Social Criticism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

I. Introduction
I.1. From didacticism to romanticism in 19th century American children’s literature
I.2. Rewarded misconduct in Mark Twain’s two children’s classics

II. Social criticism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn
II.1. The country school and the quality of former popular literature
II.2. The institution of church and Presbyterian double standards
II.3. The controversial depiction of racism
II.3.1. Huck Finn’s “sound heart” set against white brutality
II.3.2. Maltreatment of slaves and Injun Joe in Tom Sawyer
II.4. The “fickle unreasoning world”
II.4.1. The mob
II.4.2. The individual versus society

III. Evaluation
III.1. Twain’s criticism of the Old South and post-Civil War society
III.2. Twain’s social criticism – still relevant today?


I. Introduction

Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, first published in 1876, and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn of 1885 are widely known and praised as boyhood adventure stories. Both young and old are fascinated by the nostalgic portraits of American childhood, which are also blended with a good portion of social criticism. This essay will concentrate on the novels’ depiction of South American society and on critical observations and comments made by the author. His attitude towards societal concepts of education, religion and slavery will be examined, as will the conflict between individual and social morality, which is highlighted in the two novels. The subsequent evaluation will consider the question whether Twain’s criticism of his generation continues to be relevant today.

Before I can embark, though, on the study of social criticism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, it is useful to have some background information about the period of writing and the author’s notion of childhood, which will make it easier to analyse the novels in the context of 19th century American children’s literature. Therefore, I am going to begin with a brief outline of the entirely opposing trends in juvenile fiction in the first and the second half of the 19th century.

I.1. From didacticism to romanticism in 19th century American

children’s literature

Adventure and celebration of childhood was the last thing on the mind of American authors when they started writing juvenile fiction in the 1820s. At a time of rapid development and progress, the young American republic was highly concerned with the right moral up-bringing of their children – who would soon become the country’s active citizens – to secure the future of their new nation: “The nature of American institutions was settled, they believed; what remained was to make them work, to insure that the republic survived” (MacLeod 1994: 89). This is why the first American books were intended to teach morality, to shape characters by defining and encouraging model behaviour. The stories thereby reflected the expectations held by adults “of and for the next generation” (MacLeod 1994: 89). For the sake of unmistakable instruction in obedience, virtue, discipline and social responsibility, the pattern of each children’s tale was purposefully simple: As Anne S. MacLeod (1994: 91) points out the always “staid, domestic, and predictable” narratives focused on a child with some moral flaw and the way he or she overcame that weakness. Topics like the American past or everyday life were more or less completely ignored, as were industrialisation and slavery, both important issues in the period.

Only in the 1850s did the growing urban poverty bring about a change in the level of homogeneity of juvenile fiction. Authors began to portray the misery of the poor children living on the streets to rouse sympathy and a feeling of responsibility on the part of the American society. Furthermore, the increasing partiality for romanticism and sentimentality in adult fiction eventually led to a re-orientation in children’s literature. By the end of the 19th century, the notion of childhood as a crucial period for moral training was replaced by a concept in which childhood was valuable in itself. Innocence, beauty and moral purity were now presented as innate qualities of children. The sober didacticism conveyed in earlier fiction was superseded by the romantic view that the joyous and carefree nature of childhood was a desirable state of being.

I.2. Rewarded misconduct in Mark Twain’s two children’s classics

Mark Twain rejected the concept of moral lessons as being the sole motive of juvenile literature. He became one of the first American authors to write about misbehaving children who were not corrected but even rewarded. There are numerous examples in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom runs away from home and has the pleasure of attending his own funeral; he does not learn his verses for Sunday school, but he is rewarded with a Bible; or Tom has to whitewash a fence as a punishment, but he avoids it by cunningly convincing his friends to do the work, who even pay him for the “privilege”. Although Tom steals, lies, sneaks out of the house at night, shows interest in neither school nor church and does not obey his aunt, the novel ends with him and Huck being rich and the heroes of the village: “Wherever Tom and Huck appeared they were courted, admired, stared at” (216).

Even Huck, who is in no way inferior to Tom with regard to social misconduct, is rewarded. Being the pariah boy of the community, Huck attends neither school nor church, steals, smokes, swears and idles away his time. His aversion to the conventional way of life urges him to run away from St Petersburg in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and at the end of the long journey his reluctance to adapt himself to society is still the same: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it” (281). The conclusion does not provide a character reform favourable to society, which would have been demanded in earlier literature instead. Mark Twain confronts the readership with a completely different understanding of a good child as he “accepted, and even glorified, antisocial behavior in boys while insisting that their inherent goodness balanced the ledger” (MacLeod 1994: 75). He invites the readers to take pleasure in boys who are full of mischief in small matters and justifies it by revealing their kind-heartedness in serious matters. It is difficult to doubt the boys’ moral integrity when Tom risks his life by telling the truth about the murder or when Huck accepts eternal damnation in order to help Jim escape. Mark Twain’s “good boy” is ingenious, brave, brisk and adventurous and Twain repudiates that mischievous behaviour in children is necessarily a sign of wickedness.

II. Social criticism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

So far, the focus has been purely on anti-social behaviour in Twain’s novels as a reaction to moral didacticism in earlier writings for children. The question arises as to whether the two adventure stories have any moral message at all. As the title suggests, this work is not going to take seriously the notice given at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. (5).

