Tom Sawyer is the American prototype of the good bad boy. Unlike his friend Huck Finn, a genuine outcast, he is always into mischief but never in real trouble. He is a member of society and shares its values--at the end of the novel, he will not let Huck be a member of his robber gang until Huck agrees to live a respectable life with the Widow Douglas. And despite the mean trick Tom plays on his Aunt Polly, (that is, pretending to be dead so he can attend his own funeral), his place in her family is never in doubt.
Tom Sawyer is episodic and open-ended, as much a series of loosely connected short stories as a novel. Tom plays hooky from school, and, condemned to spend Saturday whitewashing a fence as punishment, tricks his friends into doing it. He wins a prize at Sunday school, not by memorizing Scripture but by trading for the tickets issued to children who did memorize it. He plays pirates and robbers, then gets a taste of the real thing when he sees the outlaw Injun Joe committing a murder. Having fallen in love with Becky Thatcher, he accompanies her on a picnic that her parents give for the village children, and the two get lost in a cave. Finally--a touch without which no boy’s adventure book would be complete--Tom and Huck explore the cave again and find the treasure Injun Joe had hidden there.
TOM SAWYER is all innocent nostalgia, a rhapsodic memory piece. Told from an adult’s point of view, it is weakest where Twain intrudes and moralizes. At its best, it lacks the seriousness--the constant underlying awareness of the dark side of life--of Huckleberry Finn, its famous sequel. As an unpretentious boyhood idyll it is unsurpassed.
Blair, Walter. “Tom Sawyer.” In Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Nash Smith. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. A leading Mark Twain scholar traces autobiographical and literary influences in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Shows how Mark Twain adapted real people, places, and events into this early novel.
Fields, Wayne. “When the Fences Are Down: Language and Order in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.” Journal of American Studies 24, no. 3 (December, 1990): 369-386. A valuable comparison of the two novels. Images of fences place Tom Sawyer within an ordered community, while Huck explores a disordered, insecure world outside the fences.
Norton, Charles A. Writing “Tom Sawyer”: The Adventures of a Classic. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 1983. The most complete analysis of how Mark Twain wrote the novel.
Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings. New York: Facts On File, 1995. Contains a detailed synopsis of the novel, cross-referenced to analytical essays on every character and place mentioned in the text, as well as other related subjects.
Robinson, Forrest G. “Social Play and Bad Faith in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 39, no. 1 (June, 1984): 1-24. Defends the novel’s reputation by asserting that its coherence relies on a dominant character with “a dream of himself as a hero in a world of play.”
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective. Edited by John C. Gerber, Paul Baender, and Terry Firkins. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. The definitive, corrected edition of all three Tom Sawyer novels, prepared by the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley. Heavily annotated, with citations to many specialized sources.