Discover why Huck Finn is still talked about over 130 years on
Ever since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1884, it’s been met with both high praise and harsh criticism. In many ways, the story of Huck Finn was groundbreaking. While the novel is a direct sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it isn’t told in the same way. Tom Sawyer was told from a removed, third-person perspective. Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, is told from Huck’s perspective. And seeing as Huck is a teenaged ne’er-do-well who speaks in a colourful regional dialect, the entire book is written in an evocative, inventive language that captures a certain American voice incredibly well.
While it was one of the first novels to attempt this feat, the style wasn’t universally celebrated. And Mark Twain’s attempts to capture an authentic Southern dialect and reflect the way people really talked at the time continue to be a source of controversy to this day. Given that the book’s teenage narrator lives among slave owners – and was raised by an abusive, alcoholic, racist father – the N-word appears often. Debates also ensued in Twain’s day around how much dignity Twain gives the character of Jim, who is attempting to escape slavery just as Huck is attempting to escape his abusive father.
We’ll get into the details of Huck and Jim’s adventures, some of the themes and social critiques Twain was trying to get across, and how those ideas continue to be relevant today.
More money, more problems
In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn was basically homeless. His father was an alcoholic vagabond, and Huck was fairly wild and lawless. But that began to change when, at the end of that book, Tom and Huck discovered a hidden treasure worth over $12,000.
This newfound money was placed in trust on their behalf, with Tom and Huck each getting $6,000, a small amount of which was made available to them every so often. At the same time, the Widow Douglas, a stern older woman, agreed to adopt Huck and have him move in with her.
By the time Huckleberry Finn opens, Huck is, by his estimation, around 13 or 14 years old, living in St. Petersburg, Missouri, and being given a second chance at respectability. But he isn’t so sure this new lifestyle agrees with him. He prefers his ragged clothes over the itchy, starched, clean outfits the Widow Douglas makes him wear. He also chafes at all the rules that she hands down. Even sleeping indoors has an unpleasant, restrictive quality to it. But, surprisingly enough, Huck has gotten used to going to school and even started to enjoy parts of it.
It has been a year since Huck last saw his dad, whom he calls “Pap.” But once winter comes, Huck recognizes his father’s footsteps in the snow around the widow’s house. Huck goes to visit a man named Jim, who has a talent for fortune-telling, and who is held as a slave by the Widow Douglas’s sister, Miss Watson. Huck asks Jim what his father has in mind. Jim tells him that his father isn’t sure whether he wants to stay or leave. Jim also tells Huck that his dad has two angels hovering around him – one good, one bad. He adds that Huck has two similar angels flying around him – one light, one dark; one rich, one poor. As well, Jim advises Huck that he should stay away from water, and not take any risks.
When Huck returns to his room that night, he finds Pap sitting in a chair, waiting for him. His hair is long and greasy, his clothes in tatters – and he looks as menacing as ever. He says he’d heard that Huck was learning to read and write, and he was ashamed – his own son, thinking he was better than his dad. Pap says he has every mind to knock such ideas right out of Huck’s head. But what he really wants, of course, is Huck’s money. Huck explains that he doesn’t have it – Judge Thatcher is holding onto it.
Pap badgers the judge, and tries to get the law on his side, but doesn’t have any luck. The Widow Douglas tries to drive Pap away, but this only causes Pap to drag Huck to a cabin a few miles away on the banks of the Mississippi River.
At first, Huck doesn’t mind too much. Being at the cabin means he doesn’t have to go to school or wear uncomfortable clothes. He can smoke whenever he wants, and spend the days fishing. The only problem is that Pap gives him regular beatings and locks him up in the cabin whenever he goes to town.
Eventually, Pap goes on one of his days-long drinking binges. This is when Huck begins to plot his escape. One by one, the pieces fall into place. He takes an axe and breaks down the front door of the cabin. He spills pig’s blood on the floor and creates marks that make it look like Huck’s body has been dragged down to the river. He also leaves tracks that make it look like the imaginary burglars have made their getaway in the opposite direction. He then packs up a raft and sets off downstream. Huck knows just where to go to lie low: Jackson’s Island.
All right. This is a good place to take a break and look at the groundwork that the author, Mark Twain, has laid for the rest of the story.
Huck is in a pretty interesting position at the start of the story. Even though he’s one of the richest people in town, he isn’t so thrilled about all that comes with his status – like the uncomfortable clothes, and being under the critical watch of adults who are obsessed with “respectability.”
Throughout the book, Twain raises some questions about what it means to be “free” in America. While most people of his time looking down on those who have no money, wear threadbare clothes, and sleep outside, Huck maintains that there is a certain freedom in this.
