Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
St. Petersburg. Fictional Missouri village on the west bank of the Mississippi River in and around which the entire novel is set. The village is modeled on the real, and somewhat larger, Hannibal, Missouri, in which Twain himself lived as a boy. Like Hannibal, it has a wooded promontory on its north side and a huge limestone cave to its south. Tom Sawyer lives near its center in a two-story house that closely resembles Twain’s own home of the 1840’s. However, the fictional St. Petersburg also has elements of the tiny inland village of Florida, Missouri, where Twain was born and spent most of his summers while growing up, and thus evokes an even more rustic flavor than a real riverfront village might have had.
Seen through Tom’s eyes, St. Petersburg is a world in itself, an epitome of positive nineteenth century small-town American values that offers almost everything that a boy coming of age could want: rugged sports, Fourth of July picnics, itinerant entertainers, romance, imaginary adventures, and even genuine life-and-death adventures. A mostly sunny place, St. Petersburg reflects Twain’s cheerful nostalgia for his childhood haunts, which he regarded as a “paradise” for boys—hence the name “St. Petersburg,” after the gatekeeper to Heaven. Although it appears generally safer and more comfortable than its historical counterpart, it also has an ominous dark side, symbolized by the lurking presence of the...
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The Gilded Age
Mark Twain's 1873 novel, The Gilded Age, which he wrote in collaboration with his Hartford neighbor Charles Dudley Warner, gave its name to the mood of materialistic excess and cynical political corruption that started with the Grant administration in 1869 and prevailed in the 1870s and beyond. To be gilded is to be coated in gold, so the phrase "The Gilded Age" refers directly to the opulent tastes and jaded sensibilities of America's wealthy during this period. The appearance of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer during the Gilded Age represents a nostalgic look back at a simpler, less expansionist and less industrialized time in American history.
Expansion was a major theme of American society in the post-Civil War period. When the war ended in 1865, the United States was bigger, more powerful and richer than ever before, and it continued to grow. The way post-war Americans behaved and saw themselves was different: as a group they possessed greater energy, greater ambition, and a greater sense of potential. The American economy was becoming increasingly more industrialized. The transcontinental railroad was built, immigrants from Europe were pouring into the cities, westward expansion was occurring, and new farming technologies made it possible for farmers to grow more crops more successfully. The population was growing rapidly, helping to create a large labor pool, and labor unions were on the rise. The growth of...
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Point of View
The novel's narration is third-person, limited omniscient, with Tom Sawyer as the central consciousness. This means that the story is told about Tom's world and is particularly focused on him by a narrator who is able to understand the motivations and feelings of some of the characters. This point of view earns the reader's amused admiration of an unlikely hero. Tom is a mischievous boy, an orphan, who cares nothing for school or church or any other polite social conventions but instead spends most of his time pretending that he is a pirate or a robber, sneaking out his window at midnight to have secret adventures with his friends in places like cemeteries, and entirely likely to have in his possession objects like dead cats. Tom Sawyer's character is a realistic portrayal of a young boy who gets into trouble constantly, trying the patience of the adults around him while making them smile. The novel's point of view makes Tom sympathetic by showing how he often feels guilty or sorry or brave. A more objective narration of Tom's antics—one that does not look into his mind—might make him seem only naughty and tiresome. The glimpses into his often noble intentions as he conjures up his schemes serve to temper his character: he is not a bad boy, just an imaginative one.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is set in the 1840s, mainly in St. Petersburg, Missouri, a small fictional village where everyone knows...
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The intent of the novel, Twain states, is to entertain "boys and girls" and to "pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves." In order to appeal to such a wide audience, Twain chooses a setting that permits both adventure and nostalgia. The story takes place in "the poor little shabby village of St. Petersburg," the fictional equivalent of Hannibal, the Mississippi River town where Twain spent his early years. In his preface the author dates the action at "thirty or forty years ago," between 1836 and 1846, the era of his own boyhood. Twain also notes that Huck Finn is "drawn from life," and Tom Sawyer is a lifelike, although composite, character based on a number of boys.
