Tom's a hard kid to pin down, and not just because he's always jumping fences, running off to islands, and getting lost in caves. From a moral perspective, his actions are a bit confusing. Sometimes he's admirable, but other times not so much. He's tricks his entire family – heck, the entire town – into believing he's dead, and he takes great pride in doing so, but he can just as easily demonstrate his remorse for the whole thing and kiss Aunt Polly on the cheek. He's always playing hooky, but he's also saving lives – Muff Potter would be a dead man without him.
With Huck, it's no different. Tom spurs him on to search for treasure, and tries to teach him the ways of pirates and robbers, but he also tries to convince Huck to come back to the Widow's and live in society like everyone else. It's like he's playing both sides.
Not confused yet? Consider this. We're all familiar with the Tom Sawyer, the tricky little tyke. But what about Tom the self-sacrificer? Ring any bells? Maybe, maybe not. We can't blame you. It's not quite as memorable or as funny as that fence whitewashing episode. But it does tell us something important about Tom. To make a long story short: Becky rips the teacher's precious anatomy textbook. When the mean teacher finds out, he goes down the line and asks each student if he or she is responsible. Just when it looks like Becky's goose is cooked, Tom steps in and saves the day. He takes the blame for the offense. Before you decide that this is a selfless act, take a look at this:
[W]hen he stepped forward to go to his punishment the surprise, the gratitude, the adoration that shone upon him out of poor Becky's eyes seemed pay enough for a hundred floggings. Inspired by the splendor of his own act, he took without an outcry the most merciless flaying that even Mr. Dobbins had ever administered. (20.32)
Tom may be saving Becky a lot of pain and embarrassment, but he's also getting a lot pleasure from his little stunt.
Now, here's the dilemma: it's hard to decide the exact nature of what Tom is doing, to figure out the appropriate reaction to his little escapades. We laugh and smile at his cleverness when he shows up at his own funeral, but we can't deny the insensitivity of such a trick. On the one hand we think, "Oh, Tom, you're so clever!" and on the other we think, "How could you put the people that love you through that?" The same principle operates when Tom takes the blame for ripping the anatomy book. We want to praise Tom for his selflessness, but we can't avoid the fact that he's just doing it to get attention, to get the girl. It's a masterful piece of manipulation, just like the whitewashing trick, but it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
You can take this all with a grain of salt; in fact, you should take it with one. Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer primarily for children, but the darker aspects of the novel shouldn't be overlooked.