In this lesson, we will learn about Mark Twain’s most acclaimed work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, through a close examination of characters and plot.
Breaking New Ground
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain and published in the United States in 1885, is considered one of the greatest stories and most criticized works of American literature ever written. The sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, this novel chronicles the travels of the young narrator, Huck Finn, as he leaves his hometown and dysfunctional family in Missouri and treks into the South down the Mississippi River. The story gives the reader an uncensored 13-year-old view of pre-war society in the region where, Huck finds, racist sentiment is ingrained in the fabric of life. The novel’s characters and plot are archetypal in its emergence as a new kind of American literature. So, too, are the ultimate messages of acceptance, friendship, hope and independence that are reflective of the struggles of the time period.
As a result of the importance of the choices Twain made about his characters and topics and the impact that the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had on our literary history, our study of this book will be covered in two lessons. In this first lesson we will outline the novel’s characters and cover important plot elements. Remember – it is truly an adventure. The travels of the characters involved don’t often follow a typical route, which is, as you will see, appropriate. For its time period, nothing about this story is typical.
While it’s generally easier to discuss most characters in the context of the story itself, it’s important here to start with the major players. By now, you know our narrator – Huckleberry Finn. Huck is a 13-year-old boy who lives (at the beginning of this story) with an older, wealthier widow who takes him in when it is clear that Huck’s father and town drunk Pap will not put the boy through formal schooling.
The Widow Douglas, who informally adopts Huck, shares a house with Miss Watson, her sister. Jim, Miss Watson’s slave, is a kind friend to Huck throughout the novel.And then, of course, there’s Tom Sawyer. Tom, who was introduced in Twain’s previous novel, is Huck’s intelligent and imaginative sidekick who participates in quite a bit of mischief with Huck. While he does not appear in much of the novel, Tom is ever present in Huck’s mind and serves a greater purpose when he shows up again at the end of the story.
In the Beginning
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn starts where the first in the series, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, leaves off. Huck mentions this and introduces us to his unique narrative voice and style in these first sentences of the book:‘You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.
That is nothing.‘After having found a robber’s stash of gold in a cave in the first book, Huck and his buddy Tom are both quite a bit richer. But now, Huck’s life is a bit different. We find out that he’s been living, still in St. Petersburg, Missouri, with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson while they attempt to educate him and civilize him in the ways of school, religion and manners.
Poor Huck is not so thrilled with this. He prefers running off with his buddy Tom, playing barefoot in the dirt and pulling pranks on unsuspecting victims. In fact, Huck is often inclined to leave the ladies altogether, but it is Tom who convinces him to stay with the Widow so that he can at least appear respectable. Huck does stay, but decides to sign his newly acquired money over to Judge Thatcher in the form of a trust.He does this just in time because his aimless father, Pap, arrives back in town, demanding his son and the money. While Pap tries to get his son back, Huck becomes accustomed to life with the Widow Douglas. This is, of course, until one day when Pap kidnaps Huck and takes him to a small shack across the river.
Huck’s father really doesn’t have much of a parental instinct and locks his son in the cabin whenever he leaves and beats him when he is there.After tiring of the unpleasant routine and fearing for his safety, Huck hatches a plan to leave. So he does what any boy in his situation would do – he cleverly fakes his own death by smearing the cabin with blood from a pig he killed so that he can, once and for all, escape.
Leaving St. Petersburg
After Huck stages his own murder, he takes off and hides on Jackson Island in the middle of the Mississippi River.
He knows there are parties out searching for him. He soon finds out that he is not alone on the island and meets Jim once more – remember, Jim is Miss Watson’s slave. Jim is also hiding because he thinks he’s going to be sold and sent further into the South, where he will never see his family again. Jim feels that his best chance is to get away and ultimately, find his way to Ohio, a free state, where he can earn enough money to buy his family back. Huck is conflicted about what to do – tell someone about Jim or continue on with him. Ultimately, Jim’s honesty and personal story win Huck over and give him many reasons to reconsider the morality of slavery.
So, they join forces. Both know that if Jim is found alone, he would probably be connected to Huck’s death, and if found together, Jim would be blamed for the kidnapping. The two are smart and begin searching for food and goods to bring along when the island is no longer a safe refuge. When a raft and a house float by after a flood, they take the raft for their own travels and loot what they can from the house. Unfortunately, there is a dead man inside the house. Jim sees this but, in a move that really highlights Jim’s sense of caring and friendship, he will not let Huck see it, explaining that it’s just too gruesome.They feel as though their discovery on the island is imminent after Huck sneaks into town disguised as a girl.
