As the story opens, Huck Finn has been adopted by the Widow Douglas
who wants to make him conform to the way and views of society. It is with
this forced learning that Huck finds that he is not comfortable with the
situation. Huck Finn, a boy of approximately 12 years, is the son of the
town drunk. Widow Douglas adopts him so that she can civilize him and raise
him to be a gentleman. Huck does not like the dull ways of the Widow.
Though she is nurturing to him, he feels confined and uncomfortable in her
house. He does not like going to school, attending church, or wearing neat
clothes and he despises being tortured by Miss Watson. When is becomes fed
up with the ways of the Widow, he decides to run away, but is found by Tom
Sawyer, who convinces him to come back. Earlier, Huck and Tom found a
treasure and were allowed to keep it. Huck’s father comes to know of his
son’s prosperity and returns to St. Petersburg. Widow Douglas’ has little
success with her attempts to reform Huck; he is just not the type of person
who can tolerate civilized life. He longs for a life of freedom, without
worry or constraint from society’s rules. It is also the earnest wish of
most adolescents to be left to their own devices, untroubled by the adult
world of rules and etiquette. Later instances, with Huck and Jim afloat on
the Mississippi, are indicative of the freedom that Huck is prevented from
attaining this early in the story. Huck’s concept of religion is also
eccentric. The Widow Douglas and Miss Watson attempt to teach him the
difference between good and bad, but he has trouble accepting what he
hears. He is told that smoking is bad by the Widow Douglas, and yet she
uses snuff. Huck sees the hypocrisy in this and decides that he prefers to
be “bad.” This discussion is significant to later events in the novel when
Huck will have to deal with much larger issues of good and bad as they
relate to the slave Jim.
At this point Jim is introduced as Mrs. Watson’s slave. Jim hears a
noise, made during Huck and Tom’s escape attempt, and decides to check to
make sure everything is ok. He does not see anything, but he is not
satisfied and sits to wait; he soon falls asleep. Tom decides to tie him up
as a joke. Ignoring Huck’s protest, Tom simply takes his hat and hangs it
overhead from a tree branch. Jim awakes and he is certain that he has been
carried away and back by witches. He spreads the story throughout the slave
community, enhancing the tale each time it is told. Each time he tells it,
a sense of pride comes over him. Several key facts are shown in this brief
description of Jim. He is the slave of Miss Watson, who has already been
pictured as nagging and mean in the way she treated Huck. Though she had
been harsh on Huck, it could only be assumed that she was much more severe
with Jim. As Huck was superstitious, Jim was also. Since he could come to
no logical conclusion for his hat being in the tree, he blames it on
witches and proudly spins the tale for his friends.
It is important to notice two things surrounding the body found
floating in the river. It introduces the Mississippi as a powerful and
awesome force, which Huck and Jim will fully feel as they escape down the
river. Additionally, Huck takes a very pragmatic approach to the news that
the body may be his Pap. His father represents only instability and cruelty
to Huck; he is not bothered by the fact that perhaps it is his father who
has drowned. Also Huck does not really think his dad is dead, but feels
certain that he will appear again, which foreshadows Pap’s later appearance
in the novel. Pap hears that Huck has gained riches and comes to St.
Petersburg to confirm the rumors. Huck denies any involvement, but Pap is
not fooled and goes to Judge Thatcher’s to get the money. With Judge
Thatcher’s help, Widow Douglas seeks to become Huck’s legal guardian. The
new judge denies the Widows petition as he does not want to separate Huck
from his father. The irony in this thought is that the new Judge assumes
that Huck will be better off with his natural father than a kind and loving
guardian. Regardless of Pap’s behavioral pattern and reputation, the new
judge deems it best for Huck to live with his father. It is distressing
that “proper society” thinks that Huck should be forced to live with a
totally corrupt and evil person, just because he is a blood relative. Huck,
in fact, does not fret and moan over Pap’s return; rather he is delighted
to realize that he no longer fears his father and can just accept the state
of affairs at face value. This means, however that he must sometimes obey
Pap, because if he does not, he knows he will be beaten.
