The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in the town of Florida, Missouri, in 1835. When he was four years old, his family moved to Hannibal, a town on the Mississippi River much like the towns depicted in his two most famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
The riverboat life provided him with the pen name Mark Twain, derived from the riverboat leadsmen’s signal—“By the mark, twain”—that the water was deep enough for safe passage.
Throughout the late 1860s and 1870s, Twain’s articles, stories, memoirs, and novels, characterized by an irrepressible wit and a deft ear for language and dialect, garnered him immense celebrity. His novel The Innocents Abroad (1869) was an instant bestseller, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) received even greater national acclaim and cemented Twain’s position as a giant in American literary circles.
Twain began work on Huckleberry Finn, a sequel to Tom Sawyer, in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of the earlier novel. This new novel took on a more serious character, however, as Twain focused increasingly on the institution of slavery and the South. Twain soon set Huckleberry Finn aside, perhaps because its darker tone did not fit the optimistic sentiments of the Gilded Age.
The story of Huckleberry Finn, however, does not end with the death of its author. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has proved significant not only as a novel that explores the racial and moral world of its time but also, through the controversies that continue to surround it, as an artifact of those same moral and racial tensions as they have evolved to the present day.
In exploring Huck’s moral development as he grapples with the ethics of slavery and the occasional necessity of dishonesty for a greater truth, Huckleberry Finn adopts some elements of the bildungsroman. A German word meaning “novel of education,” a bildungsroman traces a young protagonist’s journey from innocence to knowledge of the world. In Huck Finn, Huck initially doesn’t question the institution of slavery, and sees Jim as a pathetically superstitious character worthy of mockery, as when Tom hangs Jim’s hat from a tree. Once Huck and Jim meet up on Jackson’s Island, Huck begins to experience empathy for Jim. Through their adventures and conversations, Huck comes to understand the moral stakes of helping Jim run away in a deeply racist society where slavery still thrives.
Although Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, America—and especially the South—was still struggling with racism and the aftereffects of slavery. Furthermore, Twain wrote the novel after slavery was abolished, he set it several decades earlier, when slavery was still a fact of life. But even by Twain’s time, things had not necessarily gotten much better for blacks in the South.
By focusing on Huck’s education, Huckleberry Finn fits into the tradition of the bildungsroman: a novel depicting an individual’s maturation and development. As a poor, uneducated boy, for all intents and purposes an orphan, Huck distrusts the morals and precepts of the society that treats him as an outcast and fails to protect him from abuse His moral development is sharply contrasted to the character of Tom Sawyer, who is influenced by a bizarre mix of adventure novels and Sunday-school teachings, which he combines to justify his outrageous and potentially harmful escapades.
The plot of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of two characters’ attempts to emancipate themselves. Huck desires to break free from the constraints of society, both physical and mental, while Jim is fleeing a life of literal enslavement. Much of the conflict in the novel stems from Huck’s attempt to reconcile Jim’s desire for emancipation with his own. Initially, Huck is only concerned with his own freedom, and doesn’t question the morality of slavery. But after spending time with Jim, Huck’s conscience tells him that he needs to help Jim because Jim is a human being. While Huck faces few legal barriers in his own quest for personal freedom, the stakes are much higher for Jim, since it is against the law for slaves to run away. Over time, Huck develops an inner conviction that he can’t return Jim to slavery. Despite feeling guilty for acting in a way his society considers immoral, Huck decides he must treat Jim not as a slave, but as a human being.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work. Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major theme. Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
For Huck and Jim, the Mississippi River is the ultimate symbol of freedom. Alone on their raft, they do not have to answer to anyone. The river carries them toward freedom: for Jim, toward the free states; for Huck, away from his abusive father and the restrictive “sivilizing” of St. Petersburg. Much like the river itself, Huck and Jim are in flux, willing to change their attitudes about each other with little prompting. Despite their freedom, however, they soon find that they are not completely free from the evils and influences of the towns on the river’s banks. Even early on, the real world intrudes on the paradise of the raft: the river floods, bringing Huck and Jim into contact with criminals, wrecks, and stolen goods. Then, a thick fog causes them to miss the mouth of the Ohio River, which was to be their route to freedom.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is written in the first-person point of view, which allows the reader to experience the story through Huck’s eyes and identify closely with the narrator. The story is told entirely from Huck’s perspective, and Huck refers to himself as “I” throughout the novel. Readers experience both external events and Huck’s internal thoughts and feelings from his vantage point. Even when Huck is being deceitful, as when he dresses as a girl and lies to the woman he meets in order to get information about his father, Huck’s actions remain sympathetic, because the reader knows his motivations.
