ESSAY: The Dangers of Imagination: Tom’s Possible Character Development in Huckleberry Finn

Huck Tom Jim

Upon first reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, one cannot help but view Huck as the character who undergoes the most development or change within the novel. His growth is one of spiritual, emotional, and psychological means, and his relationship with Jim only enhances this progress. Huck heroically battles a socially constructed conscience that tells him how to live (more specifically, how to treat someone of a different race), and he expunges this inner voice as much as possible for the sake of his friend. However, Twain sneaks a character like Tom Sawyer into the novel, who seems much more obedient to society’s norms, especially in reference to racism and slavery. Tom also indulges in a romantic imagination that includes honor, adventure, and violence, for his educational background involves reading books with such elements. As Tom appears and disappears in the novel, Twain gives the reader an opportunity to view Tom as a victim to society, just as much as Huck. It is as though Tom could never survive the “real” world, which Huck has seen, because Tom’s education system and socially constructed causes him to rely solely on a privileged lifestyle, as well as an escapist mentality. Thus, Twain uses Tom as a vehicle not only for critiquing romantic ideals, but also for critiquing how this could lead to a loss of touch with reality.

Many critics share the sentiment expressed by Jane Smiley, in that the “failure of the last twelve chapters” (355) would invalidate any previous attempts by Twain to establish Jim as an actual human being. Within the final chapters, “Tom is “reintroduced and elaborates a cruel and unnecessary scheme for Jim’s liberation” (355), and all the while, Tom is fully aware that Miss Watson had died and set Jim free. In essence, this establishes Tom as a tyrant who sees Jim as nothing but a plaything, which remains his characterization throughout the novel. Even David L. Smith asserts that the “Tom Sawyer section…[is what] most critics consider [to be] the weakest part of the book,” for “Jim is reduced to a comic darky,” and Tom’s “actions are governed not by conscience but rather by romantic conventions of literary ‘authorities'” (371-72). Thus, critics view Twain’s last twelve chapters as the novel’s surrender to Tom’s antics, for the unnecessary injustice done unto Jim cannot be reversible.

Furthermore, Smith views Tom as a “younger version of the southern gentleman,” and he is a “superficially charming but fundamentally distasteful interloper” (373). However, his presence in the novel at the time of his return is disadvantageous to Twain’s attempts to discourage socially constructed ideas of race. Smith finds that Tom’s “juvenile antics subvert the tone of the novel, but they also provide the necessary backdrop for Jim’s noble act” (373). The only positive factor for Tom’s presence is to illustrate how Huck and Jim are superior in character, which insinuates that Tom does not undergo any transformation of any kind. It is as though Tom is the villain, just as much as Pap, who is present in the novel only to bring out the best in other characters (Huck and Jim).

Ultimately, Jim’s exploitation undermines both Huck’s and Twain’s advancements in trying to establish Jim as a human being, but Smiley finds that viewing Jim as human is nowhere near adequate enough for characterization: “all you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don’t actually have to act in the interests of his humanity” (362). Thus, it is widely believed that these final chapters are detrimental to Huck’s and Jim’s character developments, for the typically racist behavior performed by Tom challenges any moral growth for Huck in the novel. Huck may express the desire to save Jim from slavery, but Huck still submits to Tom’s wishes to stage an elaborate escape. So, one must further question the author’s motives for having Tom return in these final chapters, as it would seem an injustice to simply assume that Tom’s only role is to torture Jim.

