Summary and Analysis Chapter 21

The night set aside for a display of learning arrives, and the school hall is lavishly decorated. Everyone in the town is present. The little folk recite their pieces with great difficulty, pleased only to get it over. The highlight of the night is the reading of original compositions by some of the older girls. Each theme is extremely melancholy, filled with cliches and trite pronouncements. The winner is “A Vision,” a dreadfully gushy, melancholy piece with no originality.

Now is the time for revenge. The schoolmaster, who has been nipping from his bottle of private reserve liquor, is a little unsteady on his feet, and as he tries to draw a map of the United States, the audience begins to twitter. From above him in the attic, a cat is being slowly lowered through a trapdoor directly above his head. As soon as the cat can reach it, the cat snags the schoolmaster’s toupee, revealing his bald head, which had been gilded gold by the sign painter’s son and which shone like a star.


This delightful chapter, filled with irony, sarcasm, and satire, has little or nothing to do with Tom Sawyer except that Tom was probably among those who were punished.

With the girls’ essays–filled with melancholy–Twain pokes fun at the tender sentimentality of the average person and the popular literature of the day. He is satirizing the average person’s preference for cheap, morbid writing that has no literary value. Instead of this melodramatic claptrap, Twain would prefer a simple straightforward essay.

This chapter also presents a realistic picture of the typical country school and a delightful episode about the students’ revenge on the schoolteacher, which involves the cat, Mr. Dobbins’ wig, and finally his bald head painted gold by the sign painter’s boy. This scene serves as another example, like the Sunday school scene in Chapter 19, of Twain’s satirizing authority figures.