The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

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Superstition, Fantasy, and Escape 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.
Superstition, Fantasy, and Escape Theme Icon

From the first moment of the novel, Tom is on the run, hiding out from Aunt Polly with stolen jam smeared across his face in her closet. In the face of constant scolding and ever-boring work, Tom repeatedly manages to escape. He plays hooky whenever possible, and leaves Aunt Polly's house typically to return only after his bedtime. He also metaphorically escapes from the boring routines and rules of daily life in St. Petersburg through fantasy, re-imagining the world to entertain himself. This might involve play-acting with other boys, or exaggerating his own achievements. He collects superstitious beliefs and tokens—typically everyday cast-off objects reinvented—with which to flavor his tall tales.

Tom draws from books he's read about Robin Hood, pirates, and other adventurers to imagine himself as the hero of a romantic tale and thereby view his everyday woes in a more glamorous light. His maturation over the course of the novel, however, largely involves his learning to differentiate this romantic world from reality. He begins to develop this ability when he runs away with Huck Finn and Joe Harper to Jackson Island, his first "real" physical escape from St. Petersburg. The boys create an alternate reality on the island, with new names and histories for each of them. Their island adventure reveals the fun to be had in escaping through rule-breaking, as the boys leave the strictures of society behind altogether, parading around naked and even abandoning their families by allowing them to believe they've drowned. They learn, however, that no escape is permanent, feeling homesick rather than courageous on the island. Only upon returning to the warm embrace of the villagers who thought them dead do the boys come to feel heroic. At the novel's end, Tom no longer feels the same longing to escape St. Petersburg, and even chastises Huck for running away from the widow Douglas's home, insisting that he return there if he want to join Tom's new gang. Tom has matured into an adult who, like the rest of his community, takes pride in his new wealth and status, and his clever ability to manipulate others will now serve him as he assumes a leadership position as an adult in St. Petersburg (as a lawyer, if Judge Thatcher has his way).

The adults of St. Petersburg are themselves susceptible to flights of fancy—consider the minister's extraordinary descriptions of the apocalypse in his church sermon. Twain's depiction of Tom's playful games are delightful to read over the course of the novel, and while he must gain a more realistic view of life as an adult, Twain suggests fantasy provides a way for people to handle the harshness of reality.

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Superstition, Fantasy, and Escape 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 Superstition, Fantasy, and Escape.
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.)


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Chapter 5 Quotes
The minister made a grand and moving picture of the assembling together of the world's hosts at the millennium when the lion and the lamb should lie down together and a little child should lead them. But the pathos, the lesson, the moral of the great spectacle were lost upon the boy; he only thought of the conspicuousness of the principle character before the on-looking nations; his face lit with the thought, and he said to himself he wished he could be that child, if it was a tame lion.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer, Mr. Sprague
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tom attends church along with the rest of the townspeople. Although the preacher is preaching about the second coming of Christ, when the Bible says that "a little child shall lead them all," Tom misses the whole point of the story. The preacher is trying to show his congregation that when Christ comes to save mankind, previous rules society will be irrelevant, and the weak and the young will be blessed. But Tom doesn't understand any of this: he just fantasizes about being the proverbial "little child" and having everyone in the world look at him.

Tom is, in short, not a very good student of religion. Although many coming of age novels are about how young people use their educations to grow up and become wiser, more mature people, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer shows that Tom has little real grasp of formal education. At this early stage in the novel, Tom is just a silly boy who wants attention.

Chapter 8 Quotes
He would be a pirate! That was it! Now his future lay plain before him, and glowing with unimaginable splendor. How his name would fill the world, and make people shudder! How gloriously he would go plowing the dancing seas, in his long, low, black-hulled racer, the "Spirit of the Storm," with his grisly flag flying at the fore!
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom is often punished for his bad behavior. But whenever he's been whipped or otherwise mistreated, he has a secret weapon--his imagination. Here, Tom fantasizes about escaping his town altogether in order to become a pirate. (One of the most amazing things about Twain's novel is how little children's fantasies have changed in the last 140 years.)

Tom's childish arrogance and machismo are apparent in this passage. It's not enough for Tom to be an adventurous pirate: everybody else in "the world" must know that Tom is a pirate. Tom's hubris is so great that he pictures himself traveling the world, making innocent people "shudder." Like plenty of young boys, Tom wants recognition from other people--specifically, he wants to scare and intimidate them into respecting him.

