The Whitewashing Scene, From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain


This funny and familiar vignette from a literary classic is also a lesson in work motivation and the meaning of work for anyone who has ever dreaded work. It is particularly relevant for students and scholars studying management and ethics who may now or in the future be responsible for managing the work of others. Tom Sawyer has been sentenced by his Aunt Polly to a Saturday of “hard labor” for misbehavior. His project is to paint perhaps the most famous fence in American literature, a prospect that to him renders “existence but a burden.” Tom’s ingenious solution to his task is to recast work as play, recruiting other children of the neighborhood to pay him for the privilege of painting while Tom manages their production. In a few hours, the fence has three coats of paint, and Tom has a pocketful of toys and a philosophy of work: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and…Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

This case was prepared for inclusion in SAGE Business Cases primarily as a basis for classroom discussion or self-study, and is not meant to illustrate either effective or ineffective management styles. Nothing herein shall be deemed to be an endorsement of any kind. This case is for scholarly, educational, or personal use only within your university, and cannot be forwarded outside the university or used for other commercial purposes.

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