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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 21

Faced with patent insincerity, the indulgent narrator takes off his gloves here. Twain has tucked an expository essay into this chapter to explain his anger and some of his views on writing. Yet the chapter is still hilariously funny.

As the school year winds down, Mr. Dobbins prepares his students for the ordeal of Examination Night, the closing exercise. Dobbins is especially eager for a good performance. He literally whips his students into shape-at least, those students too small to fight back. Remember that the one-room schoolhouse of Twain's day served students of all ages. The oldest student in Twain's school, Andy Fuqua, was twenty-five.

The smaller boys hatch a plot to get revenge on Examination Night. Except to say that the sign-painter's boy has been enlisted in the scheme, Twain keeps you in the dark about the plot until the very end of the chapter. Can you suggest why?

The bulk of the chapter describes Examination Night. Read the description closely to discover Twain's criticism of a popular literary style and of what passed for education in his day.


The entire town seems to have assembled to see the students perform and compete for prizes. The first "scholar" to appear is a little boy, who recites an old favorite-David Everett's 1791 poem, "Lines Written for a School Declaration by a Little Boy of Seven." (Twain provides only the first two lines.) Although his delivery is unnatural (his gestures are like those of a machine "a trifle out of order") and he is "cruelly scared," the boy survives the experience.

Tom Sawyer does not survive his. He struggles through Patrick Henry's 1775 speech to the Virginia Convention, is seized with stage fright, and leaves the stage "utterly defeated."

NOTE: TOM'S FAILURE

Tom loves the limelight and will do almost anything to be the center of attention. But those occasions when he is the focus of attention in academic settings are excruciatingly painful. In Chapter 4, when pressed to name Jesus' first two disciples, he is so far off base that Chapter Twain draws "the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene." How do you explain Tom's success at schemes that he designs and controls and his failure at those designed by others?

Following Tom's defeat, others recite such "declaratory gems" as Felicia D. Hemans' "Casablanca" and Lord Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib." (Twain refers to these poems respectively by their first lines, "The boy stood on the burning deck" and "The Assyrian came down.") The night includes a spelling bee, recitations in Latin, and reading exercises.

But the evening's highlight comes when the older girls read their original essays, which Twain reviews with disdain. As Twain notes at the end of the chapter, he did not create these examples of "schoolgirl prose." He lifted them, word-for-word, from Mary Ann Harris Gay's 1871 book, The Pastor's Story and Other Pieces: or, Prose and Poetry.

NOTE: TWAIN'S CRITICISMS

What irks Twain about these "original 'compositions?'" First, they're not very original. "The themes were the same that had been illuminated upon similar occasions by... all their ancestors in the female line clear back to the Crusades." Second, the compositions are full of overworked melancholy. Third, they are wordy and artificially pumped up with "fine language." Fourth, their authors re-use pet words and phrases until they are "worn entirely out." Fifth, they are "marred" by preachiness-"the intolerable sermon that wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every one of them." In sum, the essays are unfelt and insincere.

By implication, Twain's criticism condemns the adult world that encourages insincerity. The adult listeners whisper such compliments as "How eloquent!" and "So true!" during the readings and applaud enthusiastically.

Is Twain being too harsh on the authors and their parents? You can't answer accurately until you've applied Twain's standards to the three excerpts he includes in this chapter. You might also ask yourself how Twain might grade some of the essays you or your classmates have written. How free is Twain's own writing of the flaws he describes?

The chapter ends with a bigger joke-the scheme of revenge that the smaller boys have devised. Dobbins is trying to draw a map of the U.S. on the blackboard when a hatch door leading to the attic opens above him. The boys lower a blindfolded cat on a string. The cat snatches Dobbins' wig, baring his bald, gold- painted head-the work of the sign-painter's boy, at whose house Dobbins lives.

NOTE: TWAIN'S COMIC METHOD

Take a moment to analyze this joke. Suppose Dobbins' head hadn't been painted and the boys had pulled off the wig with a fishhook instead of a cat. The gag would still be funny. But the extra elements-the cat, the cat's blindfold, and the gold paint- make the joke hilarious. What does the elaborateness of the joke add to it?

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