How Sex Plays a Significant Role in Children’s Literature

Tom Sawyer & the Absence of Sex (from Para.doxa)

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Though it might at first seem an unlikely assertion, sex plays a significant role in Children’s Literature. One of the cornerstones of our very definition of childhood–evident, for example, in our system of movie ratings–is the taboo that surrounds knowledge about sexual matters. Such a restriction draws attention to the way authors treat or don’t treat sexuality in children’s books, either by sublimating it or by leaving it out altogether (often in ways that call loud attention to the erasures in the manuscript). Consider Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

Desexualizing Tom Sawyer

The transformations of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820)–as they cross over from the adult romance (The Last of the Mohicans, 1826) to the children’s book (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876)–present a case history of the desexualizing of American juvenile literature. In Ivanhoe, Scott’s Rebecca trails a musky eroticism and is attractively dark because she is Jewish. The villain, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, is taken with her and (in the language of the time) tries to forcibly steal her virtue.

James Fenimore Cooper, in turn, revised Ivanhoe in his The Last of the Mohicans.[1] Here, Scott’s Rebecca is renamed Cora, and her appeal and dark complexion comes from a touch of African-American blood. Likewise, instead of a Frenchman, Cooper remakes the would-be rapist into a villainous Native American, the Indian Magua.

The Last of the Mohicans, in turn, inspired much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. As others have observed, it is interesting how much Huckleberry Finn resembles Cooper’s character Natty Bumppo,[2] but what is more to the point is Samuel Clemens’s adoption of Cooper’s Indian villain Magua in his creation of Injun Joe. But, since he was writing a children’s book, Clemens had to avoid the central subject of Scott and Cooper. In Tom Sawyer there is no talk of rape, and Clemens turns his predecessors’ maiden into the aged Widow Douglas.

Clemens desexualized his novel in a number of other ways. For example, despite his age, Tom seems to surprisingly lack any interest in sexual matters. To be sure, it is difficult to know what Tom’s age is, Clemens is so inconsistent. Even though Tom loses his front baby-teeth in the novel (which would suggest he is about seven or eight), he seems through most of the story to be twelve or thirteen (or about the same age as Huck who is fourteen a summer later in his own book). Given this, it seems odd that Clemens makes no direct mention of Tom’s having any sexual curiosity. He is different, in this regard, from Becky Thatcher who, at one point, is seen guiltily feasting on a picture of nakedness in her teacher’s anatomy book, when the master is out of the room.

Certainly, Clemens knew that to talk about sex in a children’s book would make readers squirm uncomfortably. After he had finished the first draft of his novel, he wrote William Dean Howells and asked whether he should aim the book at adults eager to look back at their childhoods or at a market of boys and girls. Howells advised the latter. As a result, Clemens saw the task of revising the manuscript to largely consist in removing salacious passages.[3]

Following a similar ethos, critics often advise readers to leave their prurient minds behind when entering the sacred precinct of Children’s Literature. Take, for example, the Afterword to the New American Library edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer where George P. Elliott even goes so far as to add a parenthetical caveat: “How peaceful and easy it is to enjoy a story in which a boy and girl can wander for three days in a cave with nothing more subtle on their minds (or on yours, reading) than cold, hunger, darkness, loneliness, pitfalls, and a desperado who would kill them if he came upon them.”[4] Such injunctions, because they smack of something denied, can, of course, have the opposite effect; and, in this case, Elliott’s self-satisfied remarks redirect attention to this important scene in Clemens’s book and to “What really happened in the cave.”

What Really Happened in the Cave

In the late hours of Becky Thatcher’s picnic, children pair up and couples begin to wander off and into the darkness of McDougal’s Cave. Tom and Becky also wander off into the “bushes.” They are on what they pointedly call their “honeymoon” and, after getting hopelessly lost in the cave, they discover that all the food they have is what they refer to as their “wedding cake.” Later, after the children have escaped, Tom takes Huck back there and explains the significance of caves (at least for pirates): “You shut up the women [in there]. . . . [Then] the women get to loving you, and after they’ve been in the cave a week or two weeks they stop crying and after that you couldn’t get them to leave. If you drove them out they’d turn right around and come back. It’s so in all the books.”[5] Tom also adds that a cave is “an awful snug place for orgies,” though he says he doesn’t know what they are but that robbers have them all the time.[6]

What happens, then, in the cave? Do Tom and Becky engage in adolescent hanky-panky? The answer is no. But what is interesting is how Clemens makes a guilty retreat from the obvious, how he turns this sexual opportunity into a moment of revulsion, how he represses all thought of sex and buries it deep in the unconscious (that is, the cave).

Next to a night spent in the bridal suite of a low-budget New Jersey motel, it may be the worst honeymoon on record.

