The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Summary

Tom Sawyer is one of the most famous ras­cals in lit­er­a­ture — and his cre­ator, Mark Twain, was prob­a­bly just such a ras­cal, for accord­ing to the author, Tom Sawyer’s hair-rais­ing adven­tures are based on his child­hood mem­o­ries. Only spe­cial­ists can tell what fic­tion is and what truth is. For the rest of us, child­hood has nev­er before and rarely since been writ­ten about in such a light-heart­ed and excit­ing way as in Mark Twain’s nov­el. The author skill­ful­ly weaves sev­er­al episodes into one big whole: Tom has the neigh­bour­hood boys do his annoy­ing yard work for him, attends his funer­al, explores a mys­te­ri­ous cave with his friend Becky, and finds him­self in mor­tal dan­ger sev­er­al times with Huck­le­ber­ry Finn. The nov­el was an excel­lent suc­cess for Twain, sur­passed only by its more severe suc­ces­sor, The Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Summary

Take Aways

  • In 1876, Amer­i­can author Mark Twain pub­lished one of his most famous and pop­u­lar nov­els, The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer.
  • The sto­ry takes place in the fic­tion­al south­ern town of St. Peters­burg on the Mis­sis­sip­pi River.
  • Tom Sawyer is an orphan who lives with his Aunt Pol­ly, and his best friend is Huck­le­ber­ry Finn.
  • Tom likes to skip school and is a high­ly clever rascal.
  • - He even knows how to “del­e­gate” a chore to oth­er boys and get reward­ed for it.
  • Tom also man­ages to exchange all sorts of odds and ends for cer­tifi­cates of achieve­ment, mak­ing him the only one to receive a com­men­da­tion from the per­plexed teacher.
  • One night, Tom and Huck watch Indi­an Joe mur­der with a friend.
  • Tom falls in love with Becky Thatch­er, who is new in town. He explores a mys­te­ri­ous cave with her, the exit they miss by a hair’s breadth.
  • Huck saves the life of the wid­ow Dou­glas by thwart­ing Indi­an Joe’s bur­glary attempt. She is so grate­ful that she adopts him.
  • But the stray Huck does­n’t like civ­i­lized life, and it takes Tom to per­suade him to stick around.
  • In the end, Huck and Tom find a trea­sure and become filthy rich; Indi­an Joe dies in the cave.
  • The adven­tures of Tom Sawyer were so pop­u­lar that sev­er­al pirate edi­tions were imme­di­ate­ly pub­lished, much to the cha­grin of the belea­guered author.

Tom Sawyer Summary

Sweet Punishment

Orphan Tom Sawyer lives with his half-broth­er Sid at Aunt Pol­ly’s in the small town of St. Peters­burg on the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er. Unlike the obe­di­ent Sid, Tom is an authen­tic loafer who keeps escap­ing Aunt Pol­ly. One hot after­noon, he skips school to go swim­ming. Aunt Pol­ly comes up with an appro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment. Instead of play­ing with the oth­er boys on Sat­ur­day, Tom has to paint the gar­den fence. He sets to work with a heavy heart. The wall is ten feet high and thir­ty feet long, which is what he could have done that day!

To make mat­ters worse, Ben Rogers arrives, a boy guar­an­teed to make fun of him. But Tom keeps his cool. He is so busy paint­ing that he bare­ly notices Ben, and he devotes him­self to his work with such ded­i­ca­tion that Ben is final­ly con­vinced that paint­ing the fence must be a plea­sure. He asks Tom to give it a try. Tom is reluc­tant, how­ev­er, and only lets him try when Ben gives him an apple. He does the same with oth­er boys who come along and soon have a dead rat, a drag­on, an old win­dow frame, twelve mar­bles, and many oth­er great things. The fence is also paint­ed, and Aunt Pol­ly prais­es her fos­ter son for his hard work.

