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Make-Believe Plays in “Tom Sawyer” vs “Little Women” Essay


Children’s literature has glorified childhood imaginings and make-believe play. Some authors who have presented imaginative games by children in their works are Robert Luis Stevenson and Mark Twain (Singer and Singer 14). Fantasy and imagination have a strong thematic influence on the narrative structure of children’s literature. Two children’s novel written at the end of the nineteenth century shows a different kind of make-believe world.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain targeted different groups of readers. Little Women is a story about four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March – living in a poverty-stricken genteel household with their mother during the American Civil War. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is about the escapades of a young boy growing up in the fictional village called St. Petersburg with his half-brother Sid and Aunt Poly. The young characters from both novels belong to an impoverished genteel home but the stories follow different structures. This variance creates distinctive make-believe games for the characters.

A child has an imaginative mind and creates a world, separate from the realities of his/her life, in the form of a make-believe play. Sigmund Freud pointed out that children “hallucinate” to create a distinct world where their unfulfilled needs to find immediate gratification (Singer and Singer 17).

The immediate needs are an outcome of social conditions. Children’s literature often has a gendered target (Nikolajeva 125). The stories intended for boys are usually structured around an adventure that is experienced or performed but the female narrative is closed and restricted (Nikolajeva 125). Male-centric and female-centric narratives are usually structured differently and so are the make-believe games played by the characters in the novel.

Alcott called Little Women a “domestic drama” about young girls in a familial sphere under precarious conditions (Fetterley 32). In the novel, the sisters mostly play indoors. Their lives, fantasies, make-believe world is confined within the four walls. The uncertainty in their life fuelled their psychosomatic curiosity and retracted them inward, helping to develop their imagination. The March sisters face these newfound hardships with the aid of what they had at disposal – their imagination.

They were adolescent girls growing up at a time when gender roles were firmly defined. Their adventures were restricted outside their home but inside, they had the freedom to create their make-believe world. So they acted in plays and made tableaux (Alcott 89). Their fantasy was to break free the walls and go on a journey like the play (Pilgrim’s Progress) they produced. The sisters create a world through the play where they attain what they want – a perfect worry-free life of freedom and adventure.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is about a young orphan boy living with his aunt and half-brother. It is an adventure story of a young imaginative boy in pursuit of a quixotic quest. Tom believes in witches, devils, Satan, and the magical power of dead cats. Tom becomes a pirate or Robin Hood in his make-believe game. He wants to escape from reality. So he seeks adventure. During his escapades, he pursues danger and mystery.

This shows why he visits the graveyard, cave, and haunted house. Even though his life in the village is mundane, Tom, with the help of his imagination, transforms it into an arena of heroic play. He has displayed this in the classroom and in the room “Number 2” where he discovers a crime and the village’s hypocrisy. He believes in the supernatural and constantly tries to establish their presence in reality. For instance, he believes in the magical power of dead cats to cure warts or a bracelet to save him from drowning (Twain 54). Tom’s escapades along the river with his friends, his nightly capers in the countryside are unimpeded illustrations of boyhood imagination.

Make-believe play is believed to be a product of a child’s imagination, unconstrained by social sanctions, customs, and taboos (Singer and Singer 16). However, a comparison of the make-believe games played by the March sisters and Tom are different even though they are set almost at the same time. The March sisters were young girls being groomed to become ladies (Sanders 25). Their lives move in a circular motion of repetitions and so their fantasies also follow similar patterns until they reach adulthood (Nikolajeva 125).

Tom’s fantasies are more linear as they are the product of “enlightenment” and demonstrate “the spirit of action and progress” (Nikolajeva 126). The fantasies of the March sisters are more concerned with the inner maturity of the main characters while the fantasies and images depicted in Tom Sawyer are action-oriented. Tom’s fantasies create a world of adventure and mystery while that of the March sisters create a dreamlike fairy-tale. Tom’s adventures are outdoors while those of the girls are indoors. Both Little Women and Tom Sawyer show that the young minds, irrespective of gender, build a world away from the realities of life but the make-believe games played by them differ significantly.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Penguin, 2014.

Fetterley, Judith. “Little Women: Alcott’s Civil War.” Little Women and The Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal, edited by Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark, 2014, pp. 27-42.

Nikolajeva, Maria. Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic. Routledge, 2016.

Sanders, Valerie. The Brother-Sister Culture in Nineteenth-Century Literature: From Austen to Woolf. Springer, 2002.

Singer, Jerome L. and Dorothy G. Singer. “Historical Overview of Research on Imagination in Children.” The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Imagination. Oxford University Press, edited Taylor, Marjorie, 2013, pp. 11-27.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Penguin, 2010.

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IvyPanda. "Make-Believe Plays in "Tom Sawyer" vs "Little Women"." November 6, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/make-believe-plays-in-tom-sawyer-vs-little-women/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Make-Believe Plays in "Tom Sawyer" vs "Little Women"." November 6, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/make-believe-plays-in-tom-sawyer-vs-little-women/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Make-Believe Plays in "Tom Sawyer" vs "Little Women"'. 6 November.

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