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Don Quixote was very quixotic because even in his old age and very limited means he still wanted to emulate what he has read in romances of chivalry and that is to be an errant knight.
Thus, with an old armor and a bony old horse he went out to rescue damsels in distress and perform mighty deeds even if to the outside world he seemed ill-suited for the job and more so, he looked ridiculous (Paulson, 1998, p.1). Because of the things that he said and the things that he did a term was soon coined to describe his strange view of the world and it is now known all over as being “quixotic” a term of ridicule and endearment depending on how it was used.
More than a hundred years or so later another great writer by the name of Mark Twain penned a classic entitled The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and interestingly it is a novel full of “quixotic” characters and written for the same purpose and it is to satirize the excesses and pretensions of that particular day and age.
The purpose of this study is to analyze Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but not using the usual method of analyzing a work of literature such as a classic novel. A slight deviation from the norm is justified because of the similarity in patterns that can be seen in Don Quixote and Mark Twain’s famous work. It can even be argued that Twain was influenced by the masterpiece of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and used some of the ideas from Don Quixote to fashion characters of the same “quixotic” temperament.
Don Quixote, the Spanish novel was not only written to entertain, although it must be said that no one who seriously gave time to read this 17th century novel could honestly say that he was not entertain. Far from it the novel is something that both young and old can enjoy because they can relate to it.
The teenager who happens to hold Don Quixote in his or her hands will immediately understand the satire. They will appreciate how Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra tried to make an indirect but effective criticism of the excesses of the Spanish court and the general population’s obsession with knights in shining armor who seem perfect no matter from what angle they are viewed from.
The older set of people who chance to read the novel for the first time will quickly understand the expert use of satire but it is the other facet of the novel that will grab them and it is the sad and ridiculous behavior of an old man who had seen better days and desperately tried to recapture the glory of the old days.
Those who are middle aged and even those who are elderly can reminisce the time when everything was fresh and the old fellow was once strong and the old lady was once flawlessly beautiful. This is the impact of the novel but as one will focus the attention on Mark Twain and his masterpiece it is easy to be led into the conclusion that there is a similarity between the two novels.
The differences are pronounced such as the main character’s significant disparity in age. Don Quixote is past the age of retirement while Tom Sawyer on the other hand has his life in front of him and not even a full pledge teenager caught between the world of boyish tantrums and the world of self-confident adolescence Tom Sawyer is the perfect character to see the different nuances of a 19th century America reeling from the Civil War and yet slowly finding its place in the international stage.
At the time of Tom Sawyer America was experiencing rapid but uneven growth. In the story itself one can find the differences between the lifestyle and the people living in poorer side of town as opposed to those who are not required to work to survive. This is the reason why Twain’s novel was also written as a satire.
The Quixotic Figures
The first quixotic figure to appear on the book is Aunt Polly. She does not seem a normal person at first just like Don Quixote. It is clear that she does not have mental issues but her words and actions are strange even if one will consider that this novel was written in the 19th century. This is seen in the way she treated Tom Sawyer. The language used is oftentimes vulgar but the narrator would always say in the end that she is a nice woman and kind to Tom.
The second quixotic figure to appear is of course Tom Sawyer. In the opening scene alone one could see him hiding behind the furniture while trying to eat the jam that Aunt Polly forbids him to eat. One can only imagine his dirty hands inserted into a nice clean jar full of preserves and then he opened his mouth and into it he dumps the jam with satisfaction and not yet contented he reached into the jam one more time and eat with his bare hands.
There is also another scene wherein Tom Sawyer reminds the readers of Don Quixote. It was during the time when he happened to pass by Judge Thatcher’s house and he saw a little girl with a captivating beauty because of her blond hair and blue eyes. The moment he saw her it was as if the whole word stopped spinning.
He forgot that his heart was already reserved for another girl – Amy Lawrence – who was also pretty fond of Tom. But this time around it did not matter because the girl who was walking inside the fenced house was so beautiful that Tom is head over heels literally. He did a handstand several times to catch her attention.
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Tom’s actions is reminiscent of Don Quixote who charged against an imagined enemy just so he can impress the woman that he loves. Tom Sawyer does the same thing and he would not mind appearing foolish just so he can have the very thing that he so desires.
