The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Summary and Analysis of Chapters 15-21

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Chapter 15 Summary:

Stealing away from the other two boys, Tom decides to return home in order to deliver a message (written on the sycamore bark) to Aunt Polly. Because the raft has already drifted away, Tom sneaks himself onto a ferryboat headed toward the banks of St. Petersburg. After safely making it on shore, Tom hurries back home only to peer through the sitting room window and see Aunt Polly, Sid, Mary, and Joe Harper's mother in a solemn state. Quietly sneaking through the door, Tom hides under the bed and eavesdrops on their conversation.

Aunt Polly and Mrs. Harper are weeping and praying for the lost boys, who are presumed to be dead after drowning in the river. He learns that if the bodies remain undiscovered until Sunday, then a funeral service is to be held that morning. Staying hidden until everyone has either left or retired to bed, Tom hears Aunt Polly "making broken-hearted ejaculations" in her sleep, sobbing for "her Tom," and asking for forgiveness for every licking and scolding. Touched and full of pity for the old woman, Tom finally steals out from under the bed when Polly is finally asleep and kisses her on the lips. But after thinking twice, he decides not to give Aunt Polly his letter. Instead, he returns to the ferry landing, and makes his way back to the island on a stolen skiff.

By the time Tom has returned to camp, it is daylight and the pirates prepare for a day of fishing and exploring.

Chapter 15 Analysis:

When Tom returns home and sees Aunt Polly crying over his death, he realizes that one of his fantasies of being "dead temporarily" has been fulfilled. Previously, Tom had wished to be dead when he had been full of self-pity. His idea was to make those who had hurt him suffer in guilt and regret for treating him in the wrong manner. He gets exactly what he wished for: Aunt Polly is heartbroken over mistreating him, and even Sid seems sorrowful. But Tom realizes that this scene provides him little comfort, for he feels nothing but pity for Aunt Polly and her sufferings.

An important observation to make is that Tom's return happens in the night. In writing the novel, there is an incredible emphasis between night and day, light and dark. The murder of Dr. Robinson occurs during the night, and so do the later "outings" that Tom and Huck undertake. Nighttime is often used as an archetype; here, the night can be seen as a symbol of death and darkness. For Tom, who is believed to be dead, sneaks into the house almost as if he is ghost of some sort. When he returns to St. Petersburg, he really does act as if he were dead: nobody notices his presence and he seems to "haunt" Aunt Polly as she sleeps.

Chapter 16 Summary:

After returning to camp, Tom mentions nothing of his adventures the night before. Instead, the boys take on variety of activities: whopping and prancing, swimming, wrestling, and fishing. But presently, Tom finds himself drawing the name "BECKY" in the sand and both Joe and Huck grow melancholy. They are homesick. After arguing with Tom, both Joe and Huck admit that that pirate life isn't what they expected and wish to return to St. Petersburg. Tom, unable to convince them to stay on the island, is forced to reveal his secret plan (which remains a secret to the reader). After marveling over Tom's brilliance, the "lads came gaily back and went at their sports again with a will."

After dinner, Huck teaches Tom and Joe how to smoke tobacco from a pipe. At about midnight, the three awake to a solemn silence that has gripped the island. The air grows cold, and soon, a drenching rain begins to pour down upon them. In the darkness, they scramble to shelter underneath their tent, cold, scared, and wet. The storm passes violently, with blinding conflagrations of lightening, harsh winds, and ear-splitting thunder. With their fire burned out and their shelter damaged to the point of uselessness, Tom, Joe, and Huck attempt to distract themselves by playing "Cowboys and Indians." The chapter leaves the boys in a semi-happy state, smoking pipes and chatting away the night.

Chapter 16 Analysis:

Like the river and night, a storm is a common archetype to represent a profound change in character, typically the protagonist of the story. The storm on Jackson's Island is of great magnitude, unlike the other storms of the novel. Twain describes ceaseless lightening and a "slanting veil of rain." We can predict that this is a major turning point for Tom's character, particularly because he is about to return home and face reality, so to speak. The river, too, becomes billowy and "white with foam," perhaps a foreshadowing of trouble's Tom must face ahead. Twain even suggests that the "brooding oppressiveness in the airŠ seemed to bode something."

