Essay, Research Paper
In the opening paragraph, Huck introduces himself to us as the
narrator of the story. He talks to us in a relaxed, matter-of-fact
tone that makes him sound friendly, honest, and maybe a little less
respectful than he should be. He does, after all, come close to
calling Mark Twain a liar.
Try to imagine Twain writing that paragraph, in which he has a
fictional character accuse him of “stretching the truth” in an earlier
book. Twain seems to be sharing a joke with you, the reader, but
Huck isn’t in on the joke. Huck doesn’t say it to be funny. He says it
innocently, not realizing that it could be taken as an insult.
Keep this trick of Twain’s in mind as you read the book, because
you’ll find him doing it dozens of times. He’ll be expecting you to
understand things better than Huck, who’s just a simple, almost
illiterate kid. Twain will often be winking at you over Huck’s head,
the way two grownups might be quietly amused at the naive things
said by a young child.
Huck tells us that he’s been living with the Widow Douglas, a
woman he seems to like even though she has set out to “sivilize”
him. His friend, Tom Sawyer, has persuaded him to go along with her,
and Huck finds himself living in a house, wearing clean clothes, and
eating meals on schedule- activities that seem very unnatural to him.
Although he’s able to put up with the widow, her sister, Miss
Watson, is another story. He describes her as a “slim old maid, with
goggles on,” and he complains about her trying to teach him spelling
and manners. When she tells him about heaven and hell, he figures hell
must be a better place, since Miss Watson assures him that she is
going to heaven.
After an unpleasant session with Miss Watson, Huck goes up to his
room and stares out the window. The night sounds of the woods make him sad, until one sound begins to stand out- he recognizes it as a signal
from Tom Sawyer. Huck sneaks out of the house, feeling better now that
he and his friend are off on an adventure.
As Huck and Tom begin sneaking past the house in the dark, they make
enough noise to attract the attention of Jim, Miss Watson’s black
slave. He comes out of the kitchen to see what caused the noise,
sits down in the dark to wait for it to happen again, and falls
Tom slips into the kitchen to steal some candles for their
adventure, and when he comes back, Huck is anxious to get going. But
Tom insists on playing a prank on Jim before they leave. Huck knows
this is a dumb idea, because if Jim wakes up, they’ll be in deep
trouble for sneaking out of the house after dark.
But dumb or not, Tom gets to do what he wants. As the self-appointed
leader of the gang, Tom manages to get his own way just about all
the time. So he lifts Jim’s hat from his head and hangs it on a nearby
limb. Huck tells us that Jim later turned this incident into an
elaborate tale of being visited by witches while he slept.
Huck and Tom get together with the rest of the gang, and they all
travel downriver to a cave Tom has picked out as a meeting place. Huck
reports what happens at the meeting, making no comment on it.
At the meeting, Tom outlines his plan for forming a gang of
bloodthirsty robbers. He talks of the blood oath they’ll take
together. He says that anyone who reveals the gang’s secrets will be
killed, along with his whole family. He describes what will be done
with the body of such a traitor.
Where does Tom get such ideas? He gets them from the adventure books
he reads. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always understand what he’s
reading, as you’ll be able to tell later from his explanation of
what it means to “ransom” someone.
Read this whole scene very carefully, and you’ll get a good
picture of what Tom is- a kid who’s smarter than most of the others,
but not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Tom does read more than
the others, he does have a quick mind and a lively imagination. But
he’s the leader of this group more because of his forceful personality
than any real difference between him and the others. If you wanted
to be very critical of Tom, you could call him two things- a phony and
But Huck doesn’t say anything along these lines. He doesn’t see
how ridiculous Tom’s statements are. He works from the assumption that Tom is much smarter than he is and he takes Tom’s statements at face value. As was true in the first chapter, Twain doesn’t expect you to
be that naive. He expects you to see the truth about Tom, even if
the young narrator misses it.
The morning after the secret meeting, Huck has to put up with a
scolding from Miss Watson and- worse- looks of hurt disappointment
from the Widow Douglas. Miss Watson tells him he might get better if
he prays, but he has his doubts about that.
Huck then tells us about a time when he went off into the woods
and “had a long think” about praying. (He’s in the habit of going
off by himself and thinking when something bothers him.) If prayer
is so powerful, he wonders, why don’t people like the Deacon, Widow
Douglas, and Miss Watson have everything they want?
The widow explains to him that praying will win him “spiritual
gifts,” and that the best kind of prayer is the kind that’s meant to
help other people. Huck goes off and thinks about that for a while,
then decides that he isn’t interested in something that will help
other people but not him.
