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An image of the bookcover for Tom Sawyer


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain’s children’s novels

Hemingway once said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. . .  There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”1 Although he was referring to the famous sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Hemingway’s admiration for all Twain’s children’s books is evident.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is directed more towards adults than children. It has a darker view of the human condition and a greater emphasis on the evils of society. Huckleberry Finn was written as a bitter denouncement of slavery. In contrast, Tom Sawyer is wonderfully humorous and light-hearted.

Twain is also well-known for the historical Prince and Pauper, set in 16th century London. The plot hinges upon the intertwining of two stories as a prince and a pauper exchange roles.

Twain’s books frequently involve diametrically opposed protagonists linked together by circumstance. For example, Tom Sawyer comes from respectable society; Huck Finn lives on its fringes, but they become friends and both desire freedom from society’s constraints.

Tom as the classic adventurer

As an adventure story, Tom Sawyer is dominated by fast-paced action and daring exploits. Tom escapes to an island and tries to live without adults. He witnesses a murder, searches for treasure, and gets lost in caves. What makes this novel especially humorous is the way Tom pictures himself as an impossibly daring adult adventurer, creating a series of unrealistic roles for himself such as pirate and robber.

Bad-boy tradition and characterization

Before Tom Sawyer was written, protagonists were usually models of respectability. This novel introduced the idea of the “bad boy” as hero. Tom breaks all the rules, constantly gets into trouble, and surreptitiously outwits the other characters. He is frequently compared to his half-brother Sid, “the model boy.”

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Are the ethics confusing for children?

When Sid accidentally breaks a sugar bowl, Tom is in “ecstasies,” rejoicing at the thought of Sid getting into trouble. Is Twain advocating such behaviour? The “model boy” is really a sneak and, as so, is representative of a society that values appearance over substance. Twain reveals Tom’s flaws but does so in a humorous way. By contrasting his behaviour with Sid’s, Twain retains our sympathy for Tom.

Indoors and outdoors

The separation between indoor and outdoor worlds is made visible through fences. We first meet Tom trying to escape his fence duties so he can play outside with his friends. Throughout the novel, the indoors is associated with the civilized world and is particularly esteemed by adults. But for Tom and his friends, houses are, as Huck Finn puts it, “smothery” inside.2

Huck Finn is raised entirely outside of houses: “He slept on door-steps in fine weather, and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or church, or call any being master, or obey anybody . . .” To the other village boys, he represents all that is desirable in life: “In a word, everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had. So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St. Petersburg.”3

Churches and schools are presented as symbolic extensions of houses. The Sunday school, like the school house, has a window that reminds children of the outdoor world they love. The restraint of Sunday clothes, the high-backed, uncomfortable pews, and the obsolete customs of the church all combine to make Tom restive and fidgety inside. 


Frequently in children’s novels, the theme of children versus adults is presented as primitiveness versus civilization. Adults, who are aligned with culture and civilization, hope to tame children. Aunt Polly continually tries to civilize the rebellious Tom. This struggle is presented as a humorous type of military manoeuvring between them.

Tom tries to escape the rules and restraints of the civilized world by leaving home for Jackson’s Island. Once there, Tom realizes that he is homesick. As in many children’s books, he eventually adapts to the adult world. At the end of the novel, it is Tom who tries to convince Huck to remain in society.4

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Organization of the Novel

Tom pops up in surprising situations:

  1. he emerges as the Bible winner (chapter 4)
  2. he emerges at his own funeral (chapter 18)
  3. he emerges as the surprise witness at Muff Potter’s trial (chapter 24)

Tom returns from the dead:

  1. he envisions himself dead after the sugar bowl incident (chapter 3)
  2. he emerges at his own funeral (chapter 18)
  3. Tom emerges out of the cave after everyone thought he was dead (chapter 33)

Patterns in the novel unify separate incidents, as earlier episodes prepare the reader for later ones. Patterns also suggest meaning. The tone of Tom’s surprise appearances progresses from light-hearted to serious, reflecting his change of character from a silly prankster to an individual with a social conscious as he realizes that he must defend the wrongfully accused Muff Potter.

Tom’s growth in moral stature is also reflected in another common theme in literature: life/death/rebirth. (Collodi’s Pinocchio and Almond’s Kit’s Wilderness also emerge from caves and experience rebirth). By repeating this motif at important points in the novel, Twain highlights its significance.

Use of Dialect and Everyday Language

Twain was one of the first authors to include colloquial language and dialect in children’s novels. Rather than using more formal diction, Twain broke with tradition and utilized the language of everyday speech. He deliberately used faulty grammar when writing Huck’s speeches, and spelled words incorrectly to imitate the dialect of characters. Although effective in conveying character, his use of dialect can act as a barrier for children today since it is more demanding to read.


1. Ernest Hemingway, The Green Hills of Africa (1935; New York: Charles Scribner, 1953), 22.

2. For a discussion of other paired oppositions associated with various settings, see William B. Dillingham, “Setting and Theme in Tom Sawyer,” in Critics on Mark Twain, ed. David B. Kestersen (Coral Gables, FL:  University of Miami Press, 1973), 87-91.

3. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876; London: Puffin Books, 1950), 46.

4. “The ‘seductive outside,’” argues Neil Campbell, “is always present for Tom as the other which helps define him, but the novel shows that it must remain just this and cannot be a real possibility for those who live by the rules and law. To actually transgress into the ‘seductive outside’ is to move closer to Huck Finn’s world of the ‘lawless . . . outcast. “The ‘Seductive Outside’ and the ‘Sacred Precincts’: Boundaries and Transgressions in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Children’s Literature in Education 25 (June 1994): 129. Charles Frey and John Griffith point out that Tom’s “imagination is deeply dependent on the books he reads, a definite indication that his mentality is rooted in his culture and not in fundamental rebellion against it.” The Literary Heritage of Childhood: An Appraisal of Children’s Classics in the Western Tradition (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), 133.