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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Moral and Social Maturation

When the novel opens, Tom is engaged in and often the organizer of childhood pranks and make-believe games. As the novel progresses, these initially consequence-free childish games take on more and more gravity. Tom leads himself, Joe Harper, Huck, and, in the cave, Becky Thatcher into increasingly dangerous situations. He also finds himself in predicaments in which he must put his concern for others above his concern for himself, such as when he takes Becky’s punishment and when he testifies at Injun Joe’s trial. As Tom begins to take initiative to help others instead of himself, he shows his increasing maturity, competence, and moral integrity.

Tom’s adventures to Jackson’s Island and McDougal’s Cave take him away from society. These symbolic removals help to prepare him to return to the village with a new, more adult outlook on his relationship to the community. Though early on Tom looks up to Huck as much older and wiser, by the end of the novel, Tom’s maturity has surpassed Huck’s. Tom’s personal growth is evident in his insistence, in the face of Huck’s desire to flee all social constraints, that Huck stay with the Widow Douglas and become civilized.

Society’s Hypocrisy

Twain complicates Tom’s position on the border between childhood and adulthood by ridiculing and criticizing the values and practices of the adult world toward which Tom is heading. Twain’s harshest satire exposes the hypocrisy—and often the essential childishness—of social institutions such as school, church, and the law, as well as public opinion. He also mocks individuals, although when doing so he tends to be less biting and focuses on flaws of character that we understand to be universal.

Twain shows that social authority does not always operate on wise, sound, or consistent principles and that institutions fall prey to the same kinds of mistakes that individuals do. In his depiction of families, Twain shows parental authority and constraint balanced by parental love and indulgence. Though she attempts to restrain and punish Tom, Aunt Polly always relents because of her love for her nephew. As the novel proceeds, a similar tendency toward indulgence becomes apparent within the broader community as well. The community shows its indulgence when Tom’s dangerous adventures provoke an outpouring of concern: the community is perfectly ready to forgive Tom’s wrongs if it can be sure of his safety. Twain ridicules the ability of this collective tendency toward generosity and forgiveness to go overboard when he describes the town’s sentimental forgiveness of the villainous Injun Joe after his death.

The games the children play often seem like attempts to subvert authority and escape from conventional society. Skipping school, sneaking out at night, playing tricks on the teacher, and running away for days at a time are all ways of breaking the rules and defying authority. Yet, Twain shows us that these games can be more conventional than they seem. Tom is highly concerned with conforming to the codes of behavior that he has learned from reading, and he outlines the various criteria that define a pirate, a Robin Hood, or a circus clown. The boys’ obsession with superstition is likewise an addiction to convention, which also mirrors the adult society’s focus on religion. Thus, the novel shows that adult existence is more similar to childhood existence than it might seem. Though the novel is critical of society’s hypocrisy—that is, of the frequent discord between its values and its behavior—Twain doesn’t really advocate subversion. The novel demonstrates the potential dangers of subverting authority just as it demonstrates the dangers of adhering to authority too strictly.

Freedom through Social Exclusion

St. Petersburg is an insular community in which outsiders are easily identified. The most notable local outsiders include Huck Finn, who fends for himself outside of any family structure because his father is a drunkard; Muff Potter, also a drunk; and Injun Joe, a malevolent half-breed. Despite the community’s clear separation of outsiders from insiders, however, it seems to have a strong impulse toward inclusiveness. The community tolerates the drunkenness of a harmless rascal like Muff Potter, and Huck is more or less protected even though he exists on the fringes of society. Tom too is an orphan who has been taken in by Aunt Polly out of love and filial responsibility. Injun Joe is the only resident of St. Petersburg who is completely excluded from the community. Only after Injun Joe’s death are the townspeople able to transform him, through their manipulation of his memory, into a tolerable part of St. Petersburg society.

