Places: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1876; illustrated

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: Early to mid-nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSt. Petersburg

St. Adventures of Tom Sawyer, ThePetersburg. Fictional Missouri village on the west bank of the Mississippi River in and around which the entire novel is set. The village is modeled on the real, and somewhat larger, Hannibal, Missouri, in which Twain himself lived as a boy. Like Hannibal, it has a wooded promontory on its north side and a huge limestone cave to its south. Tom Sawyer lives near its center in a two-story house that closely resembles Twain’s own home of the 1840’s. However, the fictional St. Petersburg also has elements of the tiny inland village of Florida, Missouri, where Twain was born and spent most of his summers while growing up, and thus evokes an even more rustic flavor than a real riverfront village might have had.

Seen through Tom’s eyes, St. Petersburg is a world in itself, an epitome of positive nineteenth century small-town American values that offers almost everything that a boy coming of age could want: rugged sports, Fourth of July picnics, itinerant entertainers, romance, imaginary adventures, and even genuine life-and-death adventures. A mostly sunny place, St. Petersburg reflects Twain’s cheerful nostalgia for his childhood haunts, which he regarded as a “paradise” for boys–hence the name “St. Petersburg,” after the gatekeeper to Heaven. Although it appears generally safer and more comfortable than its historical counterpart, it also has an ominous dark side, symbolized by the lurking presence of the murderous Injun Joe, a haunted house, the danger of drowning in the river, and recurrent epidemics. A striking false note in the St. Petersburg of Tom Sawyer, however, is the near invisibility of African American slavery, which was a brutal fact of everyday life in both Twain’s Hannibal and the St. Petersburg of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Tom Sawyer’s sequel.


*Missouri. State in which St. Petersburg appears to be located. A frontier state at the time of Twain’s youth, Missouri represents a remote western outpost of American civilization in Tom Sawyer. Tom reads enough to be aware of the outside world, but the Missouri in which he lives is so remote from the rest of the United States that a senator who visits his village is looked upon as something akin to a god.

*Mississippi River

*Mississippi River. North America’s mightiest river, the Mississippi plays a less important role in Tom Sawyer than it does in Huckleberry Finn, but its presence is nonetheless felt throughout. It represents a possible avenue of escape to the outside world–as when Tom and his friends take a raft to the river’s Jackson’s Island to become pirates–and a force that swallows up drowning victims.

Cardiff Hill

Cardiff Hill. Promontory on the north side of St. Petersburg modeled closely on Hannibal’s real Holliday’s Hill (now usually called “Cardiff” itself), which rises three hundred feet above the river. Described as a faraway and “Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful and inviting,” it is the place to which Tom usually flees to evade responsibility by playing make-believe games. However, it is also the site of the haunted house and is a place menaced by Injun Joe–both reminders that perhaps no place in St. Petersburg is completely safe.

McDougal’s Cave

McDougal’s Cave. Limestone cavern several miles south of St. Petersburg modeled on a huge cave that Twain explored as a youth. The fictional cave is even larger and provides an apt setting for the novel’s dramatic climax, in which Tom and Becky Thatcher get lost in the pitch-black cave. After a terrifying near-encounter with Injun Joe–who uses the cave as a hideout–Tom faces an apparently hopeless situation. However, he performs his greatest act of heroism by leading Becky to safety, and his emergence from the cave symbolizes his final coming of age.

BibliographyBlair, Walter. “Tom Sawyer.” In Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Nash Smith. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. A leading Mark Twain scholar traces autobiographical and literary influences in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Shows how Mark Twain adapted real people, places, and events into this early novel.Fields, Wayne. “When the Fences Are Down: Language and Order in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.” Journal of American Studies 24, no. 3 (December, 1990): 369-386. A valuable comparison of the two novels. Images of fences place Tom Sawyer within an ordered community, while Huck explores a disordered, insecure world outside the fences.Norton, Charles A. Writing “Tom Sawyer”: The Adventures of a Classic. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 1983. The most complete analysis of how Mark Twain wrote the novel.Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings. New York: Facts On File, 1995. Contains a detailed synopsis of the novel, cross-referenced to analytical essays on every character and place mentioned in the text, as well as other related subjects.Robinson, Forrest G. “Social Play and Bad Faith in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 39, no. 1 (June, 1984): 1-24. Defends the novel’s reputation by asserting that its coherence relies on a dominant character with “a dream of himself as a hero in a world of play.”Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective. Edited by John C. Gerber, Paul Baender, and Terry Firkins. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. The definitive, corrected edition of all three Tom Sawyer novels, prepared by the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley. Heavily annotated, with citations to many specialized sources.
Categories: Places