Sunday School

Before Sun­day school, Tom strug­gles to mem­o­rize his Bible vers­es. Mean­while, his cousin Mary wor­ries about his appear­ance and gives him a tin bowl of water and a bar of soap to wash him­self. Tom moist­ens the soap, pours the water, and wipes his face with a tow­el. Mary notices the trick and takes mat­ters into her own hands. She but­tons his jack­et, puts a col­lar and a sil­ly straw hat on his head, and even forces him to wear greased shoes. Dis­grun­tled, Tom goes to Sun­day school all dressed up. At the door, he begins a live­ly barter: he trades a piece of liquorice and a fish­hook for a yel­low slip of paper from Ben, rep­re­sent­ing a com­men­da­tion from the school. Hard­ly any­one in the class can recite his les­son, but with a lot of whis­per­ing and pre­tend­ing, the stu­dents final­ly man­age to do so, and each receives a blue slip in return. For ten blue slips, you get a red one; for ten red ones, you get a yel­low one; and for ten yel­low slips, you are cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly pre­sent­ed with a Bible. Today’s ser­vice is inter­rupt­ed by new cit­i­zens’ arrival: Attor­ney Thatch­er and his fam­i­ly, includ­ing his love­ly daugh­ter Becky. It’s a good thing Tom has ten yel­low slips today! To the teacher’s amaze­ment, he shows them off to every­one, receives the Bible, and makes quite an impres­sion on Becky.

Tom and Becky

On his way to school on Mon­day, Tom meets Huck­le­ber­ry Finn, a stray who nev­er goes to school and lives in a bar­rel. Huck wears long men’s clothes that flap around him and are a ter­ror to the adults in the vil­lage. But he is well received by the boys. Tom makes a date with him for the night. When the teacher asks him why he is late for school, he bold­ly replies that he has been chat­ting with Huck. His pun­ish­ment is to sit on the girls’ side. He sits next to Becky. At first, she moves away from him, but Tom quick­ly gets her atten­tion by mak­ing draw­ings on his black­board. Final­ly, he writes, “I love you”, and Becky is flat­tered. Dur­ing recess, Tom sug­gests to Becky that they get engaged. She must tell him that she loves him too. He kiss­es her, and they promise nev­er to mar­ry any­one else. But then Tom makes an embar­rass­ing mis­take: he explains that engage­ment is love­ly because he has already expe­ri­enced it with Amy Lawrence. Becky is imme­di­ate­ly furi­ous and jeal­ous. She does­n’t want to talk to him any­more. Tom can’t change her mind and runs out of the school.

The Murder in the Graveyard

Tom lies in his bed, wait­ing for Huck to meow out­side his win­dow at mid­night. The hours pass slow­ly, and the nois­es become more and more eerie. Final­ly, Huck arrives, and Tom quick­ly climbs out the win­dow. Huck is already down­stairs with a dead cat. Togeth­er, they walk to the grave­yard. The graves are all sunk in; instead of head­stones, there are only weath­ered wood­en cross­es. The boys go to the grave of Ross Williams, who had recent­ly died. Here, they plan an adven­tur­ous action: they want to wait until the dev­il comes for the dead man, then throw the cat after him and say a spell to get rid of his warts. They feel very uneasy about this. They hear voic­es and think the spir­its are com­ing to get them. But then they real­ize that the voic­es are com­ing from peo­ple made of flesh and blood. Anx­ious­ly hid­ing behind elms, they watch as the dread­ed Indi­an Joe, the drunk­ard Muff Pot­ter, and the town doc­tor open a grave and steal the body. They argue about pay­ment, and Pot­ter and the doc­tor come to blows. When Pot­ter is hit and falls to the ground, Indi­an Joe grabs his knife and plunges it into the doc­tor’s chest. As the doc­tor breathes his last, Indi­an Joe puts the knife in Pot­ter’s hand. The doc­tor regains con­scious­ness, and Joe tells him that he is the mur­der­er. But he assures him that he will not betray him. Shocked, the boys run away and make a blood oath: they will nev­er speak of this.

