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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by author, orator, and humorist Mark Twain is set in the antebellum South and explores themes of racism, friendship, loyalty, civilization, and how the title character, Huck Finn, deals with moral ambiguities. Huck Finn and the slave Jim form a friendship and learn to view each other as human beings, rather than just the titles ascribed to them by society on their journey along the Mississippi in search of freedom. Society has trained individuals to treat others according to their title, and Huck struggles initially to see Jim as anything other than his assigned station in life—a slave. The two journey in search of freedom, and they learn about life and themselves. As you read, consider Huck's decision to act selflessly, and think about how far you would go to stand up for your beliefs and protect someone else.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by author, orator, and humorist Mark Twain is set in the antebellum South and explores themes of racism, friendship, loyalty, civilization, and how the title character, Huck Finn, deals with moral ambiguities. Huck Finn and the slave Jim form a friendship and learn to view each other as human beings, rather than just the titles ascribed to them by society on their journey along the Mississippi in search of freedom. Society has trained individuals to treat others according to their title, and Huck struggles initially to see Jim as anything other than his assigned station in life—a slave. The two journey in search of freedom, and they learn about life and themselves. As you read, consider Huck's decision to act selflessly, and think about how far you would go to stand up for your beliefs and protect someone else.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Genre

Primarily, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an adventure and picaresque novel. A picaresque novel is typically told in first-person point of view and features a likable but non-heroic protagonist that is usually of low social class. The picaresque novel is realistic and episodic in its structure. As a way to deflate the idealized Romantic form, episodic narratives are often comedic, satirical, and sarcastic. Mark Twain, known for creating pieces that fit all those characteristics, also created a believable and relatable children's hero.

Twain revolutionized children's literature with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and his masterpiece was initially banned for its portrayal of the South. This happened after the 1885 publication because commissioners (in Massachusetts) described it as lewd, racist, trashy, and inaccurate. Today, it remains a subject of controversy because of its racially charged language, although that was not an issue upon initial publication. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains a quintessential example of American literature that celebrates both the human spirit and criticizes social institutions.

A protagonist is the chief or central character in a plot, on whom the action is centered.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain was celebrated and admired by other American writers. In his book The Green Hills of Africa (1935), Ernest Hemingway noted, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. [...] it's the best book we've had. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

(Chapter 1)

The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, StudySmarter

Mark Twain was an author, humorist, orator and inventor who penned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Pixabay.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Summary

Twain prefaces the novel by expressing his purposeful use of several dialects, which he indicates are fashioned "painstakingly... with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity" (Explanatory). His use and authentic portrayal of regional dialects captures the reader's attention, shapes characters, and adds an element of realism to the tale. Namely, Twain mentions his use of "the Missouri Negro dialect, the extremist form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect, the ordinary 'Pike County' dialect, and four modified varieties of this last." This stylistic decision helped Twain present an accurate portrayal of the local population and differentiate between characters.

Chapters 1 through 11

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which begins in the town of St. Petersburg, is told in first-person point of view from Huck Finn himself. He begins the narrative by referencing the novel he had previously appeared in, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Huck often directly addresses the reader, lending the novel a more personal and authentic feel. He relates to the audience how the Widow Douglas looks after him and wants to "sivilize" (Chapter 1) him, while her sister Miss Watson tries to teach him spelling. As a boy who has been living his life free and on the banks of Mississippi with his drunken father, being "respectable" and living in new clothes feels "cramped" (Chapter 1).

After Huck and Tom found the money in the preceding novel, Huck's drunken father fought the Widow Douglas for rights to Huck (and the money). Huck's father, Pap, takes the Widow Douglas to court and temporarily wins a new judge's favor and custody of Huck. But the money is secured in the bank, and after the Widow Douglas warns Huck's father to stay away from Huck and her property, Pap kidnaps Huck and keeps him captive across the river from St. Petersburg.

Pap locks Huck in a cabin and periodically beats Huck during drunken rages. Huck, fearing the beatings will worsen, escapes by faking his own death and hiding on Jackson Island, a plot of land in the middle of the Mississippi River. Huck watches from a distance as the townspeople search for his body. Days later, Huck runs into Miss Watson's slave, Jim, who has also run away for fear of being sold down the river and separated from his wife and children. They agree to help one another.

As the Mississippi floods during a storm, Huck and Jim catch a floating raft and pillage a floating house that has the body of a dead man. During this episode, Jim refuses to let Huck see the identity of the dead man. Jim states, "it's too gashly" (Chapter 9) for Huck to see, indicating Jim's protective nature despite being mistreated and oppressed. Huck and Jim flee the island after they learn people have suspicions of Jim's presence on the island and have a reward for his capture.

American literature The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a river bank, StudySmarter

Much of the story of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes place on the river bank of the Mississippi. Pixabay.

