The Themes of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The themes present in the novel by Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

In this paper I hope to outline and examine all of the major themes present in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. This novel is very dynamic and diverse, and is not granted as much credit as is due. It explores multiple principles and moralities found still today in society, and serves greatly as a guide to the teachings of the inter-workings of society and even the singular aspect of it, the human mind. The themes of the book range from moral understanding and development, to superstitions and religion. These topics will be thoroughly explained throughout this paper.
One of the major themes of Tom Sawyer is moral and social maturation. At the start of the book, Tom is typically a much hated and despised prankster, constantly fooling around and emotionally damaging the other townspeople. “He was not the Model Boy of the village. He knew the model boy very well though–and loathed him,” (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 4). The best way to describe the progression of Tom’s maturity is stated in an online reference as such, “As the novel progresses, these initially consequence-free childish games take on more and more gravity. Tom leads himself, Joe Harper, Huck, and, in the cave, Becky Thatcher into increasingly dangerous situations. He also finds himself in predicaments where he must put his concern for others above his concern for himself, such as when he takes Becky’s punishment and when he testifies at Injun Joe’s trial. As Tom begins to take initiative to help others instead of himself, he shows his increasing maturity, competence, and moral integrity” (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, Spark Notes, online). I feel this quote so accurately sums up Tom’s mental evolution so well, that little elaboration on the subject is required.

As Tom ventures to Jackson’s Island and McDougal’s Cave, he retreats further and further away from society, becoming somewhat of a recluse even. However, with each journey away from classical society he is able to venture further into his own mind in order to reach a mental maturity not possible through common practices amongst the community. Early in his adventures Tom uses Huck as an idol, as someone he can look up to and aspire to be, but as the story progresses Tom no longer needs to look up to Huck for guidance, in fact the reader could expect Huck to start idolizing Tom and perhaps even begin to shadow him through his mental journey into maturity. “Tom’s personal growth is evident in his insistence, in the face of Huck’s desire to flee all social constraints, that Huck stay with the Widow Douglas and become civilized” (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Spark Notes, online).

Counterbalancing the theme of social and moral maturation is the self evident theme of hypocrisy in society. This effect is achieved every time the author criticizes the values and standards of the adults in Tom’s town, while at the same time expecting Tom to develop these beliefs and practices on his own in order to be a mature and valued member of society, a goal almost impossible to achieve with the projected morals to be enforced. Twain shows this hypocritical society in more than few aspects, including the school, law, gossip, hearsay, and opinion of the civilization. Another thing the author chooses to acknowledge as essentially flawed are the characters that he creates, pointing out specific personality faults and immaturities in some of the people in Tom’s life.

Twain chooses to focus on the seemingly consistent law of inconsistentness in society’s moral, ethical, and political outlook. Twain also separates the two, showing that not just people may be held to this law, but that organizations ands administrations can as well, include legislation. This law of inconsistencies is further enforced in the way Twain depicts families throughout the novel. “The town where Tom Sawyer was born and brought up is some such idle shabby 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” (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” The Atlantic Online, online). He shows two sides to each household, containing a parental restriction and authoritative stance, as well as the polar opposite, one filled with love and pleasure. “Though she attempts to restrain and punish Tom, Aunt Polly always goes soft because of her love for her nephew” (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Spark Notes, online). Following the progression of the story is the habits of the townspeople, who start going in the same direction as Aunt Polly, and begin to substitute punishment with indulgence. This switch becomes apparent when Tom returns unscathed from his adventures. When the villagers should be outraged and appalled, they instead show compassion and forgiveness towards Tom because they are so thankful he is not harmed, a parental persona absorbed by the people. This same sentiment is later mocked by the author when it is illustrated that the town so willingly forgives the outlaw Injun Joe once he is dead, being consumed by the emotions usually only evoked by their own “little rascal.”

The activities partaken in by the towns small children as play, resemble training in the ways of subversion of authority and rule, and how to skillfully escape from the mainstream ways of the majority population of the novel’s small town. “Skipping school, sneaking out at night, playing tricks on the teacher, and running away for days at a time are all ways of breaking the rules and defying authority” (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Spark Notes, online). However, this clever writer does not let his readers take this symbol at face value, and subjects them to another version or meaning to these games than one might first perceive. “Tom is highly concerned with conforming to the codes of behavior that he has learned from reading, and he outlines the various criteria that define a pirate, a Robin Hood, or a circus clown. The boys’ obsession with superstition is likewise an addiction to convention, which also mirrors the adult society’s focus on religion. Thus, the novel shows that adult existence is more similar to childhood existence than it might seem” (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Spark Notes, online). Even while constantly poking holes into the way commonplace society functions as one gigantic hypocrite, Mr. Twain choose to also back authority’s right and the moral correctness of facing problems rather than running from them and their consequences. This is achieved every time the book demonstrates the system of crime and punishment, and displays how subversion can lead to larger problems or crimes in the future, while at the same time it shows the negative effects than can come from too strongly following authority. “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” (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” The Atlantic Online, online). A certain level of free thinking is required to adequately function as a proper human being.