The storm scene of Jackson Island is perhaps one of the most intense and dramatic scenes of the novel in terms of descriptive language. Here Twain uses very powerful imagery to depict each stage of the storm. First a "solemn hush," then all light became "swallowed up in the blackness of darkness." What makes Twain's writing so powerful in this chapter is not flowery language, but a detailed description of action: furious blasts, drenching rain, a rising hurricane, and booming thunderblasts. The description is concentrated and to-the-point, but very effective: "keen and sharp," "ear-splitting explosive bursts," and "clean-cut and shadow-less distinctness." The chaotic use of verbs and description seems to reflect the chaotic nature of the storm itself. The scene exemplifies Twain's great ability to capture action with his words.

Chapter 17 Summary:

On Saturday afternoon, everyone in the town of St. Petersburg is in a somber mood.. Even Becky Thatcher wishes that she had Tom's brass knob to remember him by. Regretting her harsh words from the days before Tom's disappearance, she breaks down into tears. Meanwhile, playmates of both Tom and Joe gather around the schoolyard, recalling memories of Tom. Disputes broke out over who saw the departed boys last, who had spoken with them last, who had played with them last. Tom and Joe were like heroes.

The next morning, the church bell begins to toll and the villagers begin to gather for the funeral. Aunt Polly, Mary, Sid, and the Harper family are dressed in black and reverently sit in the front pew. After hymns and prayers, nothing but praise is sung of the boys. The clergyman "drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise" of the boys while even the minister "illustrated their sweet, generous naturesŠ" As the mourners, congregation, and even the preacher begin to cry with such movement, the church door creaks open, unnoticed. Standing in the door are Tom, Huck, and Joe who had been hiding in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!

The families throw themselves over the "restored" boys, and even Huck is lavished with kisses from Aunt Polly. The event is almost miraculous, and Tom confesses "in his heart that this was the proudest moment of his life."

Chapter 17 Analysis:

At last, Tom has achieved exactly what he has always wished for: every adult in town mourns his death and every child at school vies to be connected to him in some way, one even claiming that "Tom Sawyer he licked me once." How ironic that the minister and clergymen that used to punish Tom in Sunday school now only relate "many a touching incident" and the boys' "sweet and generous natures." Even the church bell at the start of the funeral service begins to "toll, instead of ringing in the usual way."

When the three boys enter the Church, to the surprise and stares of all those in the congregation, even Huckleberry (at the insistence of Tom) is showered with hugs and kisses. Huck, once the town pariah, is now standing in church and being lavished upon with Aunt Polly's "loving attentions," making him uncomfortable. To the congregation, it is a miracle that the boys are alive, and looking back in the text, there is even more irony in Twain's use of the biblical text: "I am the Resurrection and the Life."

Chapter 18 Summary:

Tom's great secret is finally revealed to the reader: the scheme to return home and attend his own funeral. During breakfast, Aunt Polly reveals that she wishes Tom had given her some kind of message to ease her mind. "Sid would have thought. And Sid would have come and done it, too," says Aunt Polly. Tom, thinking quickly, replies that he wishes he did, but that he had dreamed about Aunt Polly. Out of curiosity, Aunt Polly inquires Tom about his dream. Tom recalls the incidents of Wednesday night, but implies that he dreamt the entire account. He recalls the entire family, including Mrs. Harper, sitting and crying by the door. "I took and wrote on a piece of sycamore bark, ŒWe ain't dead ­ we are only off being pirates,' and put it on the table by the candleŠ I thought I went and leaned over and kissed you on the lips." Polly, convinced that Tom had prophesied the account and that an angel must have been present, rewards Tom with an apple and kisses before sending him off to school.

At school, Tom and Joe walk around with a "dignified air," telling tales of their adventures and putting envy in the eyes of all the other boys. In his glory, Tom comes to the decision that he can now be independent of Becky Thatcher. Although pretending not to see her, Tom observes that Becky is "showing off": screaming with laughter, chasing schoolmates, and casting a "conscious eye" in his direction. With vanity taking over, Tom begins to put his attentions into conversation with Amy Lawrence. Becky, trembling with tears, retaliates by going off in a corner with Alfred Temple and a picture book. Now feeling jealous and unable to stand Amy's meaningless chatter, Tom storms off angrily at his missed opportunity to reunite with Becky. Meanwhile, Becky becomes bored with Alfred once she realizes that Tom has already left the schoolyard. "Go away and leave me alone, can't you! I hate you!" she yells at Alfred as she walks away.

