Allusions

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

by

Mark Twain

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Allusions 5 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Allusions
Explanation and Analysis—The Temperance Movement:

Near the end of the novel, Tom briefly joins the “Cadets of Temperance” and also finds Injun Joe passed out at the “Temperance Tavern”—two allusions to the Temperance movement that swept the US in the 19th century. The Temperance movement was centered on promoting complete abstinence from alcohol, with supporters believing that alcohol only had negative effects (on people’s individual physical health and the health of society overall). Many supporters of the movement were Christians who also felt that alcohol led to immorality.

Twain consistently references the Temperance movement in order to satirize snd mock it, clearly viewing it as rife with hypocrisy. For example, Tom only joins the Cadets of Temperance because he wants to wear an impressive sash and receive attention for parading around at events.

Twain once again pokes fun at the Temperance movement by deciding to make the Temperance Tavern a secret drinking hole where men like Injun Joe get so drunk that they pass out in their rooms. Twain is criticizing another aspect of the movement here—specifically, the hypocritical way that its adherents would publicly say one thing (that they oppose alcohol) and privately do the opposite (continue to drink), which turned out to be true of many leaders of the Temperance movement itself.

Chapter 12
Explanation and Analysis—Aunt Polly the Healer:

After Tom witnesses Injun Joe kill Dr. Robinson and frame Muff Potter, he is full of guilt and fear, and Aunt Polly misinterprets his reaction as an illness, leading her to try various remedies. Here, Twain uses a metaphor to describe Aunt Polly’s poor healing abilities—comparing her to death itself:

She gathered together her quack periodicals and her quack medicines, and thus armed with death, went about on her pale horse, metaphorically speaking, with "hell following after." But she never suspected that she was not an agent of healing and the balm of Gilead in disguise, to the suffering neighbors.

Twain notes directly in his narration that he is using a metaphor and puts “hell following after” in quotes because it is a biblical allusion—Revelation 6:8 describes a personified Death as riding on a pale horse with hell following after him. Together, Twain’s use of metaphor and allusion are a tongue-in-cheek way for him to mock Christians using their own language.

What Twain is getting at here is the hypocritical ways in which religious adults chide children for their superstitions and fantasies but approach medicine and religion in a very similar way. Aunt Polly is using “quack medicines” but “never suspect[s] that she [is] not an agent of healing” because she believes the fantastical stories that the people selling the medicines told her. “Hell” does not actually follow after her, as the metaphor suggests, but Tom is certainly harmed by her attempts to heal his emotional agitation with unhelpful, bitter remedies.

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Chapter 16
Explanation and Analysis—Native American Tensions:

There are a few different moments in the novel when Twain alludes to historical tensions between Native Americans and white settlers in the United States. In this example from Chapter 16, Twain describes Tom and his friends deciding to “be Indians” rather than playing pirates:

This was to knock off being pirates, for a while, and be Indians for a change. They were attracted by this idea; so it was not long before they were stripped, and striped from head to heel with black mud, like so many zebras—all of them chiefs, of course—and then they went tearing through the woods to attack an English settlement.

While Tom understands Native Americans to have been the primary source of violence (imagining them “tearing through the woods to attack an English settlement”), historical context matters; the reality is that European colonizers were responsible for killing and displacing millions of Native Americans over hundreds of years.

Not only does Twain allude to tensions between Native Americans and white populations, but he also actively perpetuates stereotypes of Native people, such as in his depiction of Injun Joe and in other characters’ perceptions of him. While many of the white characters in the novel can be cruel or vindictive (Sid, Mr. Dobbins, Alfred), they are not presented as inherently evil and bloodthirsty the way that Injun Joe—the only Native American character—is. What’s more, when Huck reveals to the Welshman that the nameless Spaniard threatening to torture and kill widow Douglass is actually Injun Joe in Chapter 30, the Welshman says he believes it because of Injun Joe’s race:

“It’s all plain enough, now. When you talked about notching ears and slitting noses I judged that that was your own embellishment, because white men don’t take that sort of revenge. But an Injun! That’s a different matter altogether.”

While Twain may not have done this on purpose, with the Welshman’s response he points to the hypocrisy of adult society in the village—grown men can either believe or discount a child’s urgent story based simply on the race of the person involved. In the end, Twain’s depiction of Injun Joe—and the other characters’ reflections on him—point to the ways that tensions between white settlers and Native Americans continued far beyond the initial colonization of the United States.

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Chapter 21
Explanation and Analysis—Give Me Liberty:

The “Give me liberty or give me death” speech that Tom recites at Examination Evening for school is an allusion to orator Patrick Henry’s speech at the Second Virginia Convention, in which he pushed for more Virginian troops to be sent to fight in the Revolutionary War. Here Twain describes Tom’s speech:

Tom Sawyer stepped forward with conceited confidence and soared into the unquenchable and indestructible “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, with fine fury and frantic gesticulation, and broke down in the middle of it. A ghastly stage fright seized him, his legs quaked under him and he was like to choke.

