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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain


Main ideas Themes

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.