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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer | Chapter 12 | Summary



Tom's sadness over Becky's absence from school causes Aunt Polly to resort to numerous treatments. Among these cures are water treatment (being doused in cold water and wrapped in a wet sheet) and administration of Pain-Killer. Tom outwits Aunt Polly by asking for the medicine so often that she tells him to get it for himself. Tom wisely dumps it into a crack in the floor in doses. He also feeds the medicine to the cat, which results in getting caught by Aunt Polly.

When Becky returns to school, Tom attempts to get her attention only to be rejected again.


Twain had experience with Pain-Killer—one of many false medicines sold at the time—as did his childhood cat. In his autobiography, he says, "It was not right to give the cat the 'Pain-Killer'; I realize it now." However, he also echoes what the reader can deduce from the novel: "It was a most despicable medicine." He also cites a man of "good judgment" who pronounced the medicine was "made of hellfire." The medicine was, in fact, made of both cayenne pepper and alcohol, so it is no wonder that it burned.

At the time, such medicines were popular, and a doctor's livelihood often depended on the popularity of a patented medicine made of undisclosed ingredients. The desire for a cure, a preventative, or a solution from alternative sources was not something that ended in the 1800s; herbs, diet pills, and homeopathy continue to attract people. In the 1800s patent medicines were sold to people much the same way. Twain's mother, like many other people, was frightened by the cholera epidemic of 1849. Twain agreed to take Perry Davis's Pain-Killer, and he writes in his autobiography that he intended to do so. However, his initial experience with it changed his mind, and he poured it through a crack in the floor—and on one occasion gave it to the cat—much as Tom does in the novel.

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