The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Summary and Analysis
by Mark Twain
Chapter 1 Summary:
The novel opens with Aunt Polly searching for Tom Sawyer, the young protagonist of the novel who, along with his younger brother Sidney, was sent to live in St. Petersburg, Missouri, after his mother's death. After hearing no answer to her calls, Polly finds Tom eating out of the jam closet. Tom escapes Aunt Polly's beating by diverting her attention, leading Polly into a tirade against Tom's irreverent ways.
During dinner, Aunt Polly tries to trick Tom into admitting that he played hooky from school that day to go swimming. But Tom, aware of Aunt Polly's motives, has sewn his shirt collar back in place after his afternoon swim. Aunt Polly apologizes to Tom for her suspicions, until Sidney - notorious for being "the Model Boy of the village" - points out that Tom's shirt is sewn together with black thread instead of the white thread that Aunt Polly had used that morning. Before she can punish him, Tom darts out the door and runs away from the house.
On the street, Tom runs into a well-dressed boy with a "citified air about him that ate into Tom's vitals." After a verbal fight, Tom and the nameless boy begin to throw fists at each other until Tom is finally victorious. Tom returns home late in the evening by climbing through the window... but Aunt Polly catches him in the act.
Chapter 1 Analysis:
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is considered one of the greatest works of American literature partly because it reflects so perfectly the culture of mid-1800s America. In a period where thoughts of gold and silver drove men West and industrialization had not yet begun, Twain was able to describe small-town life in detail. St. Petersburg is portrayed as a small, tight-knit community on the riverfront where the frontier culture and the classic Southern tradition meet.
At the start of the novel, the reader is immediately introduced to the core characters. The character portraits that are unfolded in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are extensive and intricate, a quality that makes this piece a distinct work of Mark Twain. In the first chapter, Aunt Polly is introduced as a religious, pious, and stubborn mannered lady; Tom's first impression leaves the reader thinking he is mischievous, lazy, and irresponsible. But as the story unfolds, Twain develops both Aunt Polly and Tom into multi-dimensional characters whose emotions and actions are somewhat unpredictable. The reader, then, must discern between the superficial and the meaningful portrayals of each character.
Chapter 2 Summary:
On Saturday morning, Tom is forced to whitewash the fence outside the house as punishment for his behavior the night before. The day is beautiful, making the chore seem even more dreadful; in fact, Tom would rather do Jim's - the black servant's - chores than whitewash the fence.
Tom begins the job and imagines how all the "free boys" who come skipping by will make fun of him for having to do work on a Saturday. In perhaps one of the most famous scenes of the novel, Tom tricks the neighborhood boys into completing his entire chore. Tom pretends to love whitewashing, putting fake enthusiasm into his work. "Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?" Tom asks. Soon, all the neighborhood boys beg Tom for the chance to whitewash in exchange for small trinkets. In conclusion, Tom contends "that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do."
Chapter 2 Analysis:
The use of omniscient narrative is very important in establishing Twain's character portraits. A first-person narrative (used in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) allows only the viewpoint of one character. With a first-person narrative, the reader must question his source of information and can only "see" what the narrator "sees." However, omniscient narration divulges all: the reader can take all his facts as truth. In turn, we are allowed not only to see all the activity within the novel but we are allowed within the thoughts of each character. In chapter two, this narrative plays an especially important role in portraying Tom Sawyer's true intellect and understanding of the world around him
Tom, who is initially portrayed as an incorrigible youth, is able to make commentary on relative nature of "work" and "play." Tom not only loves to fight and play in the dirt, but also has a profound knowledge of human nature that is astounding for his young age. Using his "smarts," he is able to fool his peers as well as outsmart Aunt Polly and other authority figures. Tom may behave like a little boy, but he is able to think greater than perhaps any adult.
Chapter 3 Summary:
For the time remaining of that Saturday, Tom is in good spirits, playing in a mock battle with his band of friends. Afterwards, he passes by Jeff Thatcher's house and notices a "lovely little blue-eyed creature with yellow hair" with whom he instantly falls in love, so much so that the girl he was in love with the week before - Amy Lawrence - is completely out of his heart. Until suppertime, Tom lingers in front of the Thatcher house, "showing off" by doing various gymnastic tricks, hoping that the little girl inside the house will see him.
