The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

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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.
The Hypocrisy of Adult Society Theme Icon

The adults of quaint St. Petersburg see themselves as a law-abiding, church-going, family-based group that must police its children. The most respected figure in the novel is Judge Thatcher, who is in charge of administering the law. Virtually every villager shows up to church on Sunday, so that community is formed through an agreed upon set of moral values. The education of the village's children consists largely of learning to follow inflexible rules that are intended to protect these values. The adventures of Tom and his friends often reveal gaps in the adults' logic and inconsistencies in their behavior, with the adults saying one thing but acting otherwise. For example, Aunt Polly tries to force herself to consistently punish to Tom for his rule breaking. But she often compromises herself by administering a lesser punishment, such as tapping him on the head with her thimble when she had originally threatened to whip him with her switch. While Tom is often punished for being untrue to his word, Aunt Polly is not, but remains a moral authority. Twain uses the playful games and interactions of children to also humorously reflect hypocrisy on the broader scale of 19th-century American society and its religion, temperance movement, medical beliefs, and social snobbery. Aunt Polly's belief in "quack" medicines isn't that different from Tom's in black magic, for instance, but medical authorities support her superstitions. To take another example, when Tom briefly joins the Cadets of Temperance, he is motivated by the social status he'll gain in wearing a fancy sash rather than any conviction about the ills of substance abuse. Surely the adults involved in the temperance movement are similarly motivated.

Even if Twain is cutting in his dismissive attitude toward abstract social causes that involve hypocrisy, he sees it as an inevitable and condonable aspect of life in a community. Adults fail to follow through on their word regarding the several adventures Tom undertakes that involve his leaving the village. In running away to Jackson's Island, getting lost in the cave, and tracking down Injun Joe's treasure, Tom and his friends break serious rules, yet in each case the villagers welcome the children home again without punishing them. The adults can hardly be condemned for their hypocrisy in desiring the children's safety, which underscores Twain's belief in the ultimate goodness of community. The individual who does deserve punishment in the novel is the villain Injun Joe, whose desire for revenge against both Dr. Robinson and the widow Douglas reveal that he is incapable of forgiving others, or bending the rules as a hypocrite might. Hypocrisy is a complicated issue in Twain's depiction of St. Petersburg, for the flawed logic it involves is worth noting, but hypocrisy is ultimately a very human, even necessary flaw.

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The Hypocrisy of Adult Society 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 The Hypocrisy of Adult Society.
Chapter 1 Quotes
"He 'pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it's all down again and I can't hit him a lick. I ain't doing my duty by that boy, and that's the Lord's truth, goodness knows. 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."
Related Characters: Aunt Polly (speaker), Tom Sawyer
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to the relationship between Aunt Polly and Tom Sawyer. Polly is a strict parent to Tom Sawyer, but she's always reluctant to beat Tom, despite the commonness of corporal punishment in her world. Polly even quotes the Bible's famous defense of beating children (itself paraphrased): "spare the rod, spoil the child."

It's important to situate this passage in Twain's era. When Twain published his novel, the vast majority of families in the United States approved of corporal punishment. While Polly's refusal to beat Tom might seem generous and magnanimous by today's standards, it's possible that Twain intended Polly to seem ineffectual as a caregiver for Tom--she's too weak to give Tom the stern whipping he needs. In other words, the meaning of the passage has turned 180 degrees in the 140 years since Tom Sawyer first appeared. At the same time, it's important that Tom knows that the way to get out of punishment is to make his Aunt laugh--he's already learned that showing off and being entertaining is what gets him into trouble, but also what gets him out of it.

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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.

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 12 Quotes
She gathered together her quack periodicals and her quack medicines, and thus armed with death, went about on her pale horse, metaphorically speaking, with "hell following after." But she never suspected that she was not an agent of healing and the balm of Gilead in disguise, to the suffering neighbors.
Related Characters: Aunt Polly
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

In this illuminating passage, Tom is racked with guilt at having witnessed Injun Joe's act of murder and remaining silent about it. Aunt Polly misinterprets Tom's behavior as indicative of his illness. Polly tries to feed Tom various medicines that she's bought at the local drugstore--medicines that clearly don't work at all. Polly deludes herself into believing that her medicine is incredibly effective, and that she herself is benevolent and charitable for inflicting it on others--she compares both the medicine and herself to the "balm of Gilead," a literal and metaphorical curative mentioned in the Bible.

The irony of the scene is that Tom's behavior seems vastly more mature and adult than Aunt Polly's. Tom has witnessed a real, serious event--the murder of a man. Aunt Polly, by contrast, seems strangely immature in the way she stubbornly insists on her medicine's effectiveness, despite all evidence to the contrary. In Twain's lifetime, there were thousands of pseudo-medicines like the one Polly buys. It was during Twain's era, after all, that the phrase "snake-oil salesman" entered the language--a reference to one of the most popular (and useless) quack-cures on the market.

