex and intense; in fact, Mark Twain stages two death games at once, thus achieving a notable level of structural sophistication. Apparently intrigued by this game of comic resurrection, Mark Twain might have concluded that anything worth doing well is worth doing twice.
Thus in a subplot of his unperformed play “Cap’n Simon Wheeler, the Amateur Detective. A Light Tragedy,” completed the year after the appearance of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he burlesques the game of resurrection. To offset the play’s main plot about the blundering detective Simon Wheeler who sets out to solve a murder that never occurred, Mark Twain has young Hugh Burnside exchange garments with a “deceased” tramp (in reality a villain) whose body he hides under a bed. Hugh then pretends to be mute.
Ever fond of corpse humor, Mark Twain has Hugh declare in an aside to the audience: “It’s pretty warm weather, but I reckon he’ll keep. ” In a variant of Tom Sawyer’s resurrection game, Hugh, now disguised as the tramp, enjoys watching his friends weep and mourn over the body they presume to be his. Touching his eyes with a rag in a gesture of mock grief and sounding rather like Tom Sawyer, Hugh remarks: “It’s delicious to be grieved for like this. ” And although Tom Sawyer was never able to witness Becky Thatcher’s grief, Hugh is able to observe the lamentations of his beloved.
Rocking in mock-agony, Hugh is so delighted with the spectacle of his own funeral that he says in an aside: “I don’t want to live – I’m glad I’m murdered”; later he muses: “I wish I could have such a funeral every day of my life. ” Like Tom Sawyer he is able to enjoy his own funeral sermon. (Twenty-five years later, Mark Twain – who despite his skepticism concerning immortality liked to toy with the idea of his own immortality – would encourage some literary friends to compose some mock post-mortems for him so that he could enjoy them while he was still alive. 15)) Shuffling as with suppressed sobs, Hugh remarks in another aside: “There warn’t a dry eye in the house. I wouldn’t missed my funeral for a gold mine. I never, never heard such a moving sermon in my life. Ah, it’s a big day for me – a mighty big day . . . I’ll never forget my funeral, till I have another. How they cried! How she cried! Darling! Such a sermon! Why I never began to imagine I had so many virtues. ” The play ends when Hugh slips off his disguise and proves to be very much alive.
As Simon Wheeler concludes in a Tom Sawyerish vein: “To track out a murderer ain’t much but to track out a lost corpse and fetch him home alive and good as new takes genius. “(16) What we have here, then, is an extension into farce of Tom Sawyer’s triumphant return from Jackson’s Island. Tom’s game of death had mocked the believers in Christian resurrection but cushioned its mockery in childish game play and comic sentimentality, however, Hugh’s “resurrection” game in this rickety farce is too redolent of black comedy and sacrilege to have suited the sensibilities of a Victorian audience.
Because The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was composed in a desultory and episodic manner, Twain follows the Jackson’s Island episode with lesser happenings. The murder in the graveyard surfaces again, and Tom and Huck are filled with suppressed terror of the murderous Injun Joe and compassion for the falsely accused Muff Potter. The suppressed painful and “dreadful secret of the murder was a chronic misery” to Tom, explains Mark Twain (p. 165). But Tom once again emerges as “a glittering hero” (p. 173) when he testifies in court about the murder in the graveyard.
Later, in a seeming variant of the grave robbery motif, Tom and Huck dig for buried treasure near a haunted house, wherein Injun Joe comes close to discovering and killing them. Perhaps the most important element in this frightening episode is Huck’s emergence as a strong colloquial character, thus enabling Mark Twain, for the first time in his fiction-writing career, to develop a double (simultaneous) plot with both suspenseful elements centered on death games. Concurrent with Tom’s and Becky’s confrontation with death in McDougal’s Cave, Huck has his own heroic adventure.
Injun Joe, nursing a deep-seated sense of vengeance against the Widow Douglas (her late husband Judge Douglas had ordered him horsewhipped and jailed as a vagabond) plans to deform the widow. In this novel (unlike The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) the widow is still a handsome woman. Joe plans to “go for her looks,” to “slit her nostrils” and “notch her ears like a sow’s,” then “tie her to the bed. If she bleeds to death, is that my fault? ” Mark Twain is generally circumspect in treating the deaths and mutilations of females.