Tom and Becky’s “honeymoon” is a horrible experience: full of tears, recriminations, and impotency. They are lost, at a loss, and do not know what to do. Bats swoop down on them. They run out of food and candles. Their calls go unanswered. Next to a night spent in the bridal suite of a low-budget New Jersey motel, it may be the worst honeymoon on record. Worse yet, the children catch a glimpse of Injun Joe and know the villain would not hesitate to kill them in reprisal, since he harbors a grudge against Tom for identifying him as the killer of Doc Robinson.

Injun Joe, notably, has just come from an unsuccessful attempt to get revenge upon Widow Douglas for an injustice done him by her late husband. And Injun Joe had planned to get his revenge in a manner appropriate to pulp-fiction savages–by slitting the nostrils and notching the ears of the Widow. Here, too, Clemens deeply submerged sexual issues. This scene is based on an event that occurred in Hannibal during Clemens’s childhood, when a widow was actually in danger of being raped.[7] But Clemens changed the danger to mutilation in the same way that he bowdlerized Tom and Becky’s story, converting their honeymoon (their “Tunnel of Love”) into a story about lost children (a subterranean version of “Babes in the Woods”).[8]


When Clemens looked back at his childhood, he said one thing stood out: “Chastity. There was the utmost liberty among young people–but no young girl was ever insulted, or seduced, or even scandalously gossiped about. Such things were not even dreamed of in a society, much less spoken of and referred to as possibilities.”[9]

The honeymoon, consequently, is pure horror and impotency, underneath which lies sexual guilt. And the experience ends with Tom “getting religion.” In this dark night of the soul, near the sign of the cross (which marks Injun Joe’s lair), at the end of his rope (the kite string he ties to Becky when he goes searching alone), Tom finally sees the Light. He finds a way out of the cave, emerges from it (with all the birth imagery that implies), and is “born again” and “saved” (with all those echoes of Southern salvation Christianity).

An iron door mounted at the entrance to the cave of sexual secrets

Instead of the familiar mischief-maker, then, it is a “born-again” and reformed Tom that we encounter in the last chapters of the novel. He has put all thought of “honeymoons” behind him, reverted to presexual adolescence by again taking up talk of the pirate gang with Huckleberry Finn, and (surprisingly) encourages Huck to consider the benefits to be had from keeping the rules. Mindful, perhaps, of his own daughter’s virginal escapade in rule-breaking, Judge Thatcher forgoes a chastity belt but has an iron door mounted at the entrance to the cave of sexual secrets–thereby sealing in that would-be rapist Injun Joe. Repression, after all, is a cornerstone to the very notion of childhood. There are some things “children” should not know or hear about until they are “adults.” The last words of Clemens’s novel imply as much, especially with their reference to marriage and a novelist’s obligation to propriety:


SO endeth this chronicle. It being strictly the history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go on much further without it becoming the history of a man. When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop–that is, with a marriage; but when he writes of juveniles, he must stop where he best can.

This essay originally appeared in from Para.doxa (Vol.2, №3–4, 1996). For a related essay, see “Hans Christian Andersen and Sex.”

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[1]. Cf. Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Dell Publishing, 1966), 205‑212 and passim.

[2]. Cf. Sacvan Bercovitch, “Huckleberry Bumppo: A Comparison of Tom Sawyer and The Pioneers,” Mark Twain Journal XIV, 2 (Summer 1968), 1‑4.

[3]. Letter to Howells dated January 18, 1876, in The Selected Letters of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 88‑89.

[4]. George P. Elliott, “Afterword” in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: New American Library, 1959), 224.

[5]. More than a discourse on the Patty Hearst phenomenon, these images might be read in a corporeal fashion. The implications would, of course, then be that males must introduce females to the body or the cave. Like the motifs of rape associated with Injun Joe, males must also (at least initially) do this against the will of females. While at first fearful, females will then (predictably and eventually) warm to the idea of the hostage in the cave and develop an almost nymphomaniacal desire–so that “if you drove them [away] they’d turn right around and come back.” For the psychologically inclined reader, Tom Sawyer might be seen, then, as:

  • an indication of sexist attitudes
  • the penchant for sado-masochist erotics so evident in Clemens’ other works
  • a re-presentation of Victorian attitudes and the familiar sexual tropes of the era
  • or a reflection of Clemens’ own circumstances at the time the novel was written and he was newly married to Olivia Langdon.

[6]. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Berkeley: University of California, 1980), 244, 247.

[7]. Fiedler, 274.

[8]. For this observation, I am indebted to John Seelye’s “What’s in a Name: Sounding the Depths of Tom Sawyer,” The Sewanee Review, XC, 3 (Summer 1982), 419.

[9]. Cited in Fiedler, 273‑74.


05. December 2016 by
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