Chapter 12 through 30

As Jim and Huck travel down the river, they have a series of adventures together. Huck saves Jim from a group of men hunting for runaway slaves. He tells them his father is on the raft suffering from smallpox, and the men give Huck some money and leave for fear of being exposed to the disease. Huck is conflicted about hiding Jim, but he begins to see Jim's humanity and kind heart as he forms an evolving bond with him. Huck jumps on and off the raft early mornings and late at night to get supplies for them, including food. Showing his survival skills and street sense, Huck states a lesson he learned from his father: to "take a chicken when you get a chance" because you can either use it yourself or "find somebody" that wants it (Chapter 12).

Jim and Huck meet a pair of scoundrels known as the duke and the king, as the duo claim to be an English duke and the missing heir to the French throne. The pair of con artists travel with Jim and Huck along the river, and scam people along the way. They hear about a man named Peter Wilks who has recently died and left his estate to his two brothers. The duke and king impersonate the two brothers and try to con a group of nieces, the Wilks sisters. Huck reveals duke and the king for who they truly are, as the real Wilks brothers arrive. The duke and king narrowly escape. Here we see Huck's developing sense of right and wrong, and his intended actions to prevent wrongdoings, begin to take a central role in the actions of the novel.

What other characters have you read about that are guided by their own moral compass, despite societal pressures?

American literature The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, money as motivation, StudySmarter

The duke and king try to con the Wilks family for an inheritance. Huck reveals their ploy. Pexels.

Chapter 31 through Chapter the last

Chapter 31 marks the moral climax of the story where we see Huck resolve to save Jim after the two crooks sell Jim to a local farmer. Huck Finn asserts "All right, then, I'll go to hell" (chapter 31) and proceeds to where Jim is, the Phelps’s home. Huck discovers they are Tom Sawyer's aunt and uncle. Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas mistake Huck for Tom, who they are expecting. As Tom arrives, Huck stops him, and Tom agrees to pretend to be his younger brother Sid. The two boys plan to help Jim escape again. However, their motives reveal Huck's character development. While Tom is inspired to execute the plan because it is an adventure akin to the ones in the books he reads, Huck now sees Jim as a kind person, an individual, a human—and not property. During the successfully executed plan, Jim is freed but a captor accidentally shoots Tom in the leg. In another act of selflessness, which speaks to Jim's character, Jim sacrifices his freedom to get Tom help.

When he awakens, Tom reveals that Jim is a free man, because Miss Watson is dead and freed him in her will. Jim reveals the dead man on the river was Huck's Pap, and Aunt Sally offers to care for Huck and adopt him. Showing his evolving maturity, criticism of societal institutions, and rejection of social norms, Huck states "she's going to adopt me and silvilize me, and I can't stand it" (Chapter the last).

What do you think being "sivilized" means to Huck?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Character Analysis

Here are some key characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnDescription
Huckleberry FinnHuckleberry Finn, the 13-year-old protagonist of the novel and narrator, is a young boy who rejects the rules of society because he finds them restricting. He is a round character who develops both morally and philosophically throughout his episodic adventures. He is not afraid to challenge society's institutions; and through his eyes, we see the hypocrisy and damaging effects of slavery.
JimJim is Miss Watson's runaway slave. Initially, we see Jim as an ignorant and superstitious individual. His character develops, and the readers form a bond and sympathize with him, much like Huck. Jim is revealed to be a kind, insightful, and thoughtful individual. He is more morally sound and mature than the rest of the adults in the novel.
PapPap is Huck's drunk and abusive father. He is a flat character that never develops. Stylistically, he is a foil to Jim, who, despite being treated poorly, cares for Huck as a father should.
Tom SawyerTom Sawyer is Huck's best friend and a foil to Huck. His traits are more childlike and his motives for helping Jim are selfish, unlike Huck's. He functions to reveal Huck's moral growth and maturity.
The duke and the kingThe duke and the king represent "high society" by virtue of their false titles, and they reveal the corrupt nature of civilization.
The PhelpsesThese are Tom Sawyer's kin. Namely, his Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas. They are shown to be somewhat ignorant, as they don't recognize their own nephew.
The Wilks SistersThe Wilks sisters are a group of women Huck helps by preventing the duke and the king from robbing them of their family's inheritance. They are kind people, and Huck's sense of justice and right and wrong is clear during this episode.

A foil character in a work of fiction has traits that contrast those of the main character and is meant to reveal the traits and distinctive temperament of the protagonist.

Why do you think Twain uses Tom Sawyer as a foil to Huck Finn towards the end of the novel?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Themes

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel that uses the innocence of a young boy to explore and reveal the atrocities of the institution of slavery and society's hypocrisy.

Slavery

Mark Twain used his own experiences and observations to inform his writing, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a prime example. Twain's early years in Hannibal, Missouri were largely spent on the river banks of the Mississippi. Here, the young Samuel Langhorne Clemens found solace and freedom. It was an area that he would immortalize in his writings. He developed a love for the river and for boating. Clemens even earned his steamboat license. His pen name, Mark Twain, is a boating term that measures the depths of the water.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a steamboat, StudySmarter

Mark Twain drew from his experiences as a child and as a steamboat captain to inform The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Pexels.

