The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Themes

The main themes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are friendship, imagination, truth, and falsehood.

  • Friendship: Tom, Joe, and Huck’s friendship enables them to create their own adventurous world. Their trust in each other allows them to overcome obstacles and create fun wherever they go.
  • Imagination: Tom’s imagination allows him to escape from many of the limitations of the adult world, and Tom and his friends view the world in a way that is inaccessible to adults.

  • Truth and falsehood: Despite his mischievous nature, Tom’s conscience leads him to tell the truth after disappearing and to help Muff Potter escape false prosecution.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 154

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer introduces several significant figures in American mythology, including the hero of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the central works of American literature. Nonetheless, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is not just a dress rehearsal for its more powerful sequel. Allowing for nineteenth-century conventions of language and sentimentality in literature for young adults, the novel retains vitality and humor in exploring questions of freedom and responsibility. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the book presents limitation, alienation, and horror as elements profoundly affecting a small Missouri town's young people, whose minds are shaped as much by superstition, romantic fiction, and nightmare visions as by social convention. It also resembles The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in showing a painful moral growth that demands the risk of one's own welfare to assist another, while at the same time treating the reader to outlandish humor, melodramatic action, and a happy ending.

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Extended Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1039

Friendship
Children's friendships are at the center of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom's family—Aunt Polly, Mary, and Sid—does not always appreciate him and does not figure into his rich imaginative life. However, Tom's friends—Joe Harper and Huck Finn in particular—look up to him precisely because he is so imaginative and adventurous. The boys see each other as they want to be seen, and together they create an exciting world of intrigue and adventure. The friendship between Tom and Huck especially is highlighted in the novel. Tom admires Huck for his freedom from adults' rules, and he knows that his association with Huck makes him appear daring, an image he relishes. Tom also cares about Huck, concerned that he is alone in the world. When the boys return from their pirating adventure to attend their own funerals, Tom and Joe are smothered with affection by their families while Huck stands awkwardly alone, with no one to welcome him home. Tom points out to Aunt Polly that "it ain't fair. Somebody's got to be glad to see Huck." Tom and Huck share a deep belief in superstitions and a love of adventure, imagining themselves as pirates and robbers in partnership with one another. Tom is so loyal to Huck that he repeatedly disobeys Aunt Polly's orders not to play with Huck, and Tom proudly announces to the schoolmaster that he was late for school because he was playing with the forbidden Huck, even though he knows he will be punished for it. The boys often use dramatic conventions to represent their loyalty to one another. For example, after they secretly observe Injun Joe's murder of Dr. Robinson in the cemetery, Tom writes an oath that "they will keep mum about this and … wish they may drop down dead in their tracks if they ever tell and Rot." Tom and Huck then sign the oath with their own blood.

Because Tom is a child of the community, and thus assured of adult protection, he feels safe enough to testify against Injun Joe in Muff Potter's murder trial. But Tom keeps secret Huck's knowledge of the same situation, because Huck fears Injun Joe's retaliation and knows he is without serious protection. Huck and Tom's friendship rises above the social conventions of St. Petersburg. They are friends because each likes the other for who he is, and it matters little to either that their society frowns upon their friendship.

Imagination
Tom Sawyer's imagination rules his life and shapes his world. He takes every opportunity to make a game of life, embarking on such romantic endeavors as digging for buried treasure or organizing his friends into a band of pirates with names like "the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main," "Huck Finn the Red-Handed," and "the Terror of the Seas." Perhaps not always completely original in their imaginings, Tom and his friends play Robin Hood by reciting dialogue that they have memorized from the book.

Although he claims to reject many of the rules of the adult world, Tom has his own clear rules about how pirates must behave, what social class robbers must come from, and how certain superstitions work. His imaginings may free him from his rule-bound world, but they often place him in another such world. His imaginative world and his "real" world—the mundane life of St. Petersburg—do not often collide. Yet when these two worlds do collide—such as when Tom and Huck witness the murder in the cemetery, and when Tom realizes how badly he hurt Aunt Polly when he ran away to play pirates, and when Tom and Becky's adventure in the cave turns life-threatening—Tom is able to understand the limits of imagination. In each case, Tom's empathy for another person—Muff Potter, Dr. Robinson, Aunt Polly, Becky—causes him to realize that he needs to stop pretending and deal with the situation at hand.

Truth and Falsehood
The first words Tom Sawyer speaks in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are a lie. Aunt Polly is looking for Tom and shouting his name, and when she finds him hiding in the closet and asks him what he is doing, he replies, in an obvious lie, "Nothing." She points to the jam all over his mouth and hands and asks what it is, and he replies, "I don't know, aunt," another obvious lie. Tom is thus introduced as a mischievous boy who gets into trouble, although Aunt Polly's laughter upon Tom's escape from her disapproval shows that his lies and disobedience are essentially unimportant to her. Tom lies frequently throughout the novel, mostly about where he's been or what he's been doing, and mostly to avoid getting into trouble. However, when telling the truth really matters, Tom knows he must not lie.

When he first returns home after his pirating adventure, he feels bad about having hurt Aunt Polly by scaring her with his long absence, so he lies to her about having had a dream about her when he was away on his pirating adventure. When she later discovers that the story of the dream had all been a lie, Tom realizes that "what had seemed like a good joke before, and very ingenious ... merely looked mean and shabby now." His conscience prods him finally to tell her the truth of what really happened. But this time, Aunt Polly doesn't believe him, and she refuses to until she finds the piece of bark in his jacket pocket with the note to her on it that he had said he had written.

Tom's conscience again leads him to tell the truth when he decides he must help Muff Potter. Because he cannot in good conscience let Potter be convicted of Dr. Robinson's murder, Tom decides to be a witness at Potter's murder trial, even though he knows by doing so he places himself in some danger with Injun Joe. In spite of the ease with which lying comes to him, Tom's conscience and his ability to tell the truth when he should place him in stark contrast to Injun Joe. Injun Joe, a man without a conscience and thus capable of evil, lies and misrepresents himself for the purpose of personal gain.

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