Huck also talks about the difference between the Providence (God)
that the widow tells him about, and the one he hears about from Miss
Watson. Huck thinks they are two different Gods, and this is another
case of Twain talking to you over the head of his narrator. Twain is
suggesting that God can be imagined in different ways by people with
Huck says he’d prefer belonging to the widow’s God, but he can’t see
why God would want someone so ignorant, low-down, and ornery. By
this time you should begin to see that Twain doesn’t share Huck’s
low opinion of himself- and he doesn’t expect you to share it either.
Huck believes that just about everyone he comes in contact with is
better than he is. For example, as much as he dislikes Miss Watson, he
doesn’t immediately dismiss everything she tells him. He may reject it
after he’s thought it over a bit, but his first reaction is, “She’s
smarter than I am. Maybe she’s right.”
He even goes along with everything Tom Sawyer suggests, no matter
how silly the suggestion is. Tom reads books and goes to school. Tom
is “sivilized,” so he must be better than Huck.
At this point, Huck talks a bit about his father, who disappeared
more than a year ago. Pap was a drunkard who used to beat Huck
whenever he was sober. Huck certainly doesn’t miss him. He tells us
that a body was found floating in the river, and that some people
believe it was Pap. Huck doesn’t think so, and he’s afraid his
father will show up again.
Huck isn’t very excited about playing robber with Tom’s gang. They
do a lot of running around, he tells us, and they scare people
sometimes, but they aren’t stealing anything. And they certainly
haven’t killed anybody yet.
In Tom’s imagination, though, they are doing all the things he
said they would. They have swords and guns, they steal jewels and gold
ingots, they’re getting ready to ambush “a whole parcel of Spanish
merchants and rich Arabs.”
Huck knows they’re really brandishing broomsticks and stealing
turnips but Tom’s description of the Spaniards and “A-rabs,” with
their elephants and camels, does catch his interest. So he shows up
the next day to take part in the spectacle.
What Huck sees is a Sunday School picnic for little kids. What Tom
sees are the Spaniards and Arabs he described. The gang has been
enchanted by magicians, Tom explains, and they only think they’re
looking at a kid’s picnic.
Read this conversation between Huck and Tom carefully, because it
shows a contrast between the two boys- a contrast that will become
important later in the book. In this conversation, Huck makes
several suggestions about how they can carry out their plan to rob and
kill. Tom counters all of Huck’s suggestions with fantasy elements
from the books he’s read- magicians, magic lamps, giant genies.
Huck is thinking about the concrete world around him; Tom is
following a set of “rules” he’s put together from his books. The two
boys are not talking about the same thing.
Tom becomes exasperated with Huck’s realistic, down-to-earth
approach to robbing and killing, and finally calls him a “perfect
saphead” for not knowing anything. Huck, of course, doesn’t claim that
he isn’t a saphead, because he secretly believes he is. Instead of
arguing, he goes off to test what Tom has said. He tries conjuring
up a giant by rubbing a tin lamp.
When nothing happens, he puts Tom into the same class as the widow
and Miss Watson. Tom might believe that the stuff he reads about is
true, but to Huck, it has “all the marks of a Sunday school.”
In the first three chapters Twain established the personality of his
main character. In this chapter he begins to develop the plot- a
series of “adventures” involving Huck.
Each of these adventures is almost a story in itself, even though
most of them go on for several chapters. So from here on it would
probably be better to read the book in sections instead of one chapter
at a time. I’ll still summarize the novel chapter by chapter, but I’ll
let you know when a new section begins and how many chapters it
You should read Chapters 4-7 as a unit, since they all deal with
Pap, Huck’s alcoholic father. Huck begins Chapter 4 by telling us he
has actually adjusted to civilized life. The first paragraph
suggests that he doesn’t know as much arithmetic as he thinks he does,
but he doesn’t “take no stock in mathematics, anyway.”
He isn’t deliriously happy with school, and living in a house, and
all the rest of it, but he doesn’t hate it the way he used to. Then
one morning he knocks over the salt shaker at the breakfast table.
As we saw near the end of Chapter 1, Huck is very superstitious
and gets himself quite worked up over signs of bad luck. He’s
certain the spilled salt means something terrible. Sure enough, when
he goes outside, he sees bootprints in the snow, and he recognizes
them as belonging to his father.
What he instantly does might seem puzzling at first, but we get an
explanation soon enough. He runs to Judge Thatcher, who is the trustee
of the money Huck got for helping to catch a gang of robbers. (That.
adventure is mentioned in the second paragraph of the novel.)
