Study Guide

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Mark Twain, who began his writing career as a frontier humorist and ended it as a bitter satirist, drew on his experiences growing up with little formal schooling in a small Missouri town and on his life as printer’s apprentice, journalist, roving correspondent, silver prospector, world traveler, Mississippi steamboat pilot, and lecturer. He was influenced by Artemus Ward, Bret Harte, and Joel Chandler Harris. Beginning with the publication of his short story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (1865; later published as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”) and proceeding through novels and travel books—The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and The American Claimant (1892)—Twain developed a characteristic style that, while uneven in its productions, made him the most important and representative nineteenth century American writer. His service as delightful entertainer to generations of American youngsters is equaled by his influence on such twentieth century admirers as Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway.

Twain’s generally careful and conscientious style was both a development of the tradition of humor of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and Joel Chandler Harris and a departure from the conventions of nineteenth century literary gentility. It is characterized by the adroit use of exaggeration, stalwart irreverence, deadpan seriousness, droll cynicism, and pungent commentary on the human situation. All of this is masked in an uncomplicated, straightforward narrative distinguished for its introduction of the colloquial and vernacular into American fiction that was to have a profound impact on the development of American writing and shape the world’s view of America. Twain, according to Frank Baldanza, had a talent for “paring away the inessential and presenting the bare core of experience with devastating authenticity.” The combination of childish rascality and innocence in his earlier writing gave way, in his later and posthumous works, to an ever-darkening vision of man that left Twain bitter and disillusioned. This darker vision is only hinted at in the three Tom Sawyer books—in addition to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain wrote Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896)—and in his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Twain’s lifelong fascination with boyhood play led to the creation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a book of nostalgic recollections of his own lost youth that was dismissed too lightly by some as “amusing but thin stuff” and taken too analytically and seriously by others, some of whom seek in it the complexities of carefully controlled viewpoint, multiple irony, and social satire found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Beyond the fact that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a delicate balance of the romantic and realistic, humor and pathos, innocence and evil, the book defies simple analysis. Twain’s opening statement in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, ironically, more applicable to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” The book is purely, simply, and happily “the history of a boy,” or as Twain also called it, “simply a hymn, put into prose form to give it a worldly air.” It should be read first and last for pleasure, by both children and adults.

As even Twain admitted paradoxically, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is also for those who have long since passed from boyhood: “[It] is not a boy’s book at all. It will be read only by adults. It is written only for adults.” Kenneth S. Lynn explicates the author’s preface when he says that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer “confirms the profoundest wishes of the heart.” Christopher Morley calls the book “a panorama of happy memory” and had made a special visit to Hannibal because he wanted to see the town and house where Tom lived. During that visit, Morley and friends actually whitewashed Aunt Polly’s fence. There can be no greater testimony to the effectiveness of a literary work than its readers’ desire to reenact the exploits of its hero.

Tom is the archetypal all-American boy, defining in himself the very concept of American boyhood, as he passes with equal seriousness from one obsession to another: whistling, glory, spying, sympathy, flirtation, exploration, piracy, shame, fear—always displaying to the utmost the child’s ability to concentrate his entire energies on one thing at a time (as when he puts the treasure hunt out of his mind in favor of Becky’s picnic). Tom is contrasted to both Sid, the “good boy” who loses the reader’s sympathies as immediately as Tom gains them, and to the outcast, Huck. In contrast to Huck’s self-reliant, unschooled, parentless existence, his passive preference for being a follower, and his abhorrence of civilization, Tom is adventurous, shrewd in the ways of civilization, and a leader. He comes from the respectable world of Aunt Polly and has a literary mind coupled with a conscious romantic desire for experience and for the hero’s part, an insatiable egotism that assists him in his ingenious schematizations of life to match his heroic aspirations. The relationship between the two boys may be compared to that between the romantic Don Quixote and the realist Sancho Panza. It was Twain’s genius to understand that the games Quixote played out of “madness” were, in fact, those played by children with deadly seriousness. Lionel Trilling summarizes Twain’s achievement when he says that “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has the truth of honesty—what it says about things and feelings is never false and always both adequate and beautiful.” Twain’s book is an American classic, but a classic that travels well as an ambassador of American idealism.