They may be beaten, they may die of hunger, disease, or immolation, but they are not sexually violated. However, there can be little doubt that Injun Joe’s planned mutilation of the Widow Douglas has 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 her bedroom. When Joe details his planned maiming of the widow, his accomplice cries out, “My God, that’s – “; the reader may supply the rest (pp. 198-99). Overt rape, of course, was hardly suitable stuff for a nineteenth-century boy’s book, but it can be nterpreted as a significant element in the novel’s thematic development. Like the violation of Horse Williams’s grave, Injun Joe’s planned rape-like assault on the kindly and charitable Widow Douglas is a symbolic violation of the innocent world of St. Petersburg. By thwarting the assault, the arch-innocent Huck Finn rescues the widow from death and ignominy and preserves the town’s honor. Like the “resurrection” from Jackson’s Island, Huck’s rescue of the widow apparently occurs on a Sunday morning (p. 201).
Chronologically overlapping Huck’s adventure are Tom’s and Becky’s adventures in McDougal’s Cave and their eventual escape – an episode possibly inspired by an 1873 news story about some children lost in the Hannibal cave. (17) If the boys’ return from Jackson’s Island is resurrection as comic spectacle, the episode of the cave – the book’s climactic adventure – is resurrection as suspenseful melodrama. The young couple, after being separated from their picnic party, become lost in the cave’s vast and trackless caverns, exhaust their candles, and apparently spend three days and nights – Saturday through Monday – in total darkness.
The children’s descent into the cave becomes a descent into the nether world of sheer terror and the shadow of death. In one of the most romantic passages in all of Mark Twain’s fiction, Tom and Becky wander into the uncharted interior of the cave and draw close in their innocent attachment – an episode that would later have its counterpart in Mark Twain’s affectionate sketches of Adam and Eve, those idealized versions of Sam and Livy Clemens. But the cave episode involves no fall from Paradise: only a resurrection from the cave and from what the St.
Petersburg folk fear to be the deaths of the young pair. As the children descend among the galleries of “fantastic pillars” of stalactites and stalagmites, they become lost, disoriented, and disheartened. So frenzied is Becky’s weeping “that Tom was appalled with the idea that she might die, or lose her reason. ” In despair, Becky dozes off into a happy dream, but her waking laugh is “stricken dead upon her lips. ” Her strong premonition of death is conveyed in the conventional terms of sentimental romance: “I’ve seen such a beautiful country in my dream. I reckon we are going there. Then, in a ritual that is ambiguously connubial or funereal, the pair wander until they find a spring of water – a token of holiness. There in the timeless world of darkness (although the pair speculate that is may be Sunday – “Sabbath morning” – in the outside world), Tom unwraps a bit of “wedding-cake” that Becky had saved from the children’s picnic. As Mark Twain unfolds this sentimental/romantic game of death, he has Becky remark: “I saved it from the pic-nic for us to dream on, Tom, the way grown-up people do with wedding cake – but it’ll be our – . There by the underground spring, without hope of rescue, the young pair await their deaths. They watch fascinated as their brief candle – the last “bit of candle” – melts in its niche in the rock and leaves them in total darkness; so that, metaphorically at least, they have carried out their funeral services and have died. But Mark Twain never intended to pursue the quintessential romantic theme of the deaths of children to its tragic conclusion; the book is, after all, a comedy, and soon Tom, although “sick with the bodings of coming doom,” is busily exploring the cave again, looking for an exit.
And on the third day, he perceives a “speck” of daylight and is able to save himself and Becky (pp. 209-18). Apparently Mark Twain was careful not to stage Tom’s and Becky’s “resurrection” on a Sunday. But when the two children return home the church bells peal and the “frantic half-clad” cheering and joyous townspeople (p. 217) fill the town’s main street to surround and acclaim the young pair. In his second adventure of return from the dead, Tom is again a hero basking in the adulation he receives and embroidering his tale of derring-do to admiring listeners.
