“But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that” (Twain 10).
I was bored in elementary school. In hindsight, it was probably fantasy novels that were to blame; I gobbled them up. I had a voracious appetite for alternate realities, and would sneak Harry Potter under the table during math—I read all four volumes of Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books during third grade science classes. One third of my life before seventh grade was sleeping; another third was reading. I spent so much of my time in worlds where physics was inverted and twisted to fit the whims of the author that my first response when confronted with my own humdrum reality was to escape.
My elementary school had a limited library. When I ran out of Harry Potter books and had read all three volumes of Greek myths back to front, I tried to create my own worlds, constructed while staring out a window in English class. There was a girl with quicksand eyes—literally quicksand: none of those namby-pamby metaphors, this girl’s eyes would trap you and suck out your soul. Inevitably, the first thirty pages were ridiculous descriptions of a country that floated in space and was ruled by an empress who tore out the hearts of men and frog-marched them into battle against an enemy made of metal. My mother had enormous patience. It took her until the thirteenth page to look up and say, “Why don’t you write about what you know?”
I hadn’t thought of that, mainly because what I knew was boring. I knew alarm clocks and the ten minute walk to school; I knew playing Uno with my sister and freeze tag with my friends at recess. I knew routine, and it bored me to tears. Trying to tell my mother this did not work. She wrote New York Times articles and dealt in fact and deadlines; I do not think she had much time for escapism. Like Huck Finn, my mother did not quite understand my need to add ornamentation to my life; I do not think she, as Robert Heinlein might say, quite “grokked” my madcap daydreams.
Tom Sawyer would have understood; he, too, had a way of transforming everyday life into something infinitely grander. He formed a band of robbers out of a handful of thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds and made a desperate prisoner out of a technically free slave. When Huck is trying to free Jim from the house he has been imprisoned in, Tom is disgusted with the ease with which it could be accomplished in reality. His mind, ensnared by fantasy, refuses to accept shortcuts. So he creates obstacles; piles up difficulty upon imaginary difficulty until his reality can be mistaken for the reality he wishes he had. Tom, like a younger me, is fed up with the prosaicism of the situations he finds himself in. He is literally unable to accept them; in trying to fit his reality to his mind’s ideal, he misses things—important things. He does not realize he is hurting his friends and his aunt. He is unable to see beyond the veneer of glamour his imagination lends to his life.
When I was addicted to fantasy novels, I missed things. I overlooked details; there were years when I honestly did not know small, important facts. In seventh grade, I didn’t really have time for fiction. I began to notice more. I learned things about my friends—their favorite colors, their passions, the things they absolutely could not stand and the things they could not do without. Similarly, I discovered that somehow, while I wasn’t paying attention, my opinions about things I had hitherto considered unchangeable had shifted. I tried brussel sprouts for the first time in three years and liked them; I saw sunflowers growing in a tangle on a street corner and was shocked at their beauty. I began to see colors differently; my entire perception of the world changed.
Tom Sawyer tailors his reality to fit his ideals—the aspects that he cannot accept, he changes. And so instead of simply saying “The Widow Douglass set Jim free,” he creates this fiction of Jim as a prisoner who must waste away for thirty-seven years before he can be set free. He forces Jim to do a hundred menial tasks that are entirely unnecessary–but they fulfill Tom’s sense of the “right way” to set a prisoner free, and so they must be done. Because of this trend, we see Tom as a sort of slave-driver, one who forces everyone else to do his bidding; in this sense, cut of the same cloth as the Duke or the King, who are merely vagrants pretending to high station in order to take charge of Huck and Jim.
I propose that Tom, instead, is a slave. Perhaps not a slave to the same kind of very tangible pressures as Huck and Jim—one perceived as property and the other born to an abusive father. But a slave nonetheless. Tom is a slave to his own perceptions of what life should be; he is a slave to the ideals he finds in books, a slave to the worlds he finds in classics and epics. He does not know how to accept life as it comes at him. He is always revising his reality, always adding bits and pieces, small frills and excitements. He invents difficulties and, just as quickly, solutions. But he can’t simply solve the problem as it occurs. He does not know how to take only what is given. Tom Sawyer is too imaginative for his own good. Instead of the world seen by Huck and Jim, he sees a world filled with interminable possibility—the only problem being that half of this gorgeous opportunity is invented.