Alfred, humiliated and angry after realizing the truth, vows revenge upon Tom. Seeing Tom's open spelling-book, Alfred pours ink on the lesson for the afternoon, unaware that Becky is peering through the schoolhouse. She heads toward home, hoping to find Tom and win his thanks; but with a second thought, she remembers Tom's cold treatment of her, and resolves to let him receive a whipping for the ink-covered lesson.

Chapter 18 Analysis:

Immediately after returning home, we see that Tom is back in his regular routine despite his attempt to change. He easily manipulates Aunt Polly by telling her about the dream, and although he tries to forget about Becky, he flirts with Amy Lawrence only to attract Becky's attention. His actions seem somewhat petty and it doesn't appear that Tom's adventures on Jackson Island have helped him mature at all; instead, he simply seems more self-confident and temperamental.

One thing that should be appreciated about Twain's writing is his sense of humor. His satire, especially regarding authority and the church, are meant to be light-hearted. Here, some of his witty humor appears, but in a more subtle manner. For instance, Aunt Polly says, "It ain't much ­ a cat does that much," when referring to Tom's claims that he dreamed about her. The reference to a cat is an allusion back to chapter twelve, when Tom feeds the cat painkiller and parallels the cat's pain to his own. Similarly, we see that Aunt Polly is as superstitious as Tom, believing that he has prophesied when he recounts his "dreams." Tom may believe in ghosts and witches, but Aunt Polly believes in cure-alls and prophesies!

Chapter 19 Summary:

Arriving home in a horrible mood, Tom is confronted by Aunt Polly, who has learned that Tom has lied to her about his "dream." After returning from the Harper household, she learns that Tom had returned home that Wednesday night. Ridden with guilt, Tom apologizes, but tells Polly that he had meant to give her the piece of bark. Confused, Aunt Polly asks Tom: "Did you kiss me, Tom?" Upon hearing him admit that he did so because he loved her, she forgives him and sends him off to school.

After Tom leaves the house, she reaches for his jacket pocket to find the piece of bark with Tom's handwriting scrawled across it. Reading his message, she cries: "I could forgive the boy, now, if he'd committed a million sins!"

Chapter 19 Analysis:

When Aunt Polly confronts Tom about his lie, Tom is surprised how his "joke" from that morning could look so "mean and shabby" when seen from Polly's perspective. Although Tom is not as selfish as Polly first claims, she is correct in saying that the child never thinks. Tom's conscience kicks in only in retrospect; he often finds himself lost in guilt or remorse for having committed some grave sin or having not told the truth. Part of growing up is learning how to become accountable for one's actions, a lesson that Tom has not yet learned.

However, in this scene, Polly learns that Tom truly does care for her after finding the piece of bark in his jacket pocket. There seems to be an unspoken love between the two. Despite their opposite nature ­ Tom is a troublemaker, while Polly is always "socially" correct ­ both love each other and maintain a strong mother-son-like relationship.

Chapter 20 Summary:

After Aunt Polly kisses Tom good-bye, his moods are lifted. Seeing Becky Thatcher, he runs to her and apologizes for ignoring her and asks to "please make up." But Becky, still furious, simply tosses her head and passes on, sending Tom into a rage.

Meanwhile, as Becky passes by the schoolmaster's desk in the empty schoolhouse, she notices that Mr. Dobbins has left a key in the drawer lock of his desk. Every day, Mr. Dobbins would take a mysterious book out of his desk, which he read when class was not in session, otherwise keeping it under lock and key. "The darling of [Mr. Dobbins's] desires was to be a doctor, but poverty had decreed that he should be nothing higher than a village schoolmaster," writes Twain. The book, described as "Professor Somebody's Anatomy," was Mr. Dobbins's secret reading material. Finding herself alone, Becky opens the drawer and opens the book only to find an engraved frontispiece of a naked human figure. At that moment, Tom steps in through the door, startling Becky who accidentally tears the picture down the middle. Bursting into tears and aware of the gravity of her upcoming punishment, Becky yells angrily at a still confused Tom.

