Critical Essays Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: A Study in Contrasts



Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are the two most well-known characters among American readers. In fact, one could say that they are the most famous pair in all of American literature. Tom and Huck are completely different from each other in nearly every way. In fact, they are polar opposites in basic living situations and in the ways in which they view the world.

While Tom and Huck share the common bond of being orphans, Tom lives in a civilized household with an aunt who loves him, who is tolerant of his boyish pranks, who is indulgent with his youthful escapades and whims, and who is deeply concerned about his welfare. In contrast, Huck Finn is alone, has no home, and his father is the town drunkard who completely ignores his son and, in his drunken rages, beats him violently. Thus, Huck has no one to take care of him. It is a sad commentary indeed that, at the end of the novel, Mr. Jones is the first adult ever to welcome Huck inside a private home.

While Tom sleeps in a comfortable bed at night, Huck might be found sleeping in someone's barn, in a cardboard box, or his favorite sleeping place, in an empty hogheads barrel. In fact, this is where Tom finds him after one of their episodes. And while Tom is served three meals a day, Huck has to scrounge for food for himself. Their clothes are vastly different; Tom is dressed as a typical schoolboy would be dressed, but Huck wears discarded overalls held up by one buckle, and he most often goes barefoot.

Tom goes to the accepted and respectable school, attends Sunday school, and is invited to parties in other people's homes. Huck does not attend school and, naturally, is not invited to parties. Instead he is free from responsibility and moves freely in and out of the town, sometimes disappearing for days, and is never missed. His education is from the proverbial "school of hard knocks."

In contrast to Tom, Huck is an outcast from society. Rather than conform, Huck thrives on his freedom from such restraints as society imposes. He cannot abide by the strictures of living in a regular household where there is no smoking and no cussing and where he must wear proper clothes, keep decent hours, and conform to proper manners, especially table manners. Whereas Tom's life is bound by society, by rules, and by acceptable behavior, Huck's life is one of freedom; he can come and go as he pleases.

This difference between Tom and Huck is seen on Jackson's Island. The first day on the island is one of the glorious days in their lives, one lived to the fullest. But at night time, Tom and Joe, who have basically the same upbringing, have guilty consciences over stealing food for the outing, and even though they say their bedtime prayers--something Huck doesn't bother with--their consciences will not let them get to sleep. In contrast, Huck Finn has no pangs of conscience. He feels no qualms about having lifted (stolen) or borrowed certain items; he feels no compunction to live by the rules of society that has made him the outcast that he is. In fact, Huck has had a marvelous day because he is getting more to eat that he usually gets in the village.

Outlook on Life

Tom is filled with imaginative schemes, but they all come from adventure stories he has read. Tom makes everything seem fancy and "high faluting." He adds extra touches so as to give the simplest undertaking an air of magic, and he conforms rigorously to the rules--as he interprets them--from the fancy works of fiction he reads. Huck is not a reader, but instead he possesses a mind capable of performing feats that would escape Tom's bookish imagination. Tom is a dreamer, and Huck is always the practical or pragmatic person.

Unlike Tom, Huck's life is uncomplicated. He has no ambition, no desire to be civilized. He hates the idea of respectability and deplores the idea of going to school, wearing proper fitting clothes and cramped shoes, and being forced to do things against his nature, such as quitting smoking and not "cussing."

As a member of society, Tom knows the bounds and limits of that civilized society and adheres to its rules and limitations. Of course, he is full of pranks and wild schemes, but always in the back of his mind are the rules of society which he obeys. Yet there is much in Tom that is hypocritical. For example, when he has to go into town, he makes up a reason to go alone because he does not want to be seen with the disreputable Huck.

Huck, who is an outcast, is not constrained by society's rules as Tom is. Instead, Huck's decency is innate rather than learned.

How They Perceive Each Other

Tom envies Huck's freedom. As noted earlier, Tom hates going to church; Tom hates going to Sunday school; and he hates washing. He plays hooky from regular school, avoids doing chores (such as whitewashing the fence--note that Huck is not among those conned into doing Tom's work), and envies Huck's free and easy life. Ironically, the very boys--including Tom--who long for Huck's freedom and are envious of Huck's lifestyle could not survive under Huck's conditions.

As Tom envies Huck's lifestyle, Huck admires Tom's book-learning and sees Tom as a standard of civilized behavior. When Tom explains how pirates dress, Huck doesn't question his knowledge. Just as the other boys do, Huck admires Tom and willingly follows him.

Ultimately, Tom is the conformist to society and its restraints while Huck is the outcast, the individualist, the free soul who cherishes his own freedom.