Mark Twain’s classic story of a mischievous small-town boy, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has entertained readers for nearly 150 years. Though set in a bygone era, Tom’s desires for fun and freedom still resonate with young readers today. Twain’s witty prose and the story’s exciting climax help explain why this novel remains a staple in today’s classrooms.
Although published in 1876, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is set before the Civil War, sometime in the 1840s. While Twain certainly does not view this period as faultless, he depicts boyhood in this simpler time with an idyllic sort of freedom. Tom Sawyer lives in a rural community with easy access to woods, water, and caves - the perfect ingredients for an adventure. No factories, railroads, or mail-order-catalogues sully the quiet pleasures of the St. Petersburg community, a place where an old doorknob is enchanting enough to win the heart of the prettiest girl in school. The country setting also provides an ideal locale for Twain to showcase his criticism of the ignorance and hypocrisy of small-town America.
Twain’s social criticism makes his novel a satire, a form of writing that uses humor to criticize something. At various points, Twain employs hyperbole, understatement, irony, and comic juxtaposition to build humor. The result of these comic episodes is often a subtle critique of respected social institutions, including church communities, schools, temperance societies, and the courtroom. Younger students often struggle to pick up on this humor. Providing them with background on the characteristics of satire may help them more readily recognize this device in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.