When the novel begins, Tom is a mischievous child who envies Huck Finn’s lazy lifestyle and freedom. As Tom’s adventures proceed, however, critical moments show Tom moving away from his childhood concerns and making mature, responsible decisions. These moments include Tom’s testimony at Muff Potter’s trial, his saving of Becky from punishment, and his heroic navigation out of the cave. By the end of the novel, Tom is coaxing Huck into staying at the Widow Douglas’s, urging his friend to accept tight collars, Sunday school, and good table manners. He is no longer a disobedient character undermining the adult order, but a defender of respectability and responsibility. In the end, growing up for Tom means embracing social custom and sacrificing the freedoms of childhood.
Yet Tom’s development isn’t totally coherent. The novel jumps back and forth among several narrative strands: Tom’s general misbehavior, which climaxes in the Jackson’s Island adventure; his courtship of Becky, which culminates in his acceptance of blame for the book that she rips; and his struggle with Injun Joe, which ends with Tom and Huck’s discovery of the treasure. Because of the picaresque, or episodic, nature of the plot, Tom’s character can seem inconsistent, as it varies depending upon his situation. Tom is a paradoxical figure in some respects—for example, he has no determinate age. Sometimes Tom shows the naïveté of a smaller child, with his interest in make-believe and superstitions. On the other hand, Tom’s romantic interest in Becky and his fascination with Huck’s smoking and drinking seem more the concerns of an adolescent.
Whether or not a single course of development characterizes Tom’s adventures, a single character trait—Tom’s unflagging energy and thirst for adventure—propels the novel from episode to episode. Disobedient though he may be, Tom ends up as St. Petersburg’s hero. As the town gossips say, “[Tom] would be President, yet, if he escaped hanging.”