Huck undergoes a great transformation, as his socially constructed conscience is shaken

to the point of risking his soul to save Jim, but critics find that Tom’s socially constructed conscience is irreversible. However, Twain rarely portrays his characters as one-dimensional or on black and white terms, so the reader must extend this consideration to someone as seemingly narrow-minded as Tom (even though he may appear to be undeserving of an advocate, especially during the last chapters). It is evident that Huck has a more overt change in his opinions of Jim, as well as the world around him, but Tom may represent an opportunity for Twain to further scrutinize the danger of imagination, rather than racism. Tom is the child who seems to follow the socially constructed ideas more devoutly, but one can argue that his self-established power over others is not exclusive to slaves, but to everyone. When Tom’s imagination runs wild, all are in danger of being included in the romantic worlds that he recreates. Thus, Twain includes Tom in the novel more so to critique the idea of imagination, for if one does not firmly plant oneself in realism, one can never fully develop.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that we first find Tom within the forest, as he calls out to Huck for another adventure, thus saving Huck from another episode of solitude. The forest is generally associated as symbolically representing a state of disarray, thus leading to self-discovery, as one who is lost in a forest must find a way to escape such a challenging environment by adapting to one’s surroundings. This might be why we find both Tom and Huck within a forest by the first two chapters, for the reader is set-up with a sense that both characters (Huck and Tom) are on a road to self-discovery. Additionally, it is within this forest that Tom is faced with the exact “character flaw” or “shortcoming” that the author wishes to challenge within his character. What one can gather from Twain is that it is not only Jim who needs to be humanized by Tom, for any opportunity that Tom gets to use his imagination leads to all human beings becoming play things, not just Jim.

In the beginning of the second chapter, Tom comes up with a “fun” idea that is at the expense of Jim. Tom recommends that he and Huck “tie Jim to a tree for fun” (19) as he slept in the forest, and this gives Huck the chance to show his inner struggle with such mistreatment. Huck makes an excuse that Jim “might wake and make a disturbance,” because Huck is uncomfortable with the idea in general and he “didn’t want [Tom] to try it,” but in the end, “Tom wanted to resk it” (19). If read closely, one can see that Tom’s initial desire to play this prank on Jim is simply “for fun” and to “resk it,” which opposes the idea that Tom just sees Jim as a toy because of his race/role in society. It is Tom’s imagination, as well as the thrill of the act itself, that appeals to Tom and takes over the reality and practicality that Huck tries to reinforce (the boys could get caught for starting a ruckus if Jim awakens). Though this scene may simply be a tool to reveal Huck’s inert desire to fight off a socially constructed consciousness (he hesitates to accommodate for his “leader’s” wishes to play the prank), one cannot lose sight of Tom’s demeanor throughout this episode, as well as the episodes that follow. Tom’s purpose in the novel cannot simply be to contrast or juxtapose Huck’s conscience and personality (specifically in reference to the opposing attitudes towards Jim). Tom’s obsession with romanticism becomes dangerous, for it is this obsession that leads to Jim having to save Tom’s life. However, without this obsession, Tom never would have discovered the humanity that is within Jim, and there is, indeed, a change within the character that Twain crafts to criticize an escapist mentality.

All characters are subject to being reduced to toys in Tom’s mind, not just minorities or “others,” such as slaves. This is evident in Tom’s idea to use his imagination with his “gang” of boys during the Sunday school picnic, as they “busted [the picnic] up, and chased the children up the hollow” pretending that they were “Spaniards and A-rabs” (24). Yes, Tom pretends that the children are minorities, or foreigners to the traditional white slaveholder type of person, but the children that he “terrorizes” are the ones who may fill the slaveholder role in the future. They follow religion, which is used as a tool of oppression, and are likely just as privileged as Tom, if not more so. In essence, Tom is treating Jim in the same fashion that he would treat his equals when he performs his first prank, because there are no limits to his imagination or reenactment of themes in romantic literature. Thus, it is more difficult to argue that the prank is specifically an act of racism, though the argument can be made. Since Jim is already at a social disadvantage by being a slave, the reader automatically finds the prank to exemplify the typically cruel abuse of slaveholder to a slave, but it is as though Tom does not, ironically, discriminate in regards to with whom he “plays.” However, critics believe that Tom’s final prank exceeds the limitations of Twain’s humor, for the level of cruelty expands beyond the simple act of pretending. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable likeness in attitudes towards others while Tom is playing.