He begs the judge to take the $6000 and the interest, so he “won’t
have to tell no lies.” The judge doesn’t really understand Huck’s
motives, but he buys the account from the boy for one dollar. Huck
knows that his father is going to be after the money, and his father
has beaten him in the past for less reason than $6000. He wants to
be able to say he has no money- and he wants it to be the truth.
This shows us something interesting about Huck’s character. Pap is
not one of the people he respects. He’s already told us he hopes never
to see him again. He expects the man to beat him and to try to steal
his money. Yet, he’s unwilling to tell a lie, even in such a desperate
situation. Remember, this is the boy who has told us how low-down
and ornery he must be in the eyes of God.
After Huck gets rid of his money, he goes to visit Jim, Miss
Watson’s slave. Jim has a hair-ball that is supposed to have come from
the stomach of an ox, and they both believe it has magical powers.
Huck asks Jim to use the hair-ball to predict what Pap is planning
to do. Jim goes through a long, singsong speech, in which he
predicts so many things that he actually predicts nothing. He gets
so carried away that he predicts things that will happen to Huck
many years in the future.
Huck then goes up to his room and finds Pap waiting there for him.
NOTE: This is Jim’s second appearance in the story, and very soon he
will become a major character. This is as good a time as any to deal
with the kind of person he is and with Twain’s use of the word nigger.
In recent years, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been
the subject of debate and has even been banned in some schools and
public libraries. The argument and the censorship revolve around the
character of Jim.
Jim is illiterate, superstitious, childlike, easily led, and
apparently not very bright. Some people think the book could lead
readers- especially young readers- to conclude that this is what all
black people are like.
The same people may be offended by Huck’s use of the word nigger
to refer to Jim. To us in the 20th century, nigger is an ugly word
that many people would like to see erased from the language.
On the other side of the argument are people who point out that
the novel is set in a southern state in the middle of the last
century. In that setting, these people say, the word nigger had no
special meaning, good or bad. It was simply a regional pronunciation
of negro. These same people would say that, in the same setting, a
character like Jim was much more typical than he would be today.
Whichever side of this argument you take, try to keep two things
in mind. First, a novel can be good or bad regardless of how much it
reflects your own view of the world. And second, as we’ve already
seen, there’s often a big difference between what Huck says and what
Mark Twain believes.
Huck’s meeting with his father turns out not to be as bad as he
had feared. Once he gets over the initial shock, Huck finds that he
isn’t scared of Pap at all. Instead of the terrifying creature he grew
up with, Huck sees a pitiful old man who has worn his body down to a
What Pap sees is an “uppity” kid who has forgotten his place in
society. He rails at the boy for wearing clean clothes, for going to
school, and mostly for having learned to read and write. Pap talks
about illiteracy as though it’s a mark of family pride, and he’s
outraged that Huck would try to be better than his father.
Then he asks for the money. Huck tells him the truth, and when he
finally accepts it, Pap says he’ll go to Judge Thatcher. Of course
he can’t get the money, because the deal Huck made with the judge
was completely legal.
Pap does win one legal battle, though. Judge Thatcher and Widow
Douglas go to court to have Huck taken from his father and placed in
their care. The judge in the case, a new man in town, rules against
them, even though he knows their intentions are good.
This same judge then decides to reform Pap by inviting him to stay
at his house. After supper, Pap announces that he will never drink
again, and he and the judge cry and carry on about the new life Pap is
going to lead.
That night, Pap sneaks out of the judge’s house, sells the coat
the judge gave him, and spends the money on liquor. They find him
the next morning sleeping on the ground, dead drunk, with a broken
The judge was probably the only person in town who was surprised.
Once Pap regains control of himself, he hires a lawyer to sue
Judge Thatcher for the money that once belonged to Huck. Although he
occasionally catches Huck and beats him for going to school, Huck
continues to go, to spite his father. Then one day Pap kidnaps his son
and brings him to a log cabin on the Illinois shore, on the other side
of the river.
Whenever he’s away, Pap keeps Huck locked in the cabin. But when his
father is there, they fish and hunt or just hang around doing not much
of anything. Except for the imprisonment, Huck finds he likes
getting back to his old style of living, and he doesn’t want to go
back to the widow’s home any more.
The trouble is, he can’t stay with Pap, either. His father beats him
more and more, until Huck decides to work out an escape plan. He finds
a saw and cuts a hole in the cabin wall, then covers it up to wait for
a chance to get out, while his father is away.
