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.
Tom lives in a world defined by the customs and values of boys. He defends his territory, testing newcomers in fights, and participates in ritual exchanges of valueless, even repugnant, goods such as the dead cat he acquires from Huck. Bored by the solemnity of church, he disrupts the service with a pinchbug and trades to get tickets meant to be earned by memorizing Scripture. Subject to childhood romance, he falls in love with Becky Thatcher, a judge’s daughter. His attempts to gain her approval, along with his general desire to be the center of attention, inspire him to show off unabashedly. Ultimately, however, he assumes a hero’s role, first taking the blame when Becky accidentally damages the schoolmaster’s anatomy book, then rescuing her from the cave.
Huckleberry Finn appears in this book as a secondary character. Like Tom, Huck has lost a parent; unlike Tom, he lives a homeless life, sleeping at an old slaughterhouse. Further removed from social convention, Huck shares Tom’s enjoyment of pranks and sharp dealing while lacking Tom’s regard for respectability. At the end of the novel Tom demands that Huck accept “civilization” in order to remain a member of his gang, which he governs according to rules he interprets from adventure books.
The boys’ world is haunted by superstition and governed by biblical injunctions. When they visit the graveyard they fear ghosts and devils, but they encounter Injun Joe, Muff Potter, and Dr. Robinson robbing a grave. Joe plays the role of a melodramatic villain, killing the doctor and blaming the murder on the alcoholic Muff. Although ignorant enough of conventional Christian history to identify the first disciples as “David and Goliath,” Tom and Huck are so conditioned by conventional morality that they expect Joe to be struck down by lightning for his lie. When he is not, the boys assume he has sold himself to the devil. Indeed, he is a demonic character seeking revenge against ordered society.
Tom and Huck run away with another boy, Joe Harper, to escape from the murder they have witnessed. They live in freedom on Jackson’s Island, enjoying boyish adventures until conscience intrudes. Their imaginations governed both by books and standard morality, they want to be pirates without violating the biblical injunction against theft, and Tom feels guilty about the innocent Muff Potter’s arrest. Presumed dead, the boys enjoy the center of the town’s attention when they return for their own funeral. This return suggests a pattern of death and resurrection, retreat from society and reunion. Tom’s return marks a greater sense of responsibility when, racked by conscience, he reveals what he knows of the murder.
Adventure now becomes a reality for the boys as they discover that Joe has hidden a fortune and is plotting revenge against the Widow Douglas. The treasure hunt and Tom’s romance with Becky merge in a maze-like cave where Tom and Becky get lost and find Injun Joe hiding out with his stolen money. While Joe dies in the cave, sealed in by unwitting townspeople, Tom and Becky emerge to community recognition, and Tom and Huck share in the treasure retrieved from the cave.
The book ends happily with a unified society freed of a menace. Huck finds a guardian in the Widow Douglas, whom he has saved from Joe, and Tom gains recognition for genuine heroism.