With both pranks in mind, Tom seems to extend the traditional opinions that whites had

of negroes to all who play the role of “victim” during his playtime. David L. Smith defines the role of the negro during this time period as “a subhuman and expendable creature who is by definition feeble-minded, immoral, lazy, and superstitious” (366). Also, slaveholders used the idea of race as a “strategy for relegating a segment of the population to a permanent inferior status” (Smith 364), but what Smith misses is that both of Tom’s pranks put his pawns at a level of submission. Only Tom, Huck, and the gang are allowed to do as they please, while all other poor players of any background must simply respond to their actions, in a predictable and “feeble-minded” fashion. Tom also envisions that the children at the picnic are “Spaniards and A-rabs,” which does reinforce the idea of racial inferiority that Tom could have been taught to be a societal norm. Still, Tom may put people of any race (Jim and the children at the school picnic) into a submissive role of the “other” because of the romantic idea of “good and evil,” so Jim’s role as a plaything may not be exclusive to his race.

Tom disappears from the novel after the Sunday school episode, so the reader can easily pay more attention to Huck’s character development, rather than Tom’s. However, when Tom returns to discover that Jim has been sold to his own aunt and uncle, Tom’s behavior becomes more interesting. When Huck says the he is “‘trying to steal Jim out of slavery'”, Tom replies with “‘What! Why Jim is­­—'” before Huck insists that he will save Jim, even though “it’s dirty low-down business” (235). Afterwards, Tom exclaims “‘I’ll help you steal him!” (235) What stands out is Twain’s description of Tom’s “eye li[ghtin] up” (235) after hearing about how “low-down” freeing Jim would be. It is debatable that Tom was about to tell Huck that Jim is free, as the dash that interrupts his thought may be Tom hesitating or pausing, but Huck is probably interrupting his thought. However, since Tom’s eye lights up, this more so could illustrate a child’s excitement for adventure, and it is fairly safe to assume that Tom would behave like this if anyone else was in Jim’s predicament (though it is highly unlikely that any white man would experience this). Just as the children at the Sunday school picnic were subject to Tom’s imagination, so too is Jim, for any excuse to play will be taken with haste.

Tom does know that Jim is free, and he was willing to share this knowledge with Huck, but once Huck unknowingly appeals to Tom’s imagination by speaking of how wrong it is to “free” Jim, the realism of the situation disappears. Imagination becomes the most important factor, which is, ironically, just a method of escape for Tom more so than for Jim. Suddenly, it is irrelevant that Jim should be liberated, even though this fact is imperative to Tom after he is shot, for he immediately defends Jim’s freedom. This episode in withholding Jim’s freedom can be ever-debated, for Tom is undermining Jim’s situation by prolonging his freedom. However, Tom is not a boy who is familiar with the gravity of situations, and Twain sets Tom up for a rude awakening when facing a bullet wound. It is an overall struggle with reality that the reader could be witnessing, and once Tom is faced with his own mortality, he could, arguably, undergo a shift in priorities. Thus, Twain advocates for Huck being in touch with reality, for Huck cares much more for Jim, and he develops much more as a character, but one can also see a change in Tom.

In Toni Morrison’s essay “This Amazing, Troubling Book,” she makes mention of the many pauses, or silences, within the novel, and how these affect the characters. However, she only briefly views Tom’s silence about Jim as the most troubling of the book, stating that “Tom Sawyer’s silence about Jim’s legal status is perverse,” as it “was deferring Jim’s freedom in agonizing play” (389-92). In essence, Tom exploits Jim’s situation throughout the entire elaborate escape, as he knows that Jim is suffering pointlessly. Nevertheless, Morrison does not consider the pause when Tom is about to tell Huck that Jim is free, as she more so criticizes Tom’s overall silence about the idea. By doing so, she misses the opportunity to see that Tom may have told Huck the truth about Jim’s freedom, and if this was written so, Twain would have been representing Tom as a kind of hero for delivering this news just in time. Instead, Twain finds this to be a chance to further criticize romanticism, for when Huck presents Tom with the possibility of a rebellious adventure, Tom pounces not simply because Jim is black, but because Tom’s imagination gets the best of him.

