The Growth and Development of Tom Sawyer

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer


In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the pre-teen protagonist Tom has a propensity for rebellion and mischief. His vulnerability and uncontrollable nature take him on adventures the average child would not consider. Tom’s guardian, Aunt Polly, struggles to keep an eye on him and feels unsuccessful in guiding him to act more responsibly. The immature Tom is however welcoming of the strange adventures that often take place with his friends, the equally misguided Huck and Joe. Although the Tom Sawyer we meet at the beginning of the novel is an immature boy who gravitates towards bad influences, the adventures he goes serve to build his maturity, encourage his growth and create the circumstances for him to become a so called ‘town hero’ by the end of the novel.


Mark Twain doesn’t hesitate to establish the young and vulnerable Tom Sawyer’s immaturity. From the very beginning of the novel, the author paints Tom as a mischievous boy. When Aunt Polly warned Tom not to go into the pantry and take out any of the jam. We see the rebelliousness that defines Tom’s character throughout the novel in his disobedience. He doesn’t listen to Aunty Polly’s warning and defies her orders by going behind her back and nonchalantly taking the jar of jam from the shelf and indulging in the jam. Tom makes a mess with it, and gets jam all over his face and clothes, making it very obvious to anyone that he ate some of the jam. Moments later, Aunt Polly finds Tom and seizes him out of anger: ‘There! I might ‘a thought of that lost. What you been doing in there? … Well, I know. It’s jam, that’s what it is. Forty times I’ve said if you didn’t let that jam alone I’d skin you” (2). By fleeing from the situation and not owning up to his actions, Tom demonstrates the influence of tenacity and immaturity on his behavior. Tom’s rebellious streak pops up again when Aunt Polly forces him to whitewash the front fence as punishment. Tom doesn’t like to work so he opposes the job required of him by using mischievous methods to get out of doing the work himself. A master manipulator, Tom uses reverse psychology on young Ben, who was initially reluctant, to become interested in doing the job for Tom. By claiming that whitewashing is a hard task and rejecting Ben’s (fellow town child) offer to do it for him, Tom’s cunning allows him to entice Ben into wanting so much that Ben offers to complete the job as well as the rest of his apple. Selfishly, Tom allows Ben to do whitewash the fence for him. Encouraged by his success, the devious boy sets up a system for the other towns children, that in order to help whitewash the fence they would have to give him a goodie in return. Tom has played the children, having them complete his punishment while he relaxes: “And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist (Tom) sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched on the apple, and planned the laughter of more innocents” (14). This elaborate scheme shows Tom’s immaturity as he clearly does not understand the importance of completing the whitewashing himself as an act of repentance for taking the jam. His cunning and selfish nature cloud his judgment and instead his only intention is to get out of doing the whitewashing by any means necessary.

Mischief and Cowardice

With the emergence of Huck Finn in Tom’s life we see an increase in the intensity and dangerousness of Tom’s adventures. Huck Finn, a scruffy looking older boy, is looked down upon by the town for his troublesome nature. Many parents/guardians in the town disapprove of their children engaging in activities with Huck. Rather than steering clear of danger, the impetuous Tom courts danger by befriending Huck and foremost looking up to him. This friendship with Huck demonstrates that Tom gravitates towards bad influences and mischief which hints at another reason his immaturity. Together, the two boys embark on adventures that see that reaching new levels of mischief but also serve as a test of their maturity. When Huck steals a dead cat, he preaches to Tom that by swinging a dead cat over a dead body it will cure warts. To prove the belief, Tom decides to meet Huck at the graveyard in the night. However, the bravery that bolstered them to go to a graveyard at night quickly turned to fear as is evidenced by the caution that the boys showed in making slow steady steps over the graves. They were both terrified of being in a graveyard at night. Later when they spot three manly figures in the shadow on a small hill, the boys become even more terrified and hide behind a tree in an attempt to go unnoticed. They recognized the three men as Dr. Robinson, Muff Potter, and Injun Joe. The boys watched while the men snatched bodies from graves. They were witnesses when the conflict arose when Injun Joe wanted his money from Dr. Robinson before he started removing the corpse from the grave. Tom and Huck saw Dr. Robinson refuse Injun Joe, when the two began to tussle, and when Injun Joe takes Muff Potters knife and kills Dr. Robinson.

The twist to this violent scenario was Muff Potter was unstably drunk and lying on the ground not aware of his surroundings. Despite being eyewitnesses to the stabbing, the boys watch in silence as Injun Joe puts the knife in Muff’s hands: “After which he put the fatal knife in Potter’s open right hand, and sat down on the dismantled coffin. Three — four — five minutes passed, and then Potter began to stir and moan” (72). Despite the minutes that passed between the stabbing and Potter’s revival, the boys did not find the courage to sound an alarm and stop Injun Joe in his tracks. Even when Muff awakens and comes to some realization seeing the bloody knife in hand and Dr. Robinson dead on the ground the boys remained in their hiding place and stayed silent. What is even stronger evidence of the boy’s cowardice is the fact that they continued to keep their silence at the emotional reaction of Muff Potter when he and Injun Joe have dialogue where Muff is frightened and unaware that he committed the murder and Injun Joe lies and claims that Muff did it. “I thought I’d got sober. I’d no business to drink to-night. But It’s in my head yet – worse’n when we started here. I’m all in a muddle; can’t recollect anything of it hardly. Tell me, Joe-honest, now, old feller — did I do it, Joe? I never meant to; ‘pon my soul and honor I never meant to, Joe. Tell me how it was, Joe. Oh, It’s awful — and him so young and promising. Why, you two was scuffling, and he fetched you one with the headboard, and you fell flat, and then up you come, all reeling and staggering like, and snatched the knife and jammed it into him just as he fetched you another awful clip, and here you’ve laid dead as a wedge till now” (72-73). The chance to save Muff Potter from the self-pity and agony of thinking he committed murder was in the hands of Tom and Huck but neither had the nerve to bring clarity to the situation. In a characteristic absence of good sense, the two flee out of fright and promised each other to keep it a secret and not tell anyone. Tom writes a treaty and both sign their initials using their own blood, a juvenile reaction to a grave issue.

Carelessness and Irresponsibilty

Joe Harper, a companion of Tom Sawyer adds fuel to the mischief of Tom and Huck’s adventures. You could probably call them the three stooges when they unite, a fact that becomes clear when analyzing their adventure to Jackson Island. One day when Tom leaves school early in a deeply depressed state, he stumbles upon Joe in a similar state. Joe is crying and claims he recently got whipped by his mother for eating the cream. Tom and Joe decide to head out to Jackson’s Island to get away from the town. In doing so, Tom is rebelling against school and the system it underpins, where he is constantly being put “under the bus” and treated differently than the other students in his class. While Joe is rebelling against his mother for the beatings. Tom and Joe agree to not telling anyone where they are going. Their lack of foresight that something serious could happen to two young vulnerable boys and no one would know is revealed through their careless decision. Their boyish thinking that to solve their problems they could exist in a world without rules and adults to guide them reinforces their shortsightedness. Without a care in the world and free to do as they please, the three boys gallivant and pretend to be pirates on the island. Huck even teaches the two boys to smoke pipes of tobacco. “These novices had never smoked anything before but cigars made of grape-vine, and they ‘bit’ the tongue, and were not considered manly, anyway. Now they stretched themselves out on their elbows and began to puff charily, and with slender confidence. The smoke had an unpleasant taste, and they gagged a little, but Tom said: ‘Why it’s just as easy! If I’d a knowed this was all, I’d a learnt long ago.’” (118).

Tom’s inclination to behave irresponsibly and flout authority is encouraged in the presence of Huck Finn. Tom’s and Joe’s innocence have been crushed as they undergo peer pressure to indulge in smoking from Huck. Yet Tom continues to marvel at Huck who does nothing to rehabilitate the younger more impressionable boys. Mark Twain uses these situations to clearly outline Tom’s immaturity and vulnerability. Further, when the entire town becomes afraid and worried that they all drowned in the lake by Jackson’s island, because there hasn’t been sign of them for days, the author uses the boys reaction as a further indication of their naivety. The head of town sends commanders on rafts in the lake to shoot cannons in the lake so that drowned bodies would rise to the surface: ” ‘they done that last summer when Bill Turner got drowned; they shoot a cannon over the water and that makes him come up to the top” (105). Little did the townspeople know, Tom, Huck, and Joe were having the time of their lives. In spite of the defiance that led Tom to leave home without telling anyone and his thinking that he was mature enough to survive an adventure away from home for so long, Tom begins to get homesick. He visits home without anyone knowing. Even after seeing that Aunt Polly is in tears along with Sid (Tom’s half-brother) and Mary (Tom’s cousin) in sorrow, Tom heads back to Jackson’s Island. The boys decide to make an appearance in town the following day. The town has prepared a funeral for the boys and the boys have prepared to “rise from the dead.” The boys hid out of sight and watched from upstairs in the gallery as the townspeople slowly sit down in their sits with their faces full of sadness. Half way through the funeral service, Tom, Huck, and Joe make their way down the stairs where they greet everyone: “The congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Joe next, and Huck, a ruin of dropping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear. They had been hid in the unused gallery, listening to their own funeral sermon!” (127). Tom’s immaturity is evident in the fact that he found amusement in the solemnity of a funeral. His decision to hide and prank the town shows that he is so childish that he does not understand the difference between pranks that are funny and those that are not. The fact that he prioritized a prank over consoling his devastated family shows that his judgment is deeply flawed and seriously lacking a mature perspective.

Showing Off

Even Tom’s interactions with girls at the beginning of the novel portray a clear image of immature behavior in the face of young love. Mark Twain uses the interaction of Tom and Amy Lawrence as a way of showing just how far reaching Tom’s immaturity is. Tom wasn’t just a mischievous boy who found trouble wherever it lurked, he was also so childish that he did not know how to display his affections in a manner that wasn’t off putting. When Tom sees Amy Lawrence in her front yard, picking flowers from the garden, Amy hadn’t noticed Tom. Tom is very shy and doesn’t want to engage in any conservations with her but instead: “pretended he did not know she was present, and began to ‘show off’ in all sorts of absurd boyish ways in order to win her admiration. He kept up this grotesque foolishness for some little time; but by-and-by, while he was in the midst of some dangerous gymnastic performances” (18).

Abstaining from Pleasurable Things

However, a turning point in Tom’s growth and development begins when he joins the Cadet of Temperance. From this point on in the novel, readers can examine that Tom’s decision making skills improve not only in a mature manner but also a positively moral manner. In joining the Cadet of Temperance, Tom: “promised to abstain from smoking, chewing tobacco, and profanity as long as he remained a member” (155). Tom who has previously taken oaths to join a gang and hide the secret that Injun Joe is a murder seems to be finally taking oaths that are of a more upstanding nature. By promising to abstain from things that Tom is known to indulge in it is clear that Tom is not only willing to submit to authority but also willing to give up things he found pleasurable. Though Tom’s maturity may be questioned by his motivation for joining the Cadets (to wear the Cadet’s uniform) and his decision to quit as soon as Judge Frazier recovers from his illness (once Tom realized that he won’t get the chance to wear the uniform at Judge Frazier’s funeral), the fact that he took the step to join the Cadets, a group subject to rules, shows that he was starting to turn from some of his childish ways.

