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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is set in the early 1800’s in Middle America. The majority of the novel takes place in St. Petersburg, meaning the town of St. Peter or a synonym for heaven. St. Petersburg, located on the Mississippi River in the state of Missouri, is the poor village where Tom Sawyer lives. The town and its environs are very important to the novel because Tom spends his time here; he lives in a small St. Petersburg house with his Aunt Polly, his Cousin Mary, and his half-brother Sid, he attends the village school, he goes to Sunday School at the local church, he visits the Widow Douglas and the Thatchers in their homes, he explores the town’s haunted house, he plays in the nearby forests, he swims in the river that passes by the village, and he gets lost in the cave outside of town. Tom’s world is St. Petersburg!
St. Petersburg is a typical Southern town characterized by small town values and a slow pace of life. The people and events are not complex and often dull. Life was relatively safe, and the village children were allowed to wander free in the town and the surrounding countryside. They entertained themselves in the forests and by the river. The were also required to go to attend the village school, go to church, and help with the family’s chores. Since the town has not been settled for long, the roughness that is characteristic of the western frontier is sometimes portrayed in the novel. Injun Joe is symbolic of the frontier roughness.
St. Petersburg is patterned exactly after Hannibal Missouri, the boyhood home of Mark Twain. Hannibal is located about eighty miles from St. Louis on the Mississippi River, where Mark Twain, as a boy, would fish, swim, and boat. The river was filled with small islands for a boy to visit and along its bank were many caves which Twain could explore. Like St. Petersburg, Hannibal is a small country village surrounded by beautiful forests in which Twain loved to play. Because the author was totally familiar with life as a child in a small Southern town, he was able to clearly and realistically depict St. Petersburg and the life of Tom Sawyer there.
There is another non-geographic setting in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that is much larger than St. Petersburg. Throughout the novel, Mark Twain describes the world of childhood, which is universal and timeless. Twain, through Tom Sawyer and his friends, reveals what it is like to be a boy; he shows boyhood as a time of playing with friends, dreaming, collecting treasures, being imaginative, creating adventures, performing pranks, trying the patience of adults, exploring independence, shirking responsibility, and sometimes being superstitious and fearful. Even though the novel is set in the early 1800’s, the antics of the children in the book are not greatly different than those of children today. Perhaps that is why The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is much more than a children’s book; it is truly a timeless, classic about childhood that is simply set in an earlier, more peaceful and idyllic time.