Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a bildungsroman about a twelve-year-old boy named Tom Sawyer who lives in a small town along the Mississippi River. A bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story that follows a young protagonist on their journey from childhood to maturity.
Tom Sawyer is one of literature’s most famous troublemakers. He is clever, he is bold, and he is highly persuasive. Twain cements these traits in the novel’s second chapter when Tom, forced to do chores on a Saturday instead of going out to play, successfully tricks his playmates into paying him for the privilege to whitewash Tom’s fence. The whitewashing scene is perhaps the most iconic but much of the novel consists of episodic installments that encapsulate Tom’s childhood. Some examples include his games about Robin Hood or pirates and his various attempts to appear dashing and heroic in front of his crush, Becky Thatcher. All of these anecdotes establish that Tom is a mischievous boy with a taste for adventure.
The turning point in the novel occurs when Tom and his friend Huck Finn, while looking for spirits in the graveyard, accidentally witness town recluse Injun Joe murder Dr. Robinson and frame Muff Potter. Dr. Robinson’s murder represents the end of the purely innocent portion of the novel. Up until that moment, Tom’s adventures were youthful and harmless but now the ignoble adult world has infringed upon childhood.
Tom and Huck swear a blood oath to never speak of the incident out of fear that Injun Joe will seek vengeance upon them. However, Potter’s framing weighs heavily on Tom’s conscience and he ultimately testifies at Potter’s trial and describes what he saw at the graveyard. The court scene is a crucial step in Tom’s coming-of-age story because it shows his growing maturity and his sense of right and wrong.
If The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was a traditional bildungsroman, the story would have ended after Tom testifies. However, the novel is as much an adventure story as it is a bildungsroman so, instead of ending, Injun Joe escapes, the rising action portion of the novel continues, and the stakes get raised. The motifs of criminals and buried treasure in Tom’s games return to the novel, only now they revolve around the very real Injun Joe and his equally real gold instead of make-believe. Tom and Huck discover Injun Joe's plan to hide his treasure, Tom develops an effective system that the pair can use to spy on Injun Joe, and he even wins Becky’s approval: all examples that showcase his development and guide the reader to the text’s impending climax.
In the climax of the novel, Huck overhears Injun Joe’s plan to kill the Widow Douglas and saves her before Injun Joe gets the chance, and Tom and Becky are stranded in a cave. Tom is able to prove himself one more time when he successfully uses his clever and resourceful nature to keep himself and Becky alive. He also manages to escape Injun Joe, who is hiding in the cave.
Since The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a coming-of-age story, the falling action portion of the novel displays Tom’s newfound maturity. Tom’s emergence from the cave symbolizes his entrance into society. He entered the cave as a boy but returned as a young man. Tom finds the treasure after Injun Joe dies of starvation in the cave. The adults in St. Petersburg reward Tom and Huck for their heroism and give them an allowance of one dollar a day from Injun Joe’s treasure. This showcases Tom and Huck’s status as young men because they can now participate in the economy like adults. Tom displays his learned maturity one final time when he convinces Huck to let Window Douglas adopt him so that he can become civilized and educated.
However, Twain does not end Tom’s story with his shining moment of maturity. Instead, the novel concludes with Tom and Huck planning an initiation for a new game that they intend to ceremoniously enact at midnight. In doing so, Twain celebrates the importance of childhood which is one of the text’s central themes. Tom’s real-life adventures may have transformed him, but it was his make-believe games of pirates and robbers and Merry Men that prepared him for his hero’s journey and served as rehearsals for his real-life experiences.
Twain solidifies his celebration of childhood in the novel’s final two paragraphs, where he writes that it is time to end the text because the novel is first and foremost a story of a boy and if he continued the tale any longer it would become a story of a man. Despite being a coming-of-age novel, Twain deliberately leaves his readers with a final glimpse of Tom Sawyer in all the glories of childhood. By concluding The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in such a way, Twain reminds us all that childhood is a fundamentally important aspect of life and not just a stepping stone on the road to adulthood.