The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the NEA Big Read Reader Resources. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.
For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.
- Discuss Twain's depiction of church and school. Are they agencies of spiritual and intellectual growth, or engines of conformity and inhibition, or both? Do some characters find more value in these institutions than others? If so, why?
- Several of the characters in the novel express racist attitudes about blacks and Indians, but no character ever expresses an opposing point of view. Is it enough for Twain to have accurately shown the prejudices of the society he is writing about without having a character express the opposing viewpoint? Is the narrator impartial? Would a more forceful condemnation of racist attitudes have strengthened or weakened the novel?
- Consider the characters of Aunt Polly, Becky Thatcher, and the Widow Douglas. Based on their actions and statements, what might Twain be saying about the role or function of women in the society he is describing?
- Later in his life, Twain expressed some very bitter judgments about human nature, views that might be said to have a pale foreshadowing in the first paragraph of Chapter XXXV, which describes the townspeople's view of Tom and Huck after their discovery of the treasure. Would you describe Twain's view of human nature in Tom Sawyer as generally dark or pessimistic? If not, how would you characterize it?
- Discuss the following statement by Shelley Fisher Fishkin: "Twain's Tom is full of youthful energy, to be sure, but his character is more complicated than that" (Lighting Out for the Territory). Identify some of Tom's most dominant character traits. How do they contribute to the reader's acceptance of Tom as "real" and fully developed, rather than a two-dimensional character?
- Have your students write on the theme "How Old Is Tom Sawyer?" citing textual examples to back up their conclusions. They may wish to cite the following passage from the E.L. Doctorow essay:
Tom Sawyer is ageless. I don't mean that he is a boy for the ages, although he may be—I mean that he is a boy of no determinable age. When he falls in love he exhibits the behavior of a six-year-old. When he is cunning or manipulative he might be nine or ten. His athleticism places him nearer the age of twelve. And in self-dramatization and insensitivity to all feelings but his own he is unquestionably a teenager. The variety of his moods, including his deep funks when he feels unloved, his manic exhibitionism, his retributive fantasies, sweeps him up and down the scale of juvenile thought.