In “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” 1 Mark Twain describes one of the most infamous scenes in literary history: Tom Sawyer sitting back watching others whitewash the fence he is supposed to be painting and actually paying him for the “privilege” of doing it! The first person Tom tries to swindle into whitewashing the fence is his Aunt Polly’s slave boy, Jim. Jim comes ambling along to go draw water from the well. Immediately Tom ambushes him. He tries to talk him into trading chores. “You whitewash a little while I go get some water.” But Jim has been forewarned by Aunt Polly not to make any stops and to beware of Tom and his schemes. Since he is hesitant Tom has to offer him some sparkles. He pulls one of his treasures out of his pocket. It is a white alley. Jim eyes it. Tom says “White alley Jim! And it is a bully taw!” In terms we understand: Jim, it is one heck of a beautiful marble! Jim says, “My! Dat’s a mighty gay marvel, I tell you!” But before Jim can fall for the temptation Aunt Polly swats him with her slipper and he goes a runnin’ to do his chore. Tom is downcast. He knows all the boys will make fun of him for having to work on a Saturday. Then he has, as the writer notes, “Nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration.” He figures if he makes whitewashing look fun, all the kids will want to try it. His next victim, Ben Rogers, is not so lucky as Jim. He falls for the bait. Tom makes whitewashing look so attractive that Ben gives up his delicious, juicy apple or the “privilege” of doing Tom’s work. The rest of the kids fall for the same act, and likewise give up their treasures. At the end of the day, Tom is a rich man and the fence has been painted while he sat back and idly watched the spectacle.
Now reading this story makes us chuckle. It seems funny on the surface to watch Tom shrewdly manipulate all his friends and become wealthy to boot. It really does seem very funny indeed and you are about half-way through the laugh when it dies in your throat. All the sudden you realize that every person in history, including yourself, has been the dummy on the receiving end of the deception. The only difference is that the trades have been much more serious. We aren’t just giving up apples. We are giving up much more valuable commodities. With remarkable accuracy Twain outlines the Devil’s age old strategy. First Satan starts with distraction. We are on our way to carry out our task and he shows us a bully taw. It catches our eye. We stop to look. Then we begin to dialogue with the devil. Pretty soon he has convinced us to give up a greater treasure for a piece of junk. Then he sits back and laughs at us when we make the trade. Sometimes it takes us awhile to see we have been duped. When we finally realize it, we jump back in dismay and surprise! Later in the book, Tom performs his trick again. He trades the treasures he gleaned in the whitewashing scheme for “tickets.” These tickets were supposed to be earned by learning Bible verses. Tom is able to trade in his tickets to get a Bible. About Tom’s victims Twain remarks: The boys were all eaten up with envy- but those who suffered the bitterest pangs were those who perceived too late that they themselves had contributed to this hated splendor by trading tickets to Tom for the wealth he had amassed in selling whitewashing privileges. These despised themselves, as being the dupes of a wily fraud, a guileful snake in the grass.” One can almost sense Twain’s personal pleasure here as his protagonist “seems” to outwit God himself by getting the prize of a Bible again without doing the work. Twain often sits in the seat of mocker and makes religious folk out to be dimwitted. Yet it’s not just those who believe in God who are easily duped. We all have been duped and we all despise ourselves for the folly.
In a million different ways we have whitewashed many fences in our lives. We always remember too the person who duped us. We know them by name and usually feel great bitterness toward them. None of us likes to be ripped off. I think of one of the greatest Tom Sawyer’s of our century: Bernie Madoff, a name now synonymous with greed. He bilked billions out of many investors with his Ponzi scheme. Many people lost their life savings. Madoff’s son recently committed suicide unable to live with himself after the fallout of his dad’s arrest and imprisonment. It can seem that life is composed of the Tom Sawyers, and the rest of us dummies who get bilked by them. But in truth the Tom Sawyer’s of this world are being deceived by Satan too, “that guileful snake in the grass.” His trade with them is: do this immoral thing and reap the reward. For awhile it works. They sit back, eat their apples, and watch the painting with amusement. But in the end Satan gets them too. They have traded their eternal souls for the brief pleasure of a few worthless earthly trinkets.
Someone once asked Madoff what he felt about all the people he robbed. He said,”F*#k my clients!” As I said, they trade their soul. Here is the moral of the story: Never trade for the bully taw.
1Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1974).