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What is the Adventures of Tom Sawyer?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) novel, first published in 1876. It introduces the reader to not only the character of Tom, but also to Huckleberry Finn, a significant character in literary history and in the literary canon. Unlike Twain’s 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is considered by many to be one of the most important works in American literature, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is often classed as a children’s tale, and not containing the same literary merit of Huckleberry Finn.

The story contained in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer certainly makes for a much “lighter” book with less mature themes and more escapist tendencies. This doesn’t necessarily mean it should be excluded from the category of “literature.” As writers of children’s books like J.K. Rowling have proven, sometimes “lighter matters for children” are as well written as deeper subjects. It is true that the novel didn’t at first inspire overwhelming love and affection by readers. Yet Tom Sawyer and his friends did grow on readers after a while, and the book was intensely popular by the early 20th century.

Readers of all types may find much that is true in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom is a likable lad, much more inclined toward play than work or school, who is being raised by his Aunt Polly in the pre-Civil War South. Although the beginning of the novel is a series of vignettes, the most famous of which is Tom’s ability to trick several other children into whitewashing a fence for him by making it seem like the most desirable task in the world, the novel soon sets out on its main focus: Tom’s desire to uncover the evil tasks of Injun Joe and to uncover a significant buried treasure.

There are several worthy scenes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that bear mention. Despite eschewing work, Tom operates under a fine moral code. When called to testify at Muff Potter’s trial, he risks his own life by relating that it was truly Injun Joe who killed Dr. Robinson. Later in the book, he lets the town authorities know that Injun Joe is secreted in the caves he discovered with his love Becky Thatcher at her birthday party. Another quite wonderful scene is Tom and Huck’s determination to attend their own funeral, after they’ve run away to play pirates for a few days.

Tom Sawyer ends on an innocent and unambiguous note, and Tom has undergone few changes as a character. Injun Joe is discovered dead, and Tom and Huck find a huge buried treasure that makes them both rich. The character remains similar through several sequels, looking at the world as play and holding a Peter Pan view of not wishing to grow up. The same cannot be said of Huck, who undergoes significant change in Huckleberry Finn and to a degree resents Tom’s boyish exuberance in his short appearance in the book. Their relationship is restored with the lighter-hearted sequels Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, both of which are first person narrations by Huck.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By chrisinbama — On Nov 13, 2010

@carrotisland: What would be considered “falling action” would be when Huck gets help from the Welshman and drives Injun Joe away before he can harm the Widow Douglas, when Judge Thatcher seals off the cave leading to Injun Joe starving to death, when Huck and Tom find the treasure, and when Huckleberry Finn is adopted and civilized by the Widow Douglas.

Everyone, at some point, should read about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It is such an exciting story.

By WaterHopper — On Nov 13, 2010

@carrotisland: What could be considered rising action is when Tom and Huck witness the murder of Dr. Robinson. Also, when the town was searching for the boys’ bodies when they escaped to Jackson’s Island would be considered rising action.

A couple more things are considered rising action in this story; When Tom testified at Muff Potter’s trial, Huck and Tom’s sighting of Injun Joe at the haunted house, and Becky and Tom being trapped in the cave.

A climax would be when Huck overhears Injun Joe’s plan to murder the Widow Douglas. Tom encounters Injun Joe when he and Becky are trapped in the cave.

By googie98 — On Nov 13, 2010

@carrotisland: I can remember being young and reading about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It was like I was on the adventure with them!

A major conflict in the story would be how Tom and Huck see their biggest struggle to be between Injun Joe and themselves. They want Injun Joe’s gold and they believe Injun Joe is trying to kill them. There is also conflict between Tom and his imaginative world and the rules and expectations of society.

By CarrotIsland — On Nov 13, 2010

I have to do a book report on "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and I am having a little trouble coming up with the major conflict, rising action, and climax. Can anyone help me out?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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