An Analysis of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Samuel Clemens

Submitted by Lucy Anne on Mon, 09/07/2015 - 14:54

What inspired Samuel Clemens to pen The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? First, Clemens was interested in the idea of focusing a story on a mischievous and disobedient boy. Other authors were writing books with rowdy main characters. Clemens’ friend wrote a book titled The Story of a Bad Boy, which intrigued him. Clemens had written sketches of such stories, but never a book. Tom Sawyer would concentrate on the adventures of an unruly and wild boy. Second, Clemens wanted to share about his childhood growing up in slave-state Missouri before the Civil War. The characters were modeled after him and his friends, and some events were true. He was passionate about dramatizing his childhood, saying he was “wrapped up in it and so dead to anything else” and that he had “pumped himself dry” [9] by the time he finished it.

He wrote the novel in the countryside in 1756, which influenced the descriptions in the novel. He dedicated a summer writing in a gazebo which he said was “perched on a hill-top that overlooks a little world of green valleys, shining rivers, sumptuous forests, and billowy uplands veiled in the haze of distance”. His view seems to produce vibrant descriptions. In the book, he describes summer as “bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips…the locust trees were in bloom, and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air.”[10] Also, he paints landscapes such as a windy cave to explore, the Mississippi river to sail, dark alleyways to spy on a mysterious apartment, as well as an island to escape.

It was not only the colorful descriptions that make the slave-state Missouri come alive. Clemens’ readers were familiar with the southern culture in slave states before the Civil War. They knew how characters treated slaves. After all, the Civil War had ended only ten years ago. Surely some remembered seeing their papa whip their slaves, or even owning slaves themselves. Others may have fought and risked their lives for the slaves’ freedom. Thousands of families had lost their farms, fathers, and sons. As a result, Clemens truly spoke and related to his readers in Tom Sawyer. Whatever message he wanted to say would be more powerful because his readers were acquainted with the setting, which is the foundation of his story.

The story revolves around Tom Sawyer, who is a model of Clemens when he was a boy. The key part of Clemens as a child was his rambunctious character. Tom Sawyer is famous for his extreme mischievous. He purposely disregards his aunt, teachers, and church leaders. Through Tom’s mischief, Clemens reveals truths about society customs and worldviews. For example, many mothers restricted their sons from playing with the town drunkard’s son, Huck.
What does Tom do? “He played with him every time he had a chance.”[11] Later, Tom white-washes fences as punishment for skipping school. He gets tired, and decides to trick his friends into washing it for him. He brainwashes them to believe that whitewashing was indeed, the most fun activity. They decide they want to help. But then he makes them pay. Soon boys are lining up to white-wash the fence while Tom witnesses the scene, eating an apple that boys paid him so they could white-wash the fence. Clemens concludes the scene saying that Tom “had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”[12]

Clemens indirectly supports his statement as he explores Tom’s dreams and ambitions. Tom feels restricted in his small Missouri town. He wanted to explore. But he could not, which made adventures more appealing. He runs away to play pirates with his friends. He spends hours with his friends digging for “gold” to no success. His imagination fills the hole of adventure in his small town. Becoming a pirate or king are unrealistic things. They are things that are rarely experienced in real life. So naturally, they coveted them. Likewise, for a few years, Clemens mined for gold, hoping to find some wealth. Mining can seem to hold promise and hope for the future. Clemens learned the hard way. He depended on luck to earn money to live. He only fell into debt. Becoming wealthy through mining rarely happens, and Clemens coveted money. In a similar way, Tom coveted to explore the world and live as a pirate – which was merely a child fantasy, never to happen. When Tom refused to let his friends help him white-wash the fence, their desire to try suddenly increased. Clemens created Tom from lessons he had learned from his own ambitions.

Clemens discusses about freedom from society’s rules through Tom’s friend Huck, who is modeled from Clemens’ childhood friend. Huck does not have a good reputation. After all, he is a son of the town drunkard. All the mothers in the town “dreaded him because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad”.[13] However, in the children’s perspective, Huck is their model of freedom. All the boys in the town envy him. Especially Tom. He lists all the independent things Huck could do. “[Huck] came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose... he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious that boy had.”[14] Tom felt restricted by small town life in Missouri. He saw Huck as a person free from any social rules.

Huck represents a person free from the rules and the standards of American society. Huck can join many of Tom’s adventures because he is free to do anything he wishes as he has no one that guards him. Clemens does not oppose Huck’s position in society either. As the novel progresses, we learn more of his character. After overhearing a plot against Widow Douglas, he displays bravery by immediately warning those who do not normally associate him because of his social status. In the end of the book, Huckleberry is given an opportunity to civilize himself by living with Widow Douglas. Yet, he becomes tired of it, and leaves. His character has not changed, and his final development is saved for the sequel.

