The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
Rating: 3 out of 10 stars
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (and it’s even more popular sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) would certainly be high on a list of the most famous and popular American novels. These books “capture the spirit of American boyhood in the pre-Civil war era” and are a “nostalgic and humorous look at the naivete and simple eagerness of childhood”. They are filled with dry humor, and combine the unlikely and adventurous with an unusually keen portrayal of real character and everyday life. The pranks and attitudes of the boys (and girls) in the story are described in vivid and lifelike language, and the idiosyncrasies of Aunt Polly and the other adult characters provide an excellent foil for the children. Tom’s creativity and imagination are hilarious; especially his idea of what a pirate’s or robber’s life is like.
But are these books good reading material for Christians?
Phillipians 4:8 gives a good description of what we should be looking for in literature: “Whatsoever things are... pure…” (Phil. 4:8) We need to focus on things that are good, and build us up in right character. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a far cry from presenting right character traits. Tom is a lying, lazy, unusually smart rascal, whose big imagination and ability to conveniently escape work provide the interest of the story. Oh, and his juvenile love-making and engagement add an element of further interest.
Briefly listed, here are the major problems with this book:
1. Tom’s character is bad: he is a habitual liar, is very lazy, has a very distorted sense of honor (running away from home to be pirate, but convicted (briefly) that he stole a ham to take along), is unkind to boys smaller than himself, and “falls in love” with a girl and convinces her to engage herself to him. Yet there is no correction brought to him; instead he has great “good luck”, and his escapades are described in such a hilarious way that the reader almost cannot help but be immensely tickled.
2. The tongue-in-cheek portrayal of religion, Sunday school, and Christianity in general is both funny and disrespectful. Church going people are shown as being hypocritical, though well meaning, rather weak minded characters. The “bad boy”, Huck Finn, is greatly admired by the other boys, especially since he doesn’t have to go to school or church, and gets to sleep in a barrel on the side of the road.
3. Aunt Polly is not at all a wise disciplinarian, and Mark Twain portrays her, and most other authority, as being foolish old fogies, who have forgotten their own youth and wish to suppress and cram children into tight molds in order to form “good character”.
4. A good deal of foolish superstition is mixed into the story: such as visiting a grave yard at a time when demons are supposed to be present, and throwing a dead cat after them to take away warts. While these superstitions are written about in the same tongue-in-cheek style as religion, and are made to appear almost as foolish as they really are, children simply don’t need to read about them (and neither do adults!). The knowledge of the ridiculous and dangerous ways in which children sometimes would try to meddle in the spirit world can do them no good, and may do harm; so why would we expose them to it?
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was a brilliant writer, and can describe people’s inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies in his own dry style, making a hilarious narrative, but as Christians we should be looking for literature that has real value, not simply a funny story to fill up our time with humor.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.