Symbolism | The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

The Cave

The cave represents a trial that Tom has to pass before he can graduate into maturity. Coming-of-age stories often involve tests in which the protagonist is separated from the rest of society for a period of time and faces significant dangers or challenges. Only after having survived on the arising problems and hurdles is Tom ready to rejoin society.

The Storm

The storm on Jackson’s Island symbolizes the danger involved in the boys’ removal from society. It forms part of an interruptive pattern in the novel, in which periods of relative peace and tranquility alternate with episodes of high adventure or danger. Later, when Tom is sick, he believes that the storm hit to indicate that God’s wrath is directed at him personally. The storm thus becomes an external symbol of Tom’s conscience.

The Treasure

The treasure is a symbolic goal that marks the end of the boys’ journey. It becomes an indicator of Tom’s transition into adulthood and Huck’s movement into civilized society. It also symbolizes the boys’ heroism, marking them as exceptional in a world where conformity is the rule.

The Village 

Many readers interpret the small village of St. Petersburg as a miniature of the United States or of society in general. All of the major social institutions are present on a small scale in the village and all are susceptible to Twain’s comic treatment. The challenges and joys Tom encounters in the village are, in their basic structure, ones that he or any reader could expect to meet anywhere.

The Island 

Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper escape to Jackson’s Island to live as outlaws, leaving behind the rules and strictures of St. Petersburg society. Its physical isolation brings them all the freedom they could hope for.

Yet Joe and Tom found out that they are not happy and that they miss the social attachments and responsibilities to others that define their lives in the village.

Whitewashed Fence

This is perhaps the most famous symbol in the novel. The whitewashed fence is a reflection of Tom’s character. Depressed by the thought of spending his Saturday painting, he cleverly twists the scenario to his advantage and cons his friends into painting for him. The fence thus symbolizes his avoidance of responsibility as well as his sharp wit.

Sycamore-bark Letter

The sycamore-bark letter Tom writes to Aunt Polly during his absence on Jackson’s Island reveals Tom’s good heart and his love for his family.   His clear efforts to write the letter and sneak away from the island to deliver it prove that, underneath it all, Tom truly loves his aunt.