It is there that he finds out about the reward that is out on Jim’s head.So, they immediately load up everything they have and head out on the river. Their plan is to head down the Mississippi until they reached the Ohio River. At that point, the idea was to travel up the Ohio by steamboat until they landed in the free state.
Plot: Travels on the Mississippi
As they travel down the Mississippi, Huck and Jim are faced with a few challenges. At one point, they climb aboard a wrecked steamship to look for food and tools, but instead find three robbers. Although they fear for their lives, after some time, Huck and Jim are clever and are able to escape with the robbers’ loot.
The bigger problem occurs when Huck and Jim unwittingly miss the mouth of the Ohio River and must consider a complete change of course. At this point, Huck and Jim find themselves in a tense encounter with a group of men looking for runaway slaves. Luckily, they both escape the situation and, although all seems well, they are soon in quite a bit of trouble when a steamboat hits their raft and throws them both overboard. Huck and Jim are instantly separated.For a short while Huck is taken in by the Grangerfords.
He easily befriends little Buck Grangerford (a boy his age) but is soon made aware of the family’s unfortunate and drawn-out feud with a neighboring family, the Shepherdsons. The tension among these families exacerbates when a Grangerford girl runs off with a Shepherson son. The 30-year conflict reaches a climax in an ensuing gun battle, during which most of the Grangerford males are shot, including Huck’s friend Buck.
Devastated, Huck escapes and ultimately reunites with Jim, who has been able to repair the raft.
Plot: The King, the Duke and the Phelps
Since they’ve missed the mouth of the Ohio River, Huck and Jim decide to continue down the Mississippi until they are able to sell the raft, at which point they would travel back north by steamboat. However, they soon meet two men, the King and the Duke, who are clearly small-time criminals on the run from something. Huck, feeling somewhat empathetic of their situation, decides to let them ride on the raft.Almost immediately, the men hatch their first scheme and are able to successfully con money from innocent townspeople when they stop, which they continue to do for a while in the story until these confidence men perform a con that is devastating to Huck.
The King and the Duke dupe a local farmer into buying Jim when Huck was not paying attention. Although previously, Huck felt a moral dilemma in terms of aiding Jim, at this point, he is furious and resolves to free Jim and undo what the conmen did.So, Huck tasks himself with getting Jim back from farmers Silas and Sally Phelps.
When he first meets Silas and Sally, Huck is called Tom, which immediately confuses him. In a strange turn of events, Mr. and Mrs. Phelps are actually the aunt and uncle of his best friend Tom Sawyer, who is on his way to visit them. Huck intercepts the real Tom before he reaches his aunt and uncle, and the two hatch a kind of ridiculous plan for Jim’s escape.
As a result of a dramatic and unnecessary series of events and a less-than-graceful plan of execution, during the escape, Tom gets shot in the leg. Rather than escape in the melee, Jim chooses to stay with Tom. The doctor who attends to Tom gives Jim up, and Jim is returned to the Phleps’ house.
When all awake the next morning, the truth is revealed: Jim has been a free man for the last two months. Miss Watson passed away and, in her will, she set Jim free.
Tom was going to reveal this after they pulled off his escape plan (which he thought would be great fun for everyone). Pals Tom and Huck are identified as their true selves. Jim also finally tells Huck the truth about that dead man in the floating house – it was actually his father, Pap. At this point, one of Tom’s aunts steps in with plans to adopt Huck, but Huck has had enough of all of this civilizing and decides instead to travel out West.
It’s important to remember that Huck and Jim are friends, who, as a result of the tests and trials they experience together, form a real and lasting bond. They are both outcasts – outcasts who initially leave St.
Petersburg because they are both imprisoned in different ways. Huck’s father fails him as a parent and the rumor is that Miss Watson will allow Jim to be separated from his family. Together, they work against the tide of racism and, like any great adventure, fight off various enemies: robbers, lawmen and criminals.When it seems as though there is no way out, that everyone has turned against them and Jim’s fate is sealed, Tom Sawyer hatches a plan.
Ridiculous and adolescent, the plan inevitably fails, although it reveals the true kindness that lies within Jim, along with his sense of responsibility and loyalty. When both Jim and Huck are set free in the end by the news of Miss Watson’s will and Pap’s death, there seems now a chance at a new life. For Jim, this means a life with family. For Huck, it means more adventure, less civilizing and a break from the people who misunderstood him so much.
The idea, though, is that neither would have freedom without the help and friendship of the other.
As you go through this lesson, you will be able to summarize the premise of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and analyze the plot and character relationships, especially in regards to Huck and Jim.