When I first read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a child, I took the side of the children in that story. And so Tom’s Aunt Polly to me was the villain of the story more than Injun Joe. Injun Joe was all part of the adventure, as spectacular as Captain Hook. But Aunt Polly is more like Mr. Darling, just wanting to spoil the fun and make all the kids to grow up.
“There was something about Aunt Polly’s manner, when she kissed Tom, that swept away his low spirits and made him light-hearted and happy again.”
~ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter 20: Tom Takes Becky’s Punishment
Now as I look back on the scenes of this poor Aunt Polly as an adult, I sympathize with her. Here is an elderly woman, tasked not only with providing for herself—which was no easy feat for a single woman in the 1800’s, especially as the woman got older—but also for her niece and two nephews, including the troublemaking Tom.
Put yourself in Aunt Polly’s place. This Tom, always playing hooky to go hang out with the drunkard’s son Huckleberry and other good-for-nothing boys, always cheating or lying or stealing, every chapter into some new scrape, he’s your responsibility, but he’s also out of control. He’s off playing in graveyards, running away to live as a pirate, faking his death, getting mixed up with robbers. You’d be a cranky old woman, too, by the time Tom was done with you.
And yet when all was said and done, beneath the tough exterior of a woman who seems more prone to whacks upside the head than caresses, Aunt Polly loves Tom. She is in many ways his true link to civilization. She’s the one that cares whether he goes to school or church or tells the truth or works hard. These are the things that he’ll need to know as an adult, and even if it kills her, she loves him enough to instill these values in him. And I think, by the time the book is ended, Tom does have a bit more appreciation for his aunt, to the point where he even argues for his friend Huckleberry to stay in the same situation. Which leads me to the next example:
“The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names, too, but she never meant no harm by it. She put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn’t do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up.”
~ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 1: I Discover Moses and the Bulrushers
When we last left good ol’ Huck Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he’d gotten unfortunately rich from his and Tom’s battle with Injun Joe. This wealth was put into a trust, and his upbringing was put into the hands of the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. This “introduced him into society—no, dragged him into it, hurled him into it.” All the sudden this vagabond boy who had lived the idealistic life of Pippi Longstocking, doing what he wanted without the interference of meddling adults, is forced to take baths, wear nice clothes, and live according to a schedule. THE HORROR!
Forced to wear shoes and listen to sermons, Huck soon runs away, and only goes back because Tom entices him back with promises to join a gang of respectable robbers if only he lives with the Widow and allows himself to be “sivilized” first. By the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is still jonesing for his freedom so he can smoke a pipe and go where he pleases, but he’s starting to make headway at school and get used to the “new ways” as much as he longs for the old ones.
That’s when Huck’s Pap comes along. In a sort of corporeal form of the Old Ways battling the New Ones, Pap is an unemployed alcoholic who disapproves of the Widow Douglas’ meddling in his son’s upbringing and disparages Huck’s education. A rough sort of bum who beats Huck when he’s not neglecting him, Pap comes back for custody of Huck...and therefore control of his newfound riches. When his attempts to reform—or at least appear reformed to get custody—fail, Pap kidnaps Huck, keeping him captive while he’s out drinking and coming back only to beat the boy when he’s drunk. Thus Huck is torn away from what little civilization and stability he’s ever known and thrust into an adventure where he must first escape from his father, and then continues on the run from con men, slave catchers, and his own preconceptions.
During the 1800’s especially, the domain of women was a sort of Moral Authority. They were the pious ones of society, who spoke out about social ills such as poverty, who stood up for children or the sick or orphaned. Women were in effect turned into Mothers of the Nation. And although this should have been a good stereotype, it obviously could be taken to extremes. Miss Watson is a hypocritical caricature of this extreme, while the Widow Douglas is a more positive example of this feminine ideal in Huck’s life. Now, while Huck may reject “sivilization” by the end of the novel when Aunt Sally too wants to adopt him, I wonder whether he would have made the same choices in aiding a fugitive slave without the moral “meddling” of people like Widow Douglas?