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Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of Mark Twain's major works, and is ranked among the classic works of 19th century American Literature. The book is based on Mark Twain's childhood experiences in his home town, Hannibal, on the bank of the great Mississippi river.


From "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain

Saturday Morning

"Ain't that Work - ?"
"Ain't that work - ?"

It was Saturday morning and the summer world was bright.
Tom came out of the gate with a bucket of white paint and a long brush. He looked at the fence, and the joy left his heart. Thirty meters of fence, three meters high! He shook his head as he painted the top board at one end, and then looked at the great length of unpainted fence. He began to think of the fun he had planned for the day. Soon free boys would come past him on their way to all sorts of fun. They would laugh at him because he had to work. He thought of the things in his pockets: a fishing line, a few pieces of string, one or two broken toys, a bone – enough perhaps to buy even half an hour of freedom. He put the things back in his pockets. And then – at this dark and hopeless moment – the great idea came to him. He took his brush and began calmly to paint.
Ben Rogers came in sight – the one boy whose laughter he had feared. Ben was eating an apple and making noises that showed he was the Big Missouri, a great river steamboat nearly three meters deep in the water. He was the steamboat, the captain, and the engine-room bells. As he came near to Tom, he slowed down, leaned far over to the right, and moved in towards the sidewalk.
“Stop her! Ling-a-ling-ling!” The great wheels turned slowly through the water, one side after the other, until the captain had brought his ship close to where Tom was painting. Tom didn’t stop. He paid no attention to the steamboat. He looked with an artist’s eye at the work he had done. Then he touched it in a few places with his brush.
“Hullo!” Ben said. “You’ve got to work, have you?”
“Oh, hullo! It’s you, Ben. I didn’t notice you.”
“I’m going swimming,” Ben said. “Don’t you want to swim? But perhaps you’d rather work!”
Tom stopped for a moment and looked at him. “Work? What do you call work?”
“Ain’t that work?”
Tom stopped painting again. He answered carelessly, “Well, perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t. All I know is, it’s all right for Tom Sawyer.”
“You don’t really pretend you like it?”
The brush continued to move. “Like it? Well of course I like it. A boy doesn’t get a chance to paint a fence every day.” Tom gave a few more touches of his brush, and stepped back to look at his work – added a little paint – put his head on one side, and looked again.
“Say, Tom, let me paint a little.”
Tom thought. “No,” he said. “I can’t let you. Aunt Polly’s very proud of this fence – her front fence on the street. It’s got to be done very carefully. Very few boys can paint it the way it must be done.”
“Is that so? But let me just try. I’ll be very careful – I’ll give you my apple.”
Tom gave him the brush – with doubt on his face, but joy in his heart.
The Big Missouri steamboat changed into an artist, and worked hard under the hot sun, while Tom lay in the shade. He ate his apple, and planned his future victories. There were plenty of these. Boys came along the street, stopped to make fun of the workers – and stayed to try to be artists. By the time Ben was tired, Tom had sold the next chance to Billy Fisher for an arrow in quite good condition. When Billy couldn’t do any more, Johnny Miller bought the next chance for a dead rat and a string to swing it with. And so it went on, hour after hour. By the middle of the afternoon, Tom was rich. Besides the things I have named, he had twelve marbles, part of a drum, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a bit of red chalk, a tin soldier, a frog, six fireworks, part of a door knocker, a knife without a point, four pieces of orange skin, and an old window lock. He had a nice lazy time in the shade, with plenty of company, and the fence had three coats of white paint on it.
Tom went to find Aunt Polly.
“May I go and play now, Aunt?” he asked.
“What! Already? How much have you done?”
“It’s all done, Aunt.”
“Tom, don’t tell me lies. I can’t bear it.”
“It’s not lies, Aunt. It is all done.”
Aunt Polly went to see for herself. She expected to see about one-fifth of the fence done. She found the whole fence painted, and even some of the ground in front of the fence. She was so surprised that she went to the cupboard, chose a big apple, and gave it to Tom. While she was choosing it, Tom “won” a tea cake from a plate in the cupboard.

Extract adapted from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain.

Tasks and Activities

  1. Mark Twain announced explicitly that both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were written for adults exclusively; the books were even banned from the children’s room at some libraries. Why do you think these books were seen as unsuitable for children at the time?
  2. How would you characterize Tom Sawyer in this extract? (Has the author given him certain qualities or personal values?)
  3. Comment on the narrative angle / point of view in this episode.
  4. The title “Saturday Morning”, does not say much about what goes on in this episode. Can you think of a more descriptive title?
  5. Aunt Polly is the only adult in the text; what role does she have compared to Tom?
  6. Like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain used child protagonists in his novels. How does that work on the reader?
  7. Mark Twain belongs to the American regional realists. Do you think this extract is realistic? Why / why not?
  8. Follow the link below and read about Mark Twain. Where do you see traces of Mark Twain’s own life-experiences in this extract?

Mark Twain - An American Realist

Suggested topics for essay writing:

  • The child protagonist: A comparison between Huck Finn and Oliver Twist.
  • Realism in literature: Is realism just a replica of reality?
  • The generation gap: The relationship between children and adults in literature by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Roald Dahl.
  • Role models: Both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn steal, cheat and lie. How do children respond to naughty protagonists in literature? (You may use examples from Roald Dahl or Astrid Lindgren.)


American Literature in the 19th Century