The Adventures of Tom Sawyer | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer takes place in the mid-1800s in a town along the Mississippi River. (Readers can deduce that it is sometime between 1836 and 1846 because of a note in the preface from 1876 stating that it was "thirty or forty years ago.") The main character, Tom Sawyer, and his younger half-brother, Sidney, live with their aunt Polly in St. Petersburg, Missouri.

At the novel's opening Tom is in trouble for breaking the rules: pilfering jam, lying to his aunt, and sneaking out. Aunt Polly's response to Tom's actions flits between sorrow, laughter, prayer, and punishment. Tom's rule-breaking behavior will continue for the entire novel, as will responses of alternating anger and concern from the female figures in his life. Not all of his misadventures are equal, but the first instance of punishment stands out because it shows not only his character, but also his relationship with his peers. When Tom is sentenced by Aunt Polly to whitewash the fence, he manages to convince other boys to do the work as well as to pay him to do so. Of course Tom lets Aunt Polly believe that he has done the work himself and collects another treat from her before going out. While out, Tom sees Becky Thatcher for the first time. He's smitten. His relationship with and pursuit of Becky drive a significant portion of the book.

In addition to Tom's boyish troubles with Aunt Polly and his pursuit of Becky, the novel develops a third narrative thread: his more complicated adventures with Huckleberry Finn, which begin when Tom makes plans to go to the graveyard with Huck. These three threads are entwined throughout the novel and together drive the narrative action.

At school, after being punished for tardiness, Tom meets Becky face-to-face. After some mild flirting Tom and Becky make plans to meet. They speak further at the noon break, and both of them are happy—so much so that Tom suggests they get engaged and kiss. Becky is receptive until Tom slips and mentions his last love interest, Amy Lawrence. At this point Becky cries and turns away, even when Tom offers her a gift—an andiron knob. She knocks it to the floor, and Tom leaves. Once he leaves he decides to become a pirate, commencing typical boyhood adventures—exploring superstitions and imagining himself an outlaw in Sherwood Forest with his friend, Joe Harper.

Later that night Tom slips out of his house to meet Huck Finn as planned. This adventure in the graveyard is the primary driver of the action for the rest of the book. As the boys go to the graveyard, they witness what they first imagine to be something supernatural. From their hiding place, however, Tom and Huck see Muff Potter (the town drunk), Injun Joe (a known criminal), and Dr. Robinson. The boys watch as the grave robbers dig up a corpse and put it in a wheelbarrow. Injun Joe reminds the doctor that he'd turned him away and that Dr. Robinson's father "had [him] jailed for a vagrant." A scuffle ensues. When Muff Potter falls to the ground, Injun Joe stabs the doctor. Tom and Huck flee. Joe puts the knife in Potter's hand. In his drunken state, Muff Potter believes that he is the killer. Injun Joe suggests that Potter flee, saying, "Don't leave any tracks behind you."

Tom and Huck weigh the possibilities, not knowing if the doctor is dead or that Muff Potter believes he's the killer. They agree that they will not tell anyone because they'd be in danger if they did. Tom writes up a contract, and they sign it in blood. However, Muff Potter does not flee. Instead he's caught and imprisoned for a murder that only Tom, Huck, and Injun Joe know he didn't commit. Injun Joe swears under oath that Potter murdered the doctor. Tom and Huck remain silent.

All three narrative threads intersect at this point: Tom eases his guilt by giving Potter gifts through the jail window, his mood further declines because Becky is sick and not in school, and Aunt Polly is worried about him because of his mood. She administers a series of suspect treatments until Tom is caught giving his so-called medicine to the cat. At that point Aunt Polly realizes that she may have been wrong. She tells him she meant well and points out that it did help.

Becky returns to school, but Tom is once more rejected by her. He speaks to Joe Harper, and the boys decide to "stand together." They run away to a little island in the Mississippi River and invite Huck to join them. The three boys play at being pirates and swimming in the river, returning for their funerals when they discover the town thinks they've drowned. They are greeted with rejoicing. Afterward Tom reveals in detail what he had witnessed while spying on Aunt Polly and Mrs. Harper when he came back briefly during their island escapade. However, he lets Aunt Polly think he had seen all of it in a dream. Sid sees through him, but Aunt Polly believes Tom.

When Aunt Polly realizes that he's lied to her about his dream, Tom reveals that he kissed her in her sleep and left a note. She doubts him until she finds the note he had left her. When Tom departs for school the next morning, he decides to try to make peace with Becky. She, however, rejects him yet again.

