Tom Sawyer Essay

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Title:Tom Sawyer's games of death
Author(s):Harold Aspiz

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 than 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. 55-56). 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...
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