The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

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Sentimentality and Realism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Boyhood Rebellion and Growing Up Theme Icon
The Hypocrisy of Adult Society Theme Icon
Superstition, Fantasy, and Escape Theme Icon
Showing Off Theme Icon
Sentimentality and Realism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Sentimentality and Realism Theme Icon

In writing about the village of St. Petersburg, Missouri, Twain was describing a contemporary Southern American village to his original readers. Rather than glamorizing his subject matter by writing about a more well-known location or glamorous characters, he aimed towards realism in describing the daily lives of average people living on the Mississippi River, people in whom his readers might recognize themselves. His preface explains that much of the book is based on his own experiences growing up, implying that little has been reinvented. Yet, even as he sets out to tell the stories of ordinary villagers with beliefs and values that represent those of many mid-nineteenth-century Americans, Twain adds embellishments to his depiction, playing up the quaintness of village life. A more realistic view of a community would stress, for example, unresolved injustices, the disparity between rich and poor, or the life of a slave in St. Petersburg (as Twain will do in another novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). And there are elements of realism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, for example Twain's descriptions of Huck's life as a homeless boy who is looked down upon by his elders. Even so, as a novel consisting of many short stories with happy endings, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is largely a sentimental portrait of Mississippi village life, offering St. Petersburg as Twain would like to remember it. Twain does this purposefully to show the reader how building a community involves a sense of optimism. Twain structures the end of the book like a romantic tale, with Tom and Huck actually discovering treasure in a haunted house—a completely improbable plot twist. He implicates the reader in enjoying fanciful stories more than realistic ones.

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Sentimentality and Realism Quotes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Below you will find the important quotes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer related to the theme of Sentimentality and Realism.
Chapter 2 Quotes
He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous scene, Tom Sawyer tricks his peers into helping him paint a white fence by pretending that painting the fence is an enjoyable activity. Tom even tricks his peers into paying him for the privilege of painting the fence (i.e., doing Tom's own job). As Twain points out, Tom has stumbled upon a great truth: humans are gullible, and often, the mere fact that other people desire something is enough to make a person feel the same desire.

Twain is a great satirist of human nature, and here he targets the small-minded people of Tom's community, who are so competitive with one another that they'll paint a fence for free. He also pokes fun at himself, calling himself a "great and wise philosopher" but also suggesting that he isn't as astute as Tom himself.

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Chapter 3 Quotes
He wandered far from the accustomed haunts of boys, and sought desolate places that were in harmony with his spirit. A log raft in the river invited him, and he seated himself on its outer edge and contemplated the dreary vastness of the stream, wishing, the while, that he could only be drowned, all at once and unconsciously, without undergoing the uncomfortable routine devised by nature.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom has stormed out of his house after Polly beats him. Polly mistakenly thinks that Tom has broken a dish--only to realize too later that it was actually Sid, Tom's brother, who broke it. Tom is furious when Polly refuses to admit her mistake, and so he runs away.

Twain depicts Tom's time alone as a parody of American rugged individualism. Tom thinks of himself as being noble and proud for escaping from Polly's house and into the "wilderness"--but of course, he's really just moping and feeling sorry for himself. Like so many children, he fantasizes about dying suddenly and making his caregivers weep for him. (The passage also foreshadows the scene later on, in which Tom will accidentally trick the townspeople into thinking that he's dead, allowing him to attend his own funeral.)

Chapter 6 Quotes
Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him.
Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, we're introduced to Huckleberry Funn. Huck is similar to Tom--he likes mischief and is disobedient to adults. But Huck goes further than Tom in disobeying authorities--and doesn't really have any authorities in his life--to the point where everyone in the community treats him as a threat to their families' peace and order. Huck is a scapegoat for the town--whenever anything bad happens, Huck is to blame in some way.

Huck is also a potential role model for Tom. Tom is a young boy, and as we've seen, the various adults in the community are trying to teach him to grow into a mature man. Huck, in all his rough, mischievous glory, is the best role model Tom has at the moment.

Chapter 21 Quotes
There is no school in all our land where the young ladies do not feel obliged to close their compositions with a sermon; and you will find that the sermon of the most frivolous and least religious girl in the school is always the longest and the most relentlessly pious.
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

In this (perhaps rather sexist) passage, Twain satirizes the flaws of young American girls. In every school in America, Twain recalls, there are girls who insist on delivering long, horribly-written sermons designed to demonstrate their knowledge and eloquence but which in fact reveal their foolishness and pretentiousness. Twain makes it clear that delivering such sermons for the class has nothing to do with a desire to be a good Christian--indeed, the least religious girls in class often deliver the longest sermons. Twain's point seems to be that sermons--supposedly a way for students to demonstrate their morality and knowledge--have become a way for girls to show off or hide their true feelings.

