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...
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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 worry? How and why does it differ from his reaction to the gathering for his funeral?
Tom as Reluctant Truth-Teller: Tom tells many lies throughout the narrative, though most are fairly inconsequential. However, not all lies are permissible—especially those that implicate others. While Tom is a stereotypical “bad boy,” finding ways to get out of work and trick his family and friends, he becomes honest when the truth has lasting consequences. This can be seen when Tom testifies against Injun Joe despite the fear of retaliation. Notice also the final scene of the novel, where Tom nudges Huck into accepting the widow’s help by asserting that Huck must become respectable in order to continue his adventures with Tom. Tom has matured—at least a little.
- For discussion: When does Tom lie, and when does he elect to tell the truth? Why does he choose what he does?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Does Tom mature or change in a significant way? How so? What about in his relationships with Becky, Huck, or Aunt Polly?
- How is Twain’s portrayal of Injun Joe problematic?
- How much and in what way do you think growing up in America has changed since the 1840s, when Tom Sawyer is set?
- How much does this novel set the stage for its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? How does it stand on its own as a self-contained story?
- What do Twain’s self insertions (such as chapter 2’s “If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”) reveal about the tone of the novel?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Native Americans Are Stereotyped: When Tom Sawyer was published, a common stereotype of Native Americans was that they were frightening “others,” fundamentally different from white Americans. Unfortunately, Injun Joe is a static antagonist whose main trait is that he is evil—every event which involves him also includes violence of some kind, often exacted upon innocents. Readers never learn any concrete reasoning to give cause to Injun Joe’s actions other than monetary greed and revenge for the Judge’s prior treatment. He simply is evil because he is.
- What to do: Note when teaching that Injun Joe, though problematically defined by and alienated because of his race, he is primarily portrayed as evil due to his actions rather than his heritage. A lesson on the racial landscape and history of the American South helps contextualize this portrayal of Native Americans without excusing its prejudice.
The Dialect Is Difficult to Read and Contains Racist Language: One of the first popular writers to render thick American dialect throughout his works, Twain was a master of transcribing natural-sounding dialogue. At first glance, students may be intimidated by the abundance of apostrophes and elided words. Racial terms that are seen as derogatory today remain in the text so that time-period-appropriate realism remains. However ugly it make be, it is important to remember that it existed.
- What to do: Encourage students to slow down and maybe even read aloud passages rich in dialogue, which work best when heard rather than skimmed over. Act out passages as if reciting a play, and make note for your students on how the dialect contributes to a sense of “being there” in-scene with the characters.
The Plot Is Slow and Sporadic: A common criticism of Tom Sawyer is that the plot takes a while to build up momentum. Remind students that the opening chapters’ slowness reflects the easiness of childhood; when nostalgically looking back on previous events, many writers tend to emphasize the carefree, leisurely memories rather than busied or traumatic ones. Twain sought in part to write a book that portrayed a rosy childhood. The book picks up after a number of chapters when Tom is forced to mature in some way and begin making difficult choices.
- What to do: Have students build a portrait of Tom’s characteristics based on his interactions with various townsfolk in the beginning chapters. What can readers learn about Tom from his interactions with Huck and his classmates? With Aunt Polly? With broader concepts like religion and truth? Point out how these chapters, while not strictly necessary for the plot, are placed at the beginning so that readers are able sympathize with St. Petersburg residents and empathize when unfortunate events befall them.
Alternative Teaching Approaches
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
- Focus on Huck’s character development throughout the novel from scruffy outsider to reluctant participant in civilization. Also consider how Tom helps or hinders this process.
- Focus on the possibility that Tom doesn’t change or mature at all throughout the novel, especially in light of the final chapter’s light-hearted ending. It can be argued that despite his near-death experience, Tom still childishly views danger as adventure to be sought. Similarly, community reactions to Tom’s hijinks may just reinforce his behavior. Keep in mind, too, Tom’s complicated—and ultimately unnecessary—plan to free Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
- Focus on the novel’s female characters as foils for Tom’s immaturity. Becky and Aunt Polly are good people to start with. When she rips her book, Becky motivates Tom to lie for a good reason, rather than for fun, and Aunt Polly imparts a conscience in Tom after he crashes his own funeral. How do they show themselves to be wiser than and spur change in Tom?