The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Since I had read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) before reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), I first met Tom Sawyer in that novel. It wasn’t a welcome meeting. Towards the end of the story, Tom played a game that almost cost Jim, the runaway slave, his life. Tom considered it great fun, but Huckleberry Finn recognized it as a childish prank with dangerous risks. He had matured earlier than Sawyer, who seemed trapped in what we call arrested development. When I read that passage, I decided that I didn’t like Tom Sawyer. This was no accident. It was clear that Mark Twain had sacrificed the reader’s goodwill towards Tom to develop his anti-slavery theme. But when I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I expected to find a more likable character. 

I did not!

Though in Tom Sawyer, Twain wanted us to like Tom, I found him an unsympathetic character. He’s manipulative, selfish, lazy, and demanding. In the first chapter, when Tom meets a new boy in town, he decided the best response was to fight the boy to establish his dominance over him. In the next chapter, to avoid doing his chore—whitewashing a fence—he conned his friends into doing it for him. In a later chapter, he snatched a hat off a kid’s head and threw it to the roof of the schoolhouse. This scene felt all too familiar to me. When I was a boy, I often had my hat snatched off my head by taller boys, who then played a game of tossing it to each other to keep it out of my reach. Fun game for them!

Twain wanted these episodes to amuse the reader. He is, after all, one of America’s greatest humorists, if not the greatest. I found some passages amusing, but any humor I found in these pages was soon ruined by Tom doing something that reminded me that he was worse than a spoiled brat. He’s something worst than a mischievous child. Earlier I called him an unsympathetic character. Throughout the book, he demonstrates that he feels little sympathy for others. So why would I sympathize with him? Rather than rooting for Tom, I found myself craving to see him face the consequences of his behavior.  There was punishment to be found on these pages, but they were mild, and they taught him no lessons. 

In his preface, Twain tells us that we all have known boys like Tom Sawyer. He’s right; we do. In my life, I called them bullies. They were not people to be praised but people to be loathed and feared. The novel is realistic because, from my observation, bullies rarely suffer consequences for their misdeeds. Their actions are often dismissed with the simple statement, “boys will be boys.” Tom Sawyer is the quintessential boy who will be a boy. I could forgive his character flaws and misdeeds if, at the end of the novel, I felt he had learned lessons, but his character arc is flat. He is at the end of Tom Sawyer as he was at its beginning. 

As he was passing by the house where Jeff Thatcher lived, he saw a new girl in the garden—a lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two long tails, white summer frock, and embroidered pantalettes. The fresh-crowned hero fell without firing a shot. A certain Amy Lawrence vanished out of his heart and left not even a memory of herself behind. He had thought he loved her to distraction, he had regarded his passion as adoration; and behold it was only a poor little evanescent partiality. He had been months winning her; she had confessed hardly a week ago; he had been the happiest and the proudest boy in the world only seven short days, and here in one instant of time she had gone out of his heart like a casual stranger whose visit is done.

Structurally, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is less a novel and more a collection of anecdotes connected by character and a couple of thin plots. One subplot concerns Tom’s fear of Injun Joe, a murderous “half breed.” Joe appears multiple times during the story, but Tom never confronts him. He’s always hiding. I kept expecting a final confrontation between Tom and Joe—I believed it was foreshadowed—but Tom and Joe never faced each other. Tom was too good at hiding for that. 

The second plot thread was Tom’s interest in Becky Thatcher. Tom’s at an age when he’s noticing girls. Though he already has a girlfriend, when he sees Becky, he decides to court her. It’s a superficial attraction, which seems normal for his age. They had an on-again, off-again courtship for most of the novel. Based on misunderstandings, their arguments were both funny and realistic. Perhaps in Twain’s time, such scenes felt fresh and innovative, but we’ve seen the same type of misunderstandings played for laughs in romantic comedies and episodes of Friends. There was a tense sequence where Tom and Becky were lost in a cave. Give me more of this, I thought. It was my favorite part of the novel; it was the only time I felt Tom behaved admirably. 

In a short chapter that Twain entitled “Conclusion,” he wrote:

So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man. When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop—that is, with a marriage; but when he writes of juveniles, he must stop where he best can. 

Though Twain ended The Adventures of Tom Sawyer here, he would write about Tom in three more novels. I already mentioned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The other two novels, narrated by Huckleberry Finn, were Tom Sawyer, Abroad (1894), and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896). I’ve never read these works, nor do I plan to. According to Wikipedia, in Abroad, Tom, Huck, and Jim travel to Africa in a hot air balloon. As the name suggests, Tom investigates a murder in Detective. They might be fun novels, but my dislike of Tom makes me reluctant to spend any more time with him. 

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