Read a summary of Tom Sawyer
The story takes place during the 1840s in the American South. Tom Sawyer and his half brother, Sid, are orphans who live with their Aunt Polly in the town of St Petersburg, Missouri.
Tom is a lively, adventurous, and resourceful boy who is frequently in trouble. We first see him on a day when he truants from school to go swimming instead. He is caught and Aunt Polly punishes him by making him spend the whole of the next day whitewashing her fence.
There follows one of the most famous scenes in American literature. Tom cons the neighbourhood children into whitewashing the fence for him while he sits in the shade and watches. He does that by pretending to be enjoying the job – so much so that, if they want to share that enjoyment with him they should pay him with the small trinkets and treasures that they all have. Soon he has several children doing the tedious and sweaty job for him.
He then goes on to trade the trinkets for coupons given out to children by the minister for memorising verses of scripture. He collects enough to be awarded the prize of the Bible all the children have been working hard to win. Much to the surprise and scepticism of everyone who knows him he is pronounced the best learner of scripture, in spite of the fact that he is the worst learner of scripture and, in fact, by far the worst student at the Sunday school. While Aunt Polly is proud of him the other adults are shocked.
The newly-arrived Judge Thatcher is impressed with Tom’s superior knowledge of scripture but is bewildered when Tom shows his ignorance by being unable to answer even the most basic questions about the Bible. Tom sees his daughter, Becky, and falls in love with her. He pursues her and eventually persuades her to get engaged to him by giving him a kiss. The “engagement” falls through when Becky discovers that he was previously “engaged” to another girl, Amy Lawrence. He is now shunned by the betrayed Becky, outraged that she is not his first girlfriend.
There is a vagrant boy in town, viewed by the other boys as admirable because of his freedom and adventurous spirit. His name is Huckleberry Finn. He invites Tom to join him in a visit to a graveyard at midnight to perform a ritual reputed to heal warts. While there they witness three body snatchers, Dr Robinson, Muff Potter, and Injun Joe, in the act of robbing a grave.
As the boys watch the drunken Muff Potter passes out and Injun Joe and Dr Robinson quarrel. Injun Joe murders Dr Robinson and proceeds to arrange things so as to frame Potter. The boys are terrified at the prospect that Injun Joe will find out that they had witnessed the murder and kill them too, and they swear a blood oath that will never tell anyone what they have seen. Later, Potter is jailed. Because of his drunken state at the time, he himself believes that he has killed the doctor. Feeling guilty, he confesses to the murder.
Tom grows bored by school, and along with his best friend Joe Harper and Huckleberry Finn, they run away to Jackson’s Island in the Mississippi River. They propose to make a new start in life. From now on they will be pirates. In the meantime, they are reported as missing and the authorities are sounding the Mississippi for their bodies. The boys become aware of that and are enjoying it.
One night Tom sneaks back and after being tempted to reveal himself as he watches his loved ones in mourning, the idea comes to him that it would be fun to attend his own funeral. All three go to the joint funeral, appearing in the church in the middle of the service, where there is a lot of crying going on, and reveal themselves.
School now improves for Tom as he and his two friends have become heroes. He turns his attention to Becky Thatcher again and gains her favour after he accepts the blame – and a caining – for an incident in which she rips a book up.
And now Muff Potter is on trial for the murder of Dr Robinson. The boys attend the trial and watch as Potter seems certain to be found guilty. Tom makes the decision to renege on his blood oath and speaks out about what he and Huck saw. Injun Joe escapes through a window before they can lay hands on him. Having spoken out, Tom has put himself and Huck in danger. From now on they are constantly watching their backs.
It’s the summer holidays and Tom and Huck decide to search for hidden treasure in a house that’s reputed to be haunted. They go upstairs. Hearing a noise below they peer through holes in the floor. They see that it is Injun Joe who has been disguised – a newcomer to town – as a deaf-mute Spaniard. There is another man with him. The boys listen to their conversation in which they are planning to bury items they have stolen in the house.
As the boys look forward to digging it up for themselves, the thieves find a gold hoard buried in the hearth and carry away to a better hiding place. The boys don’t know where that is and one night Huck spots them and follows them, hoping to find out.
He overhears Injun Joe talking about breaking into the house of the wealthy Widow Douglas and mutilating her face, in revenge for her late husband, a justice of the peace, being responsible for ordering that Injun Joe be publicly whipped for vagrancy. Huck goes for help, thereby preventing the crime. Fearing Injun Joe’s retaliation he asks to remain anonymous and becomes the town’s unknown hero.
Tom goes on a picnic to McDougal’s Cave with his classmates., Tom and Becky get lost and end up wandering in the caves for several days. Becky becomes dangerously dehydrated and Tom’s search for a way out gets increasingly desperate. He accidentally encounters Injun Joe in the caves one day but Injun Joe doesn’t see him. Tom finds the way out, and they are welcomed back by their greatly relieved community.
Judge Thatcher has McDougal’s Cave sealed off with an iron door. When Tom hears that he becomes concerned because Injun Joe is trapped inside. He reports the sighting he had of the thief and a posse goes out to find him. They discover Injun Joe’s corpse near the iron door, starved to death after having desperately consumed raw bats and candle stubs to try and survive.
The place of his death becomes a local tourist attraction. Tom is instrumental in starting a petition to the governor to posthumously pardon him.
Tom is convinced from Injun Joe’s presence at McDougal’s Cave that he must have hidden the stolen gold there. He takes Huck to the cave and they find the box of gold. The boys are rewarded for that. The Widow Douglas adopts Huck, but he finds civilized home life painful and tries to escape, but Tom persuades him to return
That’s our Tom Sawyer summary. Make sense? Any questions? Let us know in the comments section below!