Tom is dissatisfied that liberating Jim will be so easy. He wishes there were guards to drug, or a guard-dog, or that Jim were better chained down. He sighs that he and Huck will have to invent difficulties; for he wants the escape to be as grand as one of those carried out in the romantic books he likes to read.
Exhibiting a subtle racism, Tom regards Jim less as a human being who needs aid and more as a prop in his adventure, one he imaginatively and fondly drapes in yet more chains. He has inherited societal racism, and also dangerous romantic conventions from his books.
Tom also proposes that he and Huck make Jim a rope ladder by tearing and tying up their sheets, and that they then bake it into a pie so it can be delivered to Jim. Huck thinks this plan is unnecessary, but Tom disagrees. Huck gives in, but cautions Tom that Aunt Sally will be greatly displeased to find that the boys have torn up her sheets. Huck suggests that he and Tom steal a sheet off of the clotheslines, and Tom agrees.
It is a sign of Huck’s vestigial immaturity that he listens to Tom instead of his own heart. To his credit, he tries to reason with Tom, but we think that Huck would do better to just act independently and rescue Jim as soon as he can, without Tom’s childish insistence on making a game out of a human being’s freedom.
Tom also says that Huck should steal a shirt off the clothesline, so that Jim can use it to keep a journal. Huck exclaims that Jim doesn’t even know how to write, to which Tom responds that Jim can at least make marks on the shirt. He also proposes Jim be given something like a candlestick to file into a pen, that he use his own blood as ink, and that he be smuggled tin plates to write little messages on before throwing them out of the window to be read. Huck thinks all this is impractical.
Tom’s plan is as big a farce as anything the duke and king perpetrated, and it devalues human life to a similar if subtler extent. Tom has inherited a new set of conventions from his books and madly sets about satisfying them, even if absurdly so, e.g., he gives Jim things to write with even though Jim can’t write. Huck’s lack of resistance here calls into question the permanence of his earlier moral development.
That morning, Huck steals things to give Jim, as well as a watermelon from the slave’s watermelon patch. Tom, however, tells Huck that he can only steal what he needs to help set Jim free, and he demands that Huck give the slaves a dime without telling them that it is in exchange for the stolen watermelon. Huck doesn’t see what good it does him to represent a prisoner if it means he can’t even steal a watermelon.
Ironically, nothing Tom and Huck steal is needed to help set Jim free. Tom’s insistence to the contrary suggests that he is not living in the real world. It is also disturbingly uncharacteristic that Huck would steal the watermelon without needing it, something he hasn’t done since he was in Pap’s care.
Finally, Tom tells Huck that they need to steal tools to dig Jim out of the hut with. Huck asks why they don’t use some picks and shovels the two found earlier, but Tom says that no prisoner has ever used picks or shovels, and that what they need for digging are knives. Tom calculates it would take 37 years to dig to Jim with knives, and, knowing that he and Huck can’t take that long, he proposes that he and Huck pretend amongst themselves that it takes them 37 years to save Jim. Huck says that pretending isn’t impractical and doesn’t hurt anyone, so he agrees. Tom tells Huck to steal three knives and, after a little protest, Huck agrees to do so.
Huck and Tom finally seem to come to their senses and grow up a little in this scene. Tom realizes and accepts that his plan is impractical, so he resigns himself to pretending, which, as Huck rightly points out, is harmless enough. He and Tom can save Jim in a timely fashion and Tom can have his adventure too. That being said, Tom is still insistent that Huck fetch some knives to dig with, bad tools for the job, impractical, fantastical, and farcical.