However, the main difference between the two characters is that Don Quixote has a singular purpose and that is to be a knight in shining armor who is ready to save a damsel in distress. This is the recurring theme in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s book. In Tom Sawyer the pursuit is varied and there is a level of selfishness that is not evident with Don Quixote’s character.
This can be seen during the time when Tom Sawyer did not feel like going to school and he had to faint sickness. What happens next clearly revealed the quixotic character within him and he said that his big toe was about to fall. He was groaning like mad to the point that Sid, his roommate had to run to Aunt Polly to say to her that Tom Sawyer is dying.
Aunt Polly is wise enough not to believe the prank and yet at the same time she also shows his quixotic side because while he and Tom is conversing about the imagined disease when Aunt Polly spotted a weakened tooth and she is not the one who will hesitate and so she pulled the milk teeth that was about to come loose. This is the clash of two quixotic characters and the most quixotic won the contest.
There are other quixotic characters in the story. Another one is the well-dressed boy who walks the street as if he owns it. His quixotic attributes can also be seen in the way he dismisses people as if one will dismiss a useless fly hovering around their faces. Tom Sawyer saw this and he could not pass up the opportunity to challenge this boy and beat him up. They fought but not before doing a strange ritual that once again highlights the quirkiness of both lads.
Throughout the story one will encounter words that are not usually spoken in the more well-heeled part of the United States or even in places wherein people have access to decent education. There is something strange to the language and the customs of the people. But more importantly the things and the places described in the novel reveals that this is not a place in New York, Boston, Chicago or any other prominent cities. It is clear that the story is set somewhere in the South.
The places that Tom Sawyer frequents and the objects that really dominated his thoughts were the river and the steamboat. Aside from that the narrator also pointed out the love for guns, the desire to become a soldier and great interest when it comes to battle formations. There is a good explanation as to the presence of the terms used in this story because the setting is in the late 19th century when the United States is embroiled in the Civil War.
The author’s father died early and so Mark Twain was forced to quit school at the age of twelve and works as a full-time apprentice as a printer at the Missouri Courier (Peck, 2003, p.ix). In 1857, when Mark Twain was barely 22 years old he traveled on a steamboat to New Orleans where he hopes to find a ship bout to South America but instead he signed up to work as a river pilot and for the next two years did nothing but learn how to navigate a steamboat (Peck, 2003, p.ix).
Two years later Mark Twain becomes a fully licensed pilot (Peck, 2003, p.ix). These things that happen to him clearly explain the material that can be found in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The death of his father mirrored the orphan life of Tom Sawyer. The necessity to work early in life, when he was only 12 years old will explain why Tom Sawyer had the worldly knowledge that defies his age. He is street-smart and knows his way around society. He is still a lad who is immature and makes a lot of mistakes but it is clear that he has the strength and the will-power to survive in the swamps or in town. More importantly Tom Sawyer’s fascination with the river and boats can be explained by Mark Twain’s experienced as a river pilot.
Aside from the commercial activity, the steamboats and the humdrum of the towns located near the rivers, there is also another major event that greatly influenced Mark Twain and his writings. When he was still a young man a Civil War erupted in American soil. In two short weeks Mark Twain served under a confederate militia (Peck, 2003, p.x). This explains why there are tales about soldiers and battle formations in his novel.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s novel is pure satire and entertainment. It can only be enjoyed by acknowledging that the author aims to satirize what was happening in 17th century Spain. He realized that knight errantry was no longer the norm in the sense that knights would fight for the glory of a kingdom. This time around the idea of knights exists in romantic novels and through the centuries the idea of a knight has been idealized to a point that the author felt he had to write against it.
Thus, Don Quixote was born and his awkward attempt at becoming a night past the age of retirement is a vivid description of how ridiculous the though of knight errantry is to the author and the general population. But no one dared say a thing about it until Don Quixote came along and this is the reason why the readers loved it. The author gave them a voice to speak out against the excesses of imagination and fantasy.
The same thing can be said of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The ruggedness and roughness of Tom Sawyer allowed him to see the world through pure eyes. Although the author made him into a selfish rascal who does not seem to know the difference between right and wrong, he also made him into a person who has pure reactions to what he saw and what he felt. This means that Tom Sawyer did not have time to mask what he feels inside and instead automatically does what he feels is right.
