49 pages 1 hour read

Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1876

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Summary and Study Guide


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an 1876 novel by Mark Twain written for both youth and adult readers. It is a story about Tom Sawyer, a boy from the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri. Tom lives a life of constant adventure, drama, self-aggrandizement, and self-inflicted woes as he comes of age. The novel is equal parts comical and poignant, dark and light, and is one of Twain’s many odes to the pleasures and freedoms of childhood. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer examines themes of Childhood and Growing Up, Moral and Ethical Development, Freedom, and more.

This guide references the Kindle Dover Thrift Editions: Classic Novels version.

Content Warning: Mark Twain wrote in the 19th century, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is set prior to the American Civil War. The source material contains terms and epithets that are outdated and offensive. The most acute example of this is the name and portrayal of the villain “Injun Joe,” whose name is replicated in this guide only to differentiate him from another character named Joe Harper.

Plot Summary

When the story begins, Tom lives with his Aunt Polly and his brother, Sid. Aunt Polly is a reluctant disciplinarian who loves Tom but wishes that he would behave. She is constantly punishing Tom but knows that he is unlikely to learn from his mistakes or her imposed consequences. When she catches Tom skipping school, she makes him work on Saturday, whitewashing a fence. Tom turns the situation to his advantage, tricking a group of boys into doing the work for him. In fact, they pay him in trinkets and treasures for the privilege.

One evening, Tom sees a blond girl—Becky Thatcher—in the garden of her house and instantly falls in love with her. At school, he tells her that he loves her, and she agrees to become engaged. However, when Tom mentions that he was formerly engaged to a girl named Amy Lawrence, Becky is heartbroken and leaves him.

Shortly after, Tom spends an afternoon with the town’s child vagabond, Huckleberry Finn. They go to a graveyard with a dead cat, which Huck says they can use to cure warts. While at the graveyard, they see two men from town, Injun Joe and Muff Potter, who are stealing a body for Doctor Robinson. When they insist on more money, Robinson protests, leading to a fight in which Injun Joe stabs him to death. When Potter regains consciousness after a blow to the head, Injun Joe tells him he is responsible for killing the doctor.

Tom, Huck, and their friend Joe Harper flee to Jackson Island, where they plan to live as pirates. Soon, they are homesick, which only worsens when Tom realizes that a boat is searching the river for their bodies. Everyone thinks they drowned, which thrills Tom. One night, he sneaks back to the mainland and sees the pain his disappearance is causing Aunt Polly. They return and reappear for their joint funeral and are briefly celebrated as heroes.

Potter is convicted of Robinson’s murder, which bothers Tom, who knows he is innocent. When he testifies against Injun Joe—despite his oath to Huck that they would never tell—Injun Joe escapes through a window.

Days later, Huck and Tom decide to look for buried treasure. They dig in a house where they see Injun Joe in disguise, along with a companion. Injun Joe mentions that there is a second hiding place beneath a cross. Over the next week, Huck follows Injun Joe, looking for a chance to rob him. When he overhears Injun Joe’s plan to attack Widow Douglas, Huck intervenes by getting help, but asks to remain anonymous.

Tom and Becky get lost in a cave during a picnic. Tom finds their way out after days. Judge Thatcher says he sealed the cave, which leads Tom to tell him that Injun Joe is still inside. When they open the cave, Injun Joe has died from starvation.

Tom and Huck return to the cave via Tom’s exit and find the gold under a cross that is written on the wall with candle smoke. They go back and present their fortune to the adults in town. Widow Douglas says she will take charge of Huck. Huck hates it, but Tom begs him to stay “respectable” so that Huck can join his gang of robbers.

In a brief conclusion, Mark Twain writes that he ends the story because to go further would be to tell the story of a man. He wished only to tell the story of a boy. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a landmark coming-of-age story about a dynamic character. It also introduces the character of Huckleberry Finn, whose own namesake novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—would become even more celebrated and influential among readers and writers alike.