During supper, however, Tom's moods are lowered when Aunt Polly raps his knuckles for attempting to steal sugar. When Sid reaches for the sugar-bowl behind Polly's back, he drops the bowl onto the floor. When Aunt Polly returns, she immediately begins to beat Tom. When she learns that it was Sid who was at fault, she doesn't apologize but instead justifies her beating, though inside she longs to say something loving to Tom. Tom, conscious of his Aunts ruefulness yet refusing to acknowledge it, wallows in self-pity. He imagines his own funeral, and begins to cry to himself, reflecting that he leaves the house when his cousin Mary enters the house, unable to withstand any ounce of happiness.
He proceeds to wander through the streets, contemplating who would miss him when he died. Would the lovely "Adored Unknown" from this afternoon miss him? Presently, he wanders to her house, and stares up at her window, imagining the little girl crying over his lifeless body. But his imagination is interrupted by the maidservant who dumps a bucket of water out the window, and the drenched Tom Sawyer returns home.
Chapter 3 Analysis:
In the previous chapters we have seen Tom as carefree, but there is a darker side to Tom's character. More often than not, Tom's carefree attitude masks what can be construed as low self-esteem. He constantly wants what he calls "glory." He is willing to trade his worldly possessions for the glory of receiving a Sunday school Bible, and he loves to show off. But when he feels unloved, he falls into a kind of depression where he questions his own existence by imagining his funeral. Will anybody care when he is gone? Despite encouragement from his cousin Mary and punishments from Aunt Polly, Tom will never be a "good boy" because he can only gain the attention he craves through bad behavior.
The image of Tom's death and his funeral is a recurring image as well as an example of foreshadowing. Throughout the novel, this constant description of death builds the idea of the "wild frontier," where frontiersmen were notorious for testing their own mortality by braving unmapped territories and undertaking dare-devilish adventures. Tom's own crazy adventures epitomize the life of the carefree frontiersman. On a more profound level, one can take Tom's mental pictures of his own death as a questioning of his own existence. We see that Tom is not religious when he forgets to pray; he fails to exceed at schoolwork; above all else, he thinks that he has failed at gaining Aunt Polly's love. He is by no means considered a "productive" citizen of St. Petersburg like his brother, Sid. Thus we see that even Tom Sawyer seemingly the most carefree and courageous boy in St. Petersburg questions his own worth.
Chapter 4 Summary:
On Sunday morning, Tom has still not memorized his Sunday school assignment of five Biblical verses. As she washes and dresses him, his cousin Mary attempts to help him learn, but he still has nothing but a vague general idea of the lesson. In church, the recitation of two verses was rewarded with a blue ticket; 1000 blue tickets could be exchanged for a bound Bible, which only the brightest and most diligent students earned. Tom has been trading various trinkets for tickets, not because he wants a Bible but because he wants the glory that comes with it.
That day in church, the visiting family of Judge Thatcher is given the highest seat of honor. Tom immediately begins to "show off" by acting up because the Judge's daughter is none other than the little girl he is in love with. In an effort to gain even more glory and attention, Tom has finally traded for enough tickets to receive a Bible. But after receiving the Bible, the Judge asks Tom what the names of the first two disciples were, and he incorrectly answers "David and Goliath."
Chapter 4 Analysis:
In chapter four, the reader is first introduced to Mary Tom's cousin who is attempting to prepare Tom for Sunday school. Mary is portrayed by Twain as a "saintly" figure in the novel. Her character, synonymous with purity and chastity, can be seen as paralleling her ultimate namesake the Virgin Mary. Twain spends a good portion of the chapter describing the actions between Tom and Mary for two particular reasons. First, we see that Mary is perhaps one of the only authority figures Tom trusts. He allows her to help him with his verses, wash him, and dress him. Second, we see that Mary also trusts Tom. Unlike Aunt Polly who is always quick to punish Tom, Mary sees past Tom's pranks and mischief. Tom is unable to fool Mary, exemplified by his failed attempts to avoid washing his face. Moreover, she provides Tom with praise, referring to him as a "good boy" and rewarding his good behavior with a brand-new Barlow knife. Thus the relationship between the two is built on a foundation of trust and, in turn, Tom learns to respect as well as obey Mary.
Though Mary is described in a revered fashion, the Church is completely satirized in chapter four. Twain's first blow to the Church comes when Tom is able to underhandedly trade for enough tickets to earn a Dore Bible, showing how even the Church could not make the distinction between hard work and bought favors. Twain also seems to laugh at the Church in his portrayal of the Sunday school teachers and Mr. Walters, the superintendent. Although he mentions that Mr. Walters was "very sincere and honest at heart," Twain compares him at the pulpit to a "singer who stands forward on the platform and sings a solo at a concert." This metaphor depicts the religious authority to be somewhat of a show person rather than a member of the clergy. His lectures on religion are likened to a concert: meaningless and purely for entertainment. Similarly, Twain's physical portrayal of Mr. Walter's lacks seriousness, using similes that compare his collar to a bank check and his shoes to sleds. But perhaps the most ironic of moments comes when Twain uses the words "showing off" in description of Mr. Walters and who attended the Sunday school. How humorous that the same words Twain uses to describe the immature Tom Sawyer and all the misbehaved Sunday school children apply to the adults as well!