Huck can be an unreliable narrator, and his naïve misreading of situations creates dramatic irony, which contrasts Huck’s essentially good nature to the cynicism and hypocrisy of adults. Dramatic irony refers to situations where the reader knows more than a character in a book, and Twain employs it often in Huck Finn. Early on Huck fails to understand that the Widow Douglas prays before taking her meals: “When you got to the table you couldn’t go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them.”
Twain wrote that his goal for Huck Finn, in part, was to show “that strange thing, the conscience—the unerring monitor—can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it.” By showing that Huck grew up surrounded by the n-word, and uses it himself unthinkingly, Twain conveys how natural, and even morally correct, racism would have seemed to characters like Huck.
In the opening pages of Huckleberry Finn, we feel the presence of both Huck’s narrative voice and Twain’s voice as author. From the start, Huck speaks to us in a conversational tone that is very much his own but that also serves as a mouthpiece for Twain. When Huck mentions “Mr. Mark Twain” by name, he immediately gains an independence from his author.
Huck trips on a root as he passes by the kitchen, and Jim, one of Miss Watson’s slaves, hears him from inside. Tom and Huck crouch down and try to stay still, but Huck is struck by a series of uncontrollable itches, as often happens when he is in a situation “where it won’t do for you to scratch.”
Meanwhile, Tom and Huck meet up with a few other boys and take a boat to a large cave. There, Tom names his new band of robbers “Tom Sawyer’s Gang.” All must sign an oath in blood, vowing, among other things, to kill the family of any member who reveals the gang’s secrets.
After punishing Huck for dirtying his new clothes during his night out with Tom, Miss Watson tries to explain prayer to him. Huck gives up on it after some of his prayers are not answered. Meanwhile, a rumor circulates that Huck’s Pap, who has not been seen in a year, is dead. A corpse was found in the river, thought to be Pap because of its “ragged” appearance.
Over the next few months, Huck begins to adjust to his new life and even makes some progress in school.
The nearly fifty-year-old man’s skin is a ghastly, disgusting white. Noticing Huck’s “starchy” clothes, Pap wonders out loud if Huck thinks himself better than his father and promises to take Huck “down a peg.” Pap promises to teach Widow Douglas not to “meddle” and is outraged that Huck has become the first person in his family to learn to read.
The next day, Pap shows up drunk and demands Huck’s money from Judge Thatcher.
Pap sues Judge Thatcher for Huck’s fortune and continues to threaten Huck about attending school. Huck continues to attend, partly to spite his father. Pap goes on one drunken binge after another.
Unaware of his earlier drunken rage, Pap wakes up and sends Huck out to check to see if any fish have been caught on the lines out in the river. Huck finds a canoe drifting in the river and hides it in the woods. Huck falls asleep and wakes to see Pap rowing by. Once Pap has passed, Huck quietly sets out downriver. He pulls into Jackson’s Island, careful not to be seen.
Huck spends three peaceful, lonely days on the island, living on plentiful berries and fish and able to smoke whenever he wishes. He spends his nights counting ferryboats and stars on the tranquil river. On the fourth day, while exploring the island, Huck is delighted to find Jim, who at first thinks Huck is a ghost.
In order to make a hiding place should visitors arrive on the island, Jim and Huck take the canoe and provisions into a large cave in the middle of the island.
Huck wonders about the dead man, but Jim warns that it’s bad luck to think about such things. Huck has already incurred bad luck, according to Jim, by finding and handling a snake’s shed skin. In a formerly abandoned shack, he finds a woman who looks about forty years old and appears to be a newcomer to the town. Huck is relieved because, as a newcomer, the woman will not be able to recognize him. Still, he resolves to remember that he is pretending to be a girl.
The woman lets Huck into the shack but eyes him suspiciously. Huck introduces himself as “Sarah Williams” from Hookerville. The woman chatters about a variety of subjects and eventually gets to the topic of Huck’s murder. She reveals that Pap was a suspect and that some townspeople nearly lynched him.
Huck and Jim build a wigwam on the raft and spend a number of days drifting downriver, traveling by night and hiding by day to avoid being seen. On their fifth night out, they pass the great lights of St. Louis.
Huck finds Jim and says they have to cut the robbers’ boat loose to prevent them from escaping. Jim responds by telling Huck that their own raft has broken loose and floated away.
Huck and Jim head for the robbers’ boat. The robbers put some stolen items in their boat but leave in order to take some more money from their victim inside the steamboat. Jim and Huck jump into the robbers’ boat and head off as quietly as possible. When they are a few hundred yards away, Huck feels bad for the robbers left stranded on the wreck because, after all, he himself might end up a murderer someday. Huck and Jim find their raft and then stop so that Huck can go ashore to get help.