The boys dressed themselves, hid their accoutrements, and went off grieving that there were no outlaws any more, and wondering what modern civilization could claim to have done to compensate for their loss. They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

In this parody of American rugged individualism, Tom and his friends fantasize about going off and forming a gang of bandits. Tom loves the idea of being able to live in the forests and rob the rich--much like one of his heroes, Robin Hood.

Although Twain's writing is comical, there's a serious cultural point being made here. Tom's desire to leave civilization behind and live in peace with nature is both recognizably childish and quintessentially American--one thinks of Thoreau going off to Walden; Johnny Appleseed traveling across the country; Bob Dylan migrating to New York, etc. There's a distinctly American tradition of adventure and discovery, and Tom both honors and parodies that tradition. (Twain's allusion to the President of the United States might be a clever joke--at the end of the day, Robin Hood was a charming thief, and perhaps that's how Twain--the author of The Gilded Age, a political satire--saw the presidents of his era, too.

Chapter 11 Quotes
Injun Joe repeated his statement, just as calmly, a few minutes afterward on the inquest, under oath; and the boys, seeing that the lightnings were still withheld, were confirmed in their belief that Joe had sold himself to the devil. He was now become, to them, the most balefully interesting object they had ever looked upon, and they could not take their fascinated eyes from his face. They inwardly resolved to watch him, nights, when opportunity should offer, in the hope of getting a glimpse of his dread master.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Injun Joe
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Twain shows the trial of Injun Joe--a local man who murdered his partner, then framed another man, Muff Potter, for the crime. At the trial, Joe testifies that he saw Muff kill the man. Strangely, everyone seems to believe Joe without much question--Joe's confident attitude and calm demeanor fools the townspeople into trusting him. Tom and Huck Finn have witnessed Joe's crime: they know that it was Joe, not Muff, who committed the murder. The young boys are stunned that Joe can lie so easily, and get away with it.

The passage is an important milestone in the boys' coming-of-age. So far, Tom's life has been carefree and childish--he hasn't really had contact with people or events that could properly be called "adult." Now, Tom has witnessed a murder. Moreover, he sees a grown man lying under oath--something Tom has always been taught is a horrible sin (and he apparently thought Joe would be instantly struck by lightning for committing it). The irony is that in spite of Tom's reputation for rambunctiousness and dishonesty, he's really a pretty good, well-meaning child--as evidenced by his genuine shock when Joe lies under oath.

Chapter 13 Quotes
Tom's mind was made up, now. He was gloomy and desperate. He was a forsaken, friendless boy, he said; nobody loved him; when they found out what they had driven him to, perhaps they would be sorry; he had tried to do right and get along, but they would not let him; since nothing would do them but to be rid of him, let it be so; and let them blame him for the consequences—why shouldn't they? what right had the friendless to complain? Yes, they had forced him to it at last: he would lead a life of crime. There was no choice.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer
Page Number: 90
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Tom finally "takes to the hills." He's been exasperated with his town for some time now--he can't stand his Aunt Polly, Sid, etc. Feel that he's without a better option, Tom decides to become a criminal, using his wiliness and strength to oppose his town.

The passage is written tongue-in-cheek, of course. Like so many frustrated kids, Tom has big ambitions, but doesn't really know anything about how to achieve them. And Twain makes it plain that Tom is just wallowing in his pain, instead of trying to do something to better himself. Notice the way that Twain uses the method of "indirect discourse" to convey Tom's thoughts without explicitly establishing that they are Tom's thoughts: for example, when Twain writes, "He was a forsaken, friendless boy," he's speaking as the narrator, but also illustrating what Tomthinks, not the truth--slipping in and out of his character's voice.

They said their prayers inwardly, and lying down, since there was nobody there with authority to make them kneel and recite aloud; in truth they had a mind not to say them at all, but they were afraid to proceed to such lengths as that, lest they might call down a sudden and special thunderbolt from Heaven. Then at once they reached and hovered upon the imminent verge of sleep—but an intruder came, now, that would not "down." It was conscience. They began to feel a vague fear that they had been wrong to run away; and next they thought of the stolen meat, and then the real torture came.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Joe Harper
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Twain conveys the silliness and childishness of Tom and Huck's mission to escape their town. Tom and Huck have snuck away from home, stealing some provisions in the process. At first they have lofty ambitions of being pirates and robbers--in general, being glamorous and refusing to play by society's rules. But before long, it becomes clear that Tom and Huck are still very much under the dominion of society's rules: they feel so guilty at having stolen food that they beg for God's forgiveness.

