Finn on DVD
Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
and Publication Dates
Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn between 1876
and 1883. Charles Webster and Company published the novel in New York in
the time that Mark Twain completed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
the U.S. Congress had amended the Constitution to do the following:
However, beginning in 1877,
some state legislatures began passing segregation laws that limited or
denied blacks access to white-controlled schools, restaurants, restrooms,
cemeteries, theaters, parks, and other facilities. Consequently, Twain's
theme of racism in Huckleberry Finn remained current when the book
was published. It remains current today because, even though segregation
laws have been struck down, racism persists as a serious problem.
Abolish slavery (Thirteenth
Guarantee citizenship rights
to every person born in the U.S. (Fourteenth Amendment, 1868)
Grant all citizens the right
to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude"
(Fifteenth Amendment, 1870).
own experiences during his boyhood in Hannibal, Mo., provided him most
of the background material for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
His knowledge of the Mississippi River, gained in large part through his
four-year career as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, provided additional
background, as did the recollections of boyhood adventures contributed
by his childhood friends.
action takes place in St. Petersburg, Missouri, and at various locations
along the banks of the Mississippi River in Missouri, Arkansas, and Illinois.
The time is the middle of the 19th Century, before the Civil War.
and Its Rules and Laws
cheerful, fair-minded Missouri boy. Because his father abuses him, he runs
away and teams with an escaped slave during many adventures on a raft ride
on the Mississippi River. Huck is the narrator of the novel.
Jim: The escaped
slave who joins Huck. He is a simple, loyal, and trusting man whose common
sense helps guide Huck. In a way, he serves as a surrogate father for Huck.
Pap Finn: Huck’s
drunken, greedy, abusive father, who is nearing age fifty. His racism is
symptomatic of the racism that infected society as a whole in nineteenth-century
Widow Douglas: Kindly
but straitlaced woman who takes Huck into her home.
The widow’s sister and owner of Jim.
Tom Sawyer: Huck’s
friend. He likes to stage mock adventures of the kind he reads about in
Ben Rogers, Tommy Barnes: Members of Tom Sawyer's gang.
Tom Sawyer's aunt.
Judge who looks out for Huck’s welfare.
Bessie: Judge Thatcher's
Mrs. Judith Loftus:
Woman who provides Huck valuable information when he and Jim are on the
Head of a family of wealthy aristocrats who take Huck in and treat him
cordially after he becomes separated from Jim.
Wife of Col. Grangerford.
Bob, Sophia, and Charlotte: Living children of Mr. and
child of Mr. and Mrs. Grangerford.
of wealthy aristocrats consisting of five or six families. The Shepherdsons
and Grangerfords are involved in a long and deadly feud, but neither family
can remember what started the feud.
Member of the Shepherdson clan who elopes with Sophia Grangerford.
The Duke and the King:
Con men who join Huck and Jim on their trip on the Mississippi River.
Loafer in an Arkansas town where Huck and Jim stop with the duke and the
Joe, Andy: Buck's fellow loafers.
Boggs: Man who lives
outside the Arkansas town. Once a month, he gets drunk and comes to town
to raise a ruckus and threaten people, although he is harmless.
Resident of the Arkansas town. When Boggs enters town on his monthly drunk,
he harasses and curses Sherburn, claiming the latter swindled him.. Sherburn
kills him with a pistol.
Joanna, Mary Jane, Susan
of a deceased man. When the duke and the king make them pawns in a scheme
to obtain the dead man’s bequest, Huck, feeling sorry for the sisters,
helps to expose the scheme.
Friend of the Wilks sisters. He tells them the duke and the king are frauds.
Friend of the Wilks sisters. He introduces Doctor Robinson to the duke
and the king.
Rev. Mr. Hobson, Attorney
Levi Bell, Deacon Lot Hovey, Ben Rucker, Widow Bartley:
Other Friends of the Wilks sisters.
Slave Servants of the
Sally Phelps (Aunt Sally):
Tom Sawyer’s aunt.
Old Doctor: Physician
who treats Tom’s leg wound.
of a camp meeting that Huck, Jim, the duke, and the king observe on their
Old Hank Bunker:
Man who died two years after looking over his left shoulder at a new moon.
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.
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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.
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 . . . ."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
time, Huck comes to find life at the Widow Douglas's tolerable and doesn't
mind school as much as he did at first.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
Huck escapes to Jackson Island
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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
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.
The Raft: Freedom
The Mississippi River:
Life, with all of its delights and dangers. However, it, too, can be thought
of as a symbol for freedom.
Huck's Windfall, $6,000,
and the Wilks Bequest:
Material values that lure human beings from the righteous path.
The Fog: Complex
problems that sometimes make it difficult to achieve life's goals.
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.
objectionable to many critics of the novel is the frequent use of the word
in Huckleberry Finn's narration. However, Twain's intent was to present
a realistic portrait of a child seeking freedom from an abusive alcoholic
father and from a society with overly rigid or fraudulent moral principles.
His intent was also to expose the cruelty and injustice of racism, not
to buttress it. The use of the word nigger—a
deeply offensive corruption of the word Negro (the Spanish and Portuguese
word for black person, derived from the Latin word niger, meaning
part of Twain's effort to present realistically southern English as it
was spoken or written, not as it should have been spoken or written.
Twain (1835-1910) was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, one of
six children of John and Jane Clemens. He was born in Florida, Mo., in
1835, but spent his childhood in Hannibal, Mo., where his father practiced
law and operated a general store.
an early age, Twain learned to set type for a printer, then worked for
a Hannibal newspaper operated by his older brother. After working for other
newspapers, he traveled widely, worked as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi
River, moved to the Nevada Territory, and eventually became a full-time
writer. In time, he achieved worldwide fame.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (considered his greatest novel), his
novels include include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876),
Prince and the Pauper (1881), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's
Court (1889), The American Claimant (1892), Personal Recollections
of Joan of Arc (1895), and The Mysterious Stranger (incomplete,
published posthumously in 1916).
also wrote short stories, sketches, essays, and newspaper articles and
was in great demand as a public speaker. Twain died in Redding, Conn.,
in 1910, and was buried Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, N.Y. Twain lived at
Quarry Farm, near Elmira, beginning in 1870 and wrote some of his literary
works there, including part of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
in a small study on the grounds. The study, which contains an old typewriter
and other effects of Twain, is preserved on the campus of Elmira College.
Questions and Essay Topics
Who is the most admirable character
in the novel?
Who is the least admirable character?
When protecting Jim, Huck violates
the law of the land. Clearly, however, he did the right thing. In your
view, are there current laws at the local, state, or federal level that
you believe are unjust? Do you believe any person has a right to break
a man-made law that goes counter to his or her conscience and moral beliefs?
Write an essay explaining the
views that southern plantation owners used in their attempts to justify
Write an essay demonstrating
that Jim is morally superior to white men in the novel.
To what extent is Huckleberry
Finn a product of the environment in which he grew up?
What was the most important
lesson Huck learned during his journey toward manhood?