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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer | Context


Critical Reception

Mark Twain was a successful writer and lecturer in his time, both in terms of acclaim and by financial measures, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer bolstered this success. While not universally loved, the book received significant positive response for bridging the gap between children's literature and adult fiction. The Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) wrote, "It is the most notable work which Twain has yet written, and will signally add to his reputation for a variety of powers." And the Hartford Daily Times wrote, "It is safe to predict that no one will read the first page without reading all the rest." Further, as was the case with other Twain works, positive responses were not limited to the United States. A review in the London Daily Times noted, "Practical people who pride themselves on strong common sense will have no patience with such vulgar trifling. But those who are alive to the pleasure of relaxing from serious thought and grave occupation will catch themselves smiling over every page and exploding outright over some of the choicer passages."

The novel is not held in as high regard by modern critics as its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which participates in the sea-voyage literary tradition of the Odyssey and which openly addresses the oppression of enslaved people in the American South. However, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer continues to receive significant attention from scholars and is still one of Twain's most popularly read works. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer stands not only as a canonical example of American literature, but also as a strong testament to the ability of a children's novel to function as a literary work.

Boy Culture and Boy Books

What readers today imagine when thinking of childhood is very different from the experience of 19th-century boys. During the 1800s middle-class boys who reached the age where they could leave the watchful care of their mothers were freed more and more from the work they would have been expected to do in previous decades. The freedom to exist without constant watch led to the kind of rule testing that characterizes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. As evident in their smoking pipes, following outlaws, witnessing murder, or taking a skiff without consent, the main boy characters continually skirt the edges of morality and legality, learning what it means to be a man and to act independently. At the same time, they run up against the limits of that independence; for instance, they have no way to overcome Injun Joe or his partners in a fight, so they must hide what they've witnessed or rely on adults to solve their problems. In less dangerous ways as well, the boyhood acts of manipulation, roughhousing, and even games such as marbles were characteristic of the emerging culture of boyhood.

Books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were influenced not only by the change in what it meant to be a boy in the 19th century, but also by the other American boy books of the time. Twain admitted that the novel was written to fit into this stream of boyhood novels, noting, "I conceive that the right way to write a story for boys is to write it so that it will not only interest boys but will also strongly interest any man who has ever been a boy." These books often included gangs (groups of boys with a hierarchal structure), schoolboy crushes (in this case, Becky Thatcher), bullies, physical illness (the fever), parental mortality (Tom's parents are dead, as are Huck's), "romance" reading (for Tom, Robin Hood), tests of courage, and a conclusion in which the character leaves for college or a career. Twain's novel has the traits that place it within this tradition of boy books.

Racial Controversies in Twain's Novels

African Americans

Twain's home state of Missouri held a unique position in the years leading up to the Civil War. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 set Missouri's southern border as the line establishing North and South; however, Missouri itself—a slave state—was north of that line. Moreover, not many people in Missouri actually had enslaved people, and those who did had few. In his autobiography Twain notes, "In my schoolboy days, I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong with it ... if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing. In Hannibal we seldom saw a slave misused; on the farm, never."

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876, after the Civil War (1861–65), but according to the book's preface, the events of the novel take place 30 or 40 years before that. Even though Twain set this book during the slavery era in a slave state that established the line between free and slave states, the topic of slavery is barely addressed. The lack of reference to slavery is noteworthy. In contrast The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deals almost entirely with questions of slavery and race in a way few books at the time did.

Native Americans

But questions of race are not altogether absent from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Twain's attitude toward Native Americans is troubling. Some critics have argued that the lack of enslaved people in the novel is indicative of the novel's lack of racism. However, other critics have noted the racism inherent in Twain's portrayal of Native Americans through the character of Injun Joe. He is described as a "half-breed" whose Indian blood is presented as the root of his evil nature and sadistic behavior. Though some of Twain's later works begin to show greater sympathy toward Native Americans, those works still express ambivalence about the place of aboriginal peoples in modern society. While Twain's status as a beloved author has often led to a flattering portrayal of his stance on racism, readers cannot assume that he is a champion for equality.


As was characteristic of the time, racial epithets appear in Twain's works, including repeated uses of the words nigger and injun. Almost from the beginning, this authorial choice has created controversy. Is Twain supporting racism? Is he calling attention to hypocrisy? Does he mean to employ situational irony? Is he combating racism? Twain famously said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." Some critics commend Twain's choice to confront readers with the ugly truth of inherited racism and its effects on young characters such as Tom and Huck; others argue that the terms should be replaced with slave and Indian for modern readers. Regardless, Twain's texts, like all texts, should be read critically, discussed, and challenged to analyze the author's intended meaning and to assess ongoing relevance.


Medical developments of the 19th century figure into The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in several ways. For example, Perry Davis Pain-Killer, which Aunt Polly gives to Tom, was one of many questionable medicines popular in the 1800s. Some of these, such as Pain-Killer, were alcohol based; others, such as Shiloh's Cure for Consumption, were opiate based. These patented medicines had little to no health value, but their ingredients were secret. People wanted to believe that they were useful. Pain-Killer, which Tom feeds to the cat, included not only alcohol but also cayenne pepper.

Also at this time the medical community was beginning to understand that knowledge of anatomy was crucial for surgeons, though the propriety of the study of anatomy was still debated. The dissection of a cadaver was a part of a surgeon's education, but corpses were difficult to come by, and some surgeons-in-training resorted to questionable means of getting them. The most notorious of such cases were the murders in Edinburgh, Scotland, by Burke and Hare (1828). Burke and Hare provided corpses for medical students. It was a lucrative business, and the availability of fresh graves was limited, so the two men began murdering people to sell their bodies.

The increasing number of medical schools in the United States—in 1800 there were four medical schools, and in 1876 there were 77—created a similar shortage, and the murder in the graveyard in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is likely a result of the doctor trying to steal a body. Twain, like most educated people, would have been aware of the Burke and Hare case. Whether or not the grave robbing and Dr. Robinson's murder were an allusion to those events, a statement on the dangers of dealing with criminals and stealing bodies, or simply a nod to the Gothic tradition wherein spooky events in graveyards were a standard element, the scene at the graveyard is rich with interpretive potential.

Twain also had personal exposure to human dissection. When he was 12 years old, Twain's mother consented to allow a physician to conduct an autopsy on his father after he died, and Twain saw his father's autopsy through the keyhole of a door. The novel's focus on corpses (not only grave robbing but also Tom's seeing the corpse of Injun Joe in the cave) seems to reflect both the period's interest in dead bodies and Twain's personal exposure at a young age.

The 19th-century interest in anatomy is also evident in the book that Tom and Becky's teacher, Mr. Dobbins, keeps under lock and key. That book is probably Calvin Cutter's A Treatise on Anatomy, Physiology, and Hygiene (1855). According to Alan Gribben, the author of Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction (1980), there is evidence Mark Twain owned an edition of the Cutter book. In the novel the description of the book Becky steals from Mr. Dobbins matches the description of the book that researchers believe Twain owned: "The title-page—Professor Somebody's Anatomy—carried no information to [Becky's] mind; so she began to turn the leaves. She came at once upon a handsomely engraved and colored frontispiece—a human figure, stark naked." Mr. Dobbins's possession of the book and his need to hide it demonstrate the same historical debate about the acceptability of studying anatomy that leads to Dr. Robinson's robbing a grave. In both cases the inquiry into the subject requires stealth.

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