Jim and Huck find a number of valuables among the robbers’ bounty from the Walter Scott, mostly books, clothes, and cigars.
Huck and Jim approach the Ohio River, their goal. One foggy night, Huck, in the canoe, gets separated from Jim and the raft. He tries to paddle back to the raft, but the fog is so thick that he loses all sense of direction. After a lonely time adrift, Huck reunites with Jim, who is asleep on the raft.
Jim and Huck worry that they will miss Cairo, the town at the mouth of the Ohio River, which runs into the free states. Meanwhile, Huck’s conscience troubles him deeply about helping Jim escape from his “rightful owner,” Miss Watson, especially after all she has done for Huck.
Huck comes upon some men in a boat who want to search his raft for escaped slaves. Huck pretends to be grateful, saying no one else would help them.
We see in these chapters that Huck, though open-minded, still largely subscribes to the Southern white conception of the world.
A man calls off the dogs, saving Huck, who introduces himself as “George Jackson.” The man invites “George” into his house, where the hosts express an odd suspicion that Huck is a member of a family called the Shepherdsons.
Buck’s family, the Grangerfords, offer to let Huck stay with them for as long as he likes.
Huck admires Colonel Grangerford, the master of the house, and his supposed gentility. A warmhearted man, the colonel owns a very large estate with over a hundred slaves. The Grangerford children include Bob, the oldest; then Tom; then Charlotte, age twenty-five; Sophia, age twenty; and finally Buck.
The duke and the dauphin ask whether Jim is a runaway slave. Huck makes up a story about how he was orphaned and tells them that he and Jim have been forced to travel at night since so many people stopped his boat to ask whether Jim was a runaway.
Waking up after a night of drinking, the duke and dauphin practice the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet and the swordfight from Richard III on the raft.
The lynch mob charges through the streets, proceeds to Sherburn’s house, and knocks down the front fence. The crowd quickly backs away, however, as Sherburn greets them from the roof of his front porch, rifle in hand.
Huck does not see the point in telling Jim that the duke and the dauphin are fakes. Jim spends his night watches “moaning and mourning” for his wife and two children.
As the duke and the dauphin tie up the raft to work over another town, Jim complains about having to wait, frightened, in the boat, tied up as a runaway slave in order to avoid suspicion, while the others are gone.
Arriving in Wilks’s hometown, the duke and the dauphin ask for Wilks and feign anguish when told of his death. The dauphin even makes strange hand gestures to the duke, feigning sign language. The scene is enough to make Huck “ashamed of the human race.”
The dauphin arranges to stay in the Wilks house. Huck has supper with Joanna, the youngest Wilks sister, whom he calls “the hare-lip” because of her cleft lip, a birth defect. The duke wants to leave town that night, but the dauphin convinces him to stay until they have stolen all the family’s property. After the men leave the room, Huck finds the $6,000 in gold, takes it to his sleeping cubby, and then sneaks out late at night.
Huck hides the sack of money in Peter Wilks’s coffin as Mary Jane, crying, enters the front room where her dead father’s body lies.
The dauphin sells off the estate and the slaves, sending a slave mother to New Orleans and her two sons to Memphis. The scene at the grief-stricken family’s separation is heart-rending.
The next morning, Huck finds Mary Jane crying in her bedroom. All her joy about the trip to England has given way to distress over the separation of the slave family. Touched, Huck unthinkingly blurts out that the family will be reunited in less than two weeks.
These chapters mark several milestones in Huck’s development, as he acts on his conscience for the first time and takes concrete steps to thwart the schemes of the duke and the dauphin.
The real Harvey Wilks, in an authentic English accent, explains the reasons he and his brother, William, were delayed: their luggage was misdirected, and his mute brother broke his arm, leaving him unable to communicate by signs.
Huck steals a canoe and makes his way to the raft, and he and Jim shove off once again. Huck dances for joy on the raft. His heart sinks, however, when the duke and the dauphin approach in a boat.
The dauphin nearly strangles Huck out of anger at his desertion, but the duke stops him.
The foursome travels downstream on the raft for several days without stopping, trying to outdistance any rumors of the scams of the duke and the dauphin. The con men try several schemes on various towns, without success. Finally, the duke, the dauphin, and Huck go ashore in one town to feel out the situation. The con men get into a fight at a tavern, and Huck takes the chance to escape. Back at the raft, however, there is no sign of Jim.