Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer takes place in the "poor little shabby village of St. Petersburg," Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. West of the town lies Cardiff Hill, a "Delectable Land" of fantasy and dreams where Tom loves to play and where the widow Douglas lives, Downriver a few miles, near the Illinois bank, is Jackson's Island, an uninhabited place to which Huck, Tom, and Joe Harper escape for several days of freedom.
St. Petersburg is an idealized version of Hannibal, the Missouri river town where Twain lived as a youngster from 1839 to 1853. This prettified portrayal of the scene of his youth has led many readers to call the novel an idyll-a work that paints a scene of country life as one of tranquil happiness.
Yet St. Petersburg is not simply the heavenly place its name suggests. It is a frontier town, literally on the edge of civilization, where anything can happen. The outwardly placid setting is seeded with insincerity, violence, and downright evil.
St. Petersburg, like the Hannibal of Twain's youth, contains people of all types, from all classes. It has the lawyers and drunks, slaves and slave-owners, hypocrites and honest souls. If you appreciate these many distinctions-especially those of social class-you will have a more complete understanding of the novel.
In fact, some readers argue that the novel is one of the first attempts in American literature to portray the social life of a typical American community. Like a tour guide, Twain takes you on a visit to Sunday school, church, an inquest, a funeral, a school's closing exercises, a trial, a picnic, and a party. He also takes you behind the scenes, where you witness a murder, an attempted assault on a widow, a bar masquerading as a non- liquor serving "temperance tavern," as well as multiple hypocrisies. Largely set in motion by adults, most of these forces serve as obstacles to Tom. The novel is in one sense a chronicle of Tom's attempts to overcome them-to survive in spite of the setting's visible perils and those that lurk beneath its surface.
The book takes place simultaneously in a second setting-the world of childhood. This world of innocence and experimentation exists in no specific time frame and no specific physical setting.