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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS

Many readers have trouble spotting a central idea or important themes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You may agree, noting that, as Twain stated in his preface, one of his main goals was to generate nostalgia-playing off adults' longing for the simpler world of childhood.

On the other hand, a close reading of the novel may suggest several themes to you. Here are some of those themes and evidence to support them.

1. A CHILD'S WORLD IS A DANGEROUS PLACE

Violence is a fact of life in St. Petersburg. Drownings, murders, and other threats to life are commonplace. Tom is haunted by his fear of Injun Joe, whose reputation for violence is such that no villager dares charge him with grave robbery. Tom and Becky narrowly escape starving to death in McDougal's cave. All four plot strands concern death or near death-Dr. Robinson's; the runaway boys'; Becky's and Tom's; and Injun Joe's.

2. A CHILD'S WORLD IS PLAGUED WITH MORAL UNCERTAINTY

Questions of right and wrong are woven through the text. Is Tom right to steal a doughnut when his aunt isn't looking? Should the boys have stolen provisions for their trip to Jackson's Island? What is the right thing for Tom and Huck to do about the murder they witnessed? Is it right for Tom to con his friends out of their prized possessions, and then trade them for a Bible he does not deserve?


The characters don't resolve all these (and other) questions, leading one reader to complain of Twain's "moral evasiveness." Yet the characters-especially Tom-are painfully aware of them, as their troubled consciences testify.

3. VANITY AND REVENGE MOTIVATE A GOOD DEAL OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR

The novel is full of showoffs-from Aunt Polly, who is mildly vain, to Tom, who strives to be the center of attention. In between these extremes are characters like the fashionable Sunday school superintendent, whose boot toes are bent "like sleigh-runners," and the bewigged schoolmaster, Mr. Dobbins.

As for revenge, this motive stands behind Injun Joe's murder of Dr. Robinson and his attempt to disfigure Mrs. Douglas' face. Revenge motivates Becky's desire to see Tom punished for something he didn't do, and it prompts Tom to hurl clods of dirt at his half-brother, Sid.

4. MATERIAL SUCCESS IS THE KEY TO ADMISSION TO RESPECTABLE ADULT SOCIETY

Tom buys temporary success in Sunday school, wins a Bible, and gets to stand near the great Judge Thatcher. After finding the treasure, he and Huck-an outcast for most of the novel- become celebrities and full-fledged members of St. Petersburg society. Some readers even believe that Tom becomes that society's apologist (a person who speaks or writes in defense of a cause).

5. CHILDREN AND ADULTS ARE NATURALLY AT ODDS

Tension between adults and children is a recurrent theme that runs through the novel from its first sentences to its last. Adults aim to "civilize" children-something that children, being free spirits, often find intolerable and rebel against. Tom and the adults in his world are in a constant state of war-one in which he tends to win most of the battles. Viewed from an adult perspective, Tom and especially Huck are outlaws for refusing to accept the code of civilized behavior. In their fantasies-as Robin Hood, pirates, and robbers-and in the wilderness of Jackson's Island, they flourish and are happiest.

In the end, however, Tom seems to join the enemy. He takes it upon himself to civilize Huck, the last holdout against the bondage of those values-cleanliness, regularity, scholarship, religious devotion-that society deems desirable.

6. SOCIETY ENCOURAGES AND EVEN REWARDS INSINCERITY

Twain exposes insincerity many times in the novel. At the boys' funeral, the minister, with the complicity of the congregation, turns the boys' faults into praiseworthy deeds. On "Examination Night," young ladies demonstrate that they have learned how to tack sermons of "glaring insincerity" onto their compositions.

7. "BAD BOYS" CAN TRIUMPH

Tom is the type of person that many children's books used to warn children not to be. Twain turns the message of those books on its head here, creating a hero, rather than a villain, who lies, steals, cheats, and disobeys his elders, yet still ends up healthy, wealthy, and wise.

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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
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