The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay

Mark Twain


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain

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.

Major Themes

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."

The Atlantic Monthly (essay date 1876)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XXXVII, No. CCXXIII, May, 1876, pp. 617-29.

[In the following essay, the critic praises the portrayal of boyhood in the rural American Southwest in Tom Sawyer.]

Mr. Aldrich has studied the life of A Bad Boy as the pleasant reprobate led it in a quiet old New England town twenty-five or thirty years ago, where in spite of the natural outlawry of boyhood he was more or less part of a settled order of things, and was hemmed in, to some measure, by the traditions of an established civilization. Mr. Clemens, on the contrary, has taken the boy of the Southwest for the hero of his new book, [The Adventures of Tom Sawyer] and has presented him with a fidelity to circumstance which loses no charm by being realistic in the highest degree, and which gives incomparably the best picture of life in that region as yet known to fiction. The town where Tom Sawyer was born and brought up is some such idle, shabby little Mississippi River town as Mr. Clemens has so well described in his piloting reminiscences, but Tom belongs to the better sort of people in it, and has been bred to fear God and dread the Sunday-school according to the strictest rite of the faiths that have characterized all the respectability of the West. His subjection in these respects does not so deeply affect his inherent tendencies but that he makes himself a beloved burden to the poor, tender-hearted old aunt who brings him up with his orphan brother and sister, and struggles vainly with his manifold sins, actual and imaginary. The limitations of his transgressions are nicely and artistically traced. He is mischievous, but not vicious; he is ready for almost any depredation that involves the danger and honor of adventure, but profanity he knows may provoke a thunderbolt upon the heart of the blasphemer, and he almost never swears; he resorts to any stratagem to keep out of school, but he is not a downright liar, except upon terms of after shame and remorse that make his falsehood bitter to him. He is cruel, as all children are, but chiefly because he is ignorant; he is not mean, but there are very definite bounds to his generosity; and his courage is the Indian sort, full of prudence and mindful of retreat as one of...

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Walter Blair (essay date 1939)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On the Structure of Tom Sawyer," in Modern Philology, Vol. 37, No. 1, August, 1939, pp. 75-96.

[Blair was an American author and editor who wrote two book-length studies of Huckleberry Finn. In the following essay, he demonstrates that Tom Sawyer was written partly as a response to the didactic children's fiction of Twain's day.]

Since, as several critics have suggested, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) attacked earlier juvenile literature in something roughly like the way Joseph Andrews attacked Pamela, a note on the structure of the novel may well start though it should not, I think, terminate) with a...

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Lewis Leary (essay date 1954)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tom and Huck: Innocence on Trial," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1954, pp. 417-30.

[Leary is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on American literature. In the following essay, he analyzes Twain's synthesis of romantic and anti-romantic themes in Tom Sawyer.]

One cannot seriously quarrel with DeLancey Ferguson when he says that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer violates every rule, past, present, and future of the "art novel," for in its context Mr. Ferguson's statement points out something which is important and true about that book. Taken out of its context, however, as I am afraid it has often been...

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William G. Barrett (essay date 1955)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On the Naming of Tom Sawyer," in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, July, 1955, pp. 424-36.

[In the following essay, which was first presented as a paper at the Midwinter Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in December, 1954, Barrett examines the psychological and mythological implications of Tom Sawyer's name.]

All writers of fiction furnish their works with experience from their own lives. In a sense, no author can create a character not at least in part himself. Even so, each author has one book more intimately concerned than his others with the details of what he himself has known and done: his 'autobiographical' work. How an author...

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Barry A. Marks (essay date 1959)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mark Twain's Hymn of Praise," in English Journal, Vol. XLVIII, No. 8, November, 1959, pp. 443-8.

[Marks is an American educator and the editor of a critical anthology on Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the following essay, Marks argues that, while Tom Sawyer begins by satirizing social convention, the novel ends with an affirmation of the human need for society.]

"A hymn, put into prose form to give it a worldly air" is the way Mark Twain once described Tom Sawyer, and of course he was right. The book is a song of praise and adoration—not only of the Mississippi Valley in the mid-nineteenth century but of life...

