Book Review: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

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The story starts with Tom running away from his Aunt Polly, who is angry with him. The kids in the village play pranks because they want to be free from the rules and responsibilities that come with being grown-up. This is shown through Huck Finn, a boy without a family who does whatever he wants and doesn’t go to school or church.

There’s also Jackson’s Island, a place outside of the village where nature is calm and powerful, offering an escape from the strictness of civilization. The boys’ love for freedom is also seen in their swimming in the river, going barefoot, and smoking.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this The Adventures of Tom Sawyer book review, I’m going to cover the following topics:

Plot Summary

An imaginative, free-spirited boy experiences fun and adventure in a Mississippi River town in the 1840s.

Chapters 1–3 

Tom Sawyer‘s kindly but gullible guardian, Aunt Polly, is about to punish him for stealing some jam, but he quickly escapes from her, leaving her mildly amused. She has vowed to raise her dead sister’s son correctly and promised not to “spare the rod and spite the child.” 

Later, Tom’s half brother, the goody-goody Sid Sawyer, confirms Aunt Polly’s suspicion that Tom played hooky that afternoon to go swimming in the Mississippi River.

That night, when she catches Tom sneaking into the house through the window, Aunt Polly notices the dirt on his clothes (due to a fight he had with Alfred Temple, the new boy in town) and decides to put him to work on Saturday, whitewashing the fence. 

As the other boys in this “poor little shabby village of St. Petersburg” prepare to spend their day of freedom, Tom despairs at the task awaiting him. After Aunt Polly thwarts his attempt to bribe the black servant Jim into painting the fence, Tom concocts another plan. 

By pretending to enjoy the whitewashing, Tom becomes the center of attention to his schoolmates as they pass by. His “reluctance” to let them have a try at the fence further whets their desire, and they begin to trade their most prized possessions (kite, dead rat, apple core) for a chance to paint. 

Thus, Tom relaxes in the shade, contemplating his newly acquired treasures, and the fence gets whitewashed in short order. After pelting Sid with clods of dirt for tattling on him earlier, Tom sets off in search of adventure and discovers a new girl—”a lovely little blue-eyed creature”—for whom he spends much of the afternoon showing off. That night, he lies on the ground under her window, only to be drenched when a maid tosses out a basin of water.

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Chapters 4–8 

The next morning, Tom attends Sunday school with his cousin Mary and Sid. Tom loathes it, not only for the scriptural quotations to be memorized, but for the restraints of clothing and cleanliness.

However, the new girl—Becky Thatcher—arrives with her father, the renowned Judge Thatcher, who has moved his family to town from Constantinople, 12 miles away. 

Tom is determined to show off for her: when the earnest Sunday school superintendent, Mr. Walters, offers a Bible prize to pupils who have earned (by recitation) a sufficient number of tickets, Tom presents himself, having acquired the tickets by trading. 

Judge Thatcher’s admiration is short-lived when Tom names David and Goliath as the first two disciples. After a failed attempt to avoid school Monday morning by faking illness, Tom meets the young outcast Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huck’s freedom and filth make him the envy of all the village boys, though the mothers consider him a bad influence. 

The two boys make plans to visit the graveyard at midnight, armed with a dead cat, in order to test a cure for warts. Tom sets off for school, late as usual, and upon arriving, spots an empty seat next to Becky.

He scribbles I LOVE YOU on his slate, and Becky pretends not to be amused. The teacher whisks him back to his own seat, where his yearnings to be free cause him to release a tick on his desk; he and his good friend Joe Harper then torment the tick with a pin. 

At lunchtime, Tom and Becky meet secretly; they whisper “I love you” and exchange a kiss, thereby becoming “engaged.” Bliss is short-lived, however, when Tom accidentally reveals that he is already engaged to Amy Lawrence. When a tearful Becky refuses to accept “his chiefest jewel” —a brass and iron knob—Tom marches out of the school and resolves to become a pirate.

Chapters 9–12 

That night in the graveyard, Tom and Huck Finn hear voices, which at first they take for devils, but then recognize as belonging to Muff Potter (a drunkard), Injun Joe (a “murderin’ half-breed”), and the young Dr. Robinson. 

As the boys watch from their hiding place, Potter and Injun Joe rob graves for the doctor (i.e., for his anatomy research), and, when finished, demand more money than agreed upon.

A fight ensues, during which the doctor is stabbed to death by Injun Joe, using Potter’s knife. Injun Joe then places the bloodstained weapon in Potter’s hand and convinces him that he (i.e., Potter) killed the doctor in a drunken stupor. 

