Summary—Chapter 1: Tom Plays, Fights, and Hides

Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I’m a-laying up sin and suffering for us both, I know. He’s full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him, somehow.

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The novel opens with Aunt Polly scouring the house in search of her nephew, Tom Sawyer. She finds him in the closet, discovers that his hands are covered with jam, and prepares to give him a whipping. Tom cries out theatrically, “Look behind you!” and when Aunt Polly turns, Tom escapes over the fence. After Tom is gone, Aunt Polly reflects ruefully on Tom’s mischief and how she lets him get away with too much.

Tom comes home at suppertime to help Aunt Polly’s young slave, Jim, chop wood. Tom also wants to tell Jim about his adventures. During supper, Aunt Polly asks Tom leading questions in an attempt to confirm her suspicion that he skipped school that afternoon and went swimming instead. Tom explains his wet hair by saying that he pumped water on his head and shows her that his collar is still sewn from the morning, which means that he couldn’t have taken his shirt off to swim. Aunt Polly is satisfied, but Sid, Tom’s half-brother, points out that the shirt thread, which was white in the morning, is now black. Tom has resewn the shirt himself to disguise his delinquency. 

Tom goes out of the house furious with Sid, but he soon forgets his anger as he practices a new kind of whistling. While wandering the streets of St. Petersburg, his town, he encounters a newcomer, a boy his own age who appears overdressed and arrogant. Tom and the new arrival exchange insults for a while and then begin wrestling. Tom overcomes his antagonist and eventually chases the newcomer all the way home.

When he returns home in the evening, Tom finds Aunt Polly waiting for him. She notices his dirtied clothes and resolves to make him work the next day, a Saturday, as punishment.

Summary—Chapter 2: The Glorious Whitewasher

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

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On Saturday morning, Aunt Polly sends Tom out to whitewash the fence. Jim passes by, and Tom tries to get him to do some of the whitewashing in return for a “white alley,” a kind of marble. Jim almost agrees, but Aunt Polly appears and chases him off, leaving Tom alone with his labor.

A little while later, Ben Rogers, another boy Tom’s age, walks by. Tom convinces Ben that whitewashing a fence is great pleasure, and after some bargaining, Ben agrees to give Tom his apple in exchange for the privilege of working on the fence. Over the course of the day, every boy who passes ends up staying to whitewash, and each one gives Tom something in exchange. By the time the fence has three coats, Tom has collected a hoard of miscellaneous treasures. Tom muses that all it takes to make someone want something is to make that thing hard to get.

Summary—Chapter 3: Busy at War and Love

Aunt Polly is pleasantly surprised to find the work done, and she allows Tom to go out in the late afternoon. On his way, he pelts Sid with clods of dirt in revenge for his treachery in the matter of the shirt collar. He then hastens to the town square, where a group of boys are fighting a mock battle. Tom and his friend Joe Harper act as generals. Tom’s army wins the battle.

On his way home for dinner, Tom passes the Thatcher house and catches sight of a beautiful girl. He falls head over heels in love with her. Quickly forgetting his last love, a girl named Amy Lawrence, Tom spends the rest of the afternoon “showing off” on the street. The girl tosses him a flower, and, after some more showing off, Tom reluctantly returns home.

At dinner, Sid breaks the sugar bowl, and Tom is blamed. Tom’s mood changes, and he wanders out after dinner feeling mistreated and melodramatic, imagining how sorry Aunt Polly would be if he turned up dead. Eventually, he finds his way back to the beautiful girl’s house and prepares to die pitifully beneath her window. Just then, a maid opens the window and dumps a pitcher of water on his head. Tom scurries home and goes to bed as Sid watches in silence.

Analysis—Chapters 1–3

The first word of the novel—Aunt Polly’s shout of “TOM!”—immediately establishes Aunt Polly’s role as disciplinarian and Tom’s role as troublemaker. Tom and Aunt Polly’s initial confrontation quickly characterizes Tom as clever enough to escape punishment and Aunt Polly as someone who threatens harsh discipline but who, for all her bluster, is really quite fond of her nephew. “Every time I hit him,” she says, “my old heart most breaks.” Aunt Polly knows that she must discipline Tom in order to help him mature successfully into responsible adulthood, but there is a part of her that balks at impinging on the freedom of such a creative and headstrong child. That the softhearted Aunt Polly is Tom’s only authority figure in the home explains Tom’s relatively large degree of freedom. Huckleberry Finn, the son of the town drunk, offers an even more extreme example of a child who lives outside of the normal structures of authority, whether parental, social, or legal.

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By depicting the fighting, playing, and trading in which the children engage as elaborate rituals, Twain emphasizes that the world of childhood is governed by its own social rules, which serve as a kind of practice for, and microcosm of, adulthood. The reality of the surrounding adult social world manifests itself in the brief appearance of the slave boy, Jim, abruptly reminding us that the novel is set in the slaveholding South. Unlike Twain’s later novel Huckleberry Finn, however, slavery and criticism of slavery exist in Tom Sawyer only in the background; Tom’s idyllic childhood adventures remain the novel’s focus.

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The scene in which Tom persuades his peers to do all his whitewashing work establishes Tom’s position as a leader among his peers and as an initiative-taking mastermind. Though a troublemaker, Tom at times presents a hint of maturity that his comrades lack. Joe Harper, Tom’s friend who acts as the opposing general in the mock battle, serves as a sidekick throughout the novel, mostly following Tom’s lead. Because of his comparatively dull nature and flat characterization, Joe highlights Tom’s vibrancy. Sid, Tom’s half-brother, is presented as Tom’s opposite—whereas Tom is a mischief-maker with a noble heart, Sid is a well-behaved child whose heart is basically evil.

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Tom’s pursuit of his “Adored Unknown” (we find out later that the girl’s name is Becky Thatcher) also helps to pinpoint his level of maturity. The fact that he is interested in a girl shows him to be mature compared to his friends, but his “showing off” for Becky, along with his melodramatic desire to die under her window after Aunt Polly falsely blames him for breaking the sugar bowl, spring from the sensitivity and sensibility of a young boy. Furthermore, the fluidity of Tom’s imagination—he moves with ease from one game or occupation to the next—testifies to his youthful manner of experiencing the world.

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