Being Nice and Being Good in Tom Sawyer

As the saying goes, children can be “naughty or nice,” but naughty does not always mean bad and nice does not always mean good. One can also be “nice” but not good, and one can be good while sometimes naughty. A world of difference separates the merely nice from the truly good. No one explains these differences better than Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer where “naughty” simply means childlike mischievousness with no harmful intent and “nice” usually means pretentiousness and affectation, children trying to act like adults to win their approval rather than being boys and girls who act their age. It is easy to be nice. Follow rules, dress properly, be punctual, obey the teacher, and go to Sunday school.

It is demanding to be good—to speak the truth when it provokes enemies, to accept suffering for having integrity, and to risk danger to protect the innocent. Of course parents desire their children to respect authority and learn obedience—the goal of education both in the family and in school and the mark of maturity. Yet boys like Tom Sawyer with good hearts, sensitive consciences, and moral courage show more potential to achieve that ideal than the Model Boys whose strict behavior resembles passive submission more than a love of virtue. Tom, on the other hand, ultimately proves he can be good and kind–both obedient to his conscience and the moral law and compassionate and sensitive to suffering as when he saves Muff Potter from execution and rescues Becky Thatcher from death.

Tom, Huck, Joe Harper, and the members of their gang do not qualify as Model Boys like Tom’s brother Sid who never breaks rules and like Willie Mufferson who wins the admiration of the ladies because of his doting attention to his mother, “taking as heedful care of his mother as if she were cut glass.” Tom and his friends, however, do not impress the matrons, the school teacher, or the Sunday school superintendent either by their groomed appearance, by diligent attention in class, or obedience to regulations. Rather than take his medicine, Tom prefers to offer it to the cat. Rather than stay at home and live by the clock, go to school on time, obey instructions, and dress properly on Sundays, Tom and his friends revel in the carefree abandon of living on Jackson’s island, “an uninhabited island, far from the haunts of men” with no schedules, chores, or duties. To Tom and Huck civilization is the dictatorship of the clock: “The wider eats by the bell; she goes to bed by the bell; she gits up by the bell—everything’s so awful reg’lar a body can’t stand it.” The boys equate civilization with rigid rules, stifling formality, and dull gravity. Being nice or civilized to these boys is simply no fun.

They are not “nice” either by the roughness of their manners, the state of their disheveled clothing, or their unwillingness to please their elders. Tom always complains about the nuisance of formal attire and cleanliness as a restriction of his freedom and grumbles that “he was always being made to do everything he didn’t want to do.” The boys prefer to play hooky and go swimming rather than attend school, and Tom considers the monotonous memorization of Biblical verses at Sabbath-school another burden that spoils his love of adventure, “a place that Tom hated with his whole heart” for its lackluster religious education based on perfunctory memorization of Bible verses. Nevertheless, for all their defiance of social conventions and respectability, Tom and his friends never lose their boyish innocence and natural goodness. Aunt Polly admits that Tom “warn’t bad, so to say, only mischeevous. Only just giddy, and harum-scarum. He warn’t any more responsible than a colt.”

Tom may be naughty, but he is essentially good, acts naturally childlike, and remains boy eternal. When Tom reassures Aunt Polly that he came from Jackson’s Island to alleviate her anxiety about his safety, he melts her with his charm. Tom claims he kissed her while she was sleeping: “I wanted to keep you from grieving—that was all that made me come.” Aunt Polly has her doubts about Tom’s sincerity but concludes it was “a blessed, blessed lie … I know the Lord will forgive him, because it was such goodheartedness in him to tell it.” The Model Boys in the story—for all their niceness—never capture anyone’s heart or move others with their natural charm and winning ways because they presume to be little adults and forget to be unspoiled children.

Morality, then, goes beyond the distinction of naughty or nice. While Tom is notorious for his mischievousness and noncompliance to punctuality and schedules, he redeems himself by his good heart, clear conscience, and gallant chivalry. While Sid and Willie impress their elders by their image of niceness, they never demonstrate the courage, honor, and magnanimity that prove Tom and Huck’s nobility. As a witness to a murder in the graveyard, Tom swears an oath in blood with Huck: they will never reveal the truth lest the murderer (Injun Joe) take revenge upon the boys (“we’re safe as long as we keep mum”). Troubled by his conscience, however, Tom—at great risk to himself–testifies in court and identifies the real murderer to save the innocent Muff Potter from the false charge because “he hain’t ever done anything to harm anybody.”

Tom may fail the test of niceness and not impress the mothers with the impeccable manners of Willie, but he shows manly honor in a moment of crisis. When Becky Thatcher accidentally rips a page from the schoolmaster’s book and trembles as he interrogates the class, she looks guilty when she hears the words, “Rebecca Thatcher … did you tear this page?” But Tom rescues her with his fabricated confession: “I done it”—words that inspire Becky to sing Tom’s praises: “Tom, how could you be so noble?” Recalling the episode, Judge Thatcher commends Tom for protecting his daughter, admiring Tom’s chivalry: “it was a noble, a generous, a magnanimous lie.” During the children’s picnic when Tom and Becky wander too far into the mazes of McDougal Cave and lose their way, they struggle for days in darkness without food. Tom, however, does not merely wait for someone to find and rescue them, and he does not resign himself to pining away like Becky (“She said she would wait, now, where she was and die—it would not be long”). Tom heroically perseveres until he finds an opening out of the cave that delivers them—another noble deed that inspires Judge Thatcher to praise Tom’s chivalry: “He said that no commonplace boy would ever have got his daughter out of the cave.”

Goodness, then, demands integrity, honor, courage, and sacrifice—the manly, knightly virtues that Tom and his spirited friends practice in their boyish love of fun and adventure. The nice boys, on the other hand, do not take risks, venture beyond safe limits, or question the rules—even though some are silly and senseless. They like prizes, recognition, applause, and adulation. They do the minimum, they act their part, and they know how to curry favor. They show no life, no passion, no pluck. They act primarily on the basis of self-interest.

The good boys, however, love goodness for its own sake, not because of its perquisites or rewards. They show boldness in daring to do good no matter the cost, even if it means the revenge of Injun Joe. Tom and Huck do the maximum. Tom fearlessly tells the whole truth to the jury even in the presence of Injun Joe when he could have kept quiet. Huck, overhearing Injun Joe’s vow of revenge against the widow Douglas with the threat of “notching ears and slitting noses” bravely invites danger when he follows the murderer to her home and reports the danger to neighbors who save her. Tom and Huck are lively, full of mettle, spirited, and passionate about loving good and hating evil. They risk their lives to save others, and they have no self-consciousness about their public image.

No one compliments the Model Boys with the accolades Tom and Huck receive. Judge Thatcher foresees in Tom a manly man, natural leader, someone who will one day be “a great lawyer or a great soldier,” and the widow cannot stop thanking Huck enough. True goodness, thus, is not mere negation, the absence of naughtiness or the minimum of niceness but rather the full-bodied vitality of real life that boyishness captures—an energy that overflows and transcends narrow rules and the conventions of respectability in order to accomplish the great deeds that the love of the good inspires. A boy’s education in naughtiness prepares him to do battle with evil and not worry about image and reputation.

Editor’s note: Above is a detail from an illustration of Tom Sawyer and friends painted by Norman Rockwell.


Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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