The novel is set in a small Missouri town on the banks of the Mississippi River in the mid-1800s. Tom is a lively and daring boy who lives with his Aunt Polly in the calm vicinity of St Petersburg, Missouri. Tom Sawyer is the chief character of the novel and is an average boy who is fed up with his cultured life and breaks away from these limitations by playing pranks. Tom is presented as a practical and influential boy and is gentle and affectionate, but can also be mean, dull, and deceitful at the same time.
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The novel is about a child maturing from a whimsical menace to a compassionate young man. With Huck Finn, Tom discovers himself a part in many adventures concerning a murder, the framing of a man called Muff Potter, the wicked Injun Joe, and an accidental three-day stopover in a cavern with his beloved Becky Thatcher. With the development of the story, Tom demonstrates signs of maturity.
The author employs a variety of ways in which he characterizes Tom and brings him to maturity. At the beginning of the novel, Tom is a naughty boy, constantly getting into danger and running away from it, an instance when Tom flees the penalty of stealing jam. Later, Tom exhibits development by maneuvering Ben Rodgers into whitewashing his fence by giving him the impression that it isn’t working but a work of fine art. This move of Tom’s is a smart one as he finds out that he can get people to do his work and at the same time even get paid for it.
Tom is extremely adventurous and never misses a chance to play pirates, robbers, or soldiers. Tom meets Huckleberry Fin and the two become good friends. One night the two boys go to the cemetery and witness the murder of the town doctor, Mr. Robinson.
The two observe a tussle that erupts between three men following which Robinson is murdered by Injun Joe while potter is unconscious. Afraid out of their wits, they vow never to speak of the murder again as they fear that if Injun Joe were to ever find out about their presence at the crime scene, their lives would be in grave danger. But when Tom hears that Injun Joe had very cunningly put the entire blame of the murder on Muff Potter, who Tom knew was innocent, Tom’s guilt and sense of responsibility instigate him to testify against Injun Joe in order to save the innocent Potter.
This incident aids Tom in stepping forward towards being a truthful and responsible adult of society and marks the onset of adulthood and maturity. The murder of Doc Robinson also helps make Tom bolder and take his first steps towards his conscientiousness towards society symbolized by Muff Potter.
Subsequently, Tom falls in love with Becky Thatcher, his new neighbor. At first, Tom’s acts in love are childlike and immature. Tom is bowled over at the first sight of Becky Thatcher, “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” (24). Tom’s fascination for Becky tempts him to try to win her. Tom’s showing off is generally aimed at Becky Thatcher. When he shows off in the beginning, we estimate that he actually swaggers about and does aerobics. Tom manages to woo Becky and they mutually decide to get engaged.
However, this arrangement is short-lived and falls through when Tom unintentionally reveals his earlier love, Amanda to Becky. The two quarrels and are separated for some time. Becky is grief-stricken with this knowledge and breaks off all her ties with Tom. Tom tries to convince her to get back together but is too proud to apologize. Tom once again tries to impress Becky albeit in a more restrained manner. Amy and Alfred are also manipulated by the two in an effort to make each other jealous.
However, they do get back together when one day an incident occurs in class, in which Becky has ripped a page from the schoolmaster’s book before class. Tom has witnessed this scene and in order to save Becky “A thought shot like lightning through Tom’s brain. He sprang to his feet and shouted, ‘I done it!’” (127). Tom takes her blame on him and shields her, consequently ending their feud. This incident marks the transition of the infatuation of a childish Tom into the deep love of a responsible and deeply caring mature youth.
The development of Tom’s rational maturity also develops his worry for others, which ranks above the concern for him, when he takes Becky’s penalty and saves her from getting punished. This self-sacrifice can only stem from the love of an adult and not the infatuation of a teenager. This episode symbolizes the transition from childhood to adulthood. The fondness of Becky Thatcher helps Tom gain maturity.
Tom repeatedly mentions his awe for the circus life and the yearning to be a jester when mature. These indications highlight the virtuousness with which he approaches the world. With the progress of the novel, these initially inconsequential babyish games begin to get more serious in temperament, as a result of which, Tom and his friends- Joe Harper, Huck, Becky Thatcher land themselves into increasingly unsafe situations.
In a number of the games which the boys show an inclination to, focus on crime. This experimentation gives them an opportunity to explore the audacity and bravery involved in violating the communal order marking the onset of adult years. Pirates, robbers, and killers are some of the roles the boys take fancy to and yet they feel terribly guilty when in fact committing even a crime as inconsequential as stealing bacon.
There are a couple of scenes in which Tom plays Robin Hood, who is both a criminal and a hero, who steals from the wealthy and gives to the deprived, which symbolizes how Tom associates crime with protecting ideals. The adventures of Tom to ‘Jackson’s Island’ and ‘McDougal’s Cave’ play a vital role in his development.
One day Tom runs away from Aunt Polly and Becky to play a pirate. Tom and his friends go camping out for many days. They nourish, entertain and even shelter themselves when a dreadful rainstorm strikes. Tom shows concern for his aunt’s feelings by sneaking off the island but at the same time letting her know that he is safe, proving to some extent the growth of his maturity.
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The cave is a symbol of a test that Tom has to pass prior to his graduation to maturity. In McDougal’s cave, Tom accomplishes the full flourish of ripeness. Tom sets out for a picnic hosted by Becky and they decide to explore McDougal’s cave. Disaster strikes when realization dawns on them that they are lost. In frenzy, Becky loses her self-control and begins to howl frantically. Tom exhibits great wisdom and dependability and with the help of these attributes, they manage to find their way back.
The fortune at the end of the novel is a figurative conclusion that symbols the finish of Tom’s journey. It turns out to be a signal of Tom’s evolution into adulthood. It also signifies Tom’s bravery, marking him as extraordinary in a world where conventionality is the law.
The narrative illustrates the youthful adventures of the young hero, Tom. The sense of purity of the formative years encompasses the novel. Tom is a representation of the evolution connecting the world of adults and children, the civilization where honesty is upheld in contrast to a societal structure devoid of all principles.
While studying the novel, we realize that Twain never indicates Tom’s age. Sometimes when Polly catches him with jam on his face-he appears no more than eight. At other times, when he curses his terrible fate and struggles with the overdressed boy, he appears significantly grown-up, maybe twelve or thirteen.
Later on, he looks as if he is even older. The main theme of the story is about growing up and the hardships that young people face in a society where children should be seen and not heard. It shows how a young, immature boy grows up and the challenges he faces. The character of Tom continues to learn and mature throughout the story and ultimately develops into a more mature boy, ready for adulthood.