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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 12

Twain offers you some comic relief in this chapter. The episode serves as a bridge between two story lines: the murder and its aftermath, and Tom's running away to Jackson's Island in Chapter 13.

The chapter uses another plot line-Tom's courtship of Becky Thatcher-as a springboard. Becky is sick, and her absence from school takes all the joy out of Tom's life. It seems that Becky's sickness is one thing that Tom can't transform into play.

Yet Aunt Polly manages to turn Tom's woe into a form of play for herself. She loves to experiment with patent (non- prescription) medicines, and Tom's depression provides a challenge to her inventiveness.

NOTE: MODEL FOR POLLY'S QUACKERY

As early as 1866, when Twain was on a steamer headed for Hawaii, he jotted down memories that would become part of Tom Sawyer. Some of those notes described his mother's attempts to make him swallow a patent medicine called Pain- Killer (spelled, incorrectly, Painkiller in some editions). The medicine was supposed to be used externally to soothe aching muscles and bruises. But his mother, an avid reader of the "quack periodicals" Twain criticizes here, thought that Pain- Killer might have internal uses, as well. Twain, in turn, gave a dose of the medicine to his cat-with the consequences he elaborates on in this chapter.


Tom can't hide from Polly's "persecution." But, despite his gloominess, he finds a defense, once more, in a game from which he will emerge victorious. He pretends to want her Pain- Killer so much that she finally allows him to serve himself, and Tom pours doses of the vile liquid through a crack in the floor. While he is doing this, Peter, the cat, begs for a taste. Tom gives him one, and Peter leaps around the room in pain. "Cats always act so when they're having a good time," he tells Polly.

He continues speaking ironically-saying one thing and meaning another-even after Polly discovers what has happened. "I done it out of pity for him-because he hadn't any aunt." Tom now has Polly where he wants her-feeling remorseful. "What was cruelty to a cat might be cruelty to a boy, too," she allows. Tom has won his game.

But the chapter ends in defeat for him. He sets off to school early and hangs around the schoolyard gate hoping to see Becky Thatcher. She shows up, and Tom is suddenly beside himself with happiness. But his showing off only brings a reproach from Becky, crushing him.

NOTE: TOM'S BEHAVIOR

Some readers aren't amused by Tom's strenuous efforts to gain attention. "Adults might think such antics are cute," Robert Keith Miller writes in his book, Mark Twain. "But they're not the ones being knocked over or having their hat snatched. The actual victims of his aggression probably welcomed the days on which Tom chose to stay away from school." What do you think Tom's classmates feel about him? Could Twain's nostalgia for his boyhood lead him to overlook the fact that Tom might be a nuisance? Or are such speculations beside the point?

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