Clemens uses his child characters to convey his theme or moral messages. Children look at the world through different lenses than an adult, which makes any lesson Clemens desires to teach more unique. He targets the church traditions. He pokes fun at the sermons, the way preachers speak, the way the congregation sleeps, and the methods the church uses in Sunday school to gain a Bible. Clemens mocks the sermon about hell which “thinned the predestined elect down to a company so small as to be hardly worth the saving.”[15] He reveals the church’s faults as badly as he explores Tom’s rebellious character. All who read Tom Sawyer see how rambunctious Tom is, and Clemens portrays the church as negatively as readers view Tom.

Through Tom, Clemens discusses the tendency for society to stereotype outsiders. Tom imitates his authorities as he casts different people into restricted boxes. He says, “Robbers don’t do it that way. They always hide it and leave it there.”[16]Later he says, “Kings don’t have any but a given name.”[17] In addition, “Well, what of it? They’ll all lie. Leastways all but the nigger. But I never see a nigger that WOULDN’T lie.” He also views people of different race differently. He gives a dog a more respectful name than a slave. The way he says it shows how people of his time treated slaves like animals. “If Mr. Harbison had owned a slave named Bull, Tom would have spoken of him as “Harbison’s Bull”, but a son or a dog of that name was “Bull Harbison”.[18] Also, Huck relates a conversation that he overheard. The white man responds by saying, “When you talked about [the criminal talking about] notching ears and slitting noses, I judged that was your own embellishment, because white men don’t do that sort of revenge. But an injun! That’s a different matter altogether.”[19] The characters in the story prejudice Indians, viewing themselves more highly.

Another important theme in the novel is maturity. In the end, Tom grows up and shows better character. In the past, he would skip school to swim, outwit his Sunday school class to achieve the reward of a Bible, and stay in a graveyard till midnight to cure a cat from warts. But eventually, events teach him valuable lessons about caring for others. However, it takes a murder, starvation, and desperation in a cave for him to learn. After witnessing a murder, fear and guilt overwhelms him. He knows who is innocent and who is guilty, and suffers much guilt as the trial takes place. His conscience tells him to testify as a witness, but Tom believes that if he does, the murderer will kill him. In the end, he decides to defend the accused. That is his first step to becoming responsible.

The last steps of maturing changes Tom’s relationship to Huck. Tom becomes lost in the cave with a girl. She grows weak, and he searches alone for the way out. It is the first time that he does something honorable for another. They are rescued. In the end of the novel, Tom proves that he has grown wiser. All along he had envied and viewed Huck as the model of freedom. He had also frequently defied authority. But when Widow Douglas offers to take Huck as her son, and Huck desires to run away, Tom discourages him. Tom no longer looks up to Huck as an example, but he is teaching him to do the right thing. Their characters have switched – now Huck has a few lessons to learn, while Tom has developed.

Sadly, the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was not one an author would “dream of”. In a letter in 1876, Clemens spoke of his high expectations: “I am determined that Tom shall outsell any previous book of mine, and I mean he shall have every possible advantage.”[20] However, American Publishing Company delayed the release till 1886 and even worse; a Canadian pirated version sold the books for an extremely inexpensive price.

Though the novel has received great criticism for its violence and its similarity to other boy adventure novels of his time, it has become one of Clemens’ most famous and acclaimed works. It implies that society, the church, and racial prejudice acted as badly as a mischievous boy. Clemens’ story of Tom growing up and his unique perspective on society, Sunday school, adventure, and life has preserved itself as timeless classic.

[10] Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, a Division of Random House, 1991) p. 11

[11] Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn p. 44-45

[12] Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, p. 16

[13] Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, p. 44

[14] Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, p. 45

[15] Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, p. 36

[16] Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, p. 159

[17] Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, p. 161

[18] Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, p. 76

[19] Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, p. 193

[20] Everett Emerson, Mark Twain: a literary life (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000) p. 95

Author's age when written

Thoughts? What stuck out to you when you read this book? Did you like the story? Why or why not?


I love your analysis here! I read this book years ago - my Dad read it every night to my brother and I. It was great fun. The most vivid scenes I remember include Tom selling off his work painting the fence and when Huck instructed Tom how to get rid of the warts: go to a stump in the middle of the woods at midnight and say, "Barley-corn, barley-corn, Injun-meal shorts,/ stump-water, stump-water, swallow these warts." I did like the story very much, it engulfed you in that time period and either frustrated you or made you laugh at the antics of the most inane superstitions and antics of Tom Sawyer - and his acquaintances. I never got around to reading Huckleberry Finn, but I've heard it was quite the shocker at its publishing. One thing: your second paragraph states that Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer in 1756. Considering that Thomas Jefferson had not yet penned the Declaration of Independence, I'm almost positive that that date's not correct. : P

Great essay! You brought up some good points to ponder.