Despite the undeniable danger of overanalysing, this notice is taken rather as a hint at the underlying criticism of social morality. Moral intentions behind Huck’s inner conflicts, Sherburn’s speech about “the average man” or in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer comments on the “fickle unreasoning world” (151) can hardly be ignored. The following chapters are going to demonstrate that both texts abound with moral reflections and judgements – not in the old sense of giving children instruction as to how to behave, but by attacking social traditions and behaviour.

II.1. The country school and the quality of former popular literature

Schooling is one of the central objects of criticism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain writes fully about the daily school routine and the power struggle existing between the teacher and his group of pupils. He claims to give a realistic picture of a typical country school, when he confronts the prevailing ideal of an obedient pupil, who likes to go to school and is anxious to learn, with a rebellious class of pupils, whose main interest is to play a trick on the hated, excessively strict master. The master’s function is presented as being almost purely to make sure that law and order prevail, which he achieves with the help of corporal punishment. This one-sided function is symbolised by the reduction of the teacher to his exercising body parts or his disciplinary action: “The master’s arm performed until it was tired” (51) or Tom felt “a slow fateful grip closing on his ear” (53) and another time a “tremendous whack came down on [his] shoulders” (55). The superiority of the teacher is demonstrated by multiple references to the master sitting “in his throne” (50, 53, 133, 136) and his “majestic” (136) way of retribution. The one-sided depiction of the teacher as a punitive tyrant and the stressed severity of the punishments – particularly in the preparation scene for the examination day – indicate Twain’s disapproval of the harshness with which knowledge was drummed into the children:

[A]ll the tyranny that was in him [Mr Dobbins] came to the surface; he seemed to take a vindictive pleasure in punishing the least shortcomings. The consequence was that the smallest boys spent their days in terror and suffering and their nights in plotting revenge. (136)

But the criticism of Mr Dobbins does not stop here. Twain questions the teacher’s whole authority by representing him as a figure of fun. Behind the ironically kingly façade there is no more than a common village master, who did not have enough money to become a doctor, his preferred career. Correspondingly unmotivated and frustrated, he is unsparingly strict with his pupils, reads an anatomy book during the lessons and is often sleepy. On examination day, his last scene in the story, he is made the object of ridicule. His “unmajestic” exit with his bald head painted golden makes it hardly possible to take Mr Dobbins in his role as a teacher seriously.

Apart from the teacher, the didactic child gets a setback. In addition to rascals like Tom being rewarded, society’s “good children” completely lack admirable characteristics. Tom’s stepbrother Sid likes to learn, but he is by no means presented as a positive character. He is sneaky, it gives him great pleasure to tell on Tom, but he is too much of a coward to fight with Tom and runs away instead. As a further example, the model boy Willie Mufferson is described as a show-off. The most unfortunate, however, is the “boy of German parentage” (30)[1], who loses his mind after learning too much: “[T]he strain upon his mental faculties was too great, and he was little better than an idiot from that day forth” (30). This fateful case makes it clear that one can make too much of learning things and that learning too much can indeed be harmful. It points at the false ambition of schools – or in this case Sunday-schools – not only to support, but also to actively arouse an unreasonable eagerness to learn by awarding prizes for it.

The most severe criticism, however, is directed against the popular literature of that time. Twain’s descriptive account of the examination day down to the last detail and his biting comments give an idea of how badly he must have suffered mentally on such occasions. He devotes more than three pages to the essays all written by schoolgirls, which were read out on these evenings. He embarks on a tearing apart of the so-called “original ‘compositions’ ” (138) by referring to the recurring and thereby unoriginal themes that “were the same that had been illuminated upon similar occasions by their mothers before them, their grandmothers, and doubtless all their ancestors in the female line clear back to the Crusades” (138). Furthermore, he lists “a nursed and petted melancholy”, “a wasteful and opulent gush of ‘fine language’ ”, with an unnatural accumulation of literarily esteemed terms, and the concluding “inveterate and intolerable sermon” (138) as essential ingredients of each work. The girls’ affected performance additionally underlines the artificiality and “glaring insincerity” (138) of the literature. Only the style seems to be important, the content does not really matter as long as the underlying message is in accord with the Presbyterian world view. Yet, one page of scathing criticism is not sufficient for Twain to reveal the whole extent of unbearable claptrap. He adds extracts from three compositions, referring to them as a “nightmare” (141) and hopes “the reader can endure” (138) these examples. It is certainly difficult to find another passage in the novel in which Twain expresses his contempt with equal clarity and thoroughness as he does with regard to society’s taste for cheap sentimentalism without any literary value.


[1] The striking choice of and emphasis on the boy’s national origin can perhaps be explained by the fact that German immigrants could often not afford to send their children to school at the time of the narrative (cf: Hunt 1995: 109). The boy’s overzealousness might derive from a deep awareness of the privilege of being educated – especially if he is only allowed to go to Sunday school.

A second possible motive for the boy being German could be Twain’s critical attitude towards the German language. In a speech about “The disappearance of liturature“ (cf: Fisher Fishkin 1996: 193) he pokes fun at the potential length of German nouns and at the German sentence stucture, which he regarded as much too complicated. In this context it is perhaps no accident that it is a German of all pupils who has both the faculty and the stupidity to learn three thousand verses from the Bible and to recite them without a break. Thus, it is possible that the remark about the boy’s descendance was intended as another attack on the German language.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Social Criticism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn
University of Cologne
19th Century Children's Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
534 KB
Social, Criticism, Adventures, Sawyer, Huckleberry, Finn, Century, Children, Literature
Quote paper
Barbara Groß-Langenhoff (Author), 2003, Social Criticism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Social Criticism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free