As the sorrowful Potter runs away, he forgets the knife, which Injun Joe purposely leaves behind. The two boys flee in horror and seek refuge in an old tannery, where they take an oath, signed in blood, never to reveal their secret, for fear of vengeance by Injun Joe. 

By noon the next day, the entire village has heard of the murder, and Potter is captured at the graveyard while looking for his knife. On Potter’s urging, Injun Joe tells his version of the murder, and the boys are amazed that such a liar is not struck clown by “God’s lightnings.” 

During the ensuing days, Tom’s conscience is tortured by restless dreams, but is eased by the “small comforts” that he smuggles to the prisoner, Potter. Aunt Polly tries to cure Tom’s lethargy with a variety of quack cures and patent medicines—one of which Tom feeds to the cats. Their wild and crazed reactions to the drug succeed in making him laugh.

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Chapters 13–16 

However, Becky’s continued rejections, along with Tom’s other problems, cause him to enlist Joe Harper and Huck as fellow pirates. The boys steal away food and equipment, with Tom in command as the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main, Huck as the Red-Handed, and Joe as the Terror of the Seas. 

They row a “captured” raft to Jackson’s Island, some three miles below the village on the Mississippi River. There, they relish the good food, freedom, and adventurous life of pirates. But before falling asleep, Tom and Joe resolve that they shall no longer steal. 

The next morning, Tom marvels at the sounds and sights of nature awakening, then wakes the other pirates. They hear sounds in the distance, which turn out to be cannon shots used to raise drowned bodies from the river. When they realize it is they who are believed drowned, they see that their triumph is complete. 

At twilight, however, they begin to experience misgivings for the sadness caused to those who mourn them. After the others have fallen asleep, Tom sets off from the camp and makes his way to shore. He sneaks into his aunt’s house and hides under the bed, where he overhears Aunt Polly, Sid, Mary, and Joe Harper’s mother reminiscing tearfully about the missing boys. 

He is deeply touched by their grief and struck by the discovery that if their bodies are not found by Sunday, funerals will be preached on that morning. After Aunt Polly falls asleep, Tom kisses her, then returns to the island. He recounts—and adorns—his adventures to his fellow pirates, then leads his gang in a hunt for turtle eggs. 

But homesickness sets in, and Tom finds himself writing Becky’s name in the sand. As Joe and Huck begin to wade away from the island, Tom halts them and reveals his “stupendous plan,” which cheers the others up and convinces them to stay. To celebrate, all three smoke pipes, which cause Huck and Joe to feel ill.

Chapters 17–21 

That Saturday, the boys’ schoolmates argue over who saw the heroes last, and Becky wishes she had kept Tom’s andiron knob. On Sunday, the church congregation breaks down sobbing, while Tom, Huck, and Joe, hiding in the gallery, listen with delight to their own funeral. 

Suddenly a rustle is heard, and the startled congregation rises as “the three dead boys came marching up the aisle.” It is a triumph for the boys as the elated parishioners sing hymns and forgive them.

In the morning, Aunt Polly protests that Tom did not miss her, but he insists that he dreamed of her—and recounts with accuracy the mourners’ conversations on the evening he had observed them. 

Aunt Polly forgives him and rushes off to tell Mrs. Harper about his marvelous dream. Tom and Joe adorn their adventures for groups of hungry listeners, and Tom, pretending not to see Becky, begins flirting with his previous “fiancée,” Amy Lawrence—but only until he observes Becky looking at a book with Alfred Temple, the new boy in town. 

Tom’s dreary mood worsens when he goes home for lunch to find Aunt Polly angry because she has learned from Mrs. Harper that Tom had actually observed the mourners’ conversation. Tom tells his aunt that he loves her; he quickly adds that he had kissed her that night and had been on the verge of leaving her a message. 

All is forgiven when she later finds the message in his jacket pocket. Tom returns to school and apologizes to Becky for flirting with Amy. Becky refuses his apology, but when he catches her leafing through the schoolmaster’s “mysterious” book—it is an anatomy book containing photos of “stark naked” people—he startles her, and Becky rips a page in her haste to put it back.

She is so sure he will tell on her that she allows him to get whipped for spilling ink on a spelling book, even though she knows Alfred Temple had done it. 

When the schoolmaster, Mr. Dobbins, discovers the ripped page, he questions the pupils one by one. Just as Dobbins reaches Becky, Tom sees that Becky’s face will betray her guilt, and he confesses to having done it. He receives a merciless flogging from Dobbins, but is rewarded by falling asleep that evening with Becky’s words of praise echoing in his ears. 