Telling the Truth

Tom’s redemption really speeds up as the murder trial for Dr. Robinson inched closer. As the town grew more convinced of Muff Potter’s guilt, Tom and Huck grew more thoughtful about the secret they were hiding. Twain juxtaposes the boy’s treatment of Muff Potter with the way the town treated the man on trial as a subtle hint at the fact that Tom and Huck were growing up. Their fear that Injun Joe would kill them led them to pledge once more to keep their roles as witnesses a secret but as a way to ease their conscience, the boys slipped little treats into Muff Potter’s cell to comfort him about his imminent conviction and sentencing. These small acts of kindness helped to relieve Tom’s conscience but not enough for him to be completely satisfied with his decision to remain silent. Tom understanding that his silence could send an innocent man to prison is the fuel that kept his conscience burning. We see Tom begin to acknowledge his emotions as a preteen. When he drops off the treats at Muff Potter’s cell, Muff Potter always thanks him, but Tom’s guilt and conscience bothers him because deep down he knows that Injun Joe is the actual murderer. Good sense finally prevails when we see Tom approach this tangled situation he is stuck between, whether to tell the truth or not, with maturity and good morals. Putting all consequences behind he made up his mind to not only act as a hero towards the town but also put himself in a step further to his growth. The trial begins and the atmosphere is tensed. The Judge calls on Tom Sawyer as an eye of witness to express his side of the story: “Tom hesitated and looked confused. ‘Speak out, my boy — don’t be diffident. The truth is always respectable” (164.)When Tom beings to tell story, taking pauses as he looks at Injun Joe, Injun Joe is looking at Tom with anger and evil in his eyes as he has a knife out as a threatening mechanism. “Tom began — hesitatingly at first, but, as he warmed to his subject, his words flowed more and more easily; in a little while every sound ceased but his own voice; every eye fixed itself upon him; with parted lips and bated breath the audience hung upon his words, taking no note of time, rapt in the ghastly fascinations of the tale. The strain upon pent emotion reached its climax when the boy said, ‘And as the doctor fetched the board round and Muff Potter fell, Injun Joe jumped with the knife and – ‘Crash! Quick as lightning, the half-breed sprang for a window, tore his way through all opposers, and was gone!” (164-165). Tom, the boy who hid in fear and pledged his silence, comes to rescue and finally tells the truth about the murder of Dr. Robinson. We see in this moment his growth and maturity expanding as he owns up to his emotions and conscience. Tom can be placed in the category of a hero as he ties up the loose ends of this controversial murder by turning in Injun Joe and corroborating the truth.

Standing Up for Himself

Tom’s last adventure really ties up his maturity and growth level and provides more evidence of his hero status. Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher (The Judge’s daughter) were on a panic, when they were exploring and got lost in the cave. They stumble upon Injun Joe drunk and fast asleep on the ground. A slight movement of Tom’s foot wakes Injun Joe and Tom takes off running in fear. He climbs up a couple rocks, while Injun Joe follows behind. Tom lifts his leg over the ledge and forcefully kicks Injun Joe off the rocks he was climbing up on. Injun Joe falls off and doesn’t get up. Tom in this moment is taking control and standing up for himself. At the beginning of the novel, we would always see Tom running away from his problems but now is standing up for himself, albeit in self-defense. Tom and Becky quickly find an exit to the cave and leave. The following day Tom and Huck go back on the hunt to find the lost treasure hidden by Injun Joe. The boys head back to the cave where Tom and Becky got lost. “By this time everything was ready and the boys entered the hole, Tom in the lead. They toiled their way to the farther end of the tunnel” (229). Tom stumbles upon some clay with candle grease and gives Tom an idea to dig under it as Injun Joe might have hid it there. “I bet you the money is under the rock. I’m going to dig in the clay… Huck began to dig and scratch now. Some boards were soon uncovered and removed. They had concealed a natural chasm which led under the rock…’My goodness, Huck looky here!” (230-231). They found the hidden treasure that was stolen by Injun Joe. This is another instance where Tom stands out to qualify for the “town hero.”


Mark Twain does an excellent job of character development through the growth of Tom Sawyer. By showing Tom’s transformation from a boy who avoided responsibility and favored mischief to one who stands up for justice and honesty, we see the growth of a character who would not have undergone this process if not for the wild adventures he went on. The series of events that culminates in Tom’s decision to improve his life by going to Military school and eventually finding Huck who has run away from civilization and encouraging him to go back to the town and embrace respectability really show that by the end of the novel Tom had come full circle.

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