Theme of Ease of Childhood Displaced by Maturity’s Tough Choices: The first half of the book is episodic in nature. Tom goes about his daily life, encountering brief hardships but cleverly navigates or outsmarts the challenges presented to him, often to the chagrin of his family. The inhabitants of St. Petersburg—excluding antagonist Injun Joe—are largely pleasant people, even though some, such as Muff Potter, indulge in vices. This rosy picture reflects the ease of childhood and the fondness with which it is remembered as carefree. As the book progresses, this peaceful picture is cracked—beginning with Dr. Robinson’s murder—as Tom struggles to come to terms with his choices and figuring out the right thing to do in a given situation.
- For discussion: One of the most significant choices Tom has is whether to speak to Muff Potter’s innocence at the latter’s trial. Tom can remain silent and let the matter rest, though he knows Injun Joe is responsible for Dr. Robinson’s murder, or he can testify to Potter’s innocence and potentially face Injun Joe’s retaliation. What other choices does Tom face, and how does he decide what to do?
- For discussion: In small actions, readers may notice Tom’s becoming less selfish over time. For example, when he and Becky are lost in the cave, Tom elects to share his portion of cake with Becky rather than eat the whole thing himself. What other instances show Tom becoming less selfish throughout the novel?
Theme of Friendship Strengthened Through Adventure and Adversity: One area that students will likely relate to—despite the hundreds of years between themselves and Tom Sawyer—is the bonds that are formed from shared experiences, joyous or unpleasant. Tom and Huck, though not strangers at the beginning of the narrative, form a lasting friendship from their various escapades around St. Petersburg.
- For discussion: This is a common, easily relatable way to pique students’ interest in the text. Have them to share their own experiences that brought them to their friends.
Theme of Societal Hypocrisy and Alienation: Throughout the novel, societal appearances are paramount to St. Petersburg residents. Few elect to be seen with Muff Potter, the town drunk; likewise, Huck similarly finds himself on the outskirts of polite society due to his grimy appearance and lack of manners. Injun Joe also suffers some of the same isolation due to his heritage and malevolence. Even Tom, because of his mischievous tendencies, is somewhat of an outsider. Twain uses his characters to critique what he saw as societal hypocrisy in dealing with outsiders; for example, Aunt Polly always talks herself into forgiving Tom despite knowing she should punish him for his escapades. On the other end of the spectrum, Injun Joe is not a beloved inhabitant. It is striking, then, how dramatically—and loudly—some of the characters mourn his passing. Indeed, Tom’s reaction to his death appears to be one of the most sincere.
- For discussion: Contrast Tom’s reaction to Injun Joe’s death to Injun Joe’s funeral scene (Chapter 33).
- For discussion: How do Tom and Huck gain acceptance over the course of the novel?
Funeral Scene as Catalyst for Tom’s Emotional Maturity: Although Tom’s crashing his own funeral is one of the more famous scenes in the book, its effect beyond the immediate comedy of the situation is often overlooked. Tom soon discovers that his aunt was sick with worry—as was the whole town—assuming that he and his friends had died. It’s the first trick he’s played that has real, emotional consequences and shows the formation of an actual conscience within Tom where he begins to consider, and explicitly see, the ill effects his actions can have on others.
- For discussion: Refer to chapter 28 for a conversation between Tom and Aunt Polly to review Tom’s wavering guilt and pride for the “joke” he has played on the whole town. What can you surmise about Tom from his reactions to Aunt Polly’s...
(The entire section is 1,653 words.)