As the vacation approaches, the schoolmaster grows more severe. This prompts the boys to invent a plan of revenge. 

On the evening of final recitations, with parents and dignitaries in the audience, a cat—suspended over Dobbins’s head by the pranksters—grabs his wig with its claws to reveal a bald head which the boys had painted earlier while the master was dozing. That breaks up the meeting and signals the beginning of summer vacation.

Chapters 22–28 

Tom joins the Cadets of Temperance, attracted by their showy regalia, and promises to abstain from “smoking, chewing, and profanity” as long as he remains a member. But he resigns when a desire to drink and swear overcomes him. He is, however, bored: Becky is away, Joe and Huck temporarily “get religion,” and the secret of the murder remains a misery to him. 

As the trial comes to court, Tom and Huck, who continue to visit Muff Potter to ease their conscience, feel more and more guilty. On the final day, the courtroom is packed as everyone awaits the verdict. The villagers are amazed when Potter’s lawyer calls only one witness for the defense: Thomas Sawyer. 

As Tom begins to tell the real story, Injun Joe jumps through a window and disappears. Tom’s conscience is clear again, but in his dreams he is haunted by the fearsome Injun Joe. As the days drift by, Tom and Huck become absorbed by the desire to dig for hidden treasure, and reluctantly agree to search for it in the town’s haunted house. 

They go there at noon (to avoid ghosts) and see two men—one a stranger, the other a deaf-mute old Spaniard who has been seen around town recently. Their amazement at hearing the Spaniard speak turns to fear when they recognize his voice as that of Injun Joe, who mentions a dangerous job involving revenge. 

As the two men bury their loot, they come across a strongbox with gold coins whose worth they estimate at thousands of dollars. After the men leave with the strongbox, the boys escape, wondering if the revenge means them and pondering a clue they overheard concerning the place where Injun Joe is taking the treasure: “Number Two—under the cross.” 

They conclude that the only “Number Two” in town is a tavern room, and begin to stake it out after dark. After several nights, Tom grows impatient and sneaks along a dark back alley near the tavern, but fails to spot either the treasure box or the cross.

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Chapters 29–30 

Becky returns and makes good on her promise to give a picnic for her schoolmates. A chartered ferryboat takes the large party downriver, where the amusement includes exploring McDougal’s Cave. That evening, as the ferryboat brings the tired young people home, Huck sees the two men leave the tavern and follows them in the darkness. 

When he overhears Injun Joe plotting revenge on the Widow Douglas, who had been kind to Huck, he rushes down the hill, wakes Mr. Jones (called the Welshman), and tells him of Injun Joe’s plot. The old man and his two stalwart sons leave, well armed, and when Huck hears gunfire, he runs away. 

The next day he returns to the Welshman’s, where he reveals that the deaf-mute Spaniard is Injun Joe; he does not, however, mention the treasure.

When the exhausted Huck falls ill with a fever, he is tended by the Widow Douglas. In the meantime, their families have discovered that Tom and Becky have not returned from the picnic, and fears mount that they may be lost in the cave.

Chapters 31–35 

The narrator returns to Tom’s and Becky’s actions during the picnic. They become lost while wandering in the cave, and though Tom tries to comfort Becky, their last candle burns out, leaving them in darkness. They must stay in one spot, near fresh water, but they also explore the various corridors by using a string from a kite to return to their base. 

During one expedition, Tom sees a human hand holding a candle; it turns out to be that of Injun Joe! Three nights later, the bells peal, and shouts of “they’re found!” fill the streets. With appropriate adornment, Tom recounts that on an exploring expedition, he had glimpsed a speck of daylight and had poked his head through a small hole overlooking the river. 

He and Becky then hailed some men passing in a skiff, who returned them to town. Two weeks later, when Judge Thatcher tells Tom that he has sealed the cave with a big door so that no one will ever get lost in it again, Tom turns white and reveals that Injun Joe is in the cave. When a large party opens the cave door, they discover Injun Joe’s dead body. 

Tom’s pity is coupled with relief. He soon informs Huck of his certainty that the treasure is in the cave, not in the tavern. Tom leads the way to the hidden entrance to the cave, then to the place where he had spotted Injun Joe. 

When the boys dig under a cross smoked on the wall, they discover the treasure box and some guns. They remove the money in bags, but decide to leave the guns for a later time when they will form a gang of robbers and hold orgies.

Returning to the village, they haul the money to a hideaway, but are interrupted by the Welshman, who informs them that everyone is waiting to see them at the Widow Douglas’s. 

