Tom - A Foil to Huck? in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are the principal boy characters created by the novelist, Mark Twain. While the former is the hero of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the latter is the principal character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

      Though both these characters are alike in a number of ways, "they have certain intrinsic differences in circumstance, outlook and attitude. They are similar in that both are orphans. While Tom is adopted by Aunt Polly, a relative, Huck's caretaker is Widow Douglas. Both the boys are extremely brave and wouldn't let go of an opportunity to taste adventure even if it spells danger.

      Despite a lot of similarities, they are a complete foil to each other. At the outset, we become acquainted with the difference in their respective social standing and circumstance. Tom has, so far, led a fairly comfortable and respectable life. Having had an archetypical American upbringing, he has had all the social advantages that a boy his age could possibly crave for. He has the security of a family and is well looked after. His guardian, Aunt Polly, views his boyish pranks with extreme lenience and lets him get away with most of his tricks. He has the privilege of attending school and church. Though his life lacks the excitement that he hungers after, he is materially comfortable.

      In sharp contrast, Huck hails from the lowest wrung of the white civilized society. On the outside, he has a simpler and a more relaxed lifestyle. He doesn't feel obliged to attend school. He whiles away his time in idle pursuits like smoking and lazing around. Behind the apparent charm of such a happy-go-lucky and blithe existence, his life is quite a nightmare. He has been brought up in utter poverty, and lives in an environment that resembles a pigsty. Though he has a father, Huck is a totally uncared for lad. The father, far from serving as a role model for the son, subjects him to verbal and physical abuse. At one point in the novel, he kidnaps his son and, in a fit of drunken stupor, even tries to kill him.

      Though Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson, try to reform the gauche lad, most of their efforts come to naught. Huck disappoints their entire struggle to ameliorate his social situation, as he can't relate to all their religious teachings and lectures on gentlemanly behavior.

      With Twain's view of the Romantic ideal, the contrast between these two characters becomes even more striking. The two are poles apart in their perception of the world around them. The novelist portrays Tom as an ardent follower of romantic notions of adventure. He has read a multitude of books on heroism and tales of adventure and has his head full of exalted quixotic notions. His adulation of such notions makes him lose touch with reality and he fails to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

      Huck, on the other hand, leads a more cerebral existence. His view of the world is grounded in reality. Despite the lack of formal education and that in History, Geography, Science and Mathematics, he has more common-sense than the educated, but foolish, Tom. Twain presents him as though the trials and tribulations of Huck's life have contributed towards his maturity. These attributes have made him grow up faster and view the world in a more balanced way. For instance, in chapter 16, when they encounter a couple of slave-hunters on the way, Huck cooks up a story about his father suffering from small pox. His agile mind gives him practical and worthwhile ideas to manage his own affairs and get out of real-life trouble. The convincing way in which he shams his own murder is proof enough of this common-sense.

      Tom's romantic imagination is acceptable in so far as it is that of an innocent adolescent one who revels in day-dreaming and fantasizing: He dreams of reaching the heights of glory by robbing Arab merchants of their booty and holding people for "ransom". Without a clear idea of what it means, he just wants to do as they do in the books that he has read.

"Why, blame it all, we've got to do it. Don't I tell you it's in the books? Do you want to go to doing different from what's in the books, and get things all muddled up?...Well, I don't know. But per'aps if we keep them till they're ransomed, it means that we keep them till they're dead."

      We are all aware of such childhood fantasies. To an extent, they are healthy and nourishing for the spirits of a young boy. But, more often than not, we see Tom crossing the limits of harmless fantasizing and treading dangerous territories. In chapter 33, Tom and Huck unexpectedly come face to face. Huck needs Tom's help to free Jim from the shackles of slavery. But Tom is simply not ready to see the common sense ways of achieving their goal. Anything that is simple and basic doesn't appeal to his senses. He chooses the convoluted and crazy methods of going about things just because he doesn't want to deviate from his "principles He strongly believes that Huck's methods are totally unsuited to the image of a romantic hero and he would, definitely, not let go of any opportunity to prove his heroism.

      In his pursuit, he makes Jim have snakes, rats and other such creatures as room-mates. He thinks of the preposterous idea of designing a coat of arms for the latter. He even goes as far as drafting anonymous letters to the Phelps family, forewarning them about the slave's attempt to escape. When the escape is finally actualized, Tom gets shot in his leg and suffers a serious wound.

      Twain wants to drive home the point that such notions and ideals are not just juvenile and harebrained but they can also be downright hazardous. Though, on the surface, Tom is helping Jim escape, but, in reality, he makes things unnecessarily complicated for him, thus increasing his chances of getting recaptured. Later in the novel, we are acquainted with the fact that, all this while, Tom already knew Miss Watson had freed Jim in her Will. In the light of this revelation, Tom's idea of the escapade becomes even more ridiculous and paints him in an extremely negative light. This is Jim's only chance to be reunited with his family. Far from having the compassion and empathy that characterizes Huck, Tom is merely interested in having furn. He is selfish enough to believe that he can compensate Jim for his trouble by offering his a sum of forty dollars (Chapter 43). Had he not been a young teenager, we would have perceived him more as a villain.

      The two boys are different also in the kind of control that they exercise over each other. Moments where Tom acquires leadership roles are evident from the beginning of the novel. When Huck decides to run away from the civilizing influence of Widow Douglas, Tom exercises his authority and brings him back. On another occasion, when Huck fakes his murder, he misses the "stylish" touches that he would have expected Tom to add to the entire game. Later in the novel, when the two boys plan Jim's escapade, though Hick doesn't fully subscribe to Tom's ways, he gives in to him because, somewhere in his heart of hearts, he acknowledges the latter's superiority and reveres his "style".

"What a head for just a boy to have! If I had Tom Sawyers head I wouldn't trade it off to be a duke, nor mate of a steamboat, nor clown in a circus, nor nothing I can think of". (Chapter 34)

      Little does Huck realize that his coherence and rationality is more valuable than Tom's scatterbrained ideas.

      On the whole, Mark Twain paints a fairly uncomplimentary picture of Tom. He seems to commend Huck for his matter-of-fact approach. The novelist seems to appreciate the "uneducated" Huck, an outcast, more than the "half-educated" Tom who is a conformist. Despite the social conditioning that he is subjected to, Huck basically remains unchanged and uncorrupted. Though he is a part of society, he does not acquiesce to many of its ideals and norms. He banks upon his own prudence and sense of "right" or "wrong". Though not a moral genius or somebody who is infallible, Huck is, definitely, respected more than Tom, in the eyes of Mark Twain.

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