Huck’s exclusion means that many of the other children are not allowed to play with him. He receives no structured education and often does not even have enough to eat or a place to sleep. Twain minimizes these concerns, however, in favor of presenting the freedom that Huck’s low social status affords him. Huck can smoke and sleep outside and do all the things that the other boys dream of doing, with very little constraint. Huck’s windfall at the end of the novel, when the boys find the treasure, threatens to stifle his freedom. The Widow Douglas’s attentions force Huck to change his lifestyle, something Huck would probably never choose to do on his own. By linking Huck’s acquisition of the treasure with his assimilation into St. Petersburg society, Twain emphasizes the association between financial standing and social standing. Besides the obvious fact that money is an important ingredient in social acceptance, social existence clearly is itself a kind of economy, in which certain costs accompany certain benefits. The price of social inclusion is a loss of complete freedom.

Superstition in an Uncertain World

Twain first explores superstition in the graveyard, where Tom and Huck go to try out a magical cure for warts. From this point forward, superstition becomes an important element in all of the boys’ decision-making. The convenient aspect of Tom and Huck’s superstitious beliefs is that there are so many of them, and they are so freely interpretable; Tom and Huck can pick and choose whichever belief suits their needs at the time. In this regard, Twain suggests, superstition bears a resemblance to religion—at least as the populace of St. Petersburg practices it.

The humorousness of the boys’ obsession with witches, ghosts, and graveyards papers over, to some extent, the real horror of the circumstances to which the boys are exposed: grave digging, murder, starvation, and attempted mutilation. The relative ease with which they assimilate these ghastly events into their childish world is perhaps one of the least realistic aspects of the novel. (If the novel were written today, we might expect to read about the psychic damage these extreme childhood experiences have done to these boys.) The boys negotiate all this horror because they exist in a world suspended somewhere between reality and make-believe. Their fear of death is real and pervasive, for example, but we also have the sense that they do not really understand death and all of its ramifications.


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 Circus

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.

Showing Off

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.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Cave

The cave represents a trial that Tom has to pass before he can graduate into maturity. Coming-of-age stories often involve tests in which the protagonist is separated from the rest of the society for a period of time and faces significant dangers or challenges. Only after having survived on the strength of his personal resources is Tom ready to rejoin society.

The Storm

The storm on Jackson’s Island symbolizes the danger involved in the boys’ removal from society. It forms part of an interruptive pattern in the novel, in which periods of relative peace and tranquility alternate with episodes of high adventure or danger. Later, when Tom is sick, he believes that the storm hit to indicate that God’s wrath is directed at him personally. The storm thus becomes an external symbol of Tom’s conscience.

The Treasure

The treasure is a symbolic goal that marks the end of the boys’ journey. It becomes a indicator of Tom’s transition into adulthood and Huck’s movement into civilized society. It also symbolizes the boys’ heroism, marking them as exceptional in a world where conformity is the rule.

The Village

Many readers interpret the small village of St. Petersburg as a microcosm of the United States or of society in general. All of the major social institutions are present on a small scale in the village and all are susceptible to Twain’s comic treatment. The challenges and joys Tom encounters in the village are, in their basic structure, ones that he or any reader could expect to meet anywhere.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



What do Tom’s travels to Jackson’s Island and McDougal’s Cave symbolize?
A more critical outlook
A more pleasant outlook
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

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Tom Sawyer

by muymuymuymuy, December 06, 2012

The key to reading this book is to concentrate on the anwsers and actually analyze what they are saying.


51 out of 112 people found this helpful

Just a bit of advice....

by fieldhockeylover101, March 25, 2013

If u have a big exam on this novel coming up.......instead of reading all the chapter analysis's,read the overall anylsis, quotes and come up with the most important charcters and write out WHO they really are. Just a helpful idea.......!


26 out of 34 people found this helpful

Important.. Read!

by _hi123, April 09, 2013

After chapter 17, all the chapters are one chapter behind. So chapter 19 is under chapter 18 and so on. I am not positive if this goes on through the rest of the chapters but I know that after chapter 17, this does happen. Hope this helps!


64 out of 80 people found this helpful

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