Soon after this, Pap comes back from town in a terrible mood. He
starts drinking and complaining about the courts, the widow, and a
number of other things. After a few drinks, he goes into a long speech
about the government. This speech is important in at least one way- it
shows how Twain felt about racial bigotry.
Pap complains about not getting justice from his government, when he
has had all the anxiety and expense of raising a son. We know,
however, that this isn’t true, that Pap has been about as bad a father
as anyone can imagine. We know that he isn’t the good citizen he
claims to be. And we know that his threat to leave the country is
laughable, considering what an undesirable character he is.
As he does with Huck, Twain is talking over Pap’s head to the
reader, and we know how Twain wants us to feel. The same thing is true
in the second part of Pap’s harangue, in which he berates the
government for allowing a black college professor to vote right
along with a white man like himself. Twain makes Pap look ridiculous
for suggesting that he is superior to the professor, simply because
Huck listens to all this, waiting for Pap to fall asleep so he can
slip out of the cabin. Unfortunately, Pap has a restless night and
never completely falls asleep. He has a nightmare, in which he
fights off the angel of death. Then he confuses Huck with the angel
and starts attacking him. When he finally falls asleep, Huck takes the
rifle from the wall and loads it. He sits there quietly, hoping his
father won’t attack him again.
When Pap wakes up, he doesn’t remember anything about attacking Huck
as the angel of death, and he wants to know why Huck is asleep in a
chair with the rifle in his lap. Huck is afraid he won’t believe the
truth, so he says that somebody tried to break in during the night.
You remember that Huck gave away more than $6000 to avoid having
to tell a lie to his father. How can he lie so easily in this
situation? Later in the book, Huck himself will give you an answer
to that question. In the meantime, think about whether you see any
difference between the lie he refused to tell and this one.
While he’s out getting some fish for breakfast, Huck sees an
abandoned canoe drifting by. He wades out and gets the canoe and hides
it in the woods. An escape plan is beginning to form in his head. He’s
glad he lied to Pap about somebody trying to break in, because that
lie will help him in his plan.
After dinner, Pap goes to town to sell some logs. Huck is sure he
won’t be back until morning, which will give him plenty of time to put
his escape plan into effect.
Read the description of Huck’s escape carefully. It’s a pretty
elaborate plan, worked out to the smallest detail, obviously the
work of a bright kid. In the middle of his description, Huck says he
wishes Tom Sawyer were with him to “throw in the fancy touches.”
When you read it, you’ll see that this plan doesn’t need the kind of
fancy touches Tom would add. It’s complete as it is, and unlike
Tom’s make-believe adventures, this escape is the real thing.
The plan is intended to make everyone think Huck was murdered.
This is important to him, since he isn’t running away only from his
father. He’s running from Judge Thatcher, too, and the Widow
Douglas, and all the other people he knows. He’s determined to set out
on his own and to leave behind his whole life up until this night.
As long as no one is looking for a living Huck, he figures he can
stop anywhere he wants to take time to make further plans. He
decides on nearby Jackson’s Island as his temporary hideout. Then,
satisfied with the ways things are working, he lies down in the
canoe and falls asleep.
When he wakes up, he hears someone rowing toward his island, and
he soon discovers it’s Pap, coming back earlier than Huck expected. He
unhitches the canoe and floats downstream as quietly as possible.
Something happens at this point in the narration that you should pay
special attention to. It will happen again and again throughout the
book, and you’ll want to recognize it when it does.
What happens is that Huck describes what it’s like on the river.
It begins with “The sky looks ever so deep….” Whenever Huck talks
about living on the river, his tone of voice changes. His language
becomes gentler and less harsh than usual. Sometimes he becomes almost
Imagine a friend talking to you about a date, or about sports, or
cars, or any subject you both have in common. Then suppose the
friend suddenly shifted to talking about a much-loved baby brother.
Think of the probable contrast in your friend’s language and tone of
Huck loves the Mississippi River the way most of us love people.
If you want to know how much Mark Twain loved the river, read Life
on the Mississippi some time. For now, you can get some idea of
Twain’s feeling by paying close attention to Huck’s descriptions,
beginning with the short, affectionate one we get in this chapter.
Huck gets to Jackson’s Island just before daybreak. He hides his
canoe in some willow branches, then lies down to take a nap before
Huck wakes after daybreak “feeling rested and ruther comfortable and
satisfied.” He seems to have forgotten last night’s harrowing
experience, and he lies in the grass enjoying the sun, the trees,
and a couple of friendly-looking squirrels. He feels completely at
He’s torn from this pleasant state by the sound of cannon fire. He
gets up to see a ferry boat moving toward the island. He knows it’s
filled with people searching the water for his dead body.
