Mark Twain’s life is important to his writing, for his major works rely upon materials from his Hannibal, Missouri, boyhood and his careers as a Mississippi River pilot, a western miner, and a journalist.
Tom Sawyer introduces several significant figures in American mythology, including the hero of Huckleberry Finn, one of the central works of American literature. Nonetheless, Tom Sawyer is not just a dress rehearsal for its more powerful sequel. Allowing for 19th-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 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 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.
The intent of the novel, Twain states, is to entertain “boys and girls” and to “pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves.” In order to appeal to such a wide audience, Twain chooses a Setting that permits both adventure and nostalgia. The story takes place in “the poor little shabby village of St. Petersburg,” the fictional equivalent of Hannibal, the Mississippi River town where Twain spent his early years. In his preface the author dates the action at “thirty or forty years ago,” between 1836 and 1846, the era of his own boyhood. Twain also notes that Huck Finn is “drawn from life,” and Tom Sawyer is a lifelike, though composite, character based on a number of boys.
Tom Sawyer is a trickster figure who challenges the rules of conventional society. He and his younger half-brother Sid are wards of their highly conventional Aunt Polly, and Tom engages in a variety of ruses to escape from the impositions of adult society, particularly work and school. Although Sid cleverly sees through Tom’s antics, his aunt is more easily fooled. Secretly indulgent of Tom’s faults, she nonetheless punishes him dutifully when she discovers his deceptions.
The mid-19th century produced a number of books dealing with boys rebelling against conventional society, such as Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s Story of a Bad Boy (1869). While Twain’s book is a powerful and original addition to literature about young people, it retains some of the “literary” language of 19th-century fiction. Twain abandons these conventions in Huckleberry Finn, in which he permits the title character to tell the story.
As in Huckleberry Finn, the Characters in Tom Sawyer exhibit attitudes typical of the mid-19th century, referring to black Characters as “niggers,” though not as frequently. The stereotypical villain, Injun Joe, derives from the frontier figure of the violent and vengeful Native American. These elements should be recognized both for their negative connotations and their historical significance. Twain’s realistic representation of his Characters’ attitudes should not be mistaken for his own attitude. The controversy surrounding Huckleberry Finn has produced substantial evidence of Twain’s integrity; he intended much of what he wrote to reveal the inconsistencies in his Characters’ beliefs.
1. Twain prefaces the novel by stating that it is intended to “pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves,” but much of the book deals with unpleasantness. Discuss the darker side of the book. How does Twain remind his readers of some of the fears and insecurities of growing up?
1. Tom Sawyer also appears in Huckleberry Finn. How does his character differ in the two books?
2. Twain claims that his portrait of Huckleberry Finn in this book is drawn from life. Investigate Twain’s early life to see how he derived Huck and other elements of the story.