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The Portrayal of Human Nature in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

By Cathi-Resoalbe Dec 03, 2013 2223 Words
The Portrayal of Human
Nature in

The Adventures of Tom
Sawyer

by Mark Twain
“Every man has a good nature but as well evil and
imperfect nature.”

Resoalbe, Analí.

American History and Literature.

2013

The Portrayal of Human Nature in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer “Every man has a good nature but as well evil and imperfect nature.”

Through the course of history, men have adopted different literary styles to portray ideas, beliefs and their desire of evolving as human beings. During Romanticism, for example, writings were highly emotional, imaginative and truly devoted to declare the worth, goodness and exceptional beauty of the ideal society. Nevertheless, only after a short period of time, subsequent to a decade of deaths and obliteration triggered by the civil war, a new completely different literary style developed. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, is among the first most representative writers of this style, which seeks to reveal characters and situations that seem to have been brought straight from ‘real life’ as it actually is. In his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Twain explores several themes that not only represent society in the late nineteenth century but that can very well exemplify our own today. By means of numerous events and characters’ traits, he depicts that “everyman has a good nature but as well evil and imperfect nature.”1

From the very beginning of the story, Tom Sawyer, the protagonist, is shown as a very mischievous boy, whose troublesome behavior and tricks torment Aunt Polly who, after Tom’s mother’s death, took him up. The writer withdraws the curtains to show an exceptionally wellstructured plot that gives evidence of man’s intrinsic imperfection from the very first dialog. When Aunt Polly finds him hiding in her closet, dirty and with his hands and mouth full of jam, and asks about it, the first two words that Tom says already show the wicked essence of man. Just in order to get away from trouble he lies using the words “nothing”- when he obviously knows that he has been doing ‘something’ - and “I don’t know”- when he well knows what it is 1

http://www.debold.com/webdesign/webdesign4history/marananjonathan/literature.html, August 2013

that he has all over his face and hands. Tom also represents human egoism and how thoughtless someone can be when his only motivation is to satisfy his own desires, no matter what the consequences. One of the major conflicts is presented when Sawyer secretly runs away to Jackson’s Island, letting everybody concerned about his fate. Showing Tom being inconsiderate to his aunt and not thinking how his actions may affect other people, the author tries to catch the reader´s attention and make him reflect on his own actions and the fact that no one lives in complete isolation, so as not to have an emotional impact on others. But Tom Sawyer is not the villain in this story, neither he is a bad person, he just represents a normal innocent and playful boy who, eventhough sometimes naughty, is also a tenderhearted, benevolent lad. Twain reflects goodness and bravery upon Tom in two crucial moments in the story. As selfish as Tom can be sometimes, he shows a great deal of compassion and help when he saves Mr. Potter from being hanged, after being framed by Injun Joe for the murder of Doctor Robinson. Doing what is right and honorable, and facing one’s fears may be the most difficult thing to do sometimes, but Tom shows everyone in the village that the good nature of a man should not be hidden. The protagonist becomes a hero once again when he fights for Becky Thatcher’s heart and also when risks his life for the treasure in the cave. He reveals his truly essence when despise the problems he may face, he is not afraid of the dangers in the cave, and is able to set Becky’s well-being above his: “A portion of Tom’s half of the cake was left; they divided and ate it.”2

Each character in the tale plays a role in depicting the nature of human beings. Most of the villagers may judge Tom Sawyer’s actions, but the writer soon shows the hypocrisy underlying

2

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Perennial Library, NY, 1965 (p. 185-186)

such judgments. The frequent discord between its values and its behavior may be seen as a way in which the writer tries to ridicule societies of all times. It should be bared

in mind that the

whole community of St. Petersburg is said to be Christian, but even then there is great incongruity to what kind of ‘Christianity’ they preach, since most of them would keep at least one slave at home and call them scornful names such as ‘nigger’. Even children, who are supposed to learn Bible verses and behave kindly, call them like that and show several hints of discrimination: “Well, what of it? They'll all lie. Leastways all but the nigger. I don't know him. But I never see a nigger that wouldn't lie. Shucks!"3.

Twain also criticizes society’s hypocrisy by highlighting the ways in which social authority operates. Almost always, social institutions such as school, church, and the law, as well as public opinion, fail to function on wise, consistent principles. Thus, what at some point in the story is catalogued as the ‘most dreadful thing ever done’, after certain events, changes completely. Such is the case of Muff Potter, who is loathed by everyone in town when supposedly guilty of murdering Dr. Robinson, but virtually praised at his release after the trail: “As usual, the fickle, unreasoning world took Muff Potter to its bosom and fondled him as lavishly as it had abused him before. But that sort of conduct is to the world’s credit; therefore it is not well to find fault with it.”4 Again, the author ridicules the ability of this collective predisposition toward compassion and mercy to go overboard when he refers to the village’s sentimental forgiveness of the wicked Injun Joe after his decease.