Tom Becomes a Pirate

Soon after, the mur­der is dis­cov­ered. Muff Pot­ter is put behind bars. At school, Tom con­tin­ues to be ignored by Becky. Sad­ly, he decides to dis­ap­pear and become a pirate. With Joe Harp­er, who his moth­er beat for some­thing he did­n’t do, and Huck, Tom leaves at mid­night. The three steal a raft and row to a wood­ed island in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er with some stolen sup­plies. They set up camp in the deep woods. They light a fire and roast the bacon they brought with them. Free­dom tastes won­der­ful! For break­fast, they catch and fry some fish. Then they swim, explore the for­est, and learn how to smoke from Huck. At first, Tom and Joe feel nau­seous, but the sec­ond time they smoke, it works well. In the after­noon, they hear a loud bang­ing: they see a steam­boat, appar­ent­ly look­ing for drowned peo­ple in the riv­er. Grad­u­al­ly, the boys real­ize that it is them. Tom sneaks into Aunt Pol­ly’s house at night and hears her mourn for him. The next day, he tells his fel­low pirates that a funer­al is being planned for her. Over­joyed, the boys hide in the church and sud­den­ly find them­selves before the mourn­ers. Aunt Pol­ly and Joe Harper’s moth­er are over­joyed to have the chil­dren back. They are hailed as heroes in the small town.

Tom and Huck as Treasure Diggers

One day, Tom and Huck decide to dig for a hid­den trea­sure. While Huck wants to get his share imme­di­ate­ly and buy cake and soda dai­ly, Tom wants to get mar­ried. After dig­ging in sev­er­al places to no avail, Tom sug­gests they try the “haunt­ed house”. The boys explore the house, leave their pick­ax­es in the base­ment, and climb to the attic. Sud­den­ly, two men enter the house. One is a ragged jour­ney­man the boys don’t know, and the oth­er is Indi­an Joe. The men talk about a “thing” they shot and con­sid­er whether they should hide the mon­ey here in the haunt­ed house. They decide against it and hide the loot in “num­ber two where the cross is”. Then they leave the house. Tom and Huck excit­ed­ly dis­cuss what “num­ber two” might mean. Final­ly, they agree that it must be a room in an inn. Since there are only two inns in the vil­lage, Tom quick­ly finds out that room num­ber two in one of the inns is occu­pied by a lawyer. How­ev­er, room num­ber two in the oth­er inn is always dark, and some­one only comes out at night. Using a bunch of stolen keys, Tom and Huck sneak into the dark inn at night. Huck keeps watch while Tom tries the keys. After what seems like an eter­ni­ty, he emerges, pale with fright. Stam­mer­ing reports that Indi­an Joe is asleep on the floor of the room and has almost stepped on his hand.

Huck as a Hero

Dur­ing the fol­low­ing nights, Huck watch­es the back door of the inn. Even­tu­al­ly, he sees two fig­ures com­ing out. He fol­lows them to the Wid­ow Dou­glas’s house and over­hears an eerie con­ver­sa­tion. Indi­an Joe and his com­pan­ion are plan­ning to rob the wid­ow and muti­late her face. Dis­traught, Huck retreats and quick­ly runs to his neigh­bour. He lis­tens to Huck­’s sto­ry, arms him­self and his two sons, and pur­sues the two crim­i­nals. A gun­fight ensues, but the scoundrels man­age to escape. When the wid­ow hears about the planned rob­bery that Huck foiled, she is very grate­ful to the boy. Huck has a bad fever, and she nurs­es him back to health. But his main con­cern is still the treasure.