The passage is very funny (it only takes Tom and Huck a couple hours before they start to regret running away from home), but there's also a serious point here. As much as Tom dislikes schooling and Sunday services, he really has learned a lot from school and church--he's learned to pray to God and feel a sense of guilt when he does something wrong. Morality and conscience, he discovers, can't just be shrugged off, and a "life of crime" isn't all fun and games.

Chapter 20 Quotes
Tom stood a moment, to gather his dismembered faculties; and when he stepped forward to go to his punishment the surprise, the gratitude, the adoration that shone upon him out of poor Becky's eyes seemed pay enough for a hundred floggings.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tom takes a beating on behalf of his crush, Becky. Becky accidentally ripped a page from the schoolteacher's prized anatomy book--and instead of ratting Becky out, Tom claims that it was he who ripped the book. Tom is happy to take a beating from the schoolteacher, since he knows that his act has impressed Becky--she thinks he's really brave (or so Tom thinks, at least, in his exaggerated perception of her "adoration").

Tom is so used to being whipped for his misdeeds that he barely minds an extra whipping. More valuable to him than pain is the admiration of his peers, especially Becky. And while Tom doesn't seem to mind his beating, he also wants to save Becky from the shame of having to fess up to her crime in front of the class--he's observant and empathetic enough to want to help Becky save face.

Chapter 22 Quotes
And that night there came on a terrific storm, with driving rain, awful claps of thunder and blinding sheets of lightning. He covered his head with the bedclothes and waited in a horror of suspense for his doom; for he had not the shadow of a doubt that all this hubbub was about him.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer
Related Symbols: Storms
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, a wave of religiousness sweeps through Tom's town. Everyone prays extra hard--the adults, the children, the teachers, etc. Tom refuses to pray, until a night when he catches measles. Late at night, Tom hears a great storm blowing outside, and he concludes that God is punishing him and trying to impel him to be a better Christian.

While Tom's behavior might seem a bit irrational (just because there's a storm doesn't mean that God is sending you a message), but he's behaving no less rationally than the average American adult living in a small town at the time. Just like many adults in America at the time, Tom interprets storms and natural disasters as signs from God. it's also worth noting that Tom is still a classic narcissist--when a storm blows, his first reaction is that God must be sending him a sign!

Chapter 27 Quotes
Then it occurred to him that the great adventure itself must be a dream! There was one very strong argument in favor of this idea—namely, that the quantity of coin he had seen was too vast to be real.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer
Related Symbols: The Treasure
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Tom has discovered the existence of a great treasure--he and Huck witnessed Injun Joe and his followers with a chest of coins. While Tom is dazzled by the spectacle of so much wealth, he finds it almost impossible to believe that the treasure is real: in his mind, it makes more sense that the treasure is "just a dream."

Notice the irony here. After two hundred pages of daydreaming about pirates, war, adventures, kidnapping, and other fantastic things, Tom finally discovers something extraordinary: and he can't believe it's real! For all his talk about wanting to have exciting adventures, Tom is essentially a home body: he's most comfortable in the confines of his small community. Perhaps the more subtle implication of this passage is that Tom wishes he could return to his old life--a life in which he didn't have to concern himself with money or real danger of any kind.

Chapter 31 Quotes
Tom got down on his knees and felt below, and then as far around the corner as he could reach with his hands conveniently; he made an effort to stretch yet a little further to the right, and at that moment, not twenty yards away, a human hand, holding a candle, appeared from behind a rock! Tom lifted up a glorious shout, and instantly that hand was followed by the body it belonged to—Injun Joe's! Tom was paralyzed ; he could not move. He was instantly gratified, the next moment, to see the "Spaniard" take to his heels and get himself out of sight.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe
Related Symbols: The Cave
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

In this strange scene, Tom--who's trapped in the cave--crosses paths with Injun Joe, who's hiding out in the cave as well. Tom is terrified when he sees Joe, since he assumes Joe will want to get his revenge on Tom for ratting him out to the authorities. And yet Injun Joe doesn't try to attack Tom at all--he just runs away into the darkness.

Why doesn't Joe try to hurt Tom? Perhaps Joe just didn't recognize him, and heard a shout and automatically fled. Or perhaps he isn't really as angry with Tom as Tom had assumed: even if Tom and Huck are the reason that Joe has had to flee the town, Joe might not blame the two young children for his fate. Moreover, Joe's behavior suggests that he's more concerned for his own survival in the cave than in getting revenge. As intimidating as Joe might seem to Tom, both Joe and Tom are trapped in the same predicament: they're imprisoned in the same cave. The implication of this passage is that Joe--and by extension, the whole adult world--isn't as capable and powerful as Tom had assumed: young or adult, male or female, everyone gets scared in a cave.