By Mark Twain (1835-1910)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010.©
Type of Work
.......The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel that does not fit neatly into a single genre. However, it does contain elements of the apprenticeship novel, or bildungsroman, because it presents the experiences of a boy as he learns important values and lessons about life. It also contains elements of the picaresque novel, a type of fiction that presents the episodic adventures (each a story in itself) of a person as he travels from place to place and meets a variety of other characters, some of them also travelers.
.......Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn between 1876 and 1883. Charles Webster and Company published the novel in New York in 1885.
.......By the time that Mark Twain completed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the U.S. Congress had amended the Constitution to do the following:
.......Huckleberry Finn tells the story in first-person point of view. His narration, including his accounts of conversations, contains regionalisms, grammatical errors, pronunciation errors, and other characteristics of the speech or writing of a nineteenth-century Missouri boy with limited education. The use of patois bolsters the verisimilitude of the novel.Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......To keep young Huckleberry Finn away from his drunken and abusive father, the Widow Douglas takes him into her home in St. Petersburg, Missouri. With the help of her prissy sister, Miss Watson, she attempts to civilize the mischievous boy, making him wash, attend church, read and write, and go to school. Huck, feeling like a starched white shirt, yearns for freedom.
.......Late one night, Huck sneaks off with Tom Sawyer, a boy around his own age, and they meet other boys—including Joe Harper and Ben Rogers—at the bottom of a hill. They all get into a skiff and travel two-and-half-miles downriver to a cave. Taking lighted candles several hundred yards inside, they find a place that resembles a room. There, they form a band of robbers known as Tom Sawyer's Gang. All the members must sign an oath in blood, swearing not to reveal the secrets of their little society.
......."If anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets," Huck says in recalling one of the band's rules, "he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around . . . ."
.......When some boys suggest that they also kill the families of boys who blab secrets, Tom writes this proposal down as one of the gang's rules. Everybody is satisfied until Ben Rogers says Huck has no mother and "you can't never find" his father.
......."He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard," Ben says, "but he hain't been seen in these parts for a year or more."
.......When the other boys are about to declare Huck ineligible to join because he has no family to kill should the need arise, Huck offers them Miss Watson, and they accept his proposal. The boys then prick their fingers with pins and sign their blood oaths. Afterward, they discuss the activities they will undertake, such as robbing stagecoaches and holding people for ransom. One boy, little Tommy Barnes, then says he wants to go home to his mother and doesn't want to be a robber. When the older boys ridicule him, he becomes angry and threatens to tell the gang's secrets. Tom Sawyer gives him five cents to hush him up. The boys agree to meet again in the near future.
.......Life goes on for Huck at the Widow Douglas's—the strait-laced kind of life he doesn't like. Meanwhile, Huck hears about a drowning victim who was thought to be his father. Huck hadn't seen seen his Pap in more than a year—and didn't want to see him ever again because of the beatings his father gave him. After Huck discovers the drowning victim is not his father, he gets an uneasy feeling. He knows that sooner or later the old man will return.
.......Over the next month, Huck, Tom, and the other gang members carry out the plans they discussed in the cave. But they only pretend to rob and murder, and the gang eventually breaks up.
.......In time, Huck comes to find life at the Widow Douglas's tolerable and doesn't mind school as much as he did at first.
.......One day, Huck sees boot prints in the snow outside the house. When he examines the tracks closely, he notices "a cross in the left boot-heel made with big nails, to keep off the devil." Huck knows that only one man wears boots with such a sign—his father. What he wants is Huck's money. On an earlier adventure, Huck and Tom Sawyer had found a robber’s cache of gold and other valuables. When everything was tallied up, Huck and Tom each were worth $6,000. Huck's money was placed in the hands of Judge Thatcher, an upstanding man, for investment at interest. Worried that Pap has come for the money, Huck runs to the judge and says he wants to give him the money. The judge says, "Well, I'm puzzled. Is something the matter?" Huck replies, "Please take it, and don't ask me nothing—then I won't have to tell no lies."
.......Thatcher writes a note that gives him legal possession of the money after he pays Huck the nominal sum of $1. But he continues to keep the money for Huck. That evening, Huck visits a black slave named Jim, who is owned by Miss Watson. Jim has a magic hairball he got from the stomach of an ox. Huck asks him to use the hairball to find out what Pap is up to and whether he plans to remain in the community. After Jim listens to the hairball, he tells Huck that Pap hasn't made up his mind about whether to stick around. Moreover, he says, two angels control Pap, one good and one evil. Every time the good angel "gits him to right a little while . . . de black one sail in en bust it all up." Jim also tells Huck that he will have troubles in his life but will also have joys.
.......After returning home, a fearsome sight startles Huck in his bedroom: Pap. He is as mean as ever, claiming Huck thinks that he is better than his father just because he wears starched clothes and can read and write. He orders Huck to quit school and tears up a small picture that Huck received at school for doing well. He also tells Huck he wants his money the following day, saying he heard about it down the river. When Huck tells his Pap that he has no money, his father does not believe him. Then he takes the dollar Judge Thatcher gave Huck and goes out, buys whiskey, and gets drunk.
.......In the ensuing days and months, Pap Finn sues Judge Thatcher for Huck's money, whips Huck on occasion for going to school, and tries to gain control of the boy.
To protect Huck, the Widow Douglas and the judge attempt to legalize the widow’s adoption of Huck. But another judge thinks the proper place for Huck is with his father. While the matter is tied up in court, Pap Finn makes his move. One spring day, he seizes Huck, takes him up the river three miles, then crosses over into Illinois to a remote cabin and keeps him there. They live on the fish that they catch and the game that they hunt. (Pap has a gun that he stole.) Every now and then, Pap trades fish and game for whiskey, gets drunk, and beats Huck. However, because Huck doesn't have to wash, go to school, or live according to the widow's and Miss Watson's rules, he actually doesn't mind life at the cabin—except for the beatings.
......."But by and by pap got too handy with his hick'ry," Huck says, "and I couldn't stand it. I was all over welts. He got to going away so much, too, and locking me in. Once he locked me in and was gone three days."
.......Eventually, Huck escapes to JacksonIsland in the Mississippi. Nearby, he discovers another runaway, Miss Watson’s slave, Jim, who fled after he overheard plans to sell him. After a period of heavy rains, the river rises and Huck and Jim, who are living in a cave, salvage part of a raft floating toward them and save it for later use. They already have a canoe, which Huck had pulled out of the river before running into Jim. When a house floats toward them, they enter it and come away with additional items: clothing, a bottle, a lantern, knives, candles, a tin cup, a bed quilt, and other items. Three days later, a rattlesnake bites Jim on the heel of his foot as he nestles down on a blanket. They cook the snake, and Jim eats heartily of it, saying it will help cure him. Jim's foot and leg swell, and he lies ill for four days before the swelling goes down and he recovers.
.......Meanwhile, Huck decides to go back to St. Petersburg to find out what people are saying about him and Jim. With a calico dress from the floating house, he disguises himself as a girl and, after sunset, paddles the canoe across the river to the lower part of town. There, he sees a light in a shanty and knocks on the door. When he gains entry, he introduces himself as Sarah Williams and says he is from Hookerville, seven miles away. He says he is on his way into town and just wants to rest awhile after walking all seven miles. The woman, Mrs. Judith Loftus, is a newcomer to St. Petersburg and talks awhile about her relatives. As the conversation continues, she tells him about recent events in the St. Petersburg area, including the murder of a boy named Huck Finn. Pap Finn is a suspect, she says. She also says there is a $300 reward for the capture of an escaped slave (Jim). Before Huck leaves, Mrs. Loftus discovers that he is a boy in disguise but promises not to say anything about talking with him.
.......Jim and Huck immediately sail off on their raft, hoping to reach Cairo, Illinois, and take a steamship up the Ohio River and into the states that prohibit slavery. Along the way, the adventurers encounter robbers and slave hunters. Huck, worried that he is morally obliged to turn Jim in, nevertheless decides to lie for him when the slave hunters ask questions.
.......After a thick fog descends on the river, Huck and Jim unknowingly pass Cairo. Worse, a steamboat runs into their raft, and Huck and Jim are separated for a while—going off on separate adventures. One wealthy family of aristocrats, the Grangerfords, take Huck into their elegant home and say he can stay as long as he likes. He tells them his name is George Jackson and that he is an orphan.
......."It was a mighty nice family, and a mighty nice house, too," Huck recalls. "I hadn't seen no house out in the country before that was so nice and had so much style. It didn't have an iron latch on the front door, nor a wooden one with a buckskin string, but a brass knob to turn, the same as houses in town.
.......The head of the family, Col. Grangerford, and his wife and children—Buck, Tom, Bob, Sophia, and Charlotte—all treat Huck well. They all have their own servants, and they assign one to Huck, too. Huck feels sad about a deceased Grangerford child, Emmeline. She wrote poems about everyone in the neighborhood who died, but no one wrote a poem for her after she died while still only an adolescent.
.......Huck gets along especially well with Buck, who is about the same age as Huck. One day, when Huck is in the woods hunting with Buck, a young man comes along on a horse. Buck shoots at him, and the young man returns fire. Huck and Buck run off. Later Buck tells Huck that he shot at the horsemen because he was a Sheperdson—Harney Sheperdson. The Grangerfords and Sheperdsons have been feuding for a long time, but Buck doesn't know why.
.......One day, Huck's slave servant asks Huck to follow him into a swamp so he can show Huck some water moccasins. Huck thinks it strange that anyone would want to show him poisonous snakes. However, he accepts the invitation and follows his servant half a mile until they reach a swamp. There, he finds Jim, who has been biding his time there. He made contact with slaves going out to fields to work, and they kept him supplied with food and informed him of Huck's presence at the Grangerfords. Jim then arranged for Huck's servant to lead the boy to him.
.......The next day, the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons heats up after Harney Shepherdson elopes with Sophia Grangerford. During the fighting, two Grangerfords are killed—one of them, Buck. Shaken, Huck runs off with Jim, who was able to retrieve the raft after the steamboat incident, and they resume their travel on the Mississippi. Along the way, they pick up two men being chased by armed robbers. One claims to be an English duke; the other, called “the king,” says he is the rightful dauphin of France—that is, the heir to the throne. They are both con artists, and Huck and Jim can’t get rid of them.
.......In towns along the great river, the king and the duke work their swindles. One town is a curious place. The streets are thick with mud, pigs run wild, and loafers stand around whittling or chewing tobacco. Huck listens in on a conversation among five of them named Buck, Bill, Hank, Joe, and Andy. After making small talk for a while, they notice a man named Boggs riding into town on his monthly whiskey binge. Boggs generally makes a ruckus and goes around threatening and cursing people, but he is actually harmless. When he harasses and threatens a certain Col. Sherburn, claiming Sherburn swindled him, the latter kills Boggs with a pistol. A lynching party forms and goes to Sherburn's house to hang him. But Sherburn comes out with a double-barreled shotgun and faces them down, calling them cowards and saying there isn't a real man among them. When he cocks his gun, the mob breaks up and the incident ends. Tom then attends a circus in town.
.......Meanwhile, the duke and the king advertise a play called The King’s Cameleopard, or the Royal Nonesuch, saying it stars David Garrick the Younger and Edmund Kean the Elder. Because women and children are not allowed to attend, the men of the town think the play will be a real eye-opener, and they willingly pay the admission price of 50 cents. When the duke raises the curtain, says Huck, “The king come a-prancing out on all fours, naked; and he was painted all over, ring-streaked-and-striped, all sorts of colors, as splendid as a rainbow.” The crowd laughs. But when nothing else happens, the crowd becomes angry. However, too embarrassed to tell others about how they paid good money to see a naked man cross the stage, they go out and talk up the play. The duke and the king make a lot of money before the people of the town wise up.
.......In another scheme, the duke and king pretend to be brothers of the recently deceased Peter Wilks. Wilks bequeathed a fortune to his brothers, both Englishmen, who are expected to arrive in town and claim their money. When the duke and the king arrive and present themselves as the heirs, Peter Wilks' nieces—Joanna, Mary Jane, and Susan Wilks—receive them and take the necessary steps to pass on the fortune. However, a friend of the Wilks sisters, Doctor Robinson, maintains that the the duke and the king are frauds because they do not have English accents. Nevertheless, the gullible Wilks sisters endorse the king and the duke's claim on the money. Feeling sorry for the Wilks sisters, Huck exposes the scheme. When the real heirs to the fortune show up, the duke and the king hightail it out of town and make it to the raft just as Huck and Jim are leaving.
.......Downriver, the duke and the king sell Jim to Silas Phelps, a shoemaker whose wife happens to be Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Sally. Tom shows up, and he and Huck free Jim. Men chasing them shoot Tom in the leg. Jim is captured. Tom, bleeding profusely, tells Huck that Jim is actually a free man: His owner in St. Petersburg, Miss Watson, who has died, left a will with a provision that freed Jim. Tom receives treatment from a local doctor.
.......In the end, all is well for Huck, Tom, and Jim. Jim informs Huck that he doesn’t have to worry about his cruel Pap anymore, because it was the corpse of his Pap that they found on the floating house when they left St. Petersburg. Tom has recovered from his bullet wound and keeps a pendant around his neck containing the infamous bullet. Huck says, “There ain't nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it, and ain't a-going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.”.
All human beings are free, independent, and equal members of society. The novel celebrates the spirit of freedom and independence through Huck and Jim, escapees from oppression.
The Primacy of the Moral Law
The moral law supersedes government law. By protecting the black slave Jim, Huck breaks man-made law and feels guilty. But he refuses to turn Jim in because his moral instincts tell him he is doing the right thing.
Wisdom comes from the heart, not the head. The educated characters in the novel are often deeply flawed in some way—self-righteous, prejudiced, quixotic, bound to tradition. However, the uneducated—namely, Huck and Jim—exhibit a natural, intuitive understanding of the world. Though ignorant in many ways, they are wise in the ways that count, relying on conscience, common sense, and compassion to guide them.
A Child Shall Lead
A little child shall lead them. Twain probably did not have this Bible quotation (Isaiah: Chapter 11, Verses 6-9) in mind when he portrayed Huck as a boy who had a better grasp of morality than the often corrupt civilization around him—a boy worth imitating for his virtues. But the quotation aptly summarizes one of Twain’s themes nonetheless.
Love of Money
The love of money is the root of all evil. This Bible quotation (First Epistle of Paul to Timothy: Chapter 6, Verse 10) also sums up a major theme in the novel. It is the love of money, Huck’s, that prompts Pap Finn to gain custody of Huck. It is the love of money that motivates the Duke and the King to work their scams. And, most important of all, it is the love of money that makes southerners retain the institution of slavery.Climax
.......The climax occurs when Tom and Huck free Jim, and Tom—who has suffered a bullet wound in the leg—tells Huck that a provision in Miss Watson's will has freed Jim.
Structure and Style
.......Like the Mississippi River itself, the plot flows around bends, through darkness and fog, and into bright sunlight. The story is full of surprises, moving through many episodes that are little stories in themselves. These episodes form a unified whole that illumines the characters and their values. The mood is sometimes light and buoyant, sometimes deadly serious. The writing (that is, Huck’s storytelling and the characters’ conversations) is a delight—richly descriptive, humorous, and suspenseful. .......But it is not true, as some have observed, that Huck’s first-person narration and the conversation of the strange mixture of characters represent authentic regional dialects. And thank goodness for that. Were they truly authentic, the novel would be a tedious agglomeration of mispronunciations, backwoods neologisms, and weird grammar. Rather than bogging the novel down with language problems, Twain flavors the writing with just enough local patois to give it bite—but not so much that the novel becomes unpalatable.
.......Twain learned to write this way from writers of "local color," an American literary movement of the last half of the nineteenth century. Besides presenting narratives in a regional dialect, local-color writers, or "local colorists," attempted to portray life in the various sections of burgeoning America. However, rather than writing soberly realistic stories, they tended to write stories infused with "eccentrics as characters" and "whimsical plotting," according to William Flint Thrall and Addison Hibbard, authors of A Handbook to Literature (266). Thrall and Hibbard also note that local colorists "emphasized verisimilitude of detail without being concerned often enough about truth to the larger aspects of life or human nature" (266). One of the most famous of the local colorists was Bret Harte, who met and befriended Twain in San Francisco in the 1860's.
Thrall, William Flint and Addison Hibbard. A Handbook to Literature. Revised and enlarged by C. Hugh Holman. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1960.
.......Since its publication in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been a target of censors in high schools, colleges, libraries, and religious institutions. One reason people have banned, or attempted to ban, the book is its characterization of Huckleberry Finn as a wayward child who defies his elders
and society in general. Another reason, cited by some black Americans, is that the book seems to depict Jim as a negative stereotype that racists use to reinforce their prejudice.