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Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (essay date 1967)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tom Sawyer and the Use of Novels," in The Curious Death of the Novel: Essays in American Literature, Louisiana State University Press, 1967, pp. 88-99.

[Rubin is an American critic, educator, and novelist. In the following essay, he argues that Tom Sawyer presents a unique portrait of American life.]

Because Mark Twain is so important a figure in American literary history, and because The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) is his first work of fiction, there is the temptation to dwell on the historical aspects of the novel. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), it can be approached as a guide to what life was like along the...

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Robert Tracy (essay date 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Myth and Reality in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," in Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 530-41.

[Tracy is an American educator, critic, and translator. In the following essay, he explores Twain's use of mythological imagery and universal archetypes in Tom Sawyer.]

With prophetic malice, Mark Twain began Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by threatening any critic who should find motive, moral, or plot in his narrative. But he began The Adventures of Tom Sawyer rather more gently, with some helpful information about the characters and story, and with a statement wrung from him by Howells, that the...

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Steven Karpowitz (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain: Fictional Women and Real in the Play of Conscience with the Imagination," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXIII, No., 1973, pp. 5-12.

[In the following essay, Karpowitz demonstrates how Twain's attitudes toward women are revealed in Tom Sawyer.]

A year after Mark Twain finished Tom Sawyer (1875) he wrote to his boyhood friend, Will Bowen, criticizing him for counting too heavily on future profits and sentimentalizing his past.

Your reckless imaginations are always eating feasts that are never to be cooked …

Do you know that this is simply mental and moral...

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Lyall Powers (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sweet Success of Twain's Tom," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 53, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 310-24.

[Powers is an American educator and critic who has written several studies of Henry James's works. In the following essay, he explores Tom Sawyer's particular appeal to the American temperament.]

For almost a century Mark Twain's novel of American boyhood, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, has enjoyed great popularity and earned a place as one of our foremost popular "classics". Its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, may justifiably be held in greater esteem by the learned reader but has probably not yet usurped the honored place of...

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Cynthia Griffin Wolff (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: A Nightmare Vision of American Boyhood," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXI, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 637-52.

[Wolff is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, she asserts that Tom Sawyer is a protest against the female-dominated moral code of Twain's day and the lack of suitable masculine role models for boys.]

Twain's second book of boyhood has more or less cornered one segment of the American Dream. Read with admiration (read during the long years when Moby Dick was relegated to obscurity), it captured both our lofty goals and our tragic weaknesses; and if it is not "the" American epic,...

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John Seelye (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "What's in a Name: Sounding the Depths of Tom Sawyer," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XC, No. 3, Summer, 1982, pp. 408-29.

[Seelye is an American novelist and the author of The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a reworking of Twain's classic. In the following essay, he interprets the psychological symbolism in Tom Sawyer.]

Tom Sawyer is a name as familiar to us as our own. We grow up with it, perhaps are weaned from lesser literature on the book of that title, so that eventually the name and the story attached to it become part of our collective memory, stored away like a half-remembered experience. If one of the pleasures in rereading...

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Sanford Pinsker (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Play Theory, and the Critic's Job of Work," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1988, pp. 357-65.

[Pinsker is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he explores the concept of play in Tom Sawyer.]

Critics shy away from belabored readings of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for several understandable reasons: the denser, richer textures of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn loom ahead; scholarship about Twain's sources has dominated discussion of the novel; and perhaps most important of all, there is a legitimate fear that a work celebrating Play will be forever spoiled by too much...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Budd, Louis J. and Cady, Edwin H., eds. On Mark Twain: The Best from "American Literature. " Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1987, 303 p.

Collection of reprinted essays from the journal American Literature. Contains Hamlin H. Hill's study of Twain's notes and early drafts of Tom Sawyer that show the evolution of the final manuscript of the novel, as well as an analysis of "Mark Twain and the Endangered Family" by James Grove.

Byers, John R., Jr. "A Hannibal Summer: The Framework of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Studies in American Fiction 8, No. I (Spring 1980): 81-8.

Analysis of narrative...

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