The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, first published in 1876, is a child's adventure story; it is also, however, the story of a young boy's transition into a young man. In some ways, it is a bildungsroman, a novel whose principle subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a youthful main character. It is not a true bildungsroman, however, because Twain did not take Tom into full manhood.
One of America's best-loved tales, Tom Sawyer has a double appeal. First, it appeals to the young adolescent as the exciting adventures of a typical boy during the mid-nineteenth century, adventures that are still intriguing and delightful because they appeal to the basic instincts of nearly all young people, regardless of time or culture. Second, the novel appeals to the adult reader who looks back on his or her own childhood with fond reminiscences. In fact, in his preface to the first edition, Twain wrote, "Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls el part of my plan has been to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and what they felt and thought." Thus, the novel is a combination of the past and the present, of the well-remembered events from childhood told in such a way as to evoke remembrances in the adult mind.
Whether or not one has read the novel, many of the scenes are familiar and have become a part of our cultural heritage: Consider for example, the scene in which Tom manipulates others to paint a fence he himself was to have painted, the scene with Tom and Becky lost in the cave, and the scene of the boys in the graveyard. Twain captures the essence of childhood, with all its excitement, fear, and mischievousness. Likewise, the characters--Tom himself, Becky Thatcher, Huck Finn, Injun Joe, and Aunt Polly--have become part of our American heritage.
Although Tom Sawyer is set in a small town along the western frontier on the banks of the legendary Mississippi River sometime during the 1840s, readers from all parts of the world respond to the various adventures experienced by Tom and his band of friends. The appeal of the novel lies mostly in Twain's ability to capture--or re-capture--universal experiences and dreams and fears of childhood.
Structure and Setting of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
In terms of the novel's structure, some critics have dismissed it as being simply a series of episodes. And it is true that there are many seemingly extraneous scenes; nevertheless, each scene contributes to building a broad picture of the lives of these youths. In the broadest sense, the novel concentrates basically on Tom's--and to a lesser degree, Huck's--development from carefree childish behavior to one that is filled with mature responsibility. Furthermore, the primary adventure--which features the murder the boys witness and its aftermath--provides a single event that begins in the graveyard and runs throughout the plot of lesser adventures. The lesser adventures are more episodic, which is typically Twain. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, is a series of episodes connected by the adventure to free the slave Jim.
Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a dusty, quiet town built on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River about eighty miles north of St. Louis. This is the town--renamed St. Petersburg in the novel--that Tom and Huck and the other characters inhabit. The Jackson's Island of Tom Sawyer (which also appears in Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) is an actual island located just south of the town, close to the Illinois side of the river. The cave that Injun Joe inhabited still exists, as do the houses that the Widow Douglas and Aunt Polly supposedly inhabited. Twain's Hannibal was surrounded by large forests which Twain himself knew as a child and in which his characters Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper often play "Indians and Chiefs." The steamboats that passed daily were the fascination of the town, and Tom and Huck would watch their comings and goings from the bluff overlooking the Mississippi.
The Satire of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Twain does not confine himself to telling a simple children's story. He is, as always, the satirist and commentator on the foibles of human nature. As the authorial commentator, Twain often steps in and comments on the absurdity of human nature. In Tom Sawyer, he is content with mild admonitions about the human race. For example, after Tom has tricked the other boys into painting the fence for him, the voice of Twain, the author, points out the gullibility of man: ". . . that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain."
There are stronger satires. Twain is constantly satirizing the hypocrisy found in many religious observances. For example, in the Sunday school episode, there are aspects of religion satirized, as Twain points out that one boy had memorized so many verses of the Bible so as to win prizes--more Bibles elegantly illustrated--that "the strain upon his mental faculties was too great, and he was little better than an idiot from that day forward."
The adults' reaction to Injun Joe and his malevolence is a typical Twain commentary on society. The adults create petitions to free Joe who has already killed, so it was believed, five "citizens of the village, but what of that? If he had been Satan himself there would have been plenty of weaklings ready to scribble their names to a pardon petition, and drip a tear on it from their permanently impaired and leaky waterworks."
Twain criticizes the adult attitudes and behaviors throughout the novel. That is part of the conflict: the maturation of a youth (Tom) into adulthood conflicting with the disapproval of the adult behaviors that exist. It is this double vision that raises the novel above the level of a boy's adventure story.