Leaving the money outside, they enter the drawing room full of people, and are told to put on two new suits provided by the Widow Douglas. Sid tells them that he overheard the Welshman planning to reveal his “secret” that it was Huck who saved the Widow Douglas. 

Moments later, the widow announces her intention to adopt Huck, educate him, and later start him in business. Tom astonishes everyone by stating that Huck is already rich, and proves it by showing them his half of the treasure.

The boys’ shares amount to over $6,000 each (in 1876 dollars), to be managed by the Widow Douglas in Huck’s case and Judge Thatcher in Tom’s. But Huck is not happy living with the Widow Douglas. 

Forced to wear proper clothes, to eat with utensils, to read and go to church, “the bars and shackles of civilization” imprison him, and one day he disappears. Tom finds him and convinces him to return by noting that one cannot be a robber unless one is respectable. 

They plan an initiation for that very night, and Huck vows to stay with the “widder” till he rots. The narrator concludes by refusing to reveal how the boys’ lives turn out, since he may want to take up their story again in a future book.


Tom Sawyer: Adventurous, free-spirited, imaginative, goodhearted boy. Plays games, roles, tricks, pranks—and hooky. Often in trouble. Learns to listen to his conscience and feel concern for others during the course of the novel.

Huckleberry (“Huck”) Finn: Village outcast, lives in hogsheads (large barrels), comes and goes as he pleases. His filth and freedom are envied by the other boys, yet dreaded by their mothers.

Aunt Poly: Tom’s gentle, kindly guardian, who attempts to be stern and strict, and to have a hard outer crust. Loves him despite his tricks.

Joe Harper: Schoolmate of Tom’s; also plays hooky. Fellow “pirate” on Jackson’s Island.

Becky Thatcher: Blonde, blue-eyed girl who captivates Tom, then rejects him. Comes to love him when he takes punishment for her.

Injun Joe: “Murderous half-breed.” Kills Dr. Robinson; blames Muff Potter for it. Terrifies Tom and Huck. Later disguises himself as a deaf-mute Spaniard, hides his treasure in the cave, and dies there when the entrance is sealed shut.

Muff Potter: A town drunkard. Unjustly imprisoned due to Injun Joe’s lie; raises the sense of guilt in Tom, who saves him by telling the truth at the trial.

Widow Douglas: Threatened by Injun Joe, saved by Huck, whom she takes in.

Dobbins: Severe schoolmaster.

Themes and Ideas

1. Confinement

A product of society and civilization, as represented by the village of St. Petersburg. Rules, customs, and hierarchies create restraints, especially for the free-spirited Tom Sawyer. Tom’s family life with Aunt Polly features a strict regime of behavior, clothing, and cleanliness; Tom’s violation of his aunt’s rules leads to a sentence of whitewashing the fence (“captivity at hard labor”).

When Huck is taken in by the Widow Douglas, he experiences same restraints. Organizations like the Cadets of Temperance prohibit drinking, swearing, and smoking. Institutions (church, school) are rigid and are run by strict authority figures such as the Sunday school superintendent, the minister, and the severe schoolmaster (Mr. Dobbins).

The theme of confinement is underscored by Muff Potter, who was unjustly imprisoned, and by Tom and Becky, accidentally trapped in the cave. Twain satirizes social constraint and stresses the idea that humans need freedom to be happy.

2. Escape and Freedom

The novel begins with Tom escaping from Aunt Polly’s anger. Within the village, the children’s pranks suggest a desire to free themselves from restraints and from the demands of grown-ups; this is depicted in the lifestyle of Huck Finn, the village outcast without a family, who comes and goes as he pleases and who does not attend school or church.

It is also represented by Jackson’s Island, outside the village, where nature, with its peaceful tranquility and powerful majesty, offers an escape from the handcuffs of civilization. The wild, primitive existence is also embodied by the boys’ swimming in the river, going barefoot, and smoking.

3. Illusion vs. Reality

Illusion (appearance) contrasts with reality, but also merges with it, sometimes obscuring the boundaries between them, even though they are quickly reestablished. This conflict is illustrated in three major ways:

(1) Role-playing: The boys play games of pirates, robbers, Robin Hood, and Indians. This underlines their sense of escape from reality, rejection of social roles, and freedom of imagination.

(2) Deceit: Tom’s scheme to get the fence painted; trading tickets to get the Bible prize; theft of food from home; tall tales; secrets; Tom’s lie about his “dream” of the mourners. Deceit obscures the truth and raises the moral issue about the importance of honesty and trust.