And to top off Tom’s triumph, he and Huck become rich and Judge Thatcher, bestowing the mantle of bourgeois respectability on him, predicts that one day Tom may become a lawyer or a soldier – a conforming member of the established society. So that what began as a descent into the dark world of terror and death ends as a joyous game; and the elevation to the bourgeoisie that young Sam Clemens had fancied for himself is here bestowed on young Tom. 18) And by way of eerie counterpoint to Tom’s death game, the body of Injun Joe, whom Tom had glimpsed very much alive in the cave near the buried treasure, so close that Joe could have stabbed him (he had kept the terrible secret from Becky), is later discovered by some townsfolk near the mouth of the cave. Joe had died of thirst and starvation. Throughout the novel Joe is portrayed as a cartoon-like villain whose shadow hovers over Tom to cast the thrill of terror over all his joyous game play.
But Mark Twain appears to have been uncomfortable with this last bit of melodrama concerning Joe’s demise, and he embellishes Joe’s death with some purple prose more appropriate to the lecture circuit and with a misplaced sexist sermonette on the soft-hearted “sappy women” (p. 221) who dabble in politics and show sympathy for rascals like Joe. But soon after these awkward digressions the jolly game of death is resumed as the whole town celebrates Joe’s death, joining in a chorus of jubilation and fun that may suggest a streak of sadism beneath their apparent respectability.
So end the games of death in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Never again in Mark Twain’s major writings will death games be played with such elan, joy, and light-heartedness. Surely, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opens with some innocent killing games organized by Tom Sawyer. In the novel, Huck is “resurrected” from his father’s bondage into a free and lonesome soul who witnesses over a dozen deaths, most of them violent and in some of which he may be partially complicit. 19) Yet Huck’s world being a “real” world, the deaths are tragic and shocking; death is no longer a childish game. Surely, Hank Morgan, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, is “resurrected” into the Boss and saved from certain death by predicting the spectacular “miracle” of the solar eclipse. Hank – who has a streak of Tom Sawyer in him – relishes the game of dispatching hostile knights, during his random encounters with them, with guns and bombs and with a deadly gamesmanship that does not trouble his conscience.
But the novel turns grim and bitter and ends at the Sand Belt with the tragic slaughter of thousands of knights by electrocution, machine-gunning, and miasmal infection – results of the grandiose last stand planned by an obsessive Hank Morgan in his campaign to root out feudalism. Surely, Young Satan, in the Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, is literally able to be consumed by fire and to resurrect himself in the most spectacular fashion.
For this superb creature without a conscience or a “moral sense,” it is all part of a pleasant game, he explains, done with a Tom-Sawyerish exuberance and with a zeal for showing off (indeed he compares his own showmanship to that of P. T. Barnum): “I’m only a youth, and it’s natural. I love shows and spectacles, and stunning dramatics, and I love to astonish people, and show off, and to be and do all the gaudy things a boy loves to be and do; and whenever I’m here [on earth] and have got matters worked up to where there is a good prospect to the fore, I shut down the works and have a time! (20) As we know, Young Satan casually and sportively makes and unmakes human lives and creates spectres of live humans as if to show that the forces that rule the universe are uncaring and that the individual life (or death) has little significance in the scheme of things. Satan’s games are those of a demonic god and are used to illustrate the dark determinist philosophy of Mark Twain’s later years. (Some other late writings also toy grimly with the games of death. But The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in its innocence and joy reflects a happy Mark Twain and his idealized dream world of youth in which the games of death – despite some lurking shadows – may still be played as an innocent form of pure adventure. As such, it is a major triumph.
Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Aspiz, Harold. “Tom Sawyer’s games of death. ” Studies in the Novel 27. 2 (1995): 141+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. Document URL http://go. galegroup. com/ps/i. do? id=GALE%7CA17363029&v=2. 1&u=ko_pl_portal&it=r&p=LitRC&sw=w
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