Zombies! Or, There’s No Such Thing as a Live Cat in Tom Sawyer

Oh Tom and Huck, the scourges of childhood befall you with astonishing regularity. Whether it’s Injun Joe, dark caves, or an endless parade of preachers, teachers, and other interfering adults, the children of St. Petersburg can handle it all. But there’s something even more sinister lurking in these pages.


Zombie cats to be specific.

“What?” You may say, “There are no zombie cats in Tom Sawyer!” But this is where I will say, “You are mistaken, my friend.” And let me tell you why. 

Mark Twain was a writer who knew his craft. He was incredibly forward thinking. He knew that while the zombie phenomenon was to be an important development in the literature of the future, his audience in the 1880s had no interest in reading about zombies.

So, in order to work the undead into his novel of 19th century rural life in Missouri, he initiates a cover up. He disguises the plague. He puts a veneer of civility over the whole ugly mess. He uses euphemisms.

Alert readers will notice that there’s a plethora of dead cats in Tom Sawyer. Expired felines appear on virtually every other page. This could be explained away as just the characters’ boyhood fascination with dead animals. But the real explanation is zombies.

All the cats in Tom Sawyer are, Twain implies, dead cats. I propose that by dead, Mr. Twain actually means living dead; that is to say, zombies. In fact there are three, perhaps four instances of zombification of cats in the novel. …

1. The Wart-Removing Puss

The walking dead are so prevalent in the world of St. Petersburg that a regular schoolyard activity involves holding trials to find the murderer of a particular cat.  A whole mythology has sprung up around them. They can, it is known, cure warts. Tom and Huck are in the process of testing this hypothesis when they witness the murder of the doctor, in fact. Now exactly how the dead cat was to cure the affliction is described in Ch. 7 as follows:

Why, you take your cat and go and get in the graveyard ‘long about midnight when somebody that was wicked has been buried; and when it’s midnight a devil will come, or maybe two or three, but you can’t see ‘em, you can only hear ‘em talk; and when they’re taking that feller away, you heave your cat after ‘em and say ‘Devil follow corpse, cat follow devil, warts follow cat, I’m done with ye!’

This sounds like nothing more than folklore designed to help the bewildered citizens of St. Petersburg come to terms with the way their dead cats were becoming undead cats. Surely, their minds rationalized, the cats were simply following devils come to take off wicked souls!

Take into consideration how you might react upon witnessing your dear little Bootsie rise up from death and start meowing for braaaaiiinnnssss… or whatever cat zombie equivalent (Mr. Twain does not make clear what exactly sustains our local zombie cat population). Probably over a little time, children heard their parents talking, and built a rich, wart-removing story up around this phenomenon.

2. One-Eyed Currency Kitten

“But,” you may say, “What about the kitten Tom cons from a schoolmate in exchange for painting the fence?” (Ch. 2) Why, it too, is a zombie. Don’t forget the kitten is described as being a one-eyed kitten. Obviously, this poor soul has reached such an advanced state of decay that it has begun to lose parts. Further evidence is that it is never spoken of again. It is possible that Tom trades it a few days later for tickets in the Sunday school Bible incident, but in the interim, who has fed and cared for this poor one-eyed thing? The answer is no one. Zombies of this nature need neither feeding nor care. Tom’s one-eyed kitten is nothing more than an adorable, necrotic, brain eater.

3. Zombie Wig Thief Cat

Even the cat that steals the school master’s wig in Ch. 21 is a zombie. She is described as having a “rag tied about her head and jaws to prevent her mewing,” but I propose that the rag was actually tied on to prevent the kitty from losing an eye or tooth (as Tom’s kitten had) on the Schoolmaster’s head, and alerting him to her presence. Or perhaps it was a restraining device to prevent her getting too close and going for his brains. For though it is not known exactly what the undead cats ate, why would the schoolboys have taken any chances, that close to a man’s head?

4. Aunt Polly’s Purrer

“But,” you interject one last time, “there is a live cat in Tom Sawyer! What about Aunt Polly’s cat?” Well, readers, you have twigged upon it-the one cat in all Tom Sawyer who is not dead or undead… yet.  Yes, Aunt Polly has a cat. I propose that this cat is “patient zero” in the zombie cat epidemic! Whatever is in that patent medicine that Tom feeds the cat in Ch. 12 obviously causes a very grave reaction – so grave, perhaps, as to incite a plague of zombie cats on the world of rural Missouri? Sure it doesn’t come in the correct place in the timeline, but Mark Twain is describing things that happened long ago for him; surely memory can be faulty. The patent medicine, probably harmless for humans, when given to a feline works as a biochemical weapon and leads to a walking plague of undead cats.

And you know what that means, dear patrons – once again, it’s all because of Tom Sawyer’s antics. Happy Halloween!

About the Author

Diana Hyle

Diana Hyle is a reference librarian at the Plaza Branch and leader of the Barista's Book Group.