The setting supports the major action and themes of the work. Institutions such as the home, the school, and the church provide a social order that Tom disrupts with pranks. Jackson's Island, where the boys camp and pretend to be pirates, offers the freedom of nature. But both the town and nature have their dark sides: the cemetery where the boys witness Dr. Robinson's murder, the "haunted" house where Injun Joe hides out, and the cave where Tom and Becky are lost and Injun Joe dies. Tom affirms social order when he returns from the island because of homesickness and guilt. He apologizes to his aunt for pretending to have drowned, and in the courtroom, another symbol of social order, he assumes responsibility by telling the truth about Dr. Robinson's murder. Later he and...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Experience suggests that people love to discuss The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Its humor delights most people, and the adventures of its characters provide many opportunities for discussion. Young people seem to find the fence-painting passage of special interest, and through discussion, they tend to try to work out the ethical implications of Tom's behavior. Older readers tend to find violence and death in the novel to be particularly interesting topics. Somehow, the novel maintains a cheerful atmosphere in spite of the deaths. Worthy of consideration is the contrast between the imagined deaths of the youngsters and the real ones, especially that of Injun Joe. What are the social attitudes toward the deaths? How do they come about? Why would Twain organize them the way he does?
1. Twain prefaces the novel by stating that it is intended to "pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves," but much of the book deals with unpleasantness. Discuss the darker side of the book. How does Twain remind his readers of some of the fears and insecurities of growing up?
2. Twain is sometimes called a "realist" writer. Are Tom, Huck, and Becky accurate portraits of young people?
3. Discuss Tom Sawyer as an adventure book. Compare its plot with those of other books, films, or television shows in which young people are menaced by villains, search for treasure, and win community approval.
4. Does Tom change in the...
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As in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the characters in Tom Sawyer exhibit attitudes typical of the mid-nineteenth century. The stereotypical villain, Injun Joe, derives from the frontier figure of the violent and vengeful Native American, and black Americans are derivative of slave stereotypes. These elements should be recognized both for their negative connotations and their historical significance. Twain's realistic representation of his characters' attitudes should not be mistaken for his own attitude. The controversy surrounding The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has produced substantial evidence of Twain's integrity: he intended much of what he wrote to reveal the inconsistencies in his characters' beliefs. By looking at society through the eyes of boys, who are supposedly more innocent than adults, Twain ridicules the weaknesses in adult values and behavior.
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Compare and Contrast
1840s: Slavery of Africans was widely practiced throughout the Southern states of the nation. Slaves were considered the property of their owners and possessed no civil rights: they could not vote, legally marry, or own property.
1876: Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States, the radical wing of the Republican party attempted to remake the South without slavery. This period of reformation, called Reconstruction, ended in 1876. The civil rights gains made during Reconstruction were lost following the end of President Ulysses S. Grant's administration.
Today: African Americans possess full civil rights under the U.S. Constitution and hold positions of power in the U.S. government, including seats on the Supreme Court, in the Senate, and in the President's Cabinet. In spite of these gains, race relations continue to be a divisive issue in American society.
1840s: In 1840, Missouri was the westernmost state in the Union. Presidents Polk and Tyler pursued policies to fulfill America's so-called "manifest destiny" to expand to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The war with Mexico resulted in the annexation of the Southwest. Texas became a state in 1845; California, virtually unknown in 1840, became a state in 1850.
1876: Colorado entered the Union. Alaska had been purchased by the United States in 1872. The West was rapidly becoming populated, and in 1890 the...
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Topics for Further Study
Research white Americans' attitudes toward Native Americans in the mid-19th century. Does Injun Joe's status as evil incarnate reflect the popular view of Native Americans in that period?
Consider the life of Huckleberry Finn in terms of today's standards: How would a homeless child, the son of an alcoholic who has essentially abandoned him, be treated in the United States today? What factors in Huck's world make it possible for him to live as he wishes, sleeping outside in barrels and on doorsteps and wearing rags? How can Twain romanticize a child like Huck, and why would Huck not be considered romantic in today's society?
The role of women in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer seems to be that of a civilizing force: Aunt Polly trying to teach Tom how to behave, the Widow Douglas taking Huck in to "introduce him to society," the young ladies on Examination Evening reading essays with titles such as "Religion in History" and "Filial Love." Research attitudes toward women in 1840s American culture. What kinds of tasks were white women expected to fulfill, and what was their role in helping to shape their world?
In the 1840s, Missouri represented the American frontier. What did this mean? What form of government existed for Missouri then, and how was it enforced? What attitudes did people "back East" have about those who had moved out West to the frontier, and how did the frontiersmen and women see themselves?
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The mid-nineteenth century produced a number of books dealing with boys rebelling against conventional society, such as Thomas Bailey Aldrich's Story of a Bad Boy (1869). While Twain's book is a powerful and original addition to literature about young people, it retains some of the "literary" language of nineteenth-century fiction. Twain abandons these conventions in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which he permits the title character to tell the story.
The novel contains many qualities of the adventure story: villains menace the innocent, hide treasures in caves, and inhabit haunted houses; heroes rescue helpless victims, discover buried treasure, and gain recognition from the women they love and from their community. Twain also employs conventions of frontier literature, in which pranks disrupt the order of the church and school, and the ominous Native American seeks revenge.