Chapter 5 Summary:
Chapter five revolves around the remainder of Sunday morning following Tom's schooling, specifically with the morning sermon. The whole town is in attendance: Aunt Polly, Sid, Mary, Tom; the widow Douglas; Mayor and Mrs. Ward; lawyer Riverson; and a variety of other characters that remain nameless, such as the town belle, matrons, and young clerks. The church is bustling with noise as the minister begins his hymn, and Twain remarks that there was never "a church choir that was not ill-bred."
After the hymn and notices of meetings and societies have been read, the minister begins a prayer that seems excessive, or as Twain puts it: "a good, generous, prayer." The prayer pleads for the church, for the "children of the church," for the state to the President, for the "poor sailors" to the "Oriental despotisms," and continues on in this manner until a final "Amen" concludes it. Much like the prayer, the remainder of church is barely endured by Tom Sawyer, who counts the pages of the sermon but fails to listen to any of it. Tom's attentions, instead, focus on the antics of a poodle playing with a beetle. The poodle, eventually, sits on the beetle and disrupts the sermon with its distressful howling and barking, bringing the entire congregation to stifled laughter. After the chaotic disruption, the sermon continues and Sunday services conclude.
Chapter 5 Analysis:
The first idea that Twain establishes in chapter five is the centrality of the Church to the town of St. Petersburg. On Sunday morning, all of the town's "respected" inhabitants attend the Church; it is as much a social function as it is a religious one. The town of St. Petersburg is small, poor, and quiet; the church, with its cracked church bell that resounds through the town, becomes a quintessential symbol of small-town life.
Ironically, it is this quality of small-town life the centrality of the church that Twain satirizes throughout the entire novel. The minister is described as unnecessarily long-winded. The subject of his sermon is never given any importance; instead, Twain focuses on his speech and mannerisms, describing his sentences as a plunge "down from a spring-board." Even the prayer seems to drag on forever, with the minister sending his prayers out to anyone and everyone. Even the "sociables" are unable to stay attuned to the misters during his monotonous speech.
The antics between Tom, the dog, and the beetle provide comic relief to the church. What is most important, however, is the fact that the attendees pay more attention to the antics of the pinch-bug than they do to the speech given from the pulpit. When the church is "suffocating with suppressed laughter," Twain describes it as "unholy mirth." This dichotomy between the serious and the playful - the moral and the mischievous - parallels Tom's constant struggle between his need for adventure and his will to "be good."
Chapter 6 Summary:
On Monday morning, Tom finds himself in bed and wanting to avoid school that morning. Eagerly, he attempts to avoid school by "playing" sick, groaning and moaning enough to wake Sid, who is sleeping by his side. Once Aunt Polly comes to check on Tom's ailments, he tells her: "Oh Auntie, my sore toe's mortified." After Aunt Polly tells Tom to "shut up that nonsense," Tom then proceeds to tell her about his sore, loose tooth, hoping that maybe it will provide him with an excuse to skip school. Aunt Polly simply pulls out his tooth and sends Tom off to school without another word.
On his way to school, Tom stops to talk to Huckleberry Finn, the "juvenile pariah" of the town admired by all children for his aloofness and hated by all mothers for his bad manners. He comes and goes as he pleases, an orphan of-sorts who doesn't have the duty of going to school or completing chores. Huckleberry is dressed in cast-off clothes: a wide-brimmed hat, trousers with only one-suspender, baggy pants, and a worn coat. Tom, who was forbidden to play with Huck, begins to discuss the correct way to cure warts; Huck, who holds a dead cat in a burlap sack, is planning on entering a cemetery at midnight to perform a witch's ritual to cure warts. Both boys discuss the merits of various superstitions and strange chants before they agree to meet later that night to go to the cemetery together.
After trading his tooth for a tick and saying goodbye to Huck, Tom races to school. Knowing that his punishment for tardiness will be to sit on the girls' section of the schoolhouse, Tom explains his lateness by saying he stopped to talk with Huckleberry Finn, for the only vacant girls seat was next to the blonde, pig-tailed girl that Tom has fallen in love with: Becky Thatcher. After a period of flirtatious exhibition, Tom writes "I love you" on his slate, which is returned with Becky's pleasure. The two agree to stay at school for dinner so that Tom can teach Becky how to draw. The remaining time spent in class is futile, for Tom has not studied and makes errors in every area of his studies: geography, spelling, and reading.