In the Cave

Tom has made up with Becky, tak­ing the blame for a prank she played on the teacher. Becky invites her class­mates to a pic­nic. Since it can get late, they arrange for Tom and Becky to spend the night with friends. The chil­dren run around and play hide-and-seek in the McDou­glas cave. They know only a tiny part of the branch­ing cor­ri­dors. Tom does­n’t see the cave any bet­ter than the oth­ers, and after look­ing at the sta­lac­tites for a long time with Becky, they real­ize they can’t hear the oth­er chil­dren. They run anx­ious­ly through the cor­ri­dors, but Tom soon admits he can’t find the exit. They share the rest of the cake, and Becky cud­dles up to Tom and cries. As the hours pass, Becky believes that death is near. Tom leaves her at a water source and explores more pas­sages with the help of a kite string. Sud­den­ly, he sees a human hand bare­ly ten meters before him. Tom shouts joy­ful­ly, but then he sees who it belongs to: Indi­an Joe! The crim­i­nal is also star­tled and flees into the dark­ness while Tom returns to Becky. Soon, he starts anoth­er search and final­ly dis­cov­ers a bit of day­light. Togeth­er with Becky, he squeezes through a nar­row open­ing — they are saved. St. Peters­burg is over­joyed to have the chil­dren back. The wor­ried may­or has the entrance to the cave board­ed up with strong boards so that no one can get lost there again. When Tom finds out two weeks lat­er, he tells the adults that Indi­an Joe is still in the cave.

The Treasure

The cave opens imme­di­ate­ly. Indi­an Joe is lying behind the boards — dead. Next to him is his knife, which broke off when he tried to cut through the boards. Tom tells Huck that the mon­ey was nev­er in the inn but in the cave. So, Huck wants to go back to the cave with Tom. They bor­row a boat and go there. Tom shows Huck the spot where he and Becky came out in the rock face. Now that they have such a tremen­dous secret entrance, he sug­gests form­ing a band of rob­bers. It would be even bet­ter than being pirates. The two enter the cave, and Tom quick­ly finds where he met Indi­an Joe. There are two carved into the cave wall under a cross. They see the entrance to a secret chasm when they dig under it. They have bare­ly tak­en a few steps when they encounter a trea­sure chest. They quick­ly filled the bags they brought with them. When the mon­ey is lat­er count­ed in the small town, the total is over $12,000.

Huck Becomes Civilized

The two new­ly rich boys are treat­ed like heroes at a sur­prise par­ty. The grate­ful wid­ow Dou­glas takes Huck in and buys him good suits and shoes. But he does­n’t like civ­i­lized life at all: he has to get up ear­ly, eat at set times, and sleep in bed­clothes so he can’t find a spot. He is not allowed to shout, swear, or smoke. In short, it could be more enjoy­able. Beck­y’s father is very grate­ful to Tom for res­cu­ing his daugh­ter. He wants to use his con­nec­tions to send Tom to the mil­i­tary acad­e­my. Tom him­self sets up his band of rob­bers for the time being. When Huck leaves the wid­ow after three weeks and returns to live in his bar­rel in rags, Tom seeks him out: Huck must go back, or he is an “inde­cent sub­ject” who does not belong in his band of rob­bers. Huck com­plies and, from then on, accepts the tor­tures of civ­i­lized life to become a decent robber.

About the Text

As the title sug­gests, The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer is a col­lec­tion of some­times tur­bu­lent episodes: Tom’s fence paint­ing, the vis­it to his funer­al, and the explo­ration of the cave all are mem­o­rable episodes, some of which have become known as indi­vid­ual sto­ries. Most can be assigned to the plot com­plex­es “Tom and Becky” and “Tom, Huck and Indi­an Joe”. The book serves sev­er­al gen­res at once: it is a rogue’s sto­ry, but it also has the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a bil­dungsro­man. Twain pep­pered it with satire that is usu­al­ly under­stood only by adults, but at the same time, it is a book for young peo­ple. The nar­ra­tor looks back on the events in the fic­tion­al city of St. Peters­burg with a con­fi­dent nos­tal­gic wink: he reports in the past tense and knows more about the char­ac­ters than they reveal in lit­er­al speech; he is, there­fore, an omni­scient nar­ra­tor. Only in the sequel, Huck­le­ber­ry Finn’s Adven­tures, did Twain find the orig­i­nal first-per­son nar­ra­tive tone of his hero, Huck. A unique fea­ture of Tom Sawyer’s Adven­tures is the brash South­ern dialect in which Mark Twain wrote the sto­ry. Only a lit­tle of that remains in this Ger­man trans­la­tion, but it is still a delight­ful read.


  • The friends Tom Sawyer and Huck­le­ber­ry Finn are in many ways oppo­sites: The wan­der­ing Huck has a much more severe world of expe­ri­ence than the shel­tered Tom. How­ev­er, the lat­ter’s imag­i­na­tion, drawn main­ly from nov­els and adven­ture sto­ries, strong­ly influ­ences the com­par­a­tive­ly naive Huck.
  • Through­out the nov­el, Tom goes through sev­er­al stages that make him seem more mature and adult by the end. In this respect, the book is also a com­ing-of-age nov­el. First come the mis­chie­vous pranks (e.g., the fenc­ing episode), the grave, some­times life-threat­en­ing con­fronta­tions with Indi­an Joe, and the cave experience.
  • The cave is a clas­sic sym­bol of the hero’s com­ing of age. Tom dis­tances him­self from his peers, expe­ri­ences the adven­ture in the cave — and returns to the bosom of soci­ety in a mature state. His matu­ri­ty is also demon­strat­ed by the fact that he is the one who final­ly con­vinces Huck to give up his life as a drifter.
  • The pat­tern of death and res­ur­rec­tion runs through­out the nov­el: bod­ies are dug up, Tom and Huck attend their funer­als, and Tom and Becky are res­ur­rect­ed from the McDou­glas cave.
  • Many com­men­ta­tors con­sid­er the nov­el auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. In fact, Twain him­self points out in his pref­ace that some of Tom’s adven­tures actu­al­ly hap­pened to him and that the two main char­ac­ters are based on the mem­o­ries of some of his com­rades of his youth. Oth­er char­ac­ters are based on real peo­ple: the lawyer Thatch­er is based on Twain’s father, Aunt Pol­ly on his moth­er, and Becky on his first girlfriend.

Historical Background

Tom Sawyer’s adven­ture takes place in the fic­tion­al, qui­et lit­tle south­ern town of St. Peters­burg, on the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er in Mis­souri, around the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tu­ry. Twain based the city on his home­town of Han­ni­bal. The French found­ed the first Euro­pean set­tle­ment in what would become Mis­souri in 1735, and it was called Ste. Genevieve. Before that, the area was pri­mar­i­ly inhab­it­ed by Native Amer­i­cans from the Sioux and Algo­nquin tribes. St. Louis was found­ed in 1764. Mis­souri was sold to the Span­ish but was returned to the French around 1800 and final­ly became the 24th state of the USA in 1821. The indi­vid­ual ter­ri­to­ries of the USA had joined togeth­er in 1781 to form a loose con­fed­er­a­tion of states under the Arti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion. How­ev­er, the agree­ment was not worth the paper it was writ­ten on, so the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Con­ven­tion, chaired by George Wash­ing­ton, met and draft­ed the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, which was final­ly rat­i­fied in 1789. Wash­ing­ton went on to become the first Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. Dur­ing this time, the two major polit­i­cal par­ties, the Fed­er­al­ists and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic-Repub­li­cans, were formed. Wash­ing­ton’s suc­ces­sor, Thomas Jef­fer­son, pur­chased land and pushed the bound­aries of the for­mer colonies west­ward (“push­ing the fron­tier”). The first half of the 19th cen­tu­ry saw the emer­gence of three dis­tinct eco­nom­ic regions: the North, dom­i­nat­ed by indus­try; the South, dom­i­nat­ed by plan­ta­tions; and the West, dom­i­nat­ed by agri­cul­ture and ranch­ing. As the eco­nom­ic regions also dif­fered cul­tur­al­ly and social­ly, the dif­fer­ences between the North and the South became so pro­nounced that the Civ­il War broke out in 1861 over the issue of slavery.


