Week 4

In reading Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, the theme of childishness stood out to me countless times throughout the telling of Tom’s rambunctious adventures in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. As I went through the novel, and later when discussing the many “scenes” in class, I was drawn to the scene in which Tom trades his treasures for yellow tickets, not only for a Bible, as was a customary reward of gathering ten of them, but for “the glory and the élat that came with it” (Twain 36). Here, Tom’s ‘showing off’ was compared to the way the adults were ‘showing off’, and how each person that was focused on had their own way of gaining attention from the people they wanted to impress. While Tom’s childish way of showing off—by “using every art that seemed likely to fascinate a girl and win her applause”—is to gain the eye of Amy of Lawrence, the adults are trying to gain the favor of the superintendent Mr. Walters, ‘showing off’ in less obvious ways: the librarian makes a show of running around with her books, the female teachers put on their best “good teacher” act, while the males made a show of their authority and attention to discipline, while the children ‘showed off’ in various, childish ways; the superintendent himself ‘show[s] off’ with his barking of orders to “everywhere that he could find a target”, and even the judge showed off as he “warmed himself in the sun of his own grandeur” (Twain 38-40). The way that Twain parallels their appeals both compare and undermine the way that adults vie for the attention of that “insect authority” (Twain 39). The play that the “actors” in this scene are keeping up with escapes the notice of the boy, whose eyes are focused on the attention of a girl he likes, rather than the authority figure whom everyone around him is so desperate to impress, ignoring the social cues that everyone else makes a show of conforming to. Tom, who ironically manages only to gain Amy’s hatred after she realizes what he’s done to gain the yellow tickets, embodies the nature of anti-establishment in this situation. The judge—who explains the “right” method of obtaining upward social mobility, by upholding the establishment and following the correct order of operations necessary to rightfully gain a position like his own—offers a foil to Tom, a boy who took a shortcut and skipped all the trouble of doing everything the way a boy is “supposed” to do, and still managed to stand before the man. There is also a hint of irony in the Superintendent’s speech on pages 42 to 43: He insists that he has done all the right things, but there is hardly any evidence to suggest that he had followed his own “blueprint to success himself”. More than that, it brings up the contradictory nature of what is “inherent”, or “common sense”, and how much of what is expected is “natural” behavior. Tom mischievous nature leads him to often undermine authority, if not entirely flip the concept on its head. I think this scene is one of the ones where you’re able to glimpse into the way that his childish way of doing things highlights the unnatural practices of the people around him, and how his unusual way of thinking manages to slip him under the radar of what we would expect him not to get away with.

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