Chapter 6 Analysis:
Here the reader is introduced to Huckleberry Finn, one of Tom Sawyer's most trusted confidants as well as what Twain calls "the juvenile pariah of the village." The son of the town drunkard, Huck abides by no authority and is envied by all of the "respectable boys" of St. Petersburg: Huck is free. The epitome of childhood and mischief, Huck lives under different social standards than other citizens: he doesn't attend church regularly, never goes to school, wears hand-me-down rags rather than Sunday school suits, and smokes a pipe. But rather than depict him as the social outcast that he was, Twain describes Huck in an almost glorified manner (Huck becomes the central figure in one of the most infamous American literary works of all time: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). "In a word," writes the author," everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had." According to Twain, Huck lives life to the fullest by discarding the nonsense and conformity imposed by the "sociables" of St. Petersburg.
Huck's different standard of living is exemplified by the way in which he and Tom discuss their various rituals and superstitions. Both Tom and Huck are believers of the mysterious. They believe in witches' spells, bad luck, and try to cure everyday ailments like warts by performing strange incantations. No matter how far-fetched their ideas sound, Tom and Huck discuss their secret rituals and chants with the utmost seriousness. In one sense, their belief in the unbelievable reflects their impressionability and naiveté. The two boys still think and act with a kind of immaturity, and this scene seems to remind the reader that Tom and Huck are, after all, just children.
On a more satirical level, parallels can be drawn between the superstitions of the boys and the religious beliefs of the Church. To Twain, both are "hodge-podge" and neither is believable. This connection implies that characters, such as Aunt Polly, who are portrayed as religious are just as naïve as children. Between chapter six and the previous chapters, the reader can draw the conclusion that Twain was highly critical of the Christian faith. According to biographers, Twain himself never accepted the Bible as a guide to spiritual salvation and regarded much of the organized religion as "ignorance and superstition" (Long 178).
Chapter 7 Summary:
Until dinner, Tom is restless and school and amuses himself by playing with the tick Huckleberry traded him. After a short time, Tom and "bosom friend" Joe Harper begin to fight over who is allowed to play with the tick, disrupting the classroom with a fistfight and attracting the attention of the schoolmaster. Finally noon comes, and Tom meets Becky in the empty schoolhouse after all the other pupils have gone home for dinner.
After discussing rats, chewing gum, and circuses, Tom asks Becky if she would like to be engaged to him; his definition of engagement is simply telling "a boy you won't ever have anybody but him" and then sealing it with a kiss. After whispering, "I love you" in each other's ears, the bashful Becky and Tom kiss. Inadvertently in his giddiness, Tom blunders that he was previously "engaged" to Amy Lawrence. After learning this, Becky rejects Tom and breaks into tears despite Tom's pleading. Tom attempts to win her over again by giving her his most prized possession brass drawer-knob but she throws it at the ground in anger. Heartbroken and enraged, Tom marches out of the schoolhouse. After realizing that Tom has left, Becky calls after him but is too late.
Chapter 7 Analysis:
The antics of Tom, Joe, and the tick during their study time at school depict how useless Tom thinks education to be. The schoolhouse is the antithesis of adventure. Twain describes the air as "utterly dead" and uses a simile comparing the murmur of scholars to the drone of bees. School inhibits Tom from his mischief and is seen as a kind of jail. For Tom, school represents the opposite of the "frontier ideal" the glorification of adventure and exploration -- presented in the novel.
Chapter six also describes the first "courtship" between Tom and Becky. Their flirtatious behavior can be seen as comical, for both Tom and Becky are not much older than ten years old. Funny enough, their conversation turns from the discussion of chewing gum and circuses to marriage and love. It is ironic that throughout the entire novel, Tom backlashes against authoritative figures, yet in this scene, he is eager to act "adult-like" by becoming engaged. Twain also seems to imply that adult relationships are more child-like than most think. Tom and Becky feel jealousy and anger; their trivial feuds are commonplace in most adult relationships. Just as the two children in love seem to act like adults, adults in a relationship sometimes seem to behave like children. Twain's commentary proposes that love is an illogical, irrational necessity.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Essays and Related Content
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Essays
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: E-Text
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Questions
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Mark Twain: Biography
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Summary
- About The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- Character List
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-7
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 8-14
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 15-21
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 22-28
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 29-35
- Related Links on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources