Metaphors in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The novel is about the happenings of the schoolboy main character, Thomas Sawyer, who is constantly guilty of misconduct and strife. He is presented in relation to his relatives: Aunt Polly, his half-brother Sid and cousin Mary, who lives in St. Petersburg, a little town off the shore of the Mississippi River.

The book has many metaphors, starting with St. Petersburg, which symbolizes the society, insects, used predominantly to show how unimportant man is, the cave which is the place of anguish for Tom Sawyer and the treasure, the goal the boys will finally achieve through courage and selflessness.

  1. Insects

Mark Twain uses insects to show that men are insignificant, even as insignificant as an insect. During Judge Thatcher’s Sunday school visit, a character portrayed as rushing ‘hither and thither’ carrying a lot of books and making a fuss approved by the insect authorities.

Twain uses the insect metaphor again when he is describing agonizing because his decision to keep silent over the murder may get Muff Potter hanged. In the beginning, he pictures himself as a bug which can easily be crushed with the smallest quantity of artillery and then he ironically pictures himself as an insect with the turf knocked from underneath.

Additionally, Twain uses actual insects in other scenes to comment ironically on the events. One example is when Tom when in church, is more fascinated by a house fly cleaning itself than the prayer he should pay attention to. Another example is when a bug and a poodle capture the attention of the entire congregation, which seems to believe a bug is more interesting or important than a religion.

  1. St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is a town filled with many of the components of a modern society, such as laws, education system, religious beliefs, economics, medicine. Twain uses this opportunity to mock them all. All the challenges the characters have to face are ones every reader can easily relate to even today. In the same time, the fact that Tom and his friends escaped the city to Jackson’s island symbolizes their temporary retreat from the society and ultimately it shows that they embrace the freedom that social exclusion brings.

  1. The treasure

The treasure and especially gold symbolizes self-knowledge, wisdom and wealth. For Tom and Huck it’s in a way a rite of passage from the childish treasures to the adulthood and to a civilized society. Tom and his friends had to demonstrate courage, ingenuity, and selflessness in earning the treasure.

  1. The cave

In most traditional stories of heroes, the cave represents the tough time and the anguish a boy goes through on his way to adulthood. If he passes successfully through that tough time, he gains a treasure and returns with it to the others, a much-improved version of himself. The novel follows the same path and even though Tom’s foolery finds him and Becky in the cave with no obvious way out, he uses ingenuity, resourcefulness, and compassion to get them both out of harm’s way.

The novel contains metaphorical language that is lively and imaginative which shows vision and attitude instead of conventional literary vision, such is the description of Tom getting out of the shower. Twain imagines him emerging from his towel unsatisfied as he noticed he missed his chin and jaws, the dirt appearing now like a mask that continued in lines around his neck. In the same category falls the description of the Sunday school superintendent, which uses lively metaphors which draw a portrait of a village type: a thin creature in his thirties, with sandy goatee and hair, a stiff collar that was too tall for him, a chin that was placed on a cravat just as long as a banknote, his boot toes pointing up as the fashion of the day was.

The novel contains conflicting metaphorical visions. At a first glance, one might think is a sign of Twain’s inexperience as a fiction writer, or an indication of his conflicted mental state or perhaps his inability to write in a sustained normal style. However, there are ample proofs of his skills and works at our disposal which leads us to conclude none of the above are true.


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November 14, 2017

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