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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer | Themes


Establishing Authority

Throughout The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the characters, especially the young boys, look to various sources for guidance and authority—and sometimes challenge the authority of those sources. The Bible and folklore are given near-equal authority among the characters in the novel. Similarly, both fictional figures such as Robin Hood and real figures—including the judge and the detective—as well as the townspeople's opinion are imbued with authority. Aunt Polly is the strongest proponent of biblical authority. She prays, refers to "Old Scratch" (the devil), and laments Tom's failures in morality. Tom's sense of morality is guided not only by religion, but also by superstition and popular narratives. Robin Hood especially is a powerful source of authority for the boys. The idea of a thief who was "square" with the poor is interesting to them, much as the stories of pirates are.

Common among all these stories is "a code." Whether it's a thieves' code from fantasy stories, a set of rules from the Bible, or sayings from superstition, Tom tries on various sources of authority in his search for answers and solutions. The appeal of these sources is heightened because neither Tom nor Huck has a father to consult. Tom's is deceased; Huck's is a drunk. So they turn to alternate sources of authority in stories, religion, and superstition.

Social Pressures

Tom and Huck both strive to follow the rules as best they can—without sacrificing their freedoms. From Tom's painting of the fence to the boys' revelation of the truth about the murder in the graveyard, they face adult questions and problems and the consequent pressures of those situations. They regularly choose to speak up for those in need, as with the wrongly accused Muff Potter and the Widow Douglas, who is targeted by Injun Joe for her late husband's acts.

Tom also protects Becky Thatcher and Aunt Polly. He takes the punishment for Becky when she rips the anatomy book, and he pretends to be sure of their ultimate rescue from the cave in order to ease her fears. Similarly he is swayed by Aunt Polly's worries and guilt throughout the novel. When he runs away he returns home, leaves a note, and kisses her in her sleep. Afterward he relays a "dream" to comfort her. He is, as men were expected to be in the 1800s, protective of the women in his life.

Moreover Tom ends the book with half-truths to Huck in order to convince his friend to give "civilized living" another chance. Here and earlier—in Tom's willingness to protect Huck's safety by not exposing him as a witness—Tom demonstrates not only a boyhood loyalty, but also the foundational traits of friendship between men.

Tom violates other social norms by stealing (the skiff, for example), lying (manipulating his peers), and smoking. He justifies these with a combination of boyhood logic and rationalization. However, Twain's authorial voice leaks into the text as he reveals that the town's attitudes toward Muff Potter and toward Tom and Huck change based upon their latest action or misfortune. While The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is arguably a "children's book," Twain's representation of the town's inconsistent embrace of morality functions as social critique.

Transition to Adulthood

While Tom and Huck are definitely not adults by the end of the book, the novel tracks their journeys toward adulthood. At the onset of the novel, Huck is closer to adulthood because he is not in school and he's free of adult supervision. Tom on the other hand is under the care of Aunt Polly. However, Huck's increasing presence in Tom's life casts Huck in the role of an adult mentor.

When the novel begins Tom regularly plays childlike games with Joe Harper. The inclusion of Huck in their activities signals a move away from pretend toward reality. Huck teaches Tom and Joe to smoke, and Huck introduces real, adult concerns into their lives when he points out that he rarely has enough to eat. As the novel advances, the boys' time at pretend decreases, as does Joe Harper's role. By the end playing pretend is fully interrupted by Injun Joe's appearance and a real treasure hunt.

Huck provides the voice of caution after Tom and Huck witness a murder, pointing out the very real consequences they could face if Injun Joe discovers they witnessed his crime. Huck, however, is still a boy, and his decisions are those of a boy forced to function as an adult too soon. For example he recommends hiding what they've seen rather than testifying. In many ways Huck is neither functionally boy nor adult but rather caught somewhere in transition. When the novel ends, Huck revisits the role of boy—resisting the civilizing influence of Widow Douglas. Tom convinces Huck to accept civilization by telling him stories, but he encourages Huck's respite from adulthood by asking him to join his band of robbers.

Realism and Romance

A feature of Tom's transition to adulthood is his relationship with stories and games of adventure, which glamorize the lives of outlaw figures such as pirates, Robin Hood, and robbers. Perhaps for this reason, Tom often seems oblivious to real danger. Although he is frightened and his sleep is disturbed after seeing the murder in the graveyard, he frequently acts unthinkingly when dealing with the very real threat posed by Injun Joe. Huck, who has had to fend for himself for much of his life, is more cognizant of the dangers of revealing what they know about the murder. However, he, like Tom, is excited by the prospect of finding treasure. Importantly, Twain does not ultimately suggest that childhood play and the desire for adventure are childish and need to be left behind. On the contrary, the boys' impractical and dangerous search for treasure turns out to be enormously beneficial for them in real life.

Family and Independence

Family situations vary widely in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Becky Thatcher and Joe Harper both come from loving homes with two parents; Tom and his brother are orphans taken in by an aunt; and Huck has an abusive, neglectful father and no home. The novel frequently, although subtly, hints at the lack of stability in Tom's and Huck's lives.

However, while family interactions are a necessary part of Tom's life, he is much more invested in his relationships with friends and with Becky. Even Sid, his brother, is only a minor character. That being said, Tom is willing to lie, manipulate, and break promises to everyone in his life, from Aunt Polly to Huck, suggesting that no allegiance, no matter how close, is more important to Tom than his own freedom and independence.

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