Illustration of a hand holding a paintbrush that is painting a fence white

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

by Mark Twain

Start Free Trial

What is the message of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?

Quick answer:

The main message of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that in order to come of age, one must take greater responsibility within a community.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Though it is ultimately a children's adventure story, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer's main message regards coming of age. Tom is a young boy bordering on adolescence, and his adventures push him further into the adult world. As a result, he becomes a more involved member of his community, even putting his life on the line for its sake.

Tom's adventures make him more responsible and selfless. For example, he takes a whipping for Becky when he accepts the blame for the schoolbook she damaged. Most significantly, he risks his own safety in testifying against Injun Joe, because he knows more lives will be at stake if he does not. Injun Joe is a social outsider who, unlike the outsider Huck Finn, represents a threat to the community: he has committed murder and robbery, has desecrated a grave, and plans on attacking the Widow Douglas. Tom, representing the values of community and civilization, opposes Joe and ultimately helps bring him to justice.

Though Tom is imaginative and rambunctious, he becomes a more moral and responsible child by the end of the book. Therefore, while the book celebrates the many unique qualities of childhood, it does also celebrate the greater maturity that comes with growing up and becoming a part of the adult community.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the most important theme of Tom Sawyer?

While there are several important themes in Tom Sawyer, one of the most important might be personal freedom. Tom spends much of the book trying to escape societal convention, and pushing back against authority whenever and wherever he can. While he is not as committed to the free life as is his friend Huckleberry Finn, Tom is committed to a sort of civil disobedience. He often refuses to follow societal convention simply because a person in authority told him to, and Tom doesn't like to be told what to do.

"Come up here. Now, sir, why are you late again, as usual?"

Tom was about to take refuge in a lie, when he saw two long tails of yellow hair hanging down a back that he recognized by the electric sympathy of love; and by that form was the only vacant place on the girls' side of the school-house. He instantly said:

"I stopped to talk with Huckleberry Finn!"

The master's pulse stood still, and he stared helplessly. The buzz of study ceased. The pupils wondered if this foolhardy boy had lost his mind.
(Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,

Here, Tom leverages what he knows of the standard punishment for late arrivals so he will be sent over to sit by Becky Thatcher. At their age, the boys look at girls as inferior, and to be sent to sit with the girls is a form of punishment. Tom, however, is starting to feel the stirrings of adolescence, and so instead of lying and receiving a lesser form of punishment, he deliberately tells the truth so as to be punished more severely. This would seem strange, except that it is a deliberate maneuver; Tom wants to sit with the girls, and so by telling the truth, he gets what he wants even as the school teacher believes him to be soundly punished. At the time, school beatings were commonplace, so Tom only had to endure pain to which he was already accustomed. By accepting this punishment, Tom gets what he wants, and subverts the authority of the classroom and the teacher.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?

At the heart of this whimsical novel is the theme of friendship.  The antics of the friends Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are known to many Americans who have not even read this novel.  Together Tom and Huck create an exciting, imaginative world.  Many readers long remember the scene in which Tom tricks his friends into whitewashing the picket fence, Injun Joe leaping through the window of the courhouse after Tom names him as Dr. Robinson's murderer, and the cave scene in which Tom and Becky are lost have become part of American folklore.  Finally, when the children return to attend their own funerals and all the relatives are elated to find the children, Tom remarks that "it ain't fair" that Huck stands alone with no one to welcome him back.  A true friend, Tom tells Aunt Polly that someone must "be glad to see Huck."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the themes in the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?

The idea of adventure is central to this novel in a number of ways, as pointed out by bullgatortail. Adventure, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is both a literal and a literary theme. 

Tom Sawyer is a thrill seeker, driven by imagination and a highly specific sense of nobility. The fact that he experiences some very high-stakes situations is a by-product of another fact -- his quite literary imagination. The novel's title is the first indication of the referential nature of the book, as Twain implies with the title a knowledge of the adventure story as a genre and, more subtly, suggests that his book will participate in that genre in a tongue-and-cheek manner.  

Repeated references to other tales of high adventure demonstrate the narrative's awareness of the adventure genre.

"Injun Joe's cup stands first in the list of the cavern's marvels; even “Aladdin's Palace” cannot rival it."

Additionally, the novel is indeed crafted with many references to the author (Twain) and to the fact of authorship in ways that create a basic sense of contingency or ironic self-awareness throughout the text. This is a story being told that knows it is a story being told. This self-reflexive style is nicely aligned with the sarcastic tone of the novel and the overt social commentary offered in the text. 

Tom's adventures, given this stylistic context, become part of a commentary on adventure stories. More specifically, Tom and his story come to make a comment on the role of imagination in the very premise of adventure -- the particular sense of put-on nobility of romantic "swashbuckling" that connects Tom Sawyer to Don Quixote, another ironic hero. 

As a story-teller and as a boy enraptured by tales and folklore, Tom is the inveterate self-made man, almost as much made up as he is real, very muck akin to Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Tom is introduced as a liar and story-teller and lover of fiction, as we see here in a passage from the first chapter. 

"[...] and Tom said:

“You're a coward and a pup. I'll tell my big brother on you, and he can thrash you with his little finger, and I'll make him do it, too.”

“What do I care for your big brother? I've got a brother that's bigger than he is—and what's more, he can throw him over that fence, too.” [Both brothers were imaginary.]

“That's a lie.”

The coupling of imaginative power (e.g., untruth) and action can be argued to characterize the nature of this novel. The resulting thematic suggestion is that adventure is not only what might befall an individual. Adventure is a state of mind. Taken as a thematic idea, this view of adventure goes a long way to explaining the charm of the novel and the sly, referential nature of the text as well. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the themes in the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?

There are several themes that Mark Twain explores in his wonderful novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Adventure is certainly one of the main themes, and Tom and Huck and their friends enjoy more exploits than any kids their age should ever experience. Friendship is a major theme, since both Tom and Huck feel like outsiders in their own families. Since neither of the boys are happy at home, their bond becomes one of the most famous in all American literature. The boys' wild imagination is evident throughout, and they manage to maneuver in and out of trouble through quick thinking and unexpected turns. The boys' loyalty toward one another is another theme, and both of them trust each other more than their families or other adults. Superstition also plays a big part of the story, and there are many examples of 19th century folk tales and notions to be found. Truth vs. falsehood is another theme that runs rampant through the story. Tom tells many lies and whoppers, but he also has a conscience, and there are times when he realizes that the truth must be told.

Truth Falsehood



Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of Tom Sawyer?

There are are a number of themes present in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. If you need to focus on just one main theme, I would suggest examining the idea of the unbridled joys and innocence of youth. Throughout the story, Tom frequently gets into all sorts of mischief which can be chalked up to his youthfulness. He is carefree without the burdens of adulthood. As a kid from a town, he is also free from the responsibilities that his peers living on farms would have had at the time this story is set.

Tom's youth imparts him with an active imagination which is praised, despite the shenanigans that it gets the title character into. Throughout this story, Twain explicitly focusses on the joy of a life free from the responsibilities of adulthood and the possibilities and potential of unbridled youth.

Mark Twain is deliberate in making sure that this is a story of a childhood, not a coming of age story. The story does not end with Tom coming to a certain degree of maturity, although he does learn much during its telling. In the conclusion, Twain acknowledges this by stating that if he were to continue the narrative any longer, it would cease to be a story of a boy and become one about a man.

By writing about Tom Sawyer, Twain is in many ways reflecting on his own childhood and drawing parallels with any child reader of the book. Twain may be reminiscing about his childhood days, but Tom does not since he is still experiencing them. In this way, adult readers and child readers of this story experience it through different lenses.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on