Even David L. Smith refuses to see Tom as a victim to his society, in that his actions

against Jim overwhelm any possibility of his virtues. Twain has crafted the elaborate plan of Jim’s escape to overshadow Tom being unintentionally distracted from revealing Jim’s freedom, but no other critic has seen this possibility. Smith insists that “Tom has known all along that his cruel and ludicrous scheme to rescue the captured ‘prisoner’ was being enacted upon a free man…[and] only his silence regarding Jim’s status allowed the scheme to proceed with Jim’s cooperation” (372). However, Tom’s silence was only the result of Huck having said that the plan was “low-down,” leading to Tom’s imagination running wild. Furthermore, Smith quickly defends Jim for “demonstrat[ing] his moral superiority by surrendering himself in order to assist the doctor in treating his wounded tormentor” (373). It is still safe to say that it is cruel to keep silent about Jim’s freedom just to enjoy an adventure, but Tom has not the grip on reality that Huck has. According to Twain, someone like Tom cannot possibly foresee the ramifications of his actions—he is more of a child than Huck ever could be. Tom has not faced the life and death situations that Huck has faced, until he suffers the bullet wound.

One must not become too engrossed in the extravagancy of Tom’s actions during Jim’s “rescue,” but what should be addressed in depth is Tom defending Jim’s freedom after having received a bullet wound. Even right after the gunshot, Tom is so engrossed in his own imagination that he could, in essence, risk his wound becoming infected. However, the reality is irrelevant, as it is the glory of being shot which with his mind is so occupied. Tom even advises Huck that, when he finds a doctor, he should “blindfold the doctor tight and fast, and make him swear to be silent as the grave, and put a purse full of gold in his hand, and then take and lead him all around the back alleys and everywheres in the dark,” (Twain 279) and the elaborate plot continues. Twain is overt in his criticism of escapism here, for death is apparently the direct result of indulging in imaginative play. It is as though Tom could never survive the world that Huck had seen, because Tom’s socially constructed conscience causes him to be a victim to society just as much, if not more so than, Huck. So, Tom not only prolongs Jim’s freedom with a romantic escape, but he also prolongs his own chances of surviving the wound.

Thus, Tom is a victim to his own imagination, which may be a result of society’s indoctrination of romantic ideas. Nevertheless, as previously stated, all are susceptible to being reduced to a plaything in Tom’s mind, even himself. It is arguable that racism is not the bigger picture in Tom’s characterization, for imagination plays such a large role in his episodes. When Huck saw Tom again after sending the doctor, Tom was “on a matrass…[and he] turned his head a little, and muttered something or other, which showed he warn’t in his right mind” (Twain 287). By muttering and illustrating a lack of clear-headedness, it is easy to assume that Tom has lost a lot of blood from his wound, which he was willing to risk for the sake of “following the rules” of storytelling. Yes, romanticism plays a large role in racist ideas (such as racial inferiority), but Tom’s final few actions (acknowledging Jim’s freedom and paying Jim for his help) could reveal more than that Tom recognizes his mistreatment of Jim as far as race is concerned. Tom may also have become more aware of his obsession with escapism, for this almost led to his own death, so he also atones for the instances where he manipulated Jim for the sake of imagination.