Aside from the beatings and the lock-ups, Huck adjusts to life in the
cabin with his father. Truthfully, Huck finds that he is more comfortable
with being in the wilderness, out of society’s grasp and away from the
constraints of the Widow. Huck feels, however, that he must get away from
his father’s cruelty; he must run away. Carefully, he plans his escape. He
locates a rusty saw and uses it to cut a hole in the back wall of the
cabin. He knows that he must wait for the appropriate time to leave and
works only when his father is away. In a drunken fit one night, Pap tries
to murder Huck. In order to ensure that he lives, Huck knows that he must
escape now. His method of escape shows that he is both smart and quick-
thinking. These traits save him numerous times throughout the novel. The
traits also prove to the reader that Huck Finn will be able to take care of
himself in the world beyond St. Petersburg, for he has a good head on his
Huck decides to take a canoe to Jackson Island, where he spends three
idyllic days. On one of his explorations of the island, he meets the
Widow’s slave, Jim. Jim decides to run away when he hears news that the
Widow is planning on selling him down the river for eight hundred dollars.
From this point, the Huck and Jim decide to travel by raft down the
Mississippi. On the river, the “initiation” of Huck is completed. Even
though he has been taught that black slaves are only a piece of property,
he rejects the values of society and accepts Jim as his friend. He learns
to think independently and to be compassionate.
In Huck’s desire to know what reaction was provoked by his
disappearance, he dresses up like a girl and goes to the mainland. Judith
Loftus informs this “girl” that everyone is convinced that Jim has killed
Huck because they both disappeared the same day. Upset by the revelation,
Huck rushes back to the island and tells Jim. The two of them board a raft
and head down the river to New Orleans.
On the fifth night, it rains heavily. Leaving the raft to take care
of itself, Huck and Jim seek shelter under a tent. In the glare of
lightning, they see a steamboat knocked against the rocks. Huck wishes to
investigate and see if they can salvage anything of value; even though he
does not want to, Jim follows Huck’s lead.
They hear voices, as they board the steamboat, that are in dispute
over splitting some loot. Not waiting to hear more of the conversation, Jim
backs away, but Huck is curious to learn more. He advances, looks through a
window, and sees three men inside. One man is lying on the floor with his
hands and feet tied. Two other men are standing over him, one holding a
gun. The man on the floor, Jim Turner, is begging the other two to spare
his life. The second man, Bill, wants to kill him, but Jake Pickard, the
other man, does not want to. Once Huck realizes that the three men are
obviously scoundrels, he rushes back and asks Jim to untie their boat so
the men will be unable to escape. When Huck tells Jim that they should get
on their raft and leave, Jim says that the raft has drifted away.
Huck shows his basic kindness in this part of the story. In hopes of
saving Jim Turner from being murdered by the other two scoundrels, he wants
to notify the authorities quickly about the wreck. He makes up a tale to
insure that the watchman will go in search of the wrecked steamboat and
find the three men before they all die. Though Jim, Jake, and Bill are
scoundrels, Huck has sympathy for them being stranded out on the steamboat.
When the wreckage floats by, he paddles around and calls out to anyone
still on board; he wants to make sure that there is no one alive and
trapped. In this he shows that he values all of humanity, regardless of
their social class; this is the trait that allows Huck to totally accept
Jim as his friend later in the novel.
Huck, revealing his immaturity, plays another cruel trick on Jim.
Thinking still of Jim as a piece of property, it has not dawned on Huck
that Jim has real human feelings. When Jim tells Huck how hurt he is by the
trick and reveals how much he has worried about him, Huck feels terrible
and asks for forgiveness; this apology to Jim is the first sign of real
responsibility in Huck. Though he still does not view Jim as an equal, in
Huck’s mind he has at least begun to receive a human status, and Huck vows
never to be cruel to him again.