As the students file in, the day proceeds as usual. Presently, the spelling-book discovery is made, and Tom takes a whipping for the ruined lesson. Becky forces herself to keep from revealing the truth, afraid that Tom will simply tell on her for tearing Mr. Dobbins's book. But when Dobbins discovers his torn book and asks each student whether he or she tore the book, Tom springs to his feet as Becky is succumbing to pressure and shouts: "I done it!" Taking one of the harshest beatings ever given by the schoolmaster, Tom is inspired by his own good deed knowing that Becky will throw her thanks upon him.

Later that night, Tom goes to bed planning revenge on Alfred Temple; Becky, in all her guilt, tells Tom of Alfred's treachery. Her words linger in his memory as he falls asleep: "Tom, how could you be so noble!"

Chapter 20 Analysis:

Throughout Tom Sawyer, Twain makes a mockery of the adult and authority figures in the novel. In this chapter, we see another example of this mockery when the secrets of Schoolmaster Dobbins are revealed: his lovelorn nature, his desire to be a physician, his secret study of the human anatomy. Dobbins is portrayed not as someone who is fit for instructing schoolchildren, but as a somewhat pathetic character. This attitude toward authority figures ­ schoolmasters, ministers, and parents ­ seems to embody the frontier ideal that opposes restraint of any kind, social or physical.

Tom, as the protagonist of the story, appears to have the most insight and intellect to the reader. Unlike the adults of St. Petersburg, Tom seems to have a good understanding of human nature, with his ability to assess characters and situations. In this chapter, we see the more noble side of Tom when he is willing to take the whippings from Mr. Dobbins simply to save Becky from embarrassment. He does so partly because he knows Becky will forever be in debt to him, but also because he truly cares for her.

Chapter 21 Summary:

As vacation approaches, Schoolmaster Dobbins grows more and more strict due to the quick advance of "Examination" day when the entire town gathered to watch performances done by the students of St. Petersburg. His lashings grow more and more severe, and the smaller boys vow to seek revenge upon the fierce schoolmaster. Conspiring together with the sign-painters boy (the master had boarded in the sign-painter's family), the group decides to act on the day of Examination Evening, knowing that before the event Dobbins would celebrate by drinking.

On the big evening, the town gathers in their best clothes and the exercises begin. Little boys and little girls recite poems and speeches; Tom Sawyer begins with "Give me liberty or give me death," but stops halfway through, unable to remember his lines. There are reading and spelling exercises, a Latin recitation, and then the young ladies present original compositions. Twain describes the compositions as "nursed" and like "petty melancholy." Each piece was a "wasteful and opulent gush" of moralistic and religious teaching. Twain writes: "There is no school in all our land where the young ladies do not feel obliged to close their compositions with a sermonŠ Homely truth is unpalatable."

When the time finally comes for the geography class to perform, Dobbins rises to the blackboard and begins to draw a map of the United States. The "tittering" in the classroom increases, but Dobbins remains confused as to what the snickering is about. Above his head is a cat suspended by her haunches with a rag tied around her mouth to prevent her from mewing. Clawing at the string, she is suspended lower and lower until in her clawing and moving about, she grasps the teacher's wig in her claws. The boys have finally achieved retribution, for the sign-painter's son has gilded the schoolmaster's bald head!

Chapter 21 Analysis:

Twain's description of "Examination" day is a prime example of his great talent for satire writing. Ultimately, the author shows his contempt for pretentiousness in his mockery of the original compositions written by the young ladies of St. Petersburg. The compositions are flowery, dramatic, and more a matter of showing off vocabulary than showing off good writing. "Good breeding," once said Twain, "consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person." Twain depicts this insincere, holier-than-thou attitude in the young ladies' work. Their pieces are full of clichés and useless words; when the townspeople applaud the girls, Twain makes a mockery of them as well. Twain shows his aversion toward the moral code imposed by small-town life and the pretentious attitude that accompanies it.

Even more humorous is the manner in which the boys are able to humiliate Mr. Dobbins. Whether it be a minister, schoolteacher or guardian, Twain seems to always show how the children are able to punish the authorities rather than vice versa. Examination Day exemplifies Twain's distaste for authority figures while also reminding the reader that with age comes a sense of maturity - something the school children do not yet possess.