Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The many crimes committed in the novel range from minor childhood transgressions to capital offenses—from playing hooky to murder. The games the boys prefer center on crime as well, giving them a chance to explore the boldness and heroism involved in breaking social expectations without actually threatening the social order. The boys want to be pirates, robbers, and murderers even though they feel remorse when they actually commit the minor crime of stealing bacon. The two scenes in which Tom plays Robin Hood—who, in stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is both a criminal and a hero—are emblematic of how Tom associates crime with defending values and even altering the structure of society.
The children in the novel maintain an elaborate miniature economy in which they constantly trade amongst themselves treasures that would be junk to adults. These exchanges replicate the commercial relationships in which the children will have to engage when they get older. Many of the complications that money creates appear in their exchanges. Tom swindles his friends out of all their favorite objects through a kind of false advertising when he sells them the opportunity to whitewash the fence. He then uses his newly acquired wealth to buy power and prestige at Sunday school—rewards that should be earned rather than bought. When Tom and Joe fight over the tick in class, we see a case in which a disagreement leads the boys, who have been sharing quite civilly, to revert to a quarrel over ownership.
The jump from this small-scale property holding at the beginning of the novel to the $12,000 treasure at the end is an extreme one. In spite of all Tom and Huck’s practice, their money is given to a responsible adult. With their healthy allowance, the boys can continue to explore their role as commercial citizens, but at a more moderate rate.
The boys mention again and again their admiration for the circus life and their desire to be clowns when they grow up. These references emphasize the innocence with which they approach the world. Rather than evaluate the real merits and shortcomings of the various occupations Tom and Hank could realistically choose, they like to imagine themselves in roles they find romantic or exciting.
Tom’s showing off is mostly directed toward Becky Thatcher. When he shows off initially, we guess that he literally prances around and does gymnastics. Later, the means by which Tom and Becky try to impress each other grow more subtle, as they manipulate Amy and Alfred in an effort to make each other jealous.
In the Sunday school scene, Twain reveals that showing off is not strictly a childhood practice. The adults who are supposed to be authority figures in the church are so awed by Judge Thatcher and so eager to attract his attention and approval that they too begin to behave like children. The room devolves into an absolute spectacle of ridiculous behavior by children and adults alike, culminating in the public embarrassment in which Tom exposes his ignorance of the Bible.
More main ideas from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer