What is the main conflict of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"?

The main external conflict in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is between Tom and Injun Joe over who gets the stolen treasure. The other main conflict is between Tom and the adult world, though this conflict is more internal.

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In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom's energetic consciousness collides with adult civilization. Tom is presented against the backdrop of individuals and institutions that try to contain him, including Aunt Polly, school, and more studious boys like Sid.

Tom is torn between extremes. He most admires and feels a yearning for the freedom of the social outcast Huck Finn, yet he keeps this friendship largely under wraps because he knows it's not socially acceptable. He chafes against the constraints imposed by Aunt Polly and school, but, like the trickster he is, works within their confines. His conflict throughout the novel is navigating his relationship with a restrictive adult society that wants to rub away his rough edges. He struggles to be who he is against a system that demands he conform.

Tom shows his boisterous personality, trickster spirit, and ability to adapt when he is able to turn his punishment—whitewashing a fence outside his house—into an enviable game, luring other boys into paying him with gifts for the privilege of doing an unwanted chore.

He does his best to avoid school, a place where he is forced to sit still when he would prefer active engagement with life. His exuberance pulls him into adventure, such as when the desire to find a buried treasure causes he and Huck to enter a graveyard at night, where they stumble across Injun Joe committing a murder.

Tom is part of an American tradition that includes such red-blooded trickster figures as Washington Irving's Brom Bones in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." These robust males reject book learning and a feminized civilization which conflicts with their desire for physical activity, freedom, and adventure.

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The primary external conflict in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is Tom and Huck's struggle against the grave robber Injun Joe for a treasure. Tom believes that Injun Joe is out to kill him, and this fuels his reactions towards the man. Tom and Huck seek where the criminals have hidden their stolen treasure, and they contend with the malevolence of Injun Joe, who also desires vengeance upon the Widow Douglas. This external conflict is packed with suspense and danger, making it the most obvious candidate for the main conflict overall, but Twain's novel has another, just as prominent struggle and that in the form of Tom versus the adult world.

Tom is innocent and imaginative, while the adult world is more somber and rigid, insisting upon certain moral codes and social observances and punishing anyone who does not conform. Tom's coming-of-age forms a great part of the story, and he struggles a little to comprehend the murky waters of the adult world, both its virtues and hypocrisy. He ultimately does the right thing many times, such as testify at Injun Joe's trial. Both Tom's moral development and the love he finds among the community of St. Petersburg suggest that despite its flaws, the adults of the story are not all evil or despicable and that growing into adulthood is a necessary step.

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Tom Sawyer's main conflict is his conflict between his self-interests and what is the right thing to do. 

In his afterword to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a novel about a young boy who "overflows" with the exuberance of life, ignorance of responsibility, and mischievousness, Geoffrey Sanborn writes that Mark Twain composed a tribute to "the free, unscarred, unsmitten nature" of childhood. In fact, Sanborn points out, Twain himself admitted that he was captivated by youthful pleasures. Sanborn states that when he published his book, Twain wrote in his epilogue that his novel was "strictly the history of a boy."

Tom's boyish adventures are delightful. He is mischievous and plays tricks on the other children; for instance, he fools the neighborhood boys into whitewashing the fence for him, and he trades for tickets while at Sunday school so that he can have enough to win a Bible, whose verses he does not even know. However, as the narrative progresses, Tom's adventures become less frivolous. In Chapter 10, for example, after Tom and Huck Finn witness the murder of Dr. Robinson by Injun Joe, they vow to be silent. Unaware that Injun Joe plans for Muff Potter to be blamed for his crime since Potter's knife is in the body of the doctor, Tom and Huck make a blood oath not to reveal what they saw out of fear for their own lives. But, when Tom learns that Potter is arrested for the murder of Dr. Robinson, his conscience torments him for not having reported the truth about the murder. It is at this point that Tom faces a conflict of his own selfish interests against what is right. Because of this guilt, Tom sneaks off to Potter's jail cell in order to bring the man small gifts.

In Chapter 13 Tom joins Huck and Joe Harper on a raft, and they pole their way to Jackson's Island. After trading tales and eating, the boys lie down to sleep.

Then at once they reached and hovered upon the imminent verge of sleep--but an intruder came, now, that would not "down." It was conscience. They began to feel a vague fear that they had been doing wrong to run away; and next they thought of the stolen meat, and then the real torture came. They tried to argue it away by reminding conscience that they had purloined sweetmeats and apples scores of times, but conscience was not to be appeased by such thin possibilities. (Ch.13)

As a consequence of this "intruder," the boys resolve that “their piracy should not again be sullied with the crime of stealing.” It is at this point, therefore, that Tom starts to develop his moral conscience and begins to mature. Nevertheless, Joe, Tom, and Huck do not return as they should. So, when their raft is found, the townspeople naturally assume that the boys have died. After learning what has occurred, Tom convinces the other boys to all appear at their funeral. When they do so, they are met with much rejoicing, and the boys delight in the attention. Later, at the trial of Muff Potter, Tom testifies that he witnessed Injun Joe commit the murder of Dr. Robinson. This testimony demonstrates Tom Sawyer's maturation as he has done the right thing.

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The conflict in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" is the Tom and Huck's struggle with Injun Joe over the treasure. The climax, which can be considered the most interesting or most exciting part of the story, is when Tom has a close encounter with Injun Joe when he is lost in the cave with Becky. During this part of the story, Tom and Becky are lost in the cave, their supplies have run out, and it seems as though they might die there, with no way out, no light, and no food. Then, to even further the excitement, they hear Injun Joe, who wants to kill them, in the caves and they are almost caught. There seems to be no way to resolve the problem, when luckily, Tom discovers a way out.

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The main conflict is the clash between Tom's imaginative vision of the world and the adult world as it really is.

Tom's elaborate, creative adventures (pirates, treasure hunters, robbers) and pranks (tricking the boys into paying him to paint the fence, bartering for proof of memorized Bible verses) place him at constant odds with the adult world, and he is not above lying audaciously to get out of trouble either.  The fact that Tom does have a conscience and a good heart only adds to the conflict he experiences.  On the one hand, Tom wishes he could be like Huck, who lives without rules because he is on his own, yet at the same time Tom realizes that it is a sad thing that Huck has no one to love him.  Although Tom's exploits get him into a lot of trouble, when it really counts (worrying Aunt Polly by disappearing on his pirate adventure, letting the wrong man take the blame for Dr. Robinson's murder), Tom chooses to do what he knows is right. 

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