They slept most of the next day, but awake and head to Cairo, where
Jim believes he will find freedom. Excited now, he begins to talk about how
he is going to work hard and save his money to buy back his wife and
children; he says that he will steal his children out of slavery, if
necessary. Suddenly, he is troubled over the fact that he is helping a run-
away slave to gain freedom and he wonders what harm Miss Watson had done to
him that he is helping Jim to escape. He decides that he must ease his
conscious and take Jim ashore to turn him in. Just as he is about to leave,
Jim tells him what a good friend he is and that for the first time in his
life, a white man has kept a promise to him. His kind words stop Huck
Ironically, Huck and Jim float past Cairo, the point of freedom for
Jim. The canoe has been lost and there is no way to paddle back up-river.
To make matters even worse, their raft is hit by a steamboat. Jim and Huck
are separated as they both go overboard. Huck swims to shore. It is
important to notice the significant irony that Twain weaves throughout this
leg of the journey. It is ironic that Jim says he will steal his children
if he cannot buy them. Twain makes it so that the reader realizes the sin
of enslaving people, especially young ones, is much greater than any “sin”
a father can commit in order to regain custody of his own children.
Unfortunately, the childish Huck does not realize this.
Steamboat Crashes into Raft
A skiff comes along with two armed slave hunters, but Huck cannot
bring himself to betray Jim. One of the men asks Huck if he belongs on the
raft and he replies that he does. When they ask him who else is on board,
Huck says that his father is on board and suffering from smallpox and needs
immediate attention. When they hear of the smallpox, the slave hunters are
frightened; they quickly give Huck twenty dollars and depart. Huck again
finds himself feeling miserable when he saves Jim, not because he is
helping him escape, but he feels he has done something wrong; he wonders if
he would have felt better if he had given Jim up. He returns to the raft
and does not see Jim. To hide from the slave hunters, Jim has concealed
himself in the water. He comes out and says that he will never forget Huck
for saving him.
One day when Huck and Buck are out in the woods hunting, they
encounter Harvey Shephardson. Buck shoots at Harvey, but misses his mark.
Harvey chases after them and fires in their direction; Huck and Buck manage
to escape unharmed and reach home safely. Huck asks Buck the reason he
fired the first shot because he is confused at this unnecessary exchange of
fire. Buck replies that they and the Shephardsons have been involved in a
feud for nearly thirty years, but he does recall how or why it started. A
few months earlier there had been a death as a result of the feud, but the
killings had caused a great deal of loss for both families. The next
Sunday, the Shephardson and Grangerford families attend church with their
guns. The sermon ironically about brotherly love, leads Huck to think that
it is one of the most bizarre Sundays of his life.
Towards the end of his involvement with the feud, Huck is totally
disgusted when he learns all the Grangerford men, including his friend
Buck, have been murdered by the Shephardsons. The task of pulling Buck’s
body from the river is left up to him. Huck does not comment on his
feelings about Buck, but this is one of the most touching scenes in the
novel. Twain takes this opportunity to criticize the senseless violence and
the ridiculous sense of honor.
It is important to notice that while Huck is on land, he again takes a
false identity, George Jackson. He can see society through the eyes of this
assumed person and sharply criticize it. In contrast to society, Huck sees
the river as pure. It is also important to notice Jim’s devotion to Huck in
this experience. He remains in the woods, as to not intrude on Huck’s
personal life, receiving news and food from Huck’s servant. Though he could
easily have taken the raft and headed down the river on his own, he is
faithful to Huck and depends on him for safety. With this devotion, he
waits on the young boy to return.
Huck again shows his sympathetic nature when the Duke and Dauphin are
chased. Huck wants to help them and advises them to run toward the river.
He is unaware that the two men will join Jim and himself on the raft. The
two frauds and liars quickly take charge of things, telling preposterous
stories about who they are. Huck shows his practical side once again when
he decides it is best not to interfere with this sort. He also realizes
that, if given the opportunity, they would sell Jim.
