A bildungsroman is a novel about the education and maturing of its main character. To what extent can The Adventures of Tom Sawyer be classified as a bildungsroman?
At first glance, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer seems to be a thoroughly traditional bildungsroman. After all, the novel shows Tom’s transformation from a naughty boy into a hero praised by the adults in his community. But the adults in Twain’s novel are no more mature than the children they’re raising. Twain does not narrate a change in Tom’s personality, but rather a change in the foolish adults’ perception of Tom. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer reveals itself to be an unabashed celebration of the subversive spirit of childhood—the exact opposite of a bildungsroman.
On the surface, the novel presents a tale of one boy’s moral development. In a famous early scene, Tom flaunts his skills as a prankster by convincing other children to whitewash his aunt’s fence for him. He doesn’t feel any remorse, even though his game hurts other people. He acts in a self-absorbed way again when he runs away from home, allowing his friends and neighbors to conclude that he has died before making a surprise appearance at his own funeral. But later events in the novel—Tom’s decision to save Becky, and his offer of half his money to Huck Finn—convince the adults that Tom has reformed and turned into a man. Read this way, Twain’s novel fits the definition of a bildungsroman perfectly.
Throughout the novel, however, Twain plants evidence to suggest that the adult characters have poor judgment or are otherwise untrustworthy. For example, Tom manages to easily dupe his caregiver, the slave-owning Aunt Polly, by yelling, “Look behind you!” and jumping out the window. Another representative of the adult world, Huck’s father, is both a negligent parent and a drunk. The august Judge Thatcher sees Tom as a “fine, manly little fellow,” despite the fact that all the children in Sunday school know that Tom has cheated his way to the coveted Bible prize. Dr. Robinson attempts to dig up a corpse at night, Injun Joe is a murderer, and Mr. Dobbins whips students without proof of their misbehavior. A popular meeting spot for the adults, Temperance Tavern, serves alcohol in a backroom. Given the abundant examples of the adults’ shortsightedness and hypocrisy, it seems doubtful that Twain wants to present adulthood as a condition to aspire to.
Tom begins and ends the novel as a well meaning but mischievous boy. When Judge Thatcher praises him and says that he would be a good candidate for the National Military Academy and a career in law, he laughably misinterprets Tom’s character. Despite Judge Thatcher’s optimistic daydreaming, the end of the novel contains many examples of Tom’s lingering boyishness. He wouldn’t have had the opportunity to save Becky Thatcher from the cave, for example, if he hadn’t led her into it in the first place. In his final scene, though Tom has become wealthy and received praise from both the Judge and Aunt Polly, he remains a sly and inventive child, envisioning himself as the leader of a robber gang that will find Injun Joe’s buried treasure.
It’s not surprising that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has become a beloved children’s novel, because the novel contrasts the intelligence and good humor of children with the poor judgment of adults. Twain conceals his subversive message within the familiar structure of a bildungsroman, in which a boy gets into trouble and redeems himself before his superiors. But Tom does not turn into the obedient citizen the adults want him to be: At the end of the novel, he still dreams of causing chaos in a robbers’ gang. His story celebrates the freedom, mischief, and excitement of youth, and suggests that children shouldn’t hurry to grow up and become adults.