The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The following entry presents criticism on Twain's novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). See also The Mysterious Stranger Criticism, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Criticism, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Criticism.
Along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer remains Twain's best known and most widely read work. Depicting the life of a young boy growing up in a Mississippi river town, the novel was regarded as an entertainment for children when it was originally published. Since that time, Tom Sawyer has come to be viewed as a complex work addressed to both children and adults.
Plot and Major Characters
Loosely based on Twain's own childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, Tom Sawyer relates the exploits of its adolescent hero over the course of a summer in the fictional Mississippi valley town of St. Petersburg. Tom is presented as a mischievous child who delights in such boyish pranks as stealing jam from his Aunt Polly's kitchen, getting into fights with neighborhood boys, and tricking other children into doing his chores. After establishing Tom's rebellious personality in the opening chapter, the novel relates his various adventures in an episodic fashion that weaves several storylines together. Twain emphasizes the trials and misadventures of ordinary childhood through Tom's many escapades at school and his courting of Becky Thatcher, the daughter of a local judge. These everyday events contrast with the romanticized and extraordinary adventures that Tom shares with his friend Huckleberry Finn. During a midnight excursion to the town graveyard, Tom and Huck witness the murder of Dr. Robinson by Injun Joe, and Tom must later testify in court to save the life of Muff Potter, who has wrongfully been charged with the crime. At another point in the story, Tom and Huck run away to Jackson's Island, a peaceful, wooded island in the middle of the Mississippi, only to be driven by homesickness back to St. Petersburg, where the townspeople, presuming them to have drowned, have organized their funeral. The climax of the book involves Tom and Becky Thatcher becoming lost in McDougal's Cave. Tom finds a way out after three days of searching, and emerges from the cave a town hero. The story closes with the discovery of Injun Joe's body and the bestowal on Tom and Huck of a vast treasure left behind by the villain.
In his preface to Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain asserted: "Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in." Commentators such as Diana Trilling and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., have affirmed the success of Twain's design. While the more melodramatic plotlines involving the murder of Dr. Robinson, the discovery of hidden treasure, and the adventure in McDougal's Cave serve to entertain a younger body of readers, such incidents as the fence whitewashing episode and Tom's "treatment" of the family cat with an intoxicating painkiller are cited as canny portrayals of the nature of childhood. Other critics, notably John Seelye, view several incidents in the novel, including Tom's encounters with Injun Joe and Tom and Becky's disappearance in the cave, as confrontations between innocence and evil which initiate Tom into the world of adult responsibilities and consequences. Commentators also contrast Tom's initial resistance to the social order of St. Petersburg with his later acceptance of a prominent place among the wealthy townspeople and his final efforts to "civilize" Huck as evidence that Tom develops from a romantic who shuns the demands of adulthood into a more practical character who is able to achieve maturity without losing his individuality and playfulness. It has also been observed that the novel burlesques the conventions of romantic fiction through Tom's playacting at heroic roles and his pining for Becky Thatcher, while the motif of Tom as a young hero who achieves success despite his mischievousness pokes fun at the didactic fiction popular in Twain's day, which portrayed unrealistically pious children whose exemplary behavior ensures their eventual material success. Although its reputation has suffered from comparisons to its highly acclaimed sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, most critics agree with Barry Marks's assessment: "Its capacity still to appeal to the modern reader lies, I think, in the quality to which Mark Twain referred in calling it a hymn. Inherent in its structure is a song praising mankind—praising his weakness and need for love and security as well as his strength and capacity for achievement, but mostly praising the life which permits man's conflicting motives to exist together in ultimate harmony."