The Duke and Dauphin wonder if Jim is a runaway slave and question
Huck as to why he is trekking down river on a raft. Huck refuses to give
them answers but poses them with a question: why would a run-away slave
head further south? To appease the two frauds, he concocts a story about
the death of most of his family after which his father, brother, and Jim
start on their journey south. He continues that both his father and brother
drowned in the river after being struck by a steamboat. Since then, he
says, people have been trying to take Jim from his custody because they
believe he is a run-away. So, he says, this is why they are trying to avoid
being seen on the river during the day and travel only after dark.
The Duke and Dauphin continue to act as masters of the raft. Huck and
Jim have to spend the nights alternately keeping watch as they continue
down the river. The Duke and the Dauphin spend their time trying to come up
with a plan to fool the people when they reach the shore. When they reach
the next village, all four go ashore. The Dauphin poses as a reformed
pirate, who is trying to help change other pirates; he takes up an offering
for his cause. When he goes back to the raft, he learns that he is richer
by eighty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents. The Duke makes fake
advertisements to sell and prints a picture of a run-away slave that fits
Jim’s description, offering a reward of two hundred dollars. Now they can
travel during the day because anyone questions them, they can tie Jim up
and that they are returning him to his owner to collect their reward.
Colonel Sherburn Shoots Boggs
Evening approaches and Huck overhears someone call out that Boggs,
the jovial town drunk, is coming. He calls out to Sherburn, who has
swindled him. A crowd of people follow Boggs as he progresses down the
street, waiting to see what will happen. Colonel Sherburn comes out with
his pistol, aims at Boggs, and shoots him in full view of his daughter and
other villagers. Later, a Bible is placed on the man’s chest, but Huck
seems to be the only one who notices. Huck witnesses the whole scene as an
Someone in the crowd suggested that Sherburn should be lynched for his
action. The crowd agreed and go yelling and screaming towards Sherburn’s
house. Sherburn comes out and stands on the patio without uttering a simple
word. The crowd quiets down. Sherburn, in a voice filled with scorn, calls
the mob cowards and pitiful people who do not fight with courage. The crowd
breaks up under this attack and goes its separate ways. Huck shows his
revulsion when he describes the morbid curiosity of the crowd in recounting
the murder and crowding around the body to get a better glimpse. This is
merely one incidence that convinces Huck that life on the raft is more
peaceful and happy than living in town.
Royal Nonesuch Play
The house is crammed with people and the play begins. The Duke
augments the expectations of the audience and then hoists up the curtain.
Naked and painted wildly, the Dauphin comes onto the stage. The audience
goes wild as he prances around and they cannot stop laughing. The Duke
lowers the curtain and instructs the audience not to mention the “great
tragedy” to anybody, for they will be performing for two more nights. In
fact, they repeat their act on the next two nights and flee the town,
making a profit of four hundred and sixty-five dollars. It is important to
note that Huck is not a participant, only an observer.
He also realizes that the townspeople are gullible and easily swayed,
causing some of their own problems. It is also important to note Huck’s
descriptions of royalty. He often mixes up history with fiction. His
telling is quite comic and his point is satiric. He makes the decision that
all kings and politicians are “mighty ornery” and seemingly no different
from the scoundrels, Duke and Dauphin.
Finally it is important to note the tenderness in Jim’s story about
his child. It amazes Huck to know that Jim has such deep feelings. “I do
believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for
their’n,” Huck thinks to himself. This realization deepens the closeness
that Huck feels for Jim.
In an attempt to make it possible for Jim to stay on the raft by
himself and not be judged a runaway slave, the Duke disguises Jim as a sick
Arab. The Dauphin tells Huck to row him out to the steamboat. They meet a
young man on their way to the steamboat and the Dauphin introduces himself
as the Reverend Alexander Boldgette. Mr. Wilk’s brother Peter has just
passed away, and the man was hoping the one of them was Mr. Wilk’s. A
couple of months before, when Peter turned ill, word was sent to his
brothers to return immediately. Harvey, one of Peter’s bothers, is a
preacher, and the second, William, is deaf and dumb; they stood to receive
a great inheritance from Peter.