Tom's situation with Becky improves as a result of Becky's misdeeds. Their teacher, Mr. Dobbins, makes the mistake of leaving unattended the key for his locked desk drawer, and Becky cannot resist temptation. She opens the desk and steals a book. She discovers a picture of a naked person in the book. Tom walks in on her reading, and she tears the page in her hurry to close the book. Once more Becky is upset with Tom. In tears, worrying over getting punished, Becky leaves. Tom is baffled. He is used to being "licked" at school and thinks Becky is overreacting. Once Mr. Dobbins discovers the state of his book, he begins searching for the culprit. As the tension grows, Tom jumps up and confesses. Becky is, predictably, moved by his actions.

The time comes for the trial of Muff Potter. Huck and Tom discuss the situation, wishing they could "get him out." Once the prosecution rests, the defense calls their surprise witness: Tom Sawyer. Tom reveals what really happened, although the lawyer stops him before he can say Huck's name. As Tom speaks, Injun Joe leaps up and flees.

Following the trial, Tom returns to his boyish antics when he is struck by the urge to search for treasure. With Huck he begins his search. But while exploring a "haunted house," the boys discover that the fugitive Injun Joe is hiding in plain sight as an "old deaf and dumb Spaniard." The boys stay hidden as Injun Joe and his accomplice discuss the money they have stolen and find another stash of money. Money is not enough, however: Injun Joe's companion suggests that an upcoming job can be dropped now, but Injun Joe says that it cannot because it's about revenge. The boys escape detection, and the two men leave, taking their treasure with them.

For several days Tom and Huck attempt to find out where Injun Joe and his treasure are, and eventually they decide to investigate a room in Temperance Tavern. When the boys get their opportunity, Tom tries the door while Huck stands watch. Inside the room, Injun Joe is passed out on the floor, but the treasure is not there.

On Friday Becky's mother agrees to a promised picnic. Tom and Becky depart for McDougal's cave. At the same time, Huck continues his watch over the tavern. In the process he hears Injun Joe and his companion discuss doing extreme harm to Widow Douglas because her late husband had Joe horsewhipped. Huck runs to her neighbor the Welchman's house, reveals that the Widow Douglas is in danger, and begs that he not be named as the one who told. The Welchman and his sons go to investigate the threat.

The next day Mr. Jones (the Welchman) tells Huck that the criminals escaped but that the Widow Douglas is safe. In speaking to him Huck accidentally reveals that the old Spaniard is Injun Joe. The Welchman offers Huck food and rest, which he accepts. He's still there when visitors begin to arrive. He hides and overhears a conversation in which Aunt Polly and Mrs. Thatcher realize that both Tom and Becky are missing. Huck falls ill with a fever, and Widow Douglas volunteers to look after him.

Meanwhile Tom and Becky are lost in the cave for several days. They despair of finding a way out, although Tom remains upbeat for Becky. At one point they hear rescuers, but their answering cries are not heard. Tom uses kite string to navigate as he searches for a way out. When he finds someone, however, it's Injun Joe. He hides his discovery from Becky. Eventually Tom finds a way out, and after he goes back for Becky and convinces her to come with him, they push their way out of the cave. They're rescued and returned to their village, whereupon they take to their beds to recover.

Two weeks pass, during which time the judge has had the cave gated shut. When Tom discovers this he tells the judge that he had seen Injun Joe inside McDougal's cave. A group of men accompanies Tom to the cave, where they find the body of Injun Joe.

After Injun Joe's funeral, Tom and Huck set out to get the treasure from the cave. As they go they plan their "gang." A brief worry about Injun Joe's ghost makes them stumble, but they decide that the presence of a cross keeps ghosts away. Along with the treasure they find weapons and other goods. They leave these behind.

When they return they run into the Welchman, who directs them to a party at Widow Douglas's house, where the widow announces that she is going to give Huck a home and take care of him. Tom reveals that "Huck's got money." He pours the treasure out before the assembled group. All told the coins come to around $12,000 (the equivalent of over $300,000 in the early 21st century).

The novel concludes with the villagers seeking treasure themselves, Huck being taken in by the widow, and Tom's money and future being looked after by Judge Thatcher. Huck is ready to throw it all away, as the constraints of civility are uncomfortable to him. When after three weeks Huck runs away, Tom convinces him to try his new life a little bit longer by returning to their talk of being a gang of robbers.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Tom makes plans with Huck to go to the graveyard.

Rising Action

2 Tom and Huck witness the murder of Dr. Robinson.

3 Tom, Huck, and Joe run away to an island in the Mississippi.

4 Tom, Huck, and Joe return to their own funeral.

5 Tom testifies against Injun Joe, who flees.

6 Tom and Huck decide to search for treasure.

7 Tom and Huck discover the Spaniard is Injun Joe.

8 Huck sees Injun Joe at the widow's and tells the Welchman.


9 Tom and Becky get lost in the cave where Injun Joe is.

Falling Action

10 Tom and Becky get rescued.

11 Injun Joe is trapped in the cave and dies.


12 Tom and Huck find and reveal the treasure.

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