This is the reason why many people within the novel itself and the readers who encountered Tom Sawyer as a character in the story can be easily repulsed by his uncouth behavior. Nevertheless, it gave him the license to go into people’s lives and to challenge the rules of society because his child-likeness allows him to do so with minimal repercussion from the guardians of society – the legalists who made the decision on what is right and wrong.
As a result Tom Sawyer became like the child found in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. In that fictional tale everyone tried to play within the bounds of rule of law and it is forbidden to speak unpleasant things against the king and even to say something that may offend his feeling. Thus, the king made a fool out of himself when he paraded himself outside the palace gates thinking that he had a magical robe on him when in truth he was naked from head to toe.
No one dared speak against the abomination that is before them because of fear of retribution. Everyone was shackled by an unseen force they wanted to appear polite for the sake of appearing polite and so the charade continues to the embarrassment of all who were in attendance. It became a painful ordeal to look at the faces of the people who forced a smile on their faces when in truth they really wanted to look away in disgust upon seeing their king walking butt naked around the streets of the city. But no one dared raise a voice against it.
The procession went agonizingly slow until a brave boy spoke the truth. The boy said that the Emperor has nothing on him. It is easy to imagine the boy in his innocence fearing nothing of the sort that the other people are thinking in their minds – that they will be punished for making fun of their ruler.
But the boy was not thinking about ridiculing his master and he was not mindful of what people would say to him. He simply finds it strange and amusing why the Emperor chose to walk the streets of his kingdom without any piece of cloth to cover his most private parts.
Tom Sawyer as a character was built with many flaws but with one major fine quality and it is to speak and act with boldness and courage. He does this not even knowing that he is speaking the truth but simply because he is unburdened by restrictions. He is not aware of the power of legalism and he does not care a single bit about it. He became the voice of 19th century Americans who wanted to say something but fear that they may offend the sensibilities of other people. Thus, Tom Sawyer became their hero.
One of the best examples is during the time when Tom Sawyer and his friends went to Sunday school. Along the way Tom was busy collecting tickets. It was a strange ritual for a young boy who was supposed to focus on the task at hand and that is going to church. He was collecting tickets because he is interested in getting a Bible. He was not interested in the Bible per se but the fact that it is a highly coveted item and he knew that once he walks the streets with a Bible in one hand then he would be famous and well respected.
This is a clear satire on the overly religious mindset of the people in St. Petersburg. The author may not be against the idea of going to church and he believes in the importance of the Bible but he criticizes the shallowness of the people’s actions.
He critics on how the people, especially the leaders of society who were interested with the outward appearance but lacks the substance – they carry Bibles without reading them and not knowing what is inside this holy book. Tom Sawyer gave those who wanted to speak against this façade of religiosity.
There is only one trickster in the story and he is none other than Tom Sawyer. There are a countless scenes where he demonstrated how he can become so enchanting that the kids and even the adults cannot do anything but be swayed under the influence of his magic. He does not use potion and spells but he had something as effective.
He uses words to trick people. He is an expert user of words because he understands that people are driven by pride and the desires of their heart. In one scene he was able to ask strangers to whitewash a fence for him. He appealed to their pride and as a result they were blinded to the fact that Tom Sawyer wanted nothing more than to make them work for them.
There is indeed a great deal of similarity between Don Quixote and Tom Sawyer if one is able to look past the physical characteristics. The don was obviously an old man sitting on an old horse while Tom Sawyer is a young boy and an intense storehouse of energy. Nevertheless they are the same when it comes to the way they unknowingly challenge the norms of society.
This is the reason why the stories became so popular because the readers wanted to say the same thing but they were prevented to by fear that they will be censured. But Tom Sawyer is not bothered by the conventions that society has given older people. As a boy he was reckless and free to speak his heart and this is the reason why he endears himself to those who happen to read this wonderful classic: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.
Paulson, Ronald. Don Quixote in England: The Aesthetic of Laughter. MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Peck, Daniel. The Introduction. Mark Twain’s The Adventure of Tom Sawyer. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.