In 1861, at the begin­ning of the Civ­il War, Mark Twain enlist­ed as a vol­un­teer in the Army of the South. But this mil­i­tary inter­lude in the cav­al­ry was short-lived. Only a year lat­er, he tried to launch a lit­er­ary career. By the end of the 1860s, he had estab­lished him­self as a writer, mar­ried into an influ­en­tial New York fam­i­ly, and set­tled with his wife in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut. Here, Twain began work on The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer, delib­er­ate­ly turn­ing away from his ear­li­er large-scale satir­i­cal writ­ings to set down on paper the com­par­a­tive­ly “small” adven­tures of his youth­ful hero. The book was writ­ten in three sec­tions — the win­ter of 1872/73, the sum­mer of 1874, and the spring/summer of 1875. Twain had ini­tial­ly planned to include Tom’s trans­for­ma­tion from child to teenag­er to adult but aban­doned that plan: Tom remains a boy until the end of the book, with the tran­si­tion to the adult world yet to come. Twain drew ideas for cre­at­ing the title char­ac­ter from his acquain­tance with three boys from his child­hood. The book was pub­lished on June 8, 1876 — but in Eng­land. The rea­son: Twain want­ed to secure the Eng­lish copy­right for his novel.

History of Impact

“Although my book is pri­mar­i­ly intend­ed for the amuse­ment of boys and girls, I hope that men and women will not avoid it for that rea­son,” Twain wrote in his pref­ace to Tom Sawyer’s Adven­tures. That faint hope was soon more than sur­passed by real­i­ty — albeit in a very dif­fer­ent way than Twain had imag­ined. The book was a mas­sive suc­cess in Eng­land, and even before the Amer­i­can edi­tion was pub­lished, it was hijacked by a Cana­di­an pirate press. The pirat­ed copies soon reached the Unit­ed States. Twain was furi­ous, and it was not until four months after the boot­leg­ging that his pub­lish­er released the autho­rized and illus­trat­ed Amer­i­can edi­tion. By this time, the author had already lost, by his reck­on­ing, some $10,000 — an impres­sive illus­tra­tion of the sto­ry’s immense pop­u­lar­i­ty. Twain was so depressed by the finan­cial dis­as­ter that he did not touch a pen for sev­er­al years. When he final­ly pub­lished Huck­le­ber­ry Finn’s Adven­tures in 1885, it was sub­ti­tled “Tom Sawyer’s Com­pan­ion,” which also boost­ed sales of the ear­li­er book. Reviews of the nov­el appeared in all the major news­pa­pers. A review of the Eng­lish edi­tion in the Lon­don Exam­in­er with many excerpts from the book was reprint­ed by sev­er­al Amer­i­can news­pa­pers so that the nov­el and its char­ac­ters were very famil­iar to the Amer­i­can pub­lic through this par­tial “preprint.

Not least because Tom Sawyer’s adven­tures still echo the Amer­i­can dream in such a child­like and naïve way, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the South­ern boy is unbro­ken to this day; he is prac­ti­cal­ly the arche­type of the rascal.

About the Author

Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Lang­horne Clemens, was an icon­ic Amer­i­can author born on Novem­ber 30, 1835, in Flori­da, Mis­souri. His child­hood in Han­ni­bal, a quaint town on the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er, pro­found­ly influ­enced his most cel­e­brat­ed char­ac­ters, Tom Sawyer and Huck­le­ber­ry Finn. Twain embarked on a diverse career path, from type­set­ting to pilot­ing a Mis­sis­sip­pi steam­boat, from which he took his famous pseu­do­nym. His var­ied expe­ri­ences enriched his writ­ing, lead­ing to clas­sics like “The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn.” Twain’s lit­er­ary jour­ney was marked by humour, social cri­tique, and the explo­ration of human nature. Despite finan­cial hard­ships and per­son­al tragedies, Twain’s work remained beloved world­wide. He died on April 21, 1910, in Red­ding, Con­necti­cut, leav­ing a last­ing lega­cy in Amer­i­can literature.



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