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Painting the fence with Tom Sawyer

November 30, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

We probably all agree that one of the most iconic scenes from Mark Twain’s novel is when Tom Sawyer has to whitewash the fence. As we know, Tom manages to come up with a clever solution by luring his friends into doing the job for him. This scene has become such a popular one that in Hannibal, Missouri you can take part in the National Fence Painting Competition on 5th July, as part of the Annual Tom Sawyer Days celebrations.

Why is it organised in Hannibal, Missouri, and what does whitewashing the fence symbolise?

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or as we know him, Mark Twain was born in Hannibal, Missouri, and he drew inspiration from the town and the surrounding countryside for his two most famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Hannibal is built on  the Mississippi River, and when reading the novels, we can perfectly visualize the setting. Twain brings us right into the atmosphere of the town amd the river and we can can easily imagine the typical whitewashed fences in front of the houses.

The fence-painting scene in the Helbling Reader adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. © Helbling Languages

The philosophy and psychology of the scene

In the novel we get a thorough explanation of the psychological aspect of the scene. As we know, Tom Sawyer feels no inclination to ruin his sunny Saturday with working and painting the fences. He has a great idea, and starts to paint the fences calmly, so as he can make the job desirable for his friends, who then feel eager to do the job for him.

The psychology of the trick is explained by the narrator himself in the novel.

“Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.” (Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)

CLIL projects to expand the scene


What is whitewash? Find out about the ingredients you need to make whitewash, and then explain why it is a practical type of paint. Is it used in your country? In what countries is it popular?


Where exactly is Missouri? What is the area around the Mississippi River famous for? Find the town on the map and explore the countryside around it.

History 1

Hannibal is named after the ancient military commander. Who was Hannibal? When did he live? Why did they name an American town after an ancient leader?

History 2

Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens. His father, John M. Clemens was an important figure in the town. What did he do? Search the Internet for information about Mark Twain's father.


Do you agree with Tom Sawyer's approach to work? Is it enough to make something unattainable, look good and hard to get? Will people like certain things more this way? Can you see examples of this in the media or advertisements?


The city benefits a lot from tourism. Check the website Visit Hannibal and choose the attractions you would visit. You can also check out the website of the Mark Twain Boyhood Town & Museum.