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“Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engages in.” This excerpt from the Preface of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer shows that the goal of Mark Twain was to entertain children and adults alike.
This ambition was certainly achieved. Thanks to Twain’s personal experiences tying into the plot, character development, and plain themes, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has entrenched itself as a timeless American classic that “people of all ages read and enjoy.” (Rasmussen 2017)
Perhaps what allowed Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain’s book about boyhood, to “More or less [corner] one segment of the American Dream.” (Wolffy 2017) is the fact that Mark Twain hid very little between the lines of the text.
There were a few underlying points and subliminal themes that the reader could find throughout the book, but for the most part, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were simply that: adventures of a young boy.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his nom de plume, Mark Twain, grew up in a small town called Hannibal in the state of Missouri during the late 1830’s and early 40’s. His formal schooling was very limited. However, on top of his finite educational background, he learned many things from his various occupations.
Printer’s apprentice, journalist, editor-at-large, silver prospector, world traveler, and many other experiences allowed his intellect to be challenged as much as, perhaps more than, what more formal schooling could have provided him.
Twain’s literary style was largely influenced by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, an American Humorist, and Joel Chandler Harris, an American journalist. According to Masterplots, Fourth Edition, though Twain’s influencers contributed to his writing style, he also “Depart[ed] from the conventions of nineteenth century literary gentility… by the adroit use of exaggeration, stalwart irreverence, deadpan seriousness, droll cynicism, and pungent commentary on the human situation.” (Masterplots 2010)
Twain also had a lifelong fascination with boyhood, which led to his writing of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Some of the book’s plot and setting can be tied loosely to his own childhood. As he acknowledged in the Preface, “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest of those boys were schoolmates of mine.” (Twain 6)
The main character, Tom Sawyer, was drawn from Mark Twain’s life growing up. As he states in the preface, Tom was “Drawn from life” and “A combination of three boys whom I knew.” (Twain 6) Tom does not have any physical characteristics of him described at all in the book. Mark Twain does not give the reader anything about his height or hair color. Tom’s age was also not penned in anywhere in the book. It seems that such attributes of Tom were left to the imagination of the reader.
What was apparent throughout the book, though, was the cunning that Tom possessed. Benjamin David Batzer says, “I often wish that, as a child, I could have been as cunning as [Tom Sawyer].” (Batzer 2015) From getting his neighborhood friends to not only whitewashing the fence that he was charged with whitewashing, but getting them to pay him to do so, to discovering twelve thousand dollars in gold coins in a chest hidden by one of the most dangerous men in town, you can see the superior intellect of Tom Sawyer shine through.
Though Tom was remarkably witty, as most boys do, he allowed his attraction to girls get the best of him sometimes. For instance, in the earlier chapters of the book, in order to sit next to the new, pretty girl in class, he admits that the reason for his tardiness to class was that he associated with Huckleberry Finn on the way to school. This cost him a whipping by the schoolmaster, but for Tom, it was worth it to tell the girl, Becky Thatcher, that he loved her and ask to her to meet him at lunch.
Tom was also reckless. Many of his escapades led to imminent danger for him and his companions. When he and Huckleberry Finn sneak out one night, they witness a murder and run away to save themselves from becoming murder victims themselves. Another adventure of Tom and Huck’s leads them into close quarters with the murderer once again, and again, they barely escape unscathed.
For all of Tom’s faults, it can be observed throughout the book that he developed and matured into a young man as the book progressed. He went from childish games and pranks such as the whitewashing, to taking the blame for Becky Thatcher tearing a page in the book of his schoolmaster, to risking his own life to incriminate Injun Joe as the murderer.
Huckleberry Finn was also quite the character himself. He, liked Tom, was based on Mark Twain’s own childhood experiences. Huck was looked down upon by the adults in the community for him being a poor influence on their children, and due to his father being the town drunk. He never went to formal schooling and did not attend church. He also had no chores with which to busy himself. Instead, he spent his days fishing and smoking. This garnered the envy of all of the respectable boys in town. They admired Huck being able to do whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it. What most boys in the novel did not know about Huck, though, was his poor home life. The only living relative he had was his father, Pap, who spent most of his days away from Huck. Whenever he was around Huck, though, Huck was beaten badly.
Like Tom, Huckleberry Finn grew in his maturation throughout the entirety of the story. At the beginning of the story, he is an outcast, and conducts himself as such. He lives for pleasure, and he does not worry himself with much other than that. However, as the story goes on, he begins to grow into more than simply the “Son of the town drunk.” Rather, he develops a close friendship with Tom, which he values dearly. He also ends up risking his life to save the Widow Douglas, who ends up taking him in and adopting him.
Although The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was written as, for the most part, a story about childhood and nothing but that, the reader can find a couple recurring themes throughout the book.
The one obvious theme that is present in Tom Sawyer, and is the one that is most crucial to the story is the theme of social maturation. Mark Twain’s point in writing the book was to show the maturation of a boy. Once Tom had gone from a playful, young prankster into a thoughtful, mature young man, Twain had to end the story. As the conclusion of the book states, “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.” (Twain 222)
Another theme that is present in the story is that of friendship. Initially, Tom associates himself with Huckleberry Finn mainly so he can be seen among the other schoolchildren as a rebel. However, as the story goes along and their mere acquaintanceship grows into a friendship, Tom cares for Huck and Huck cares for Tom. As stated in Novels for Students: Vol. 6, “When the boys return from their pirating adventure to attend their own funerals, Tom and Joe are smothered with affection by their families while Huck stands awkwardly alone, with no one to welcome him home. Tom points out to Aunt Polly that ‘it ain’t fair. Somebody’s got to be glad to see Huck.’” (Napierkowski and Stantley 1999) The bond between the two grew stronger and stronger as the story went on, and as the story ends, Tom tells Huck that he intends to “kill anybody and all his family that hurts one of the gang.” (Twain 220)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is, put simply, a masterpiece. Mark Twain’s personal connection with the story, his exceptional character development, and simple themes that any reader can appreciate and connect with are why The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has been and will for some time, be a staple in American literature that is a must-read for anyone between the ages of ten and ten thousand.
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