The passage is important because it reminds us why Twain chose to write a book from a child's point of view in the first place. Tom may be a foolish kid, but he's immune to his town's foolish mob mentality, making him (at times) a rather insightful, lucid narrator.

Chapter 23 Quotes
"Often I says to myself, says I, 'I used to mend all the boys' kites and things, and show 'em where the good fishin' places was, and befriend 'em what I could, and now they've all forgot old Muff when he's in trouble; but Tom don't and Huck don't—they don't forget him,' says I, 'and I don't forget them.'"
Related Characters: Muff Potter (speaker), Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tom and Huck take care of the prisoner Muff Potter, who's been sent to jail for killing a man. Tom and Huck know that the real murder culprit is Injun Joe, not Muff Potter, and partly because of this, they keep Muff company during his time in prison, visiting him often and giving him food. Potter is extremely grateful to Tom and Huck for their kindness—he sobs about having always been gentle and kind to the boys in the town, and being grateful that Tom and Huck have returned the favor.

The scene can be interpreted either as sentimental or lightly satirical. Potter is glad to have friends in prison, but his claims of having always been a friend to the boys in the village sounds a little sappy for Twain—it’s easy to imagine Potter, a drunk, having been less than gentle with Tom and Huck in the past. More importantly, though, it would seem that Tom and Huck are only visiting Muff to soothe their own guilty consciences: instead of going to the authorities to clear Muff's name, they just visit him in private. In short, Tom and Huck are being kind, but not kind enough; at the end of the day, they're just trying to feel less guilty.

Chapter 24 Quotes
As usual, the fickle, unreasoning world took Muff Potter to its bosom and fondled him as lavishly as it had abused him before. But that sort of conduct is to the world's credit; therefore it is not well to find fault with it.
Related Characters: Muff Potter
Related Symbols: The Village
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

After Tom clears Muff Potter of murder charges, the townspeople drastically change their behavior toward Potter. Where before everyone treated Potter with contempt and hatred, they now greet him with kindness and hospitality. It’s easy to criticize the townspeople for their hypocrisy and flightiness, Twain acknowledges. People are forever changing their opinions, and indeed, the townspeople often act like a mob, going along with the group’s beliefs.

In spite of his insight into the hypocrisy of American townspeople, Twain refrains from finding fault with the townspeople’s behavior in this case. As Twain explains, changing one’s opinion overnight isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s better to be totally fluid in one’s thinking than it is to be totally rigid—at least when the townspeople are open to other opinions they can correct their mistakes and welcome Potter back into the community. Twain’s remarks are characteristic of his worldview: he parodies American life, but has an undeniable affection for it, too.

Chapter 35 Quotes
Wherever Tom and Huck appeared they were courted, admired, stared at. The boys were not able to remember that their remarks had possessed weight before; but now their sayings were treasured and repeated; everything they did seemed somehow to be regarded as remarkable; they had evidently lost the power of doing and saying commonplace things; moreover, their past history was raked up and discovered to bear marks of conspicuous originality.
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn
Related Symbols: The Village
Page Number: 226-227
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tom and Huck discover that their new windfall of gold has changed the way they live. They find that everyone takes them more seriously now: despite the fact that they’re behaving more or less the same way they always did, the townspeople put up with their pranks, and even find reasons to praise them. As Twain makes crystal-clear, the townspeople are only toadying up to Huck and Tom because the boys have become fabulously wealthy. Just as before, the people in Tom’s community can change their opinions in half a second, particularly if there’s money involved. They have no real principles--they change their beliefs often to "get with the times."

"Lookyhere, Tom, being rich ain't what it's cracked up to be. It's just worry and worry, and sweat and sweat, and a-wishing you was dead all the time. Now these clothes suit me, and this bar'l suits me, and I ain't ever going to shake 'em any more."
Related Characters: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn
Related Symbols: The Treasure
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the book, Tom and Huck have become “rich” by discovering a great treasure. Although they’re now “taken care of” for the rest of their lives, they don’t really feel any different. Indeed, Huck tells Tom that wealth is overrated: the only real consequence of having a lot of money is worrying about your money all the time.

Not for the first time in the novel, Huck’s pronouncement is both naïve and insightful. Huck is too young to conceive of all the things money can achieve (Huck’s creator, Mark Twain, was always investing in get-rich-quick schemes, nearly all of which failed to make him any money). And yet Huck has a point, hackneyed though that point may be: money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness.

Throughout the novel, Twain has showed us how Tom and Huck have found great happiness by using their imaginations and treating life as a great adventure. At the end of the novel, Tom and Huck gain some financial independence—one of the hallmarks of adulthood—and yet they’re mostly unimpressed with the adulthood. One could argue that Tom Sawyer is an anti-coming-of-age novel. Tom and Huck learn some lessons along the way, but they could hardly be mistaken for mature young men—and maybe, Twain suggests, that’s a good thing.