One lesser theme, but one still worthy of notation, is freedom through social exclusion. The town in the novel, St. Petersburg, is a tight knit social community, in which foreigners do not fit in well or obtain the same status as the other townspeople. Easily the most well known outsider is Huck Finn, who is banished to the outskirts of town and must provide his own means of food and shelter as his father does not privy him to such comforts and is rather preoccupied by alcohol consumption and the resulting drunkenness. Other foreign peoples to the town include yet another drunk; Muff Potter, and the criminalistic and horrifying Injun Joe. However, like every other theme in this novel, there exists a parallel to it. “Despite the community’s clear separation of outsiders from insiders, however, it seems to have a strong impulse toward inclusiveness. The community tolerates the drunkenness of a harmless rascal like Muff Potter, and Huck is more or less protected even though he exists on the fringes of society. Tom too is an orphan who has been taken in by Aunt Polly out of love and filial responsibility” (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Spark Notes, online). The only person who isn’t included even slightly into the town’s inter-workings of love and hospitality is Injun Joe. However after the death of Joe, his remembrance is warped in such a way as to allow him to become part of the town, and be fully embraced by its loving arms, and not rejected like the scum he was always been viewed to be. One may start to worry about the living conditions of this child living out on his own, but these concerns are lessened, or more so distracted from, while the author disillusions the reader with whimsical tales of the boy’s liberty allowed by his exclusion from society. The other children are not even allowed to play with him, as it would be looked down on by the entirety of the community, and a beating may even be in order should anyone ever find out about the goings on between Huck and Tom. Essentially all alone in the wilderness, Huck never attains any sort of formal education or rations to sustain and nourish his young male frame. As far as housing goes, Huck is also homeless. Perhaps in today’s society this would not be acceptable, and the young man would be brought into a state-run foster center or at least taken care of by the generosity of the neighboring civilization, one would hope. It is assumed that Huck resorts to crime to attain all necessities or commodities that he consumes, as he is frequently mentioned as smoking a pipe, and as he is not described to have an unsightly visible skeletal structure, he must be getting food somewhere.

It is only after the treasure is had that Huck should be provided for. Once he comes into a great deal of money, the Widow Douglas offers to take him in and treat him as if he were her own son. The genius of this connection is to assimilate the relationship between economic value, and social value. It is only after Huck has money that he is able to be treated as a member of St. Petersburg. This change however is certainly not welcomed by Huck. It is obvious to the reader that this character would never willingly remove him self from the lifestyle to which he has become accustom. Although the offer by the widow is a generous one indeed, Twain illustrates that when removed from the conventions of society for so long, one cannot hope to return. Huck has been claimed by the wilds in which he lived, and to go back to a civilized lifestyle would not be possible for him, but as he is just a minor he does not have any option, he must accept this apparent choice as an inevitability. In this event the author again shows the hypocrisy of society, how it is only acceptable because the character is a boy, were it Injun Joe who found the treasure, the Widow Douglas would not offer to take him in. This double standard is apparent throughout the novel, and is expressed on a seemingly rhythmic basis, as it occurs more often than any other theme. This just goes to show another valid point made by the author, that being included in society comes at its own price too, and could be considered a luxury for which a tax must be paid, but the tax in question here is not one of a monetary value, but rather something more spiritual and sacrificial, ones own freedom. In order to be accepted into St. Petersburg, Huck is forced to give up his feral self, and take on a persona unbecoming of him, a persona of the average child, bound by the shackles of law and order which have been implemented, not by a court, but by the moral and ethical views of the society to which he is being incorporated into.

The final recognizable major theme of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is superstition in an uncertain world. Superstition can be defined as, “an irrational belief or practice resulting from ignorance or fear of the unknown. The validity of superstitions is based on belief in the power of magic and witchcraft and in such invisible forces as spirits and demons” (“Superstition,” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition). This theme if first introduced when Tom and Huck venture into the graveyard to try some kind of voodoo or mysticism to cure some warts. The superstition of the main characters in this novel could be a reflection of the old times and under-educated characters, or a demonstration in the differences of childhood and adulthood. The superstition of the boys runs a close parallel to religion in society. When certain events are encountered they must choose which superstition they are going to follow and make their decisions from. It is in this manner that Twains pokes fun at mainstream religious beliefs, and exposes the hypocrisy in the world’s belief system. However, in order to achieve all of these effects, Twain must evoke the help of an unrealistic universe in which he can place all his characters and events, so that they may interact without question from the reader. “The humorousness of the boys’ obsession with witches, ghosts, and graveyards papers over, to some extent, the real horror of the things to which the boys are exposed: grave digging, murder, starvation, and attempted mutilation. The relative ease with which they assimilate these ghastly events into their childish world is perhaps one of the least realistic aspects of the novel. (If the novel were written today, we might expect to read about the psychic damage these extreme childhood experiences have done to these boys.) The boys negotiate all this horror because they exist in a world suspended somewhere between reality and make-believe. Their fear of death is real and pervasive, for example, but we also have the sense that they do not really understand death and all of its ramifications” (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Spark Notes, online).

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  1. Sam
    Posted January 26, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Thanks a lot for posting this, it really helped my English project.

  2. Jessie
    Posted April 21, 2009 at 3:01 am

    Thanks a lot

  3. sandy
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 11:01 am

    this is a beautiful story i read it tell now

  4. Steve
    Posted June 2, 2009 at 10:24 pm


  5. the dibbler
    Posted January 16, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    lmaooo thats like %100 right from spark notes

  6. bandot
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 2:10 am

    apa temanya? kasi jelas donk

  7. Posted August 25, 2012 at 12:32 am

    thanks soooooo much i really enjoyed reading this peice!!!! :) it helped me ace my first paper that was due for school. anytime i need help with a high school reading project i will defintly look for you!!! again thanks for posting this awesome paper!!!1 ;)

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