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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (please see separate entry), written as a sequel to this book, is usually judged to be a more profound and powerful work. Both pieces hold central positions in American literature. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn continued to fascinate Twain, and he used them in a number of other, generally ignored works such as Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), a fantastic adventure in a balloon, and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), in which Tom solves a murder mystery. These continuations of the boys' adventures offer little of literary merit or interest to the contemporary reader. Twain wrote a play based upon The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the novel has appeared in a number of dramatic versions, none of which achieved great distinction.
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Four films, all titled Tom Sawyer, have been made from the novel: a slow-paced 1930 version directed by John Cromwell and starring Jackie Coogan, Mitzi Green, Junior Durkin, and Jackie Searle; a 1973 film musical with songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, directed by Don Taylor, and starring Johnnie Whitaker, Celeste Holm, Warren Dates, Jeff East, and Jodie Foster; and a 1973 made-for-television movie directed by James Neilson and starring Josh Albee, Jeff Tyler, Jane Wyatt, Buddy Ebsen, and Vic Morrow. The book has become an American classic and continues to be reworked by illustrators and television animators.
The best motion picture adaptation is the 1938 one, directed by Norman Taurog. Tommy Kelly provides a good portrayal as Tom Sawyer, and Victor Jory provides a memorable portrayal of Joe. The motion picture also stars May Robson, Walter Brennan, and Ann Gillis.
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In 1930 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was adapted by Paramount as a film entitled Tom Sawyer. It was directed by John Cromwell and stars Jackie Coogan and Mitzi Green.
The novel was also adapted as a film entitled Tom Sawyer by Selznick International in 1938. Directed by Norman Taurog and starring Walter Brennan and May Robson, the film is available on video, distributed by Trimark.
A 1939 film adaptation, Tom Sawyer, Detective (Paramount), was directed by Louis King and starred Porter Hall, Donald O'Connor, Elisabeth Risdon, and Janet Waldo.
In 1973 Clemens's novel was adapted into a musical film version (United Artists) entitled Tom Sawyer, directed by Don Taylor and starring Johnnie Whitaker, Jodie Foster, Celeste Holm, and Warren Oates. Available on video (MGM Home Entertainment) and with a musical score composed by Robert and Richard Sherman, this film received three Academy Award nominations.
In 1995 Disney adapted the novel as a film entitled Tom and Huck directed by Peter Hewitt and starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Tom Sawyer and Brad Renfro as Huckleberry Finn. This version is also available on video (Walt Disney Home Video).
Read by Pat Bottino, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is available on cassette from Blackstone Audiobooks.
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What Do I Read Next?
Twain's masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), reintroduces the character of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer's best friend. While floating down the Mississippi River on a raft, Huck and runaway slave Jim escape the bonds of civilization and gain insight into human nature and conscience. Many critics consider Huckleberry Finn to be one of the greatest American novels of all time.
Twain's Roughing It (1871), a book which grew out of his journey to the West with his brother, is a humorous, loosely-constructed travel narrative that relies on the American storytelling tradition.
Twain's lifelong love affair with the Mississippi River is expressed in his Life on the Mississippi (1883), a compilation of travel narrative, anecdotes, history of the river, observations on American society, and stories from Twain's boyhood.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1958 edition edited by Charles Neider), which Twain worked on for years before his death, is a book in which Twain says he speaks "freely" because "I shall be dead when the book issues from the press."
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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.”...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Frank Baldanza, "Boy Literature," in Mark Twain: An Introduction and Interpretation, edited by John Mahoney, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, pp. 103-123.
Walter Blair, "Tom Sawyer," in Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Nash Smith, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 64-82.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "Excavations," in Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 92-93.
John C. Gerber, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," in Mark Twain, edited by David J. Nordloh, Twayne, 1988, pp. 67-77.
Ronald Gottesman and Arnold Krupat, "American Literature 1865-1914," in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2, 4th edition, Norton, 1994, pp. 1-8.
Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition, Macmillan, 1935, pp. 43-44.
Robert Lacour-Gayet, Everyday Life in the United States before the Civil War, 1830-1860, Unger, 1969, p. 8.
Lewis Leary, Mark Twain, University of Minnesota Press, 1960, pp. 22-24.
Henry Nash Smith, "Introduction," in Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Nash Smith, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 1-12.
For Further Study
Bernard DeVoto, Mark Twain's America, Chautauqua Institution, 1932.
DeVoto, who published his book following the publication of Albert...
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