The Adventures of Tom Sawyer introduces several significant figures in American mythology, including the hero of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the central works of American literature. Nonetheless, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is not just a dress rehearsal for its more powerful sequel. Allowing for nineteenth-century conventions of language and sentimentality in literature for young adults, the novel retains vitality and humor in exploring questions of freedom and responsibility. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the book presents limitation, alienation, and horror as elements profoundly affecting a small Missouri town's young people, whose minds are shaped as much by superstition, romantic fiction, and nightmare visions as by social convention. It also resembles The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in showing a painful moral growth that demands the risk of one's own welfare to assist another, while at the same time treating the reader to outlandish humor, melodramatic action, and a happy ending.
Children's friendships are at the center of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom's family—Aunt Polly, Mary, and Sid—does not always appreciate him and does not figure into his rich imaginative life. However, Tom's friends—Joe Harper and Huck Finn in particular—look up to him precisely because he is so imaginative and adventurous. The boys see each other as they want to be seen, and together they create an exciting world of intrigue and adventure. The friendship between Tom and Huck especially is highlighted in the novel. Tom admires Huck for his freedom from adults' rules, and he knows that his association with Huck makes him appear daring, an image he relishes. Tom also cares about Huck, concerned that he is alone in the world. When the boys return from their pirating adventure to attend their own funerals, Tom and Joe are smothered with affection by their families while Huck stands awkwardly alone, with no one to welcome him home. Tom points out to Aunt Polly that "it ain't fair. Somebody's got to be glad to see Huck." Tom and Huck share a deep belief in superstitions and a love of adventure, imagining themselves as pirates and robbers in partnership with one another. Tom is so loyal to Huck that he repeatedly disobeys Aunt Polly's orders not to play with Huck, and Tom proudly announces to the schoolmaster that he was late for school because he was playing with the forbidden Huck, even though he knows he will be punished for it. The boys often use dramatic conventions to represent their loyalty to one another. For example, after they secretly observe Injun Joe's murder of Dr. Robinson in the cemetery, Tom writes an oath that "they will keep mum about this and … wish they may drop down dead in their tracks if they ever tell and Rot." Tom and Huck then sign the oath with their own blood.
Because Tom is a child of the community, and thus assured of adult protection, he feels safe enough to testify against Injun Joe in Muff Potter's murder trial. But Tom keeps secret Huck's knowledge of the same situation, because Huck fears Injun Joe's retaliation and knows he is without serious protection. Huck and Tom's friendship rises above the social conventions of St. Petersburg. They are friends because each likes the other for who he is, and it matters little to either that their society frowns upon their friendship.
Tom Sawyer's imagination rules his life and shapes his world. He takes every opportunity to make a game of life, embarking on such romantic endeavors as digging for buried...