Motifs

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

by

Mark Twain

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Motifs 1 key example

Definition of Motif
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the central themes of a book... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of... read full definition
Motifs
Explanation and Analysis—Manipulation:

Throughout The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom manipulates the people around him, from his Aunt Polly to his closest friends, and this forms a motif. In fact, the novel starts with Tom telling Aunt Polly that he didn’t play hooky from school when, in reality, he did. Not only that, but he stitched up his shirt to convince her that he’d never taken it off to go swimming. Unfortunately, his brother Sid recognizes that he used the wrong color thread to stitch it up, so Tom is caught in his lie. Soon after, Tom convinces all of the boys in the village to whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence for him (his punishment for lying about skipping school), manipulating them into believing that whitewashing is a privilege rather than a punishment.

All of these moments show how Tom starts the story committed to rebelling against responsibility, setting the scene for him to eventually stop manipulating others as he grows up. A key moment of maturation is when Tom decides to testify at Muff Potter’s trial that he saw Injun Joe kill Dr. Robinson. Rather than lie or pretend he doesn’t know the truth, Tom describes what he witnessed in front of the whole village and risks Injun Joe’s wrath in the process.

While Tom is manipulative in (mostly) harmless ways, adults in St. Petersburg lie in major ways, such as Injun Joe saying that Muff killed Dr. Robinson, Mr. Dobbins punishing kids in his classroom just for the fun of it, and Mr. Walters pretending to believe that Tom learned his Bible verses in order to impress Judge Thatcher. With this juxtaposition, Twain suggests that there is a difference between children rebelling or showing off and adults knowingly acting selfishly and hypocritically.