Big Read Recap: Tom Sawyer, Chs. XVII-XX

Although I have never caught a real murderer or found a real stash of gold, in many ways, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer reminds me of my own childhood. (I’ve been a pirate, and I’ve come back from the dead...)

Being the eldest of four, I was often the mastermind trying to see the adventure through to the end when I myself was secretly tired of it. And, being a sister, I feel jealousy deeply and I am a master instigator. Put like this, I wouldn’t like to claim these traits as an adult, but deep inside I know they are still there.

One thing that strikes me about this chapter of Tom’s life is the way that the world around him mirrors the world within him. The mood at the pirate camp had gone between high and low quite rapidly, with only the secret to balance it out in the end. Relations between Tom and Becky switch from hot to cold without a moment’s notice.

Then there is the see-saw between Tom and Aunt Polly: with Tom not thinking of the consequences of his mischief until they are too late and then being truly penitent, and Aunt Polly switching between stern and loving in the same breath.

The supposed death of the boys causes people to forget the faults of the boys and exaggerate their graces. The boys are forgiven for a prank which placed the whole town in mourning. As Tom begins to grow and show some moral responsibility, some balance begins to show in the world around him. Plus, he can’t help that big spirit of his—which makes him darn forgivable!

My brother was five when I moved away to college, and so I’m constantly surprised at the mayhem that surrounds young boys. My brother gets himself into scrapes and often gives me a scare, and yet I always forgive him because he is so sincere (and frequently humorous).

This spring he phoned and told me he’d cracked his ribs and gotten a mild concussion on a winter camping trip. After letting me fuss and worry about him and letting me consider taking off work to make the seven-hour trip to visit him, he realized he was worrying me and told me he was on the mend. Then he told me how it happened: he ran himself over with a snowmobile. Like Aunt Polly, I laughed through my tears. He’ll get away with it every time, I swear.

Chapter XVII

With the whole town thinking that Tom, Huck, and Joe are dead, a sense of melancholy settles over St. Petersburg on Saturday afternoon—even the children have no will to play. Becky hides away for a cry; the boys stand by the fence reminiscing about where they’d been and what they’d been doing the last time they had seen Tom. At the risk of the gloom lightening when one boy mentions, “Well, Tom Sawyer he licked me once,” (nearly all the boys could claim that distinction) the group disbands for the evening.

The funeral itself is very grand and moving, with nearly the entire town turning out for it. Aunt Polly, Mary, Sid, and the Harpers sit at the front of the church in their funeral garb. The minister speaks at length about the boys’ good graces, and the congregation becomes increasingly touched at having misjudged the sweet creatures, and soon there’s not a dry eye in the house. That is, until the gallery door creaks open and the dead boys march into the church! The congregation is so shocked and grateful that they immediately forgive the boys, and break into heartfelt song. Tom knows that this is the proudest moment of his life. And yet, in the midst of all his glory, he doesn’t forget that Huck has no family to welcome him back from the dead, and makes sure Aunt Polly dishes out extra love.

Chapter XVIII

Now that the great reveal is out, we are let in on the secret! As befitting to pirates, Tom, Joe, and Huck left the island in the dead of night on a log, slept in the woods, and broke into the church before service in the morning. Over a very loving breakfast on Monday, Tom begins to feel a bit guilty about causing his family to worry. To soften the blow, he tells them he had had a “dream” about them, and recounts his nighttime visit to Aunt Polly’s. The accuracy of the dream astonishes her and puts him back in her good graces, and she hurries off to share the revelation with Mrs. Harper.

Tom returns to school a hero. He has traded his childish prancing and skipping for the dignified swagger befitting a pirate. In the schoolyard, Tom and Joe embellish their adventure, showing off with their pipes for good measure. Tom, basking in his glory, is no longer interested in Becky, who now longs to win him back. He ostentatiously turns his attentions towards his former fiancée, Amy Lawrence, while Becky invites everyone but Tom and Amy to her picnic. As revenge, Becky flirts with Alfred Temple, the dandy Tom beat up at the beginning of the novel. Our heroes, realizing that each is playing the other, experience rising jealousy. Alfred, becoming aware of this, decides to get revenge by pouring ink all over Tom’s spelling book.

Chapter XIX

Going home for lunch to avoid Becky, Tom finds his Aunt worked up because Mrs. Harper has revealed that his dream was a lie. Tom confesses, and Aunt Polly, seeing he truly meant her no harm, forgives him and sends him back to school. After he leaves, she debates checking Tom’s pocket for the birchbark note, and she waivers between being hurt again and knowing the truth. At last, she checks and her forgiveness of him is complete.

Chapter XX

Having had his spirits restored by Aunt Polly, Tom returns to school and apologizes to Becky. However, she will have none of it, and he again sinks into his gloomy mood. Becky, in the classroom, discovers that their teacher, Mr. Dobbins, has left the key in his desk—the key that locks up a mysterious book that none of the students have ever been allowed to see. Letting curiosity get the best of her, she peeks and finds it to be an anatomy textbook. Tom, coming up behind her, startles her, and she rips a page out of the book in surprise.

In the course of the afternoon, Tom is punished for the ink, but he doesn’t think much about it as he could have easily done it himself “in some skylarking bout.” He does worry every now and then about the inevitable punishment coming to Becky, flipping between wanting to protect her and letting her get what she deserves. He has almost resolved to let her take what is coming to her, when he has a last-minute change of heart and confesses to the crime himself in order to protect her. Becky, of course, is so overwhelmed by his act of nobility that the young lovers are reunited.

Thus the quarrel is mended, and the adventures of the pirates come to a close.


What other connections between Tom’s character do you see manifested in other parts of the novel? Do you see any connections between your childhood world and the world you live in now?

Previous Recaps
Chs. I-IV

About the Author

Abby Sidener

Abby Sidener is a full-time Library Sub at the Kansas City Public Library and a public transportation advocate. When she's not helping out patrons at the Library, she can often be found handing out books on the Kansas City Metro bus system as a participant in the Mid-America Regional Council's Green Commute Challenge.