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***This review may contain spoilers.***
Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (hereafter "Tom Sawyer") is much more than a superficially fun and episodic chronicle of a rascally misbehaving kid's experiences in a Missouri town because, well, Tom is much more than a rascally misbehaving kid. Although he is indifferent to stuffy and pedantic academic and religious studies, Tom has lots of native intelligence and motivational leadership qualities. For example, of course, he employs "reverse psychology" in the classic fence-painting sequence, but he also leads groups of kids in playing war games, Robin Hood (the tale and language of which he has eagerly absorbed), and even truant pirates on a remote Mississippi River isle. Tom can even be boldly truthful, as when he overcomes his fear of retribution from "Joe" and testifies in court that he witnessed "Joe" murder young Dr. Robinson, a graverobbing co-conspirator, and frame a second co-conspirator Muff Potter for the crime.
Tom even has earnest, if sometimes clumsy and fickle, romantic aspirations. His "abandonment" of his `engagement" to Amy Lawrence in favor of "Becky Thatcher" attests to that. Like those of soap opera lovers, their courtship is erratic, flirtatious, off-and-on, and even vindictive until Tom proves his gallantry by taking the painful rap for Becky Thatcher's accidental damage of the schoolmaster's anatomy book. He becomes even more of a gallant, resourceful, composed hero by comforting Becky and himself after getting lost in the labyrinthine cave they were playing in and devising a stratagem (tying a string so they don't let lost in the maze, as Theseus did when entering the Minotaur's maze) to get out.
Tom also certainly knows how to attract attention and admiration. As a prime example, after thinking Tom and some friends have drowned (the pirate episode), the townsfolk conduct a "funeral". Tom has the enviable, vicarious pleasure of secretly witnessing his own funeral and hearing praise from people who usually consider him a juvenile delinquent. He also secretly witnesses his long-suffering, quasi-disciplinarian, but tender-hearted Aunt Polly mourning for him, and, after "resurrecting" himself to the people, and, driven by pity, Tom tells a fabricated "dream" detailing how Aunt Polly cried for him. He tells the truth to Aunt Polly, and explains he did not mean to be mean, but only to give her comfort. To her credit, although Aunt Polly gets exasperated by Tom's shenanigans, she realizes that he has a good heart.
Tom is practically Huckleberry Finn's idol. An orphaned, homeless pariah, Huck is shunned by the proper townsfolk for his "lawlessness" but envied by the children for his freedom from societal conventions. Tom leads Huck into many of his misadventures and provides consoling reason and comfort when the normally shy and secretive Huck is reluctant to play along. Most rewardingly, Tom deduces where "Joe" buried some gold coins in the maze-like cave and he and Huck become rather wealthy. The kind Widow Douglas even adopts Huck and, to the boy's horror, promises to make him a civilized gentlemen. Tom persuades Huck to "endure" civilization by promising him a place in his "deadly" robber gang, since robbers are "respectable" like nobility.
Twain's attitude toward Tom (and his tone in "Tom Sawyer") is in one sense mock-serious and in another genuinely concerned. "Tom Sawyer" finds amusement in Tom acting "grown-up" but also indulgently treats his thoughts and feelings with respect, because it realizes what is trivial to an adult can be quite important to a child. "Tom Sawyer" mainly through Tom also takes soft but pointed jabs at the sanctimony, hypocrisy, and pomposity of teachers, priests, and other adult authority figures and makes us understand why Tom (and especially Huck) disdain the shackles of rigid society. Most of all, "Tom Sawyer" reassures us that although Tom has his share of faults and vices, he has more positive qualities (and innate goodness) that will insure (to paraphrase the novel) a bright future, even the Presidency, provided he avoids imprisonment and hanging.