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How Mark Twain Created The Great American Hero

mark twain

In the fourth lecture of Hillsdale College’s free online course on Mark Twain, which you can follow along with me here, Kelly Scott Franklin, an assistant professor of English at the college, traces Tom Sawyer’s moral maturation throughout his famous eponymous novel.

As Tom Sawyer Matures, He Gains Empathy

In earlier chapters of the book, Tom and his friends ran away from their homes to Jackson’s Island, where they did as they pleased without adult supervision. When the boys first arrive at the island, Huckleberry is able to sleep soundly because his conscience is silent. By contrast, Tom and his other friends feel bad about the food they stole and say silent prayers from their makeshift beds.

One night, Tom sneaks out to his old home in the town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, where he sees his relatives mourn because they think he is dead. Upon seeing this, Tom begins to weigh the feelings of others when he makes decisions, and hatches a scheme with the other boys to return to town at their own funerals and make a grand entrance.

Throughout the story, the fate of Muff Potter — a fisherman and town drunk, who was framed for murdering Dr. Robinson — hangs in the balance. While the rest of the town vilifies him, Tom and Huckleberry feel sorry for him and bring him tobacco and matches while he’s in jail.

Tom Must Tell the Truth

At the beginning of the story, the boys see Muff’s partner in crime, Injun Joe, kill Dr. Robinson and blame Muff for it, but they’re afraid to speak out and save their friend because Injun Joe is still at large and could harm them. As they watch Muff languish in jail, they feel increased pangs of guilt over their silence.

At the trial, Muff’s attorney calls on Tom to testify, much to the town’s surprise. On the witness stand Tom reveals that Injun Joe is indeed the killer, not his friend — prompting the real killer to flee the courtroom and escape custody. Tom fears for his life, knowing that Injun Joe is a dangerous man with a track record of killing people and very little to lose.

Tom and Huckleberry search for Injun Joe and his stash of gold and silver coins, and are eventually led into a cave. In the cave, Tom and Becky wander around in near-darkness throughout the vast tunnels and crevices. They narrowly escape death thanks to Tom’s deft use of kite string to guide him.

This dramatic cave scene is intended to remind the reader of the legend of the Minotaur, in which the Greek hero Theseus navigates his way around the place where the monster lies — the labyrinth — with a ball of thread. Through this imagery, Twain is establishing Tom Sawyer as the new American hero, who, like Theseus, exhibits courage in the face of fear. Twain is using Tom’s adventures to ask and answer the question of what it means to be an American hero.

Tom Sawyer, American Hero

At the time of Twain’s writing, America was still young and finding its footing in the world — like Tom and his band of friends. Twain’s use of a boy, rather than a man, to become the hero of the story is a democratic approach to fiction that reflects America’s unique political system and meritocratic society.

Tom and his friends eventually escape the cave and return to the town for help. When the townspeople return to the cave, they unseal it and find Injun Joe’s corpse near the entrance inside. The boys return later to find the coins — coins that later provide them the equivalent of a minister’s salary.

At the conclusion of the story, Huckleberry Finn gets adopted by Widow Douglas, who keeps him clean and thrusts him into the heart of civilized society.

He had to eat with a knife and fork; he had to use napkin, cup, and plate; he had to learn his book, he had to go to church; he had to talk so properly that speech was become insipid in his mouth; whithersoever he turned, the bars and shackles of civilization shut him in and bound him hand and foot.

In this passage, Twain reiterates his skepticism of what it means to live in society, which he also fleshed out in earlier chapters of the novel. Why is society something that shackles men and boys so? Should boys like Huckleberry allow themselves to be chained down in such a way, or should they escape them? Is being free — that is, living outside of society like they did on Jackson’s Island — truly liberating or merely a mirage of liberty?

The questions Twain raises about society and liberty will ultimately be teased out and answered in a subsequent novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”