The Dauphin inquires about the Wilks family and the town, and the
young man willingly supplies all the information. Immediately, the Dauphin
decides to try and gain the Wilks fortune. He concocted a plan that he
would pretend to be the preacher and the Duke would pretend to be the dumb
brother. Huck is sent to retrieve the Duke. Huck realizes what they are up
to, but knows that he can do nothing about it. When they come to shore, the
Dauphin asks if anyone knows where Peter Wilks lives. They tell him that
Peter has passed away and he pretends to be heart-broken, making wild signs
with his hands to the Duke.
Huck turns moralist in this chapter. His concern falls on the three
nieces, whom he sees as simple, honest people who are being exploited. He
judges the Duke and Dauphin’s actions as being immoral and unethical. It is
ironic that Huck gets drawn into the episode with the Wilks girls due to
monetary considerations because he never before associated with any concern
of money. The girls will be destitute if he fails to help, and he knows
this. Once again, Huck’s instinctive understanding and kindness are
evident. Because he sees how trusting and innocent the girls are, he
chooses to help them by stealing the bag of gold from the Duke and Dauphin,
hiding it only until he can return it to the girls. An essential goodness
is seen here in Huck’s genuine effort to help these three girls in
distress. This instance is also important because Huck no longer chooses to
be a blameless onlooker; though it may put him in danger, he commits
himself to the girls. Twain is foreshadowing the fact that Huck will later
The girls receive their first jolt only a day after the funeral. A
transaction handled but the Dauphin, Slave traders come and buy their
servants. Huck keeps silent because he knows that the sale is not one of
validity, which means the slaves can be returned to the farm in a matter of
days. Another day passes and the Dauphin decides to hold an auction to sell
the farm. Huck is awakened by the noise made when the Dauphin and the Duke
discover that their gold is missing. He is asked if he has seen anyone near
the room where the gold was kept, or if, perhaps, he might have wandered in
there. After a short time of thinking, Huck replies that the servants have
gone in there several times. The Duke and Dauphin make the assumption that
the Negroes have stolen the money and become furious with themselves for
not adequately safeguarding the gold. The clever Huck is happy that he has
shifted the blame to the black servants, who are no longer around to be
hurt by his insinuation.
When Huck sees Mary Jane in tears he breaks down and cannot hold back
the truth any longer; he reveals everything to her. He does not want her to
be tempted to give the secret away, or even accidentally reveal the truth,
so he asks her to go away for a few days. Even with her gone, he must still
persuade Mary Jane’s sisters not to reveal their sister’s whereabouts and
does so by weaving a plausible story. Huck plans most of his moves
vigilantly and leaves little to chance.
Robinson and a lawyer, Levi Bell, conduct an investigation as the true
heirs are waiting for their bags. They are convinced that the Duke and
Dauphin are frauds, even to go so far to say that Huck conspires with them.
The Duke is asked by the doctor to hand over the bag of gold and is told
that he has no idea where it is, for one of the servants has stolen it.
Huck tries to lie his way through it, when he is questioned, but he is
caught. They also question them about the tattoo marks on Peter Wilks’
chest. To determine who the real Wilks brothers are, they decide to dig up
The group begins to dig up the coffin. To their surprise, when they
open the coffin, they find the bag of gold. In the ensuing confusion, Huck
is able to escape and runs towards the river. He meets Jim on the way, and
they both manage to escape and avoid confrontation. The Duke and the
Dauphin, however, soon follow them again. The Duke and the Dauphin begin to
argue, marring the carefree life on the raft. One accuses the other of
deception but neither of them suspects Huck. Rather, they find solace in
their failure by getting drunk.
The Phelps’ Farm
The final action in the journey takes place at the Phelps’ farm,
where Jim is detained in captivity as a runaway slave. Huck makes his way
to the Phelps’ farm in an attempt to save Jim once again. He is delighted
to discover that Mrs. Phelps is Tom’s aunt and that she is expecting Tom
visit soon. She mistakes Huck to be Tom and welcomes him.
