The Role of Authority in Tom Sawyer's Maturation

Seminar Paper, 2009

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3




Tom’s disposition to overcome authority

The lenience of ‘good’ authority

The quantum of ‘evil’ authority

The absence of authority

The Acceptance of authority




This paper accompanies the bad boy Tom Sawyer on his journey from boyhood to manhood, regarding the influence authority has on him as the most important factor for his maturation.

Samuel Clemens wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer[1] “mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls” but also “to try pleasantly to remind adults of what they once were them­selves” (Preface). What is the difference between children and adults? – Above all, their degree of maturity. But what is essential for the transition from child to adult, for the maturation? – Essential is to form an own individuality; to be something unique you have to distinguish from everything else. Therefore, we have to leave our own marks in order to become individuals. Every child has to find this “unique own” in adolescence. Not only bad boys need to revolt against and differentiate from authority to become part of the adult world and to constitute their individuality. But what exactly is this ‘authority’, which seems so essential for maturation – and, therefore, for the purpose of this work?

In the broadest sense authority is a representative of the adult world with all its rules, conventions and institutions, which Clemens so harshly and ironically criticizes. For the purpose of this paper, authority means specifically every form of influence the adult world has on Tom as well as every convention which has the ability to govern his actions. Thus, it ranges from the school superintendant and Aunt Polly to bad boy behavior patterns and the temptations of evil.

It does not take the reader long to find out that in the character of Tom Sawyer the force to defy authority is extraordinary strong. The first line in the book is a shouted “TOM!” (I, 7) and of course the shout is not unfounded. Totally in the manner of a bad boy, he is stealing jam and afterwards escapes his aunt’s authority. But not only his disposition to overcome authority, also the occasion to face the evil, the lenience of authority, as well as its absence in determining situations are responsible for Toms maturation. Finally, the whole process of becoming an adult can only be completed by the acceptance of the authority of society. Hence, authority in all its shapes is the key to maturation – also for Tom Sawyer, our freedom loving, seemingly anti-authoritarian and independent hero.

Tom’s disposition to overcome authority

Walter Blair[2] discovered an interesting structure beneath the novel. He divides the main story into four lines of action: The Tom and Becky story, the Jackson Island line, the Muff Potter episode and the Injun Joe story. The beginning of each line is, according to Blair[3], marked by an immature act of Tom, but Blair notices that every line of the story leads Tom to some kind of maturity. Although there was a lot of discussion on this interpretation in scientific research, Blair’s thesis can be very fruitful for the purpose of this work. Since Hamlin L. Hill[4] found convincing evidence in the original manuscript of Clemens to support Blair’s thesis, it provides a solid basis for further interpretation.

In addition to the immature act in the beginning, in my opinion, every single line of the story, so to speak every new road on the journey to Tom’s manhood, is initiated by Tom’s overcoming of authority: He needs to violate the school master’s rules to get in closer contact with Becky (VI, 50f.; VII, 55f.; XXI, 134f.), which is essential for their joint adventure in the cave. He runs away, leaving all authority of St. Petersburg behind, to become pirate on Jackson’s Island (XIII-XVIII). He ignores Aunt Polly’s authority by going to the graveyard with Huck at night (IX, 65), which commences the Muff Potter episode. The initiation of the Injun Joe story seems to be the graveyard scene in combination with Tom’s decision to testify against Injun Joe at the Potter trial (XXIV, 150f.), not as Blair claims Tom’s “juvenile search for buried treasure”[5]. So in addition to the overcome of Aunt Polly’s authority, he has to ignore the authority of convention: In order to testify at court, on the one hand, he has to admit his nightly excursion in public, on the other hand, to break the vows of secrecy he made with Huckleberry Finn (X, 73f.; XXIV, 146). Of course, to be a bad boy includes the peculiarity of revolting against authority, but the behavior pattern of revolting is also a conventional manner of acting – an authority. To admit something is not appropriate for bad boy, later in the book Tom shows how a bad boy should behave: “[...] he had denied it for form’s sake and because it was custom, and had stuck from the denial from principle.” (XXI, 133) Breaking the vows with Huck also means strong violation of the rules of being a bad boy, because the word of such boys as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn should be kept in their opinion. They are dead earnest about it: “They wish they may drop down dead in their tracks if they ever tell” (X, 74) – but Tom does. In neglecting these ‘rules’ for a higher purpose, the saving of Muff Potter, Tom overcomes the self-elected convention of being a bad boy. This is very mature acting of Tom, at least because he endangers himself with this action, because he makes Injun Joe his personal enemy.