On the other hand, Mark Twain also states very well in his book, that society and its members have some inherent goodness as well. By depicting how hard townspeople work together to find 3

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Perennial Library, NY, 1965 (p. 39)

4

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Perennial Library, NY, 1965 (p. 141)

Tom and Becky when they are lost in the cave, he lets the reader appreciate how valuable cooperative work is, and how every person’s contribution is worth listening to. The author narrates that “[…] before the horror was half an hour old two hundred men were pouring down highroad and river toward the cave (and that) […] many women visited Aunt Polly and Mrs. Thatcher and tried to comfort them. They cried with them too.”5. Characters such as Aunt Polly and Mrs. Douglas are noteworthy examples of the intrinsic kindness of man. The former repeatedly shows her pure goodness all throughout the novel when dealing with Tom Sawyer and his behavior. She not only takes care of an orphan child, but also withstands all the difficulties that come along when trying to parenting him. Likewise, Mrs. Douglas is eager to help Huckleberry Finn become an educated young man even before he becomes rich. As the story tells, her true love and care for him once keeps the widow haunting for Huckleberry everywhere “in great distress”6 for forty-eight hours.

Another interesting way that the author uses to illustrate the natural goodness in human beings is through Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn’s friendship. Unlike most people in the village, Tom does not judge Huck for who his father is, but instead he focuses on Huckleberry himself and his uniqueness. Sawyer becomes his true friend and alibi, and they promise loyalty to each other beyond any situation. In a way, Tom represents the channel through which Huckleberry gets credibility in front of the judge and the community in the day of the trail, and the means by which society starts to accept him little by little, until they fully acknowledge the lad when he becomes under Widow Douglas protection. The author reminds his audience of the importance of friendship and how loyal and pure it is during childhood, different in every way to the convenience relationships most adults attempt to forge. In the end, is Tom’s maturity and real 5

6

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Perennial Library, NY, 1965 (p.178) Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Perennial Library, NY, 1965 (p.204)

interest in his friend which guides him to advice Huck to do the right thing and to accept the changes human beings have to go thru.
The use of language to manipulate others is recurrently exercised by the protagonist throughout the novel, and it represents another technique by means which individuals’ selfishness and evil nature flourish. Tom is an expertise in convincing other boys and girls to do what he requests. The most perfect example of this, and by which most people in the world know Tom, is the scene of the whitewash. “Tom swindles his friends out of all their favorite objects through a kind of false advertising when he sells them the opportunity to whitewash the fence”7, and he does it in such a skillful way that he turns his punishment into a ‘privileged opportunity not often handed to a boy’. His ambition grows stronger every weekend when he goes to church as hears, once and again, about the challenge to get a Doré Bible. For Sawyer it is much easier to persuade his friends to trade their valuable tickets for other curious ‘treasures’, than to memorize those never-ending verses from the Scriptures. In the end he gets his Bible, but the author makes sure to remark the fact that, due to his cunningness, Tom is ridiculed in front of everyone. In the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain succeeds to relate characteristics of his society, in the 1840s, to those of later times. He centers his ideas on major topics, but most of the time they revolve on the theme of human nature. The positive aspect of making allusion to themes of this kind is that it allows the story to become timeless and never out-of-date. What the author gets from his writing is in fact being able to travel back and forward in time, and to continue engaging his multiple-generations audience with a reading that not only makes them go back to their childhood, but also to help them reflect on those aspects of life where they have started to act just alike that hypocritical society Twain makes so much fun of. The author calls out the 7

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/tomsawyer/themes.html, July 2013

reader’s inner nature and exposes it to a non-all-black-or-white reality, where human imperfection becomes tangible, and individuals’ goodness is scarce. Human nature “refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting 8

that humans tend to have naturally, independently of the influence of culture” . Throughout history, many

philosophers and thinkers have analyzed this question of being human and actin like one, and even if they dissented at some extents, from the time of Adam and Eve there are vestiges of the influence of human nature in people’s acting. Whether for good or for bad, individuals seem to tend to a certain course of action, as if they were programed in advance to proceed in a specific way. Tom Sawyer, for example, is many times dragged into trouble due to his inherent evil humanity but, as well, other times moved into outstanding compassionate actions by his inner goodness. The author mirrors the question of human nature, a good but still evil and imperfect one, in every stretch of his writing letting the reader infer that not only during Twain’s childhood men were victims of their inner nature, but also at the time he writes the novel, and that it seems probable to continue that way. Nevertheless, Mark Twain also makes clear, as the story progresses, that people should be willing to compel their nature so as it obeys to their inner goodness, rather than evil. Sawyer’s maturation has a lot to do with it. The author draws the reader’s attention by covertly asserting that “every man has a good nature but as well evil and

imperfect nature”9 but in spite of this, he must seek to take the most pure goodness out of it, just as Twain’s characters do by the end of the novel.

8
9

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_nature, June 2013
http://www.debold.com/webdesign/webdesign4history/marananjonathan/literature.html, August 2013

REFERENCE LIST


Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Perennial Library, New York, 1965.

 SparkNotes Editors. SparkNote on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. SparkNotes.com SparkNotes LLC. 2007. July and August 2013  http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/tomsawyer/themes.html

 Wikipedia Contributors. Scientia Potencial Est.Wikipedia.org. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2004. June 2013  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_nature   Wikipedia Contributors. Scientia Potencial Est.Wikipedia.org. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2004. June 2013  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_adventures_of_tom_sawyer   De Bold Contributors. Maranan Jonathan. Unspecified org. August 2013 http://www.debold.com/webdesign/webdesign4history/marananjonathan/literature.html

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