The difficulty with reading too much fiction is that you end up with a sort of blindfold—insulation against real life. In your mind, you have lists of things that make up a good story. But the elements of a good book aren’t necessarily the elements of a good life. When I was eleven, I wrote a story about a pyromaniac were-cat, who changed into a cat once a month and had all sorts of adventures. She was an amoral murderer. That sort makes a good main character; life is a bit different. In life, dialogue doesn’t follow patterns that some author has drawn out in perfect detail. There aren’t slopes of building conflict calculated to the very degree of climax, there isn’t one catalyst that sends the whole plot in motion, and there is no resolution that will be guaranteed to work one hundred percent.
Mark Twain seems determined to highlight this in Huck Finn—we see the essential difference between books and life at several points in the novel. Huck and Jim run upon a ruined boat at one point; it is called the Walter Scott, a rather thinly veiled jab at Walter Scott’s exaggerated, unrealistic epics. During this incident—in which Huck and Jim discover a couple of pirates, threatening a third who has, in turn, threatened mutiny—there is a very sharp contrast between the easy dialogue of Huck and Jim and the formulaic conversations seen on the boat. Twain seems to be saying “See? This isn’t real!” Interestingly, Huck thinks of Tom at this point in the novel—thinks that Tom would love to be there. For Tom is the type who prefers the structured format of an adventure to life’s humdrum and rather gentle twists and turns.
Tom’s trouble is that his mind is built to twist around worlds with inconceivable plotlines and ridiculous physics, but has not adapted to the rules of real life. He knows more about how life works in books than how life works in reality. It is one of the side effects of reading; when your exposure to novels is greater than your exposure to life, you are slow to accept truths that most learn at a very young age. Take Tom, or me—even at twelve, I was wishing for flight, a jetpack, something wild and exciting and out of the ordinary. Tom, at the age of fourteen, spent his afternoons pretending to be a fearsome robber. He attacked a primary school picnic as if it were a highway robbery—an infantile activity that leads many readers to assume he is younger than he really is. He is bound to such actions by his imagination, nurtured and encouraged into unsustainable growth by the fiction he devoured as soon as he was able to read. At one point, he even says it “wouldn’t be right” for him to ignore the things he’s learned from these books and take the practical course of action.
In the end, I think this way of ignoring practicality in favor of a better dream is exposed as folly. The entire episode wherein Jim is the desperate prisoner is undermined by the reveal that he has been freed lawfully; in the end, you wind up feeling swindled. All the pomp and circumstance with which Tom went about setting Jim free was ridiculous from the beginning, but the realization that its goal is unnecessary—had, in fact, already been accomplished—makes the whole things seem another primary school picnic. That is to say, a fantasy, a silly little child’s game. I can’t help but sympathize with this view. At a certain point, it is necessary to move past the fantasy, to see the world as what it actually is and work to create the world you wish you saw.
This point came for me when I started at Hunter College High School. I do not think it was a coincidence; before this, my world was a few blocks long by a few blocks wide. Forest Hills is a lovely place, but it is small. There is much to be discovered there, but few tools available to a girl who must be chaperoned everywhere by mildly overprotective parents. When I started at Hunter, I was given a Metrocard that widened my worldview by several subway lines; I started making friends who came from backgrounds that were very different to mine, and I was exposed to ideas about the world that I had never considered. There were ten things that I was trying to process at a time. Suddenly, life was far too interesting and urgent to be postponed in favor of Avalon, or Narnia, or even Wonderland.
I have come to firmly believe that if you open your eyes wide enough, you find that the real world is far more intriguing than any universe constructed out of ink could possibly be. More importantly, we live in this world—not Neverland. It does no good to pretend Hunter is Hogwarts; no matter what, Chemistry is about ions and reactions, not unicorn hair and bezoars. No amount of imagining will change physics or genetics. The beauty of this world is that it is real, and somehow just as astounding and breathtaking as a tailored fantasy can be.
Works Cited in this Essay:
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishing, 1918.
Aviva Rabin-Court, Age 15, Grade 10, Hunter College High School, Gold Key