Huck meets Tom as he is coming back to the Phelps’ farm and tells him
the entire story. He says that he intends to rescue Jim, who is being held
prisoner by Mr. Phelps. At the mere mention of excitement, Tom is elated.
All that they have to do to free Jim is, but Tom sets up an elaborate plan
for adventure. While trying to free Jim, Tom gets injured and becomes ill.
Later in the story, Huck realizes that Jim was truly free the whole
time, because Widow Douglas had willed him freedom. He learns, also, that
Aunt Sally is looking to adopt him so she can bring him further
civilization. He decides, again, to run away so he can be “free”.
Huck no longer has to create an identity or a family for himself, for
the first time in the novel. At the Phelps’, he is handed one. In all of
his former identities, Huck has made up large, fictional families. He has
now been placed in a family well known to him. He relaxes and truthfully
answers all of Sally’s questions, from the perspective of Tom. He goes out
on the pretext of bringing his luggage as to prevent any confusion when the
real Tom arrives. He waits on the road to warn Tom of the situation into
which he had been brought.
The entirety of the last section of the novel takes on a farcical
tone, set by Aunt Sally. She makes Huck conceal himself when Uncle Silas
arrives so they can play a trick on him. Later, though, many jokes are
played on her in return.
Tom takes on the role of a leader when he realizes there can be a
great deal of adventure in rescuing Jim. Huck agrees to do as Tom says and
goes along with his plans. Somehow, Huck still feels that Tom is much
stronger and wiser than he. Huck is greatly astounded that his friend would
be so “noble” as to help him in the illegal activity of helping a runaway
slave. Huck has trouble believing that such “respectable” people, as Tom,
can do evil things, but easily accepts that the wicked people such as he
are capable of evil.
Tom’s fondness of dramatic, elaborate solutions is contrasted clearly
to Huck’s yearning for the simple and practical things in life. Huck folds
to Tom and depends on him to make the decisions now. As the boys plan Jim’s
escape, Huck recalls his escape in the early part of the novel when he
successfully flees from Pap. Huck forgets that while the boys are planning
their grand adventure that Jim is suffering, just as Huck has suffered the
beating from his father. Tom informs Jim of the plan and Jim goes along
with it, as he sees he has no other choice. Twain is drawing the reader’s
attention to the state of which the slaves were in. They fear being treated
with cruelty and being beaten for disapproval, so they go along with what
the white man says, even when they are wrong.
Huck and Tom have left Jim a prisoner for three weeks while they carry
out Tom’s “grandiose” plans for his escape. It is the ultimate thoughtless
cruelty. Tom and Huck manage to free Jim through the hole, the same manner
in which Huck escaped his father. In a melodramatic scene, they are chased
by dogs and men as they head for the river. Tom is struck by a bullet, but
is surprisingly glad, because he will have something permanent to remind
him of his adventure. Jim is horrified that he has been hit and refuses to
go any further, losing his freedom to help Tom. Because of the help given
to Tom by Jim, the doctor is able to save his life.
Tom reveals, the next morning, the Jim was indeed a free man as it
were willed by Miss Watson. Tom admits that he concealed the information
because he wanted to have a grand adventure. At this point, Tom’s
selfishness shines more clearly than it has throughout the book. He does
not care about anyone except himself and his romanticized pretensions.
In the melodramatic and complicated ending, the boys’ assumed
identities are cleared up by Aunt Polly. Huck is delighted to finally be
himself. Aunt Polly also verifies Tom’s claim that Jim has been granted his
freedom. The novel ends with Huck deciding to “light out to territory
ahead” so he could escape from the grasp of society. It is clear to the
reader why Huck hates “civilized” life. In his trip down the river he has
seen that hatred, violence, brutality, and filth are the characteristics of
the society on shore.
Twain ends the story just as he started; he opens with story saying
that Huck is afraid that he will be civilized by Widow Douglas and now that
he realizes that Aunt Sally wants to adopt and civilize him, and he decides
to run away to the west, to uncharted territory. As luck would have it, it
is the corrupting influence of civilization that makes Huck “uncivilized.”