Mark Twain and His Coming-of-age Story The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was an American author. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. He worked as a pilot, and then as a journalist. He was a noted abolitionist and women's rights activist. His early writings can be classified as “tall tale” tradition, such as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865). He is representative of the “Gilded Age” and the world of the new industrial and urban frontier. Some of his main works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

Mark Twain’s works belongs to the Regionalism movement. It started in the years post-civil war, and its purpose was to display how large and diverse was the United States. It focused on specific features of rural communities in the South and in the West, portraying the dialects, sayings, customs, topography, history, and landscape of the region. The use of vernacular and dialect emphasized “local colour”, adding authenticity to the narrative and its characters. Spellings, the frontier tall tale and frontier humour were used for humours effect. This movement gave expression to the unvoiced and radical new aspects of American life such as the immigrant experience, the black experience, and women’s voices. Other authors that contribute to this movement were Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Joel Chandler Harris (Uncle Remus), and Kate Chopin (The Awakening).

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written in 1885 and it is considered to be the greatest American novel. The book describes the journey running south the Mississippi of two fugitives and their journey towards finding a moral identity. The fugitives are Huck, a kid that pretends his death to scape his abusive father, and Jim, a runaway slave. The fact the Jim is running south has implication within the novel both at in plot and in an ideological level. As Huck said at the beginning of chapter 20, answering to the suspicions of the Duke and the King with the following: “For Goodness sakes, would a runaway nigger run south?”.

Firstly, Mark Twain make his main characters miss the point where they have to leave the river to continue their journey towards the north for purpose of the plot. When Mark Twain was writing this book, at this point, he stopped writing through a year to think about these characters. With this decision, he gives his characters the opportunity to grow up as human being and form a friendship. Now their journey is longer, and they can live more adventures. Thanks to these experiences they can develop a sort of surrogate father-son relationship with each other.

In addition, Huck learns that all the cultural system in which she grew up is based in white-supremacy, and that black people are as human as white people. In an ideological level, continuing to the south clearly will be problematic for Jim because slavery was more powerful there than in the north. Huck is going to see how people will treat Jim as an object. He will begin to realize that nobody should be a slave and understand Jim’s feelings. He develops a conscience and unlearns society rules to achieve a new moral code according of his own criteria.

With The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain makes an analysis of the society, in specific South society, at the time. He criticizes the small communities that live along Mississippi river. He uses the perspective of a young boy in a journey to the South to show us the corruption that govern the South. From his eyes we see the group of “white-trash” people, slave patrols, family feuds, “educated” people using nonscientific methods, swindlers, false Christianity for appearances, the inefficient justice system, the lack of democracy, slave plantations, ect. Mark Twain shows the reader the frontier way of life to make the reader understand all his flaws.

Moreover, Twain puts his main character, Huck, in a place where he questions of the beliefs of the time. His journey makes him realize that slavery is bad. A key element is the development of his relationship with Jim. They start as a little boy and slave, and little by little they become friends. Jim takes care of Huck in a paternal way and tries to protect him from suffering. He is showing sensibility as a surrogate father. Huck, on the other hand, is taking care of Jim hiding him from slave patrols, breaking the law. This causes him a dilemma because now he does not know what is right and what is wrong.

“Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.” (Twain, Chapter 16)

Huck begins to question the world and to take decisions according of his own criteria. He is disobeying the establishment and rejecting the moral code society wants him to have. This a slow process that culminate when Jim is sent to a plantation, making Huck face the moral dilemma. He sees the corrupt society which he lives in and the has institutionalized slavery. Huck feels guilty. Huck instinctively knows the right thing to do, but his conscience dictates the conventional morality of the South. Huck writes a letter for Widow Douglas to be free of sin and go for Jim but he tears up the letter and resolves to help Jim escape saying to himself “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” (Twain, Chapter 31)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a lot of criticism nowadays because of its use of the n-word. “Twain’s use of the term “nigger” has provoked some reader to reject the novel” (Smith, p. 92) Mark Twain ridicules racial discourse and racism. He wants to expose people to the shameful use of the n-word which was normally use back them. Mark Twain could not violate the reality at that time even if abolitionist said that it was an offensive word. The general public believed, at the time of this text is set, was that black people were no human, so they did not care if they die. Mark Twain makes fun of Southerners at the time and he uses the n-word so much for the reader to realize the n-word is not for general use and condoms white people that use it.

Mark Twain also subverts the trope of the superstitious black man. In nineteenth-century racial discourse, black people were always defined as inherently superstitious. Jim invents stories about having been hexed and ridden by witches to attract people. Jim is a smart man and uses these stories to become more a celebrity and less a “servant”. With his stories Jim wins in humanity breaking the believe that black people lack imagination, sensibility for art and can’t create any sort of art piece. In addition, his superstitious knowledge gives him strength and helps him to survive, to protect himself, and stay attach to his roots. He resists objectification claiming his African believes. Mark Twain introduce this type of black character at the time where white people were not ready.

Nevertheless, this book is considered a classic, and the problem with classics is that people believe that what they told happened long time ago and nowadays everything is fine, and people are all equal. This way of thinking is a proof of white privilege. Technically, if you look at it historically, there has never been a time in the United States where the law and the order did not directly go against the freedom, the options, and the opportunities of the black community. A lot of people are starting to realize that with the massive mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement all around the glove, protesting against anti-blackness, white supremacy and police brutality, that is happening in right now. Racism is not a conscious hate; it is a complex social and political system that works thoughts generations to continue to help white people at the expense of other people and it does not stop whether they know it or not.

Being anti-racist is a conscious work that we have to do everyday in all whole life, and in order to stop racism we need to talk about race. School curriculums require books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee –now in editions that substitute the n-word with the word “slave”– to have a conversation about race with students. However, these books offer a white gaze narrative. It is imperative to listen, uplift and amplify black voices. If we want to expose racial issues, then we should try works of diverse voices. A rounder conversation can happen if we combine ‘teachable moments’ from classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with narratives from the black experience like the ones of Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son) or Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye).

To sum up, Mark Twain wrote a coming-of-age story of a young boy living in the South so portray the local culture and criticize the flaws of society at that time. He made Huck and Jim to go South to develop their relationship and make a change of mind on Huck, who rejects society norms to make his own moral code. As an activist, Mark Twain wanted white readers to understand black people were as human as they are. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn creates a great discussion about race, although it is a narrative from a white gaze. Amplify black voices and their stories, combining its reading with classic like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, will start conversations about the racial issues of our society and wake the impulse of make the world a better place up.

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Mark Twain and His Coming-of-age Story The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
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