Not only the four lines of action each begin with an overcome of authority by Tom, but already the beginning of the whole novel preludes that Tom Sawyer is a perfect character to overcome authority and, hence, in order to mature. The first scene already introduces Tom as a prototypical bad boy: “Tom is stealing. Caught in the act, he avoids punishment by deceiving his aunt.”[6] Away from Aunt Polly Tom meets another boy, whom he beats because he was “well dressed on a week-day.” (I, 10) The first chapter can be seen as a prelude, because “up to the last page of chapter X, [Tom] piles up enough horrible deeds to spur the average Sunday school author to write pages of admonitions.”[7] But being a bad boy is not only about breaking the rules, it is also about some attitudes towards society’s conventions. At the latest, having read the fourth chapter every reader knows about Tom that “there was a restraint about whole clothes and cleanliness that galled him” and that “Tom hated [Sunday school] with his whole heart.” (IV, 29)

Of course Mary, Sid and Willie Mufferson (the model children, which stand in contrast to Tom and the other bad boys) will also come of age – maybe even without revolting against authority – but in a different way than Tom: Tom Sawyer’s journey from boy to man takes just one summer, an unusually short time for a boy’s maturation. The journey of the model characters to become adult will probably take much longer. Reason for that can be found in the importance of rebellion, to question conventions (and maybe to form new ones) will be a much more experiencing way than to conform oneself perpetually with the established authority within the years of adolescence. At least, this revolting and questioning of the younger generations is a precondition for the human progress. Tom’s inner force to neglect authority is an essential precondition that he struggles into those adventures at all, which finally demand him to mature. Tom’s disposition to be an independent, anti-authoritarian and freedom loving bad boy is therefore essential for the manner of his maturation – but not solely, as it will be shown in the next chapter.


[1] All references (the abbreviation consists of the Roman numeral for the chapter and the Arabic numeral for the page) to the primary work in this paper refer to the following edition: Mark Twain. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. London: Penguin, 1994.

[2] Blair, Walter. “On the Structure of Tom Sawyer.“Modern Philology XXXVII (1939): 75-88.

[3] Blair, Walter. “A Boy Becomes a Man.” Readings on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Ed. Katie de Koster. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1999. 107f.

[4] Hill, Hamlin L. “The Composition and the Structure of Tom Sawyer.American Literature 32 (1961): 379-92.

[5] Blair: A Boy Becomes a Man. 107. Blair is certainly right that Tom’s ambition to find a treasure are essential for the continuation of the Injun Joe story, but the conflict with Injun Joe and therefore the beginning of this story line must (although it does not fit that good with Blair’s thesis) lie at an earlier scene in the book, namely in chapter XXIV not in chapter XXVI.

[6] Blair: A Boy Becomes a Man. 103.

[7] Blair: A Boy Becomes a Man. 104.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Role of Authority in Tom Sawyer's Maturation
University of Tubingen  (Seminar für Englische Philologie)
Youth Fiction – Coming of Age in a Turbulent Culture
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
504 KB
Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Authority, Maturation, Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens
Quote paper
Raúl Gaston Krüger (Author), 2009, The Role of Authority in Tom Sawyer's Maturation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Role of Authority in Tom Sawyer's Maturation

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free