Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain


Tom Sawyer's adventures give us a scamp's eye view of 19th century education. The school-based excerpts from Twain's celebrated novel follow Tom's trials as a reluctant scholar with the author's usual wit and insight.  Go to the tale

   B a c k g r o u n d

  • Story Setting: St. Petersburg, MO
  • Story Date: 1840's-50s
  • Publication Date: 1876
  • Mark Twain: 1835-1910

  •    T h e    S t o r y
    (The links bookmark the tale.)

  • The beginning of the tale
  • Tom fakes illness
  • Tom & Huck discuss wart remedies
  • Tom is whipped for tardiness
  • Tom and Becky meet
  • Boredom in the classroom
  • Tom is whipped again
  • Tom and Becky get engaged
  • Tom and Becky break up
  • Schoolmaster's secret discovered
  • Tom is whipped yet again
  • Tom takes a whipping for Becky
  • Year end examination
  • Students get their revenge

  •    T h e    T h e m e s
    (The links bookmark theme-related passages in the color-coded version of the tale.)

  • Students at Work: 1
  • The Schoolmaster: 1
  • Punishment, Revenge: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
  • School & Community: 1
  • Romance: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

  •    R e l a t e d    S i t e s

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (complete text)

  • Mark Twain

  • Mark Twain in His Times

  • About Mark Twain

  • TwainWeb (Mark Twain Forum)

  • Mark Twain in Cyberspace

  •    I n t r o d u c t i o n

       "Tom Sawyer," Mark Twain's novel about a boy's adventures growing up in a small 19th century town, needs little introduction. It's the book that made Tom, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher permanent parts of U.S. culture. The novel moves around the town and its environs to depict all aspects of Tom's boyhood world, and the one room schoolhouse Tom attends, albeit reluctantly, figures prominently. About 15% of the novel takes place in a school context -- in the classroom, around the schoolhouse during recess, or on the way to and from school -- and these passages give us an invaluable portrait of small town schooling of the time. Twain captures the essence of Tom's school with his usual insight and wit, and since this is Tom's story, it delivers a child-centered view of education as free of the adult perspective as one can expect from an adult author.

       Twain makes clear in his preface to "Tom Sawyer" that the book is a fictionalized portrayal of his own experiences and those of his childhood friends. He makes the same point in considerable detail years later in his autobiography. This fact lends a sense of historical accuracy to the school-based passages in the novel, since they are recreations of a world Twain knew intimately. It also allows us to date the school scenes fairly accurately. Since Twain was born in 1835, the novel is probably set between the 1840's and the early 1850's, an estimate reinforced by the fact that "Huckleberry Finn," which is a sequel to "Tom Sawyer," takes place in the pre-Civil War south.

       Anyone harboring false notions that "the good old days" of 19th century education were times when students behaved themselves, respected their teachers, and worked diligently to better themselves need only read the passages excerpted here to be disabused of such misconceptions. The students' world in the book consists of recess, skylarking, looking for amusing diversions in the classroom, escaping punishment, and attempting to get revenge on the schoolmaster for the pain and suffering -- more often physical than emotional -- he heaps on them in the course of the school day. Tom and his schoolmates loved school neither more nor less than students do now, and they completed their schoolwork with the varying degrees of care and effort that continue to frustrate today's teachers and parents. All this shouldn't surprise us, but it's easy to forget that those idyllic educational times we harken back to wistfully when we grow exasperated with the messy and uncertain process of schooling, exist more in our own imaginations than in our country's history.

       The descriptions of school in "Tom Sawyer" probably exaggerate the students' disaffection with the classroom because, with Tom as the main character, we get a scamp's eye view of the proceedings. If the book were told through the eyes of Tom's well behaved brother Sid, it would portray a different sense of how students behaved in and reacted to school. But part of what makes the portrait of school in this book so valuable is its affection for the boys who spend much of their time on the wrong side of the schoolmaster's switch. Many personal narratives of schooling we depend on to give us a sense of the classrooms of the day are told by adults whose vision is clouded with rose-tinted hindsight. They often were the good little boys and girls who went on to be successful enough to publish their memoirs. Through Tom's eyes, we see another vision of the world of schooling in the 19th century, adding depth to our understanding.