It is no coincidence that Tom recites a speech about the importance of liberty, since much of his own life is about seeking freedom, even when it leads to suffering (such as sneaking out of the house and witnessing a murder or going exploring and then becoming trapped in the cave with Becky). Tom’s life (for most of the novel) is centered on the fantasy of ultimate freedom that he feels outcasts like Huck already have.

That said, there is an indication in this moment that Tom is starting to mature. Twain’s decision to have Tom become gripped with stage fright such that he cannot finish reciting the speech shows that he is starting to become more self-aware and concerned with how the village community sees him. Whereas in the past he unabashedly sought attention from everyone in town (like lying about having memorized Bible verses, for example), he is now feeling self-conscious in front of his classmates and fellow villagers. Twain implies that freedom and showing off may not be Tom’s primary focus anymore as he starts to settle into being a respectable part of the community.

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Chapter 26
Explanation and Analysis—Robin Hood:

At a few points in the novel, Tom encourages his friends to “play Robin Hood” with him, an allusion to the English folktale about an outlaw named Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Here, Tom asks Huck if he knows about Robin Hood before they start their fantasy games:

“Do you know Robin Hood, Huck?”

“No. Who’s Robin Hood?”

“Why, he was one of the greatest men that was ever in England—and the best. He was a robber.”

“Cracky, I wisht I was. Who did he rob?”

“Only sheriffs and bishops and rich people and kings, and such like. But he never bothered the poor. He loved ‘em. He always divided up with ’em perfectly square.”

“Well, he must ‘a’ been a brick.”

“I bet you he was, Huck. Oh, he was the noblest man that ever was. They ain’t any such men now, I can tell you.”

Tom’s love of Robin Hood is about adventure, of course—the way he idealizes Robin Hood’s thievery makes that clear—but it is also about morality. As Tom explains to Huck, Robin Hood cared about the poor and was “the noblest man that ever was.” That Tom believes there “ain’t any such men now” is Twain’s way of indicating that Tom notices the hypocrisy of the men around him—Mr. Dobbins, for example, abuses his power as a teacher by punishing children, and Mr. Walters the Sunday School superintendent cares more about getting in good Judge Thatcher’s graces than sticking to his principles.

Tom, on the other hand, earnestly wants to help those with less power. Despite his manipulative ways, he would never wield power against anyone in order to hurt them, as he proves over the course of the novel. Twain’s allusions to Robin Hood may also be a way of articulating his own allegiance—he is writing a novel centered on average people closer to being poor than being rich, after all (which is what makes his story a realist one rather than a romantic one).

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Chapter 30
Explanation and Analysis—Native American Tensions:

There are a few different moments in the novel when Twain alludes to historical tensions between Native Americans and white settlers in the United States. In this example from Chapter 16, Twain describes Tom and his friends deciding to “be Indians” rather than playing pirates:

This was to knock off being pirates, for a while, and be Indians for a change. They were attracted by this idea; so it was not long before they were stripped, and striped from head to heel with black mud, like so many zebras—all of them chiefs, of course—and then they went tearing through the woods to attack an English settlement.

While Tom understands Native Americans to have been the primary source of violence (imagining them “tearing through the woods to attack an English settlement”), historical context matters; the reality is that European colonizers were responsible for killing and displacing millions of Native Americans over hundreds of years.

Not only does Twain allude to tensions between Native Americans and white populations, but he also actively perpetuates stereotypes of Native people, such as in his depiction of Injun Joe and in other characters’ perceptions of him. While many of the white characters in the novel can be cruel or vindictive (Sid, Mr. Dobbins, Alfred), they are not presented as inherently evil and bloodthirsty the way that Injun Joe—the only Native American character—is. What’s more, when Huck reveals to the Welshman that the nameless Spaniard threatening to torture and kill widow Douglass is actually Injun Joe in Chapter 30, the Welshman says he believes it because of Injun Joe’s race:

“It’s all plain enough, now. When you talked about notching ears and slitting noses I judged that that was your own embellishment, because white men don’t take that sort of revenge. But an Injun! That’s a different matter altogether.”

While Twain may not have done this on purpose, with the Welshman’s response he points to the hypocrisy of adult society in the village—grown men can either believe or discount a child’s urgent story based simply on the race of the person involved. In the end, Twain’s depiction of Injun Joe—and the other characters’ reflections on him—point to the ways that tensions between white settlers and Native Americans continued far beyond the initial colonization of the United States.

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