One could argue that Twain's account of girls' behavior in Sunday school is sexist--he demeans girls for their arrogance and self-centeredness while gently poking fun at boys for committing the same sin in different ways. The point isn't just that Twain makes fun of girls; it's that he makes fun of them but doesn't "let them off the hook" as he does with Tom and Huck.

The tittering rose higher and higher—the cat—was within six inches of the absorbed teachers head—down, down, a little lower, and she grabbed his wig with her desperate claws, clung to it and was snatched up into the garret in an instant with her trophy still in her possession! And how the light did blaze abroad from the master's bald pate—for the sign-painter's boy had gilded it!
Related Characters: Mr. Dobbins, The sign-painters boy
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the boys of the school get their revenge on their incompetent teacher, Mr. Dobbins. Earlier, Mr. Dobbins had been napping off a hangover, and during this time one of the schoolboys painted Dobbins's bald head bright gold. In the middle of their end-of-the-year examinations, the boys then arrange for a cat to rip off their teacher's wig, revealing his horrendously painted head.

The passage is a great example of where Twain's "loyalties" lie in depicting small-town American life. Twain makes plenty of fun of the young boys in his book, and yet at the end of the day he praises them for their ingenuity and imagination. Mr. Dobbins--in the novel, a fairly representative adult--is portrayed as lazy, drunk, and incompetent; he could never think of a prank as ingenious as the one the children pull on him. Perhaps there's a subtle metaphor in the image of a bald head painted gold: Mr. Dobbins pretends to be wise and scholarly in front of his children's parents, when in fact the students know full-well that he's just an ignorant guy. Like so many adults in Twain's books, Dobbins is a fool pretending to be wise.

Chapter 22 Quotes
The Cadets paraded in a style calculated to kill the late member with envy. Tom was a free boy again, however—there was something in that. He could drink and swear, now—but found to his surprise that he did not want to. The simple fact that he could, took the desire away, and the charm of it.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Tom tries to entertain himself by joining a gang of boys, the Cadets. The Cadets swear an oath not to swear or drink--and yet as soon as he's sworn such an oath, Tom becomes fascinated with the idea of drinking and swearing. Then, when he's left the Cadets forever, Tom finds that he's not the least bit interested in drinking or swearing. In short, Tom's interest in things is dependent on their being forbidden. In a classic demonstration of reverse psychology, he becomes fascinated with swearing because other people tell him that he's not allowed to do so.

Tom's behavior is pretty immature, but in many ways it's preferable to the behavior of his peers, and even the adults in the town. Tom tricks his friends into painting a fence by pretending to enjoy painting the fence; even Aunt Polly buys useless medicines because other people have done the same. Most of the people in Tom's life choose what to do by imitating the people around them. Tom takes exactly the opposite approach, doing whatever the people around him don't do.

Chapter 25 Quotes
Huck was always willing to take a hand in any enterprise that offered entertainment and required no capital, for he had a troublesome superabundance of that sort of time which is not money.
Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Huck and Tom prepare to hunt for buried treasure. While it's Tom's idea to search, Huck is more than willing to go along with the plan: as Twain says here, Huck has untold amounts of free time, since he's just a kid, doesn't have responsible parents or guardians, and doesn't go to school or have a job.

Note the way Twain phrases his description of Huck: Huck has the kind of time that "is not money." In the minds of some people (for example, the adults in Tom and Huck's community), Huck's free time might suggest his potential for work, education, etc. In other words, for the adults in the town, free time is just an opportunity for more work (and therefore more money). For Huck, however, free time is its own reward. Huck feels no desire to do anything other than enjoy his leisure--he's just moving from day to day with no thoughts for the future. One could criticize Huck for being lazy, but that's precisely Twain's point: Huck is a happy, carefree boy who simply doesn't measure time as adults do.

Chapter 33 Quotes
Injun Joe lay stretched upon the ground, dead, with his face close to the crack of the door, as if his longing eyes had been fixed, to the latest moment, upon the light and the cheer of the free world outside. Tom was touched, for he knew by his own experience how this wretch had suffered.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe
Related Symbols: The Cave
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, Tom discovers that Injun Joe has died in the cave where Tom himself was trapped. Unlike Tom, Joe hasn't been able to find a way out of his prison: he's been forced to live on bats and try in vain to carve his way to freedom.

The passage is significant for a number of reasons. First, notice that Joe--the strong, rugged adult--has died in the same cave that Tom survived. Tom is beginning to realize that being an adult isn't all it's cracked up to be: adults can still come to harm, and in the most gruesome ways.

The passage also represents one of the first times in the novel that Tom shows real sympathy for another person. Tom knows first-hand how frightening getting trapped in a cave can be, so even though he fears and hates Joe, he's naturally sympathetic to Joe's horrible fate. Tom seems to have gained some maturity after all over the course of the book: he's learned to respect other people and sympathize with their pain.