The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Decade of the 1870s


Throughout the course of human events, men have adopted various literary styles and have advocated extensive literary beliefs and movements, striving to satisfy the desire to become better than before in effectively expressing ideas through writing. Since the Classicism movement, literature used to be logical, orderly, fact-based, and objective. As the flow of ideas lead people to follow, a new age of literature called as Romanticism had dawned and had stressed the freedom to be highly imaginative, emotional, and spontaneous, declaring the worth, goodness, and beauty of the ideal society. Roughly seventy years had elapsed and a new literary style had developed. Following a decade of deaths and destruction caused by the civil war, the decade of 1870s had shown its repercussions through writers who devotedly promoted the portrayal of characters and situations that appear to be drawn from 'real life' as it actually is, such as poverty, corruption, vanity, hypocrisy, and materialism of the society. One of these realists, widely known today as "The American Bard", was Mark Twain who composed short stories, novels and tall tales whose characters, often from the lower class, all portrayed the good and, mostly, evil natures of a human being. One of his many literary compositions is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which he embraced themes connected to his early life as a child and to realistic beliefs he developed as he grew up by observing the American society. Since the decade of the 1870's, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had been influential to many succeeding generations for a theme that opened the eyes of many Americans and influenced the mindset of writers by seeing the frail nature of humans. Through the story's structure, setting, plot, characters and styles, a reader can develop a general idea that 'everyman has a good nature but as well evil and imperfect nature'.



Through the setting of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the time period, and the location of the story, Mark Twain helps the readers understand the theme of human goodness and wickedness. The setting is the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri. The time period is not specifically mentioned in the story, but readers can infer that it is during the 1840's where Negro slaves were widely common in almost every house in the village. In the small village where everybody knows everyone and where adults work together to watch out for each other's children and to discipline them by forcing them to go to school and to memorize Bible verses because for them, good image is necessary to have a good life. Twain believes that hypocrisy is one of the evil natures of man, just like those adults in the village who would rather pretend to be someone else than actually become one. On the other hand, Twain also shows the natural goodness of man when the villagers worked together to help search for Tom and Becky when they were lost in a cave. " Before the horror was half an hour old two hundred men were pouring down the highroad and river towards the cave... Many women visited Aunt Polly and Mrs. Thatcher and tried to comfort them. They cried with them too..."



The plot structured of the story of Tom Sawyer helps readers understand further about the theme for it gives evidences of man's inherent imperfection. The story started with a catchy exposition as the writer uses diction within Tom and Aunt Polly's conversation. After tiring herself of looking for Tom for a long time, Aunt Polly finally found Tom hiding in her closet. "' Tom? Tom?'... a slight noise behind her and she turned just in time to seize the boy... 'What you been doin' in there?'...'Nothing'...' Look at your hands and your mouth. What is that truck?'... ' I don't know Aunt'... 'Well, I know it's jam. Forty times I've said leave that jam alone...'" This is successful for it clearly introduces the main characters right away, as well as what's going on, and in addition, it already introduces the theme of the story. The first words that Tom speaks in this story already show the evil nature of man, that he will do anything just to get away from trouble. In Tom's situation, he lied by saying "nothing" and "I don't know" when there is actually something and he obviously knows what he's been doing. With the theme, the characters, and the past already introduced during the exposition by using a contrived dialogue, the writer provided himself with the convenience and ease of setting the story on track.




In connection to the exposition, the theme is also illustrated in several ways in the story's rising action as it moves along a series of conflicts built into one big conflict. The major conflict of the story is Tom's struggle to become free from his Aunt, who acts as a parent, and to satisfy his desire for adventure and fame. Multiple minor conflicts are presented in the story, each with its own climax and falling action. The theme is further clarified by the writer through Tom's experiences. In the minor conflicts when he fought for Becky's heart and risked his life for the treasure, he portrayed one of the good natures of man which is fighting for a dream and overlooking all the problems and trials to achieve it. In the minor conflict when he saved Mr. Potter from being hanged without committing the murder crime, he portrayed another good nature of man in helping other people by doing the right thing and facing his fears even if it meant possible death for him. However, he also portrayed man's evil nature when he went to Jackson's Island without informing his Aunt. As a child, he showed his thoughtlessness and inconsideration to his Aunt, that even though he knew his Aunt was suffering for supposing he was killed, he didn't inform her of where he went and how he was. He showed his selfishness, not thinking of how he affects other people. The plot structure of the story of the life of Tom displays Mark Twain's realistic idea of humans' weakness in the midst of fear and materialism.


