Study Guide

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Mark Twain

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Pirates, Soldiers, Indians, Robbers, and Robin Hood

We know what you're thinking. "Aww, come on, Shmoop, you really expect me to believe that there's some kind of deeper meaning in all that imaginary kid's stuff Tom and his friends do? Everybody plays games like that when they're a kid!" Well, it is true that lots of people pretend to be robbers or pirates cowboys when they're kids, but there's more than one way to look at Tom's boyish fantasies.

Look at it this way: you may have pretended to be a robber or a pirate, but did the stuff that you imagined ever begin to come true? We're going to guess, no.

For the most part, Tom dreams of running away and becoming a pirate or a soldier or a robber are fun ways to spend time and escape from his ordinary life. We see him playing games involving these characters and we see him dreaming about them when things aren't going well in real life.

But then Tom's fantasies start playing out in his real life. As it just so happens, his town has attracted a criminal, Injun Joe, who doesn't think twice about murdering or stealing. Now, Twain could have come up with any number of villains for Tom to meddle with, but he chose to create a character that embodies everything that Tom wants to be – gone wrong. He's sort of like a nightmare come true. (You can read more about the Tom-Injun Joe connection in the "Character Roles" section.)

Now all of this talk about wish-fulfillment and fantasy-as-reality wouldn't really hold water if it weren't for…the treasure.

The Treasure

That's right, treasure: a big box of gold coins. Hidden in a "haunted house." Then brought to a cave and hidden again. Right under a cross. A cross. Also known as an X. That's right, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, X does indeed mark the spot. Twain might as well be winking at us. He takes the biggest pirate/treasure related cliché, the kind of thing that make-believe pros like Tom wouldn't even think about, and uses it. The bridge between Tom's fantasy life and real life is blurred.

The sheer awesomeness of Tom and Huck's discovery is so great that, once reality sinks in and the money has been locked away in the bank, the ending doesn't seem so happy after all. Huck says it best when he tells Tom, "[B]eing rich ain't what it's cracked up to be. It's just worry and worry, and sweat and sweat, and a-wishing you was dead all the time" (35.9). Tom and Huck do live the dream, but they also have to live through the morning after. Is this some kind of metaphor for the disillusionment that comes at the end of childhood? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it feels authentic.

The Fence

This is what you've all been waiting for. Ask anyone about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and she'll probably say something like, "That's the one with the fence, right?" (Unless you ask us. We'll talk your ear off.) But yes, it's true, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is "the one with the fence." This isn't any old picket fence, though. It's "thirty yards of board fence nine feet high" (2.1). That's 800 square feet of fence to paint white.

People remember the fence scenario it because it's so clever. Tom tricks a bunch of boy into thinking that work – the thing that he doesn't want to do – is fun, so that he can spend the afternoon goofing off. He even get the boys to pay him for the "privilege" of painting. He turns punishment into pleasure, and pleases Aunt Polly in the process. Everybody dreams of this kind of thing.

Want more? You're in luck. Twain provides his own analysis of the situation. We here at Shmoop will defer to the master:

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

Well, there you go. A little bit of philosophy for you.