(3) Dreams: Tom’s dreams emphasize the idea that he knows right from wrong and is basically a “good” person. He has nightmares about murder, Muff Potter’s imprisonment, and Injun Joe’s escape; he pretends that reality was a dream when recounting the mourners’ grief; his dream about seeing the treasure in a haunted house makes him wonder whether the whole episode was a dream or reality, but he quickly ascertains the truth.

4. Crime and Conscience

Injun Joe’s crimes (grave robbing, murder, lying, theft, revenge) dominate the plot and pose interesting parallels with Tom’s lesser crimes (lying about dream, theft of food).

They raise questions about Tom’s choice of games (robbers, pirates) and the complicity of Tom and Huck (their oath of secrecy about the murder; their failure to reveal Injun Joe’s disguise or whereabouts in hopes of “stealing” his treasure).

This notion of conscience raises moral issues and provokes feelings of guilt and questions of responsibility within the characters. Tom and Joe Harper wrestle with their consciences for running away and stealing food from families; Tom and Huck try to ease their consciences by comforting Muff Potter.

Tom’s dreams are often caused by his guilty conscience. Despite their fears, Tom accepts moral responsibility by telling the truth about Injun Joe; Huck does the same by telling of the revenge plot against the Widow Douglas.

5. Love and Friendship

Despite his initial showing off for Becky, and the ritual engagement, rejections, and flirtations, Tom learns the lessons of sacrifice (by taking Becky’s punishment) and concern (he fears for her safety in the cave).

Tom also comes to realize his love for Aunt Polly and shows generosity toward Huck (by including him in the welcome after their island adventure; by sharing the treasure and the spotlight at the Widow Douglas’s house; and by convincing him to return after he escapes from her household).

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1. Engaging and Humorous Narrative

Mark Twain’s writing style is engaging and humorous, making The Adventures of Tom Sawyer a delight to read. The novel’s witty dialogue, amusing situations, and memorable characters make it a timeless classic. The novel is full of humorous moments, such as when Tom tricks his friends into painting a fence for him, or when he and Huck Finn pretend to be pirates. These moments make the novel enjoyable to read and keep the reader entertained throughout.

2. Themes of Morality and Social Expectations

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer explores important themes of morality and social expectations, making it a thought-provoking read. The novel teaches valuable lessons about honesty, responsibility, and the consequences of our actions. Through Tom’s adventures, the reader sees how his understanding of morality evolves as he matures. Twain also explores the social expectations of the time, such as the importance of education, and how they can shape a person’s life.

3. Historical and Cultural Insight

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer provides insight into the culture and society of the mid-19th century, making it an important historical and cultural document. The novel provides a snapshot of life in a small town during a time of great change in America. The novel explores the role of children in society, the importance of education, and the impact of social and economic factors on people’s lives. The book provides a window into the past and helps us understand how we got to where we are today.


1. Use of Offensive Language and Racial Stereotypes

One of the major criticisms of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is its use of offensive language and racial stereotypes. The novel contains several instances of the N-word, which can be offensive and hurtful to readers. The novel also perpetuates negative stereotypes of African Americans, portraying them as simple-minded and uneducated. While it can be argued that this reflects the attitudes of the time, it can still be uncomfortable for modern readers.

2. Lack of Diversity

The novel also lacks diversity, with few characters who are not white or male. This lack of diversity can make the novel feel outdated and exclusionary to modern readers. While it is important to consider the context in which the novel was written, it is also important to recognize the limitations of its perspective.

3. Slow Pacing and Repetitive Scenes

Some readers may find The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to be slow-paced, with scenes that are repetitive and drawn-out. The novel contains several scenes of Tom and his friends playing games or engaging in mischief, which can feel repetitive after a while. While these scenes may be enjoyable for some readers, others may find them tedious and wish for more action or plot development.


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a classic novel that has captured the imaginations of readers for over a century. Mark Twain’s engaging writing style, memorable characters, and humorous situations make the novel a delight to read. The novel also explores important themes of morality, social expectations, and the transition from childhood to adulthood.

However, the novel is not without its flaws, including its use of offensive language and racial stereotypes, lack of diversity, and slow pacing in certain scenes. While these flaws should not be ignored, they should be considered in the context of the time in which the novel was written.

Overall, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer remains an important and entertaining piece of American literature that continues to inspire readers of all ages.

About The Author

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer. He was lauded as the “greatest humorist the United States has produced,” and William Faulkner called him “the father of American literature”.

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