Furthermore, the characters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer all have their own characteristics that demonstrate the general theme. For instance, Aunt Polly depicts the natural goodness in a human since she decided to take care of his nephew Tom and to endure all the difficulties in dealing with his stubbornness because she loved him like his own child. The following quotations from Aunt Polly's soliloquy show this," 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... poor thing... I ain't got the heart to lash him somehow... I've got to do some of my duty, or I'll be the ruination of the child." On the other hand, the adults of the small village show a perfect example of an evil nature of man, which is treating other people based on their social ranking. Huckleberry Finn is a child who didn't have anybody to treat him as a parent or to provide him with his needs. Although his dad is alive, he acts and lives like he doesn't have a son. Thus, Huck learned to live by himself. Since he, being the son of a town drunk, is poor, filthy, squalid, foul-mouthed, and uneducated, he was easily hated and dreaded by the mothers who didn't want the children to ever talk or approach him. The following quotations show this," Shortly, Tom came upon a juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn... 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..." Many more characters display the natural goodness of man, such as Widow Douglas' voluntarism in rearing up Huck to become a decent individual, and the evil nature of man, such as when Becky Thatcher allowed the teacher to whip Tom for a sin she committed. Growing up in a small town, working at different jobs, and meeting different kinds of people from various walks of life made Mark Twain discover the society's good, evil, and imperfect natures and convinced him to write about them by touching each of the characters of this story with his realistic views about men.


The style of Mark Twain's writing expands the general idea through figurative languages, imagery, diction, and tone. Twain used figurative language and imagery to show the atmosphere, or the surrounding of a character to give the readers an idea of the characters' feelings and emotions. One example is when he used figurative languages such as terrific storm, awful claps of thunder, blinding sheets of lightning, suspense for his doom, shadow of a doubt, expensive thunderstorm. These words are intended to give the reader the intensity of Tom's feeling during that part of the story, wherein he felt alone, wicked and conscience-smitten for he is the only child in the village who didn't go to the spiritual revival. In connection to the theme, Tom felt conscience for he knew he has done a wrong thing.


Another style Twain used to effectively deliver the general idea about man's 'imperfection' is by making some parts of the story appealing through the use of tone shift as seen through diction. One example of this is when a student of Tom's school reads his composition to a group of people. In the first half, Twain chose the words delightful, festivity, joy, fancy, voluptuous, graceful, snowy, dance brightness, lightest, gay, delicious, bright dreams, charming, and goodly which all creates a positive and fun atmosphere, but then a negative feeling comes toward the next half through the diction of such words as vanity, harshly, wasted, embittered and conviction. The positive words used by the speaker appeals positively to the readers because in it, they can reflect themselves in a way that they too desire and persevere through endeavors to become happy in life. As the speaker shifted to a negative tone, readers may question themselves in the words used if they too feel vanity, wasted and embittered by all their efforts, knowing that nothing can really satisfy the soul. These can be marked as another extension of the theme about human follies and weaknesses.


Since the birth of realistic ideas and movements, the literary style had changed from artistic, spontaneous, intellectual, and conventional that depicts the ideal society to a literary style which prefers the preference of characters who are no more idealized but have normal human flaws and virtues, and often from the lower class, the preference of objective narrator or a realistic first person narrator, the preference of a story wherein the point is not directly mentioned to the reader but instead, must be inferred from the reading, and the preference of a society often shown as corrupt due to human nature.   Realistic writers and their works, such as Mark Twain and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, paved the way for people to realize and to distinguish the ideal from what's real. During the 1870s, the great surge of realistic beliefs of the good, evil and imperfect nature of man that Twain furthered through his compositions had evolved American's outlook in life and humans. Twain's influences to American writing and values, such as the equality between human beings, are gradually manifested in the society. Through his influence to many American writers who also seek to tell the truth and the nature of the society, until now, realistic ideas continued to expand not only in America, but also around the world.  




Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: Bantam Classic, 1981.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. "Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia".   01 Jan. 2008 <>