Growing up in the South, Twain would often listen to the house slaves on his uncle's farm tell stories, and share spiritual hymns, folk narratives, songs, and jubilees. These experiences likely formed the foundation of his own unique style of storytelling. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the young Huck becomes increasingly critical of a civilization that allows the institution of slavery to exist as he becomes more aware of Jim's generosity and innate compassion. Huck grapples with what his intuition tells him is right, as opposed to what civilization says is right. Although his schooling and experiences have taught him that slavery as an institution is acceptable, Huck's innate kindness, moral compass, and relationship with Jim enable him to see beyond societal constructs. He can decipher for himself the true cruelty of slavery, identify it as inherently wrong, and take action to help Jim. Throughout his adventures, Huck begins to realize the true atrocities of slavery, as Jim is simultaneously victimized and humanized before Huck's eyes.

Society

At first, Huck rejects the superficial aspects of being part of civilized society. He doesn't like baths, new clothes, or shoes. He feels suffocated by the restrictions and social niceties that being a part of civilized society entails. However, as the novel progresses, he becomes more critical of the deeper issues he sees with society and its customs. Adult actions are illogical. Huck is told not to smoke and is reprimanded for it, yet the Widow Douglas takes snuff. Noting the hypocrisy, Huck sarcastically states, "of course that was all right, because she done it herself" (Chapter 1).

Humans, for Huck, are inherently inhumane. He sees the duke and king rob others without a care. Three girls lose their father and are robbed. Further, Jim is thoughtlessly sold and treated as an object—his future in jeopardy of being "a slave again all his life... for forty dirty dollars" (Chapter 31). As Huck concludes his narrative, he is not merely rejecting restrictive clothing or an institutionalized education; he is rejecting a society whose ideals are corrupt and morals are misguided. Huck's character development has proven that it is necessary to reflect upon the values within the society you live and to adhere to your own moral intuition when judging right from wrong.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Quotes

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain includes many important ideas and speaks to several issues in society. Through the eyes of the innocent and rambunctious boy Huck, the audience gets a fresh view on issues that plagued society back then, and some that are still prevalent today. Here are some key quotes of importance that bring meaning to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it.

Chapter 1

Huck states this in regards to the Widow Douglas not allowing him to smoke a cigarette. She even advises him to quit. However, later in the novel we learn that she takes snuff. Huck despises not having the freedom to do what he wants, which is one reason he rejects efforts to "sivilize" him and why he relates to Jim. The Widow Douglas's admonishment of Huck's nicotine usage, while she partakes of tobacco, reveals the hypocrisy prevalent in society. When out on the river, Huck and Jim have freedom that must be relinquished to be a part of civilized society.

All right, then, I'll go to hell"

Chapter 31

These simple seven single-syllable words are some of the most famous in American literature and mark the central climax of the story. At this admission, the protagonist Huck Finn is unable to ignore his own conscience despite his teachings and resolves to be true to his own character and morals. He resolves to save Jim from the institution of slavery. Huck is risking his own life, and even eternal damnation, to do what he feels is right, despite social conventions of the time.

Jim says kind of solemn: "He ain't a-comin' back no mo, Huck."

The Chapter Last

This final admission by Jim deepens the understanding of Jim's true character and reveals the extent to which he would go to protect Huck. Not completely aware of all that Huck would sacrifice for him, Jim shielded Huck from the added pain of knowing his father was dead. Jim covered Huck's Pap's face to save Huck from the trauma of seeing his father's corpse. This secret Jim kept the entire time proves his loyalty to Huck, and his astute awareness of the father and son relationship, however damaged it was by Pap's actions and mistreatment. This awareness establishes Jim as a considerate being, a character good at his core, and worthy of better treatment than the institution of slavery affords him. Jim is more a father to Huck than Pap was, for his actions are to protect Huck, even at his own peril.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Key takeaways

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel written by Mark Twain.
  • Published in 1885, the novel was initially banned because of its portrayal of the South.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is best described as a picaresque novel, with humor and sarcasm describing the episodic adventures of a non-heroic protagonist, Huck Finn.
  • Renowned for its use of colloquial dialect, and told through the perspective of an innocent 13-year-old boy, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of America's classic novels and considered one of Mark Twain's masterpieces.
  • The injustice of slavery and the corruption of civilized society are two major themes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Orator, humorist, and satirist Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about the title character, Huckleberry Finn, and his journey down the Mississippi with a slave named Jim. Through their varied adventures, Huck sees Jim as a person with goals and dreams rather than just a slave. Although Huck is escaping an abusive father and Jim is fleeing for his life from the bonds of slavery, Huck decides to help Jim escape, even it means going against what he has been taught and even damning his own soul. 

The American classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is primarily a picaresque novel.

The novel was initially banned in 1885 after publication because commissioners (in Massachusetts) described it as lewd, racist, trashy, and inaccurate. People were upset over its portrayal of the South. Today, it remains a subject of controversy because of its racially charged language. That was not an issue upon initial publication. 

Through the title character Huck Finn, readers learn that to follow one's own moral compass entails critical thinking, reflection, and an analysis of societal structures. 

More about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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