Now, one of the things that Twain himself commented on is that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is by and large about the inner conflict in Huck between the head and the heart. As the author puts it, it’s a book “where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” We can see these two elements as a variation on the two angels that Jim mentions while telling Huck’s fortune.
The River of freedom
Once he escapes Pap’s cabin, it isn’t long before Huck runs into Jim, who has run away from Miss Watson and is also using Jackson Island as a hideout. After a night or two alone, Huck is glad of the company, and Jim is glad that Huck has some food to share. Jim also notices that the waters are rising steadily and that most of the island will soon be submerged. He gets them to higher ground and into the safe shelter of a cave.
In the meantime, Huck learns that Jim has run away because he overheard that Miss Watson planned to “sell him down to Orleans.” This was one of the things Jim most feared, so he didn’t stick around long after that. Huck also learns that Jim is separated from his wife and two kids, and is eager to reunite with them.
Huck promises not to turn Jim in, and Jim confirms that Huck’s getaway plan has seemed to work – people in town think he’s dead and has been searching the river for his corpse.
Then, later that night, Huck sneaks into town and hears that a search party is underway and is headed straight for Jackson’s Island. It seems some people have gotten the idea that Jim’s disappearance and Huck’s death are related, so they put a $300 reward out for Jim’s capture. Huck’s father has also disappeared, which looks suspicious, so there is a $200 reward out for him as well.
In response, Huck and Jim get on the raft and head down the river as quickly as they can. They plan to float south, past St. Louis, all the way to Cairo, Illinois, where the Mississippi meets the Ohio River. From there, they plan to take a steamboat up north to the free state of Ohio, where Jim would be clear of trouble.
This plan goes smoothly for a while. At night, Huck and Jim float along, admiring the stars. During the day, they find a safe place to park the raft. They fish, swim, smoke cigars, and have a fine time of it.
But one day, a riverboat bears down on them, striking their raft and causing Huck and Jim to jump off. Huck makes it to the edge of the river and calls out for Jim, but doesn’t hear a reply.
After climbing far up the bank of the river, Huck is met by some menacing guard dogs belonging to the Grangerford family. The family is wealthy and led by Colonel Grangerford, who is a “well-born” gentleman. As Huck puts it, being well-born is “just as valuable in a man as in a horse.” However, the Grangerfords are in a generations-long feud with the Shepherdsons, and Huck gets stuck in the middle of it. One of the Grangerford daughters is in love with a Shepherdson boy, which results in many people dying during a shoot-out that Huck avoids by climbing a tree.
Fortunately, one of the servants leads Huck back to Jim, who has repaired the raft so that the two can escape before any further violence ensues. They are overjoyed to be back together, on the raft, and in the sanctuary of the river.
Let’s take a quick break from the story here to catch up on another theme of the novel.
When we meet the Grangerfords, we see what is perhaps the height of so-called “respectability” – the family of a wealthy, well-bred, distinguished colonel. But in Twain’s view, they’re a violent and foolish lot. They’re obsessed with a feud whose origins no one can remember, and yet it’s a cause they’re all too willing to kill and die for.
This theme, of the dubiousness of respectability, is continued in the next section, when we’re introduced to “the duke” and “the king.” These are two con artists who exploit people’s reverence for those who are “well born” to swindle them out of all they’re worth.
Tricked by royalty
Huck and Jim float along for a couple of nights, and then one morning, while Huck is hunting for berries along the shore, he crosses paths with two men who are being chased by dogs and an angry mob. They beg Huck for help. Huck tells them where to cross in the water so that they’ll throw the dogs off their scent and be able to find the raft.
From the start, these men seem peculiar. The younger one reveals himself to be the Duke of Bridgewater, while the older one claims to be Louis XVII, the rightful king of France. Huck knows that the duke and the king are a couple of scam artists, but there isn’t much he can do about it, given Jim and Huck’s own precarious status. The two grifters quickly get to work comparing notes on how they can make some money at the next town they come to. They decide to pretend to be famous British stage actors putting on a Shakespeare revival show.
Let’s just say the act doesn’t go over well with the crowd. At the second performance, the audience comes supplied with rotten food and, Huck suspects, perhaps even a dead animal or two, all for the purpose of pelting the actors. The rotten smell of their ammunition gives the crowd’s plan away, and so the king, the duke, and Huck are able to sneak out the back and make a relatively clean getaway.
Next comes a more complicated scam. The king hears a story from a traveller about a man who’s recently died. The deceased left a small fortune to his two brothers. Well, the king and the duke put on their charm, claim to be the brothers and gain the confidence of the family. They quickly collect or sell off the dead man’s estate – which includes a bag with $3,000 in gold.
Huck feels awfully bad about this scheme, so he hides the bag of gold and confesses to one of the orphaned daughters of the dead man that these two con artists aren’t who they say they are. However, the only place Huck can find to hide the gold is in the dead man’s coffin, which is now buried.
Things get more complicated when the two real brothers of the deceased show up. The coffin must now be dug up to prove who’s who, for only the real brothers will know what kind of tattoo the dead man has. While everyone is startled by all the gold in the coffin, Huck, the king, and the duke make their escape.
Being stuck with these two grifters is making Huck and Jim increasingly miserable. They’re floating farther south, and Jim is getting the sense that he’ll never be reunited with his family.
Indeed, more bad luck is in store for Jim. At the next town, they come to, which is likely somewhere in Arkansas, the king ends up selling Jim for $40 to someone who realizes there is a much bigger reward out for the runaway slave. When Huck learns of this, he gives the duke and the king the slip and tracks Jim down to a small plantation owned by the Phelps family, where Jim is being kept under lock and key.
We now move to the Phelps’ estate for the final section of the book. And depending on whom you ask, it is either an egregious, unfortunate ending to an otherwise excellent book, or an example of Mark Twain making an important final statement in his story. Let’s see if we can sort it out.
The not-so-great escape
When Huck arrives at the Phelps plantation, he is immediately mistaken for someone else – someone named Tom. It takes some careful deducing, but Huck soon realizes that Mrs Phelps is actually Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Sally.
Huck knows that he could easily pretend to be Tom Sawyer, but he also knows that this means Tom should be arriving at the house at any minute. Huck excuses himself and runs into town where, sure enough, he spots Tom, who is very surprised to find Huck isn’t dead.
Huck isn’t so sure about what will happen next. Will Tom agree to help a runaway slave escape? To his happy surprise, when Huck explains the situation, Tom is fully on board. In his eyes, this will be another great adventure.
But once Tom sees where Jim is being kept, he’s upset. They can easily break Jim out and make their escape without breaking a sweat, but Tom won’t have it. He’s read all sorts of books about prisoners, such as The Man in the Iron Mask, so he knows how it’s supposed to be done – and he won’t do it any other way.
Over the many days that follow, Tom proceeds to make Jim’s rescue far more complicated and difficult than it needs to be. For example, the boys bake a cake with a rope ladder in it, even though Jim’s being kept in a room on the ground floor and the boys are also digging a tunnel. They also smuggle in materials to Jim so that he can work on a journal because Tom believes that’s an important part of all prisoner stories. And so on.
While this section of the book is packed with perhaps more comedy than any other part – Tom and Huck’s antics basically drive Mr and Mrs Phelps to the brink of insanity – it’s hard to laugh when you know it’s prolonging Jim’s suffering. For Huck’s part, he does protest at Tom’s demands but never puts up much of a fight. And Jim is unreasonably kind in playing along with Tom’s convoluted scheme.
In the end, the escape plan works – though Tom Sawyer gets shot in the process. Jim then helps a doctor save Tom’s life. And then, most unexpectedly, Tom announces that Jim isn’t a slave at all. Miss Watson has actually passed away, and her will stipulates that Jim should be set free. As luck would have it, Tom’s Aunt Polly arrives on the scene and confirms Tom’s story. Given this news, and Jim’s efforts to save Tom, the Phelps family releases Jim and gives him a full meal, and Tom gives him forty dollars.
Jim takes this moment to deliver some important news to Huck. During their adventure, they came across a dead man lying face-down in a house that was floating along the river. Jim didn’t want to tell Huck at the time, but that man was Huck’s father. So Huck is, in a way, also a freer man than he was at the beginning of the story.
Since the novel’s release, the ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been one of the most contentious parts of the book. One of the most famous critics of the ending was Ernest Hemingway, who called the book one of the best of its time – so long as you stopped reading after Jim was sold by the king. The rest of the book, he said, was “a cheat.” On the other hand, the writer Ralph Ellison called the ending absolutely necessary to give the story its moral significance.
To this day, it remains a subject of debate. You can see it as too neat, too messy, too much of a happy ending, or too cynical. This, in part, is what makes Mark Twain such an enduring writer. Few others could write what was often considered a children’s book and fill it with such satirical complexities.
The story of the adventures and friendship of Huck Finn and Jim is a classic example of American literature for a number of reasons. It was one of the first books to be written entirely in a regional dialect, and its depiction of the respect and shared concerns between a teenage boy and a runaway slave continues to speak to how interrelated Black and white cultures have been in American history. By addressing the hypocrisies behind class concerns and revealing how more money does not necessarily equal more freedom, the story also comments on some of the fallacies behind the American dream.