It is undeniable that the reader is left surprised by Tom’s passion when he reveals that Jim is free, for one would not quickly assume that someone like Tom would care for the justice of a black man. Upon hearing that Jim had been returned to “that cabin…and [is] loaded down with chains, till he’s claimed or sold,” Tom reacts with a clear sign of anger, for he “rose square up in bed, with his eye hot, and his nostrils opening and shutting like gills” (291). Then, he begins to shout impassionedly: “Turn him loose! he ain’t no slave, he’s as free as any cretur that walks this earth” (291)! Where was this passion when Tom was prolonging Jim’s freedom with an elaborate plot of escape? The truth of reality (Jim’s freedom) did not take precedence at the time, as Tom did not yet learn the dangers of living in a fantasy world. Now that Tom faced death, he realizes what it means for Jim to be a slave, and that there is an injustice to putting a free man in chains, especially a man who helped save his life. Furthermore, Tom says “I knowed [Jim] all his life” (291), so he clearly values Jim in some way. Perhaps, he merely values Jim as a toy that he can manipulate, but one cannot ignore the juxtaposition of Tom’s actions before and after he had been shot.

Additionally, one must study Tom’s act of giving Jim money, for this moment can have multiple interpretations of Tom as a character. Smith finds that giving Jim money illustrates that “Tom apparently believes that an economic exchange can suffice as atonement for his misdeeds. Perhaps he finds a forty dollar token more affordable than an apology” (373). However, few critics take the chance to view Tom’s behavior in the end as a growth of character, and even throughout his appearances in the novel, one can find that Tom may not be mistreating Jim solely because of his race. Twain creates Tom as a much more complex character than some critics give him credit for, as Tom does not torture Jim deliberately, just as much as he could not have predicted the negative repercussions of “attacking” a school picnic. It seems as though everyone around Tom is subject to playing a part in his imagination, and Jim may not become a player because he is black, but simply because the opportunity to enact such an elaborate escape could not be resisted. So, when Jim was free and Tom used him as plaything, he was doing so simply to stimulate his own imagination, but once Tom’s life is saved, he sticks up for the freedom of a good man, not a black man.

Huck is never fully blamed for his actions against Jim, because the reader clearly sees his growth throughout the novel, but Kevin Michael Scott studies Tom as child of a socially constructed conscience (which is the scrutiny that Huck has received by critics). Scott asserts that Tom’s every action is contingent upon the laws of romanticism, and this traps him as a character. Thus, the act of giving him money could be a “silly and face-saving, commitment to Tom’s brand of honor,” but they could also represent “conventions of honor consistently and suggest a South that could do the same” (203-4). If Tom is able to see Jim as being worthy of payment, according to Tom’s code of honor, then this “example of honor [that] Tom provides…[criticizes the] post-Reconstruction Southern failures of humanity” (204). Scott allows Tom the credit that Huck has received, which is the chance to be seen as a child fighting against a society that would deem someone like Jim to be inhuman. Though Scott’s interpretation of Tom insinuates that he has not yet let go of his imaginative personality (his “honor” still comes first in giving Jim money), one can still find this as a large step in character development.

Though elements of racism are very prevalent in Twain’s novel, the author does not simply tie Tom down to playing the role of the racist villain, whose only role is to torment Jim. Tom can be seen as a shifting figure too, for he grapples with the imaginative play that society has ingrained into his mind. Readers are far too engrossed with Huck’s charming development as a devoted friend to see that Tom may have been presented by Twain to undergo a change all along. Perhaps, Twain purposefully leaves it unclear as to whether or not Tom has been freed from his romantic imagination, but there is evidence that both supports this argument, as well as keeps the argument alive.


Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. “This Amazing, Troubling Book.” Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Thomas Cooley. 3rd    ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. 389-92. Print.

Scott, Kevin Michael. “‘There’s more honor’: reinterpreting Tom and the evasion in Huckleberry   Finn.” Studies in the Novel 37.2 (2005): 187+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Nov.           2014.

Smiley, Jane. “Say it Ain’t So, Huck.” Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Thomas Cooley. 3rd ed. New           York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. 355-62. Print.

Smith, David L. “Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse.” Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Thomas       Cooley. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. 366-71. Print.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company,     1999. 19-291. Print.

This essay was composed by Gabby Muniz.

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