From a hiding place at the shore, Huck watches as the ferry comes so
close to the island that he can almost reach out and touch the
people on it. He sees his father, Tom Sawyer, the widow, the judge-
almost everybody he knows is on that ferry searching for him. He looks
into those familiar faces, and he doesn’t make a sound.
NOTE: If you ever considered running away from home when you were
young, you might want to think about this scene for a minute. A lot of
kids fantasize about doing it, and the fantasy often involves
grief-stricken relatives and friends. Fortunately, most people never
do run away from home, because they decide they need those relatives
and friends more than they need freedom.
Huck is hiding on the island, having successfully fooled everyone he
knows into thinking he’s dead. Now he comes face to face with all
those people. Imagine yourself in that situation. Most of us would
probably abandon the idea of running, and yell out, “Here I am! I’m
not really dead!”
That would seem to be the natural response if you were suddenly
confronted by everyone who’s close to you. But it isn’t Huck’s
response. He just crouches there silently, letting everyone in his
life float by.
can look at this incident in a number of ways. Maybe it shows
that Huck is so much in control of his emotions that he doesn’t do the
“natural” thing. Maybe it shows that none of these people really means
anything to him, in spite of what he’s told us. Or it might show
that he doesn’t understand how sorrowful some of those people are.
Since he doesn’t think much of himself, he’d find it hard to believe
that someone else thinks much of him.
All these interpretations are possible, as well as some others
that may occur to you. Even if you aren’t ready to interpret the
incident in one particular way, keep it in mind as you read on. You’ll
learn other things about Huck, and you may be able to interpret this
better later on.
Once the ferry is gone, Huck is overcome by loneliness. He listens
to the river and watches the stars for a while, then decides to go
to sleep. “There ain’t no better way to put in time when you are
lonesome,” he says. He sounds as though he’s had this problem before.
After three days on the island, Huck makes a terrifying discovery.
The remains of a campfire tell him that he isn’t alone. As
frightened as he is, he decides that he has to find out who the
other person is. After a long search, he finds himself back at the
campfire. This time there’s a man sleeping near it.
He waits quietly until the man wakes up and throws the blanket off
his face. When Huck sees that it’s Miss Watson’s slave, Jim, he
skips from his hiding place to say hello.
It takes him a while to convince Jim that he isn’t seeing a ghost.
He explains how he created the illusion that he was dead, and Jim says
it was a hoax worthy of Tom Sawyer himself. Then Huck asks Jim why
he’s on the island.
Jim first makes him promise not to tell anyone. When Huck
promises, Jim confesses that he has run away from Miss Watson.
Notice Huck’s shocked reaction to this news. Remember that he grew
up with people who believed that stealing a slave was as serious as
committing murder. A modern equivalent of a runaway slave might be
someone who murders a police officer.
Huck’s shock is an expression of this belief. He’s never heard
anyone question the institution of slavery, and he has every reason to
believe that Jim has done something terrible.
All of this makes the next part of the conversation interesting. Jim
reminds Huck that he promised not to tell. Without hesitating, Huck
says he’ll keep his word. He realizes that “people would call me a
low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum.” And he really
believes those people would be right. But he’ll keep his word. “I
ain’t a-going back there, anyways,” he explains.
Not turning Jim in is a monumental decision for Huck to make, even
though he makes it on the spot. This is not just a boy running away
from home. It’s someone who has decided to turn his back on everything
“home” stands for, even one of its most cherished beliefs.
The rest of the chapter includes three things you may find
interesting. First, Jim explains why he’s running away and how he
got to the island. Then he does what might qualify as a comedy
monologue on things that foreshadow bad luck.
The last part of the chapter might remind you of comedy teams in
which one person provides all the straight lines and the other does
all the jokes. Jim tells a long story about a time when he had some
money. The routine ends with a punch line that might give you a clue
to how Twain felt about slavery when he wrote this book.
Neither Huck nor Jim has any intention of going back to the village;
so, without actually stating it, they’ve decided to be outcasts
together. This chapter shows them starting out on their new life.
Huck leads Jim to a cavern he found while he was exploring the
island. Jim convinces him that they should carry all their gear up
to this place because there are going to be heavy rains. Huck
doesn’t like having to do all that work, but he decides to go along.
Sure enough, the rain begins right after dinner. Huck gives
another of his “poetic” descriptions when he tells about the rain.
He seems to be perfectly satisfied with his new life.
It rains for so many days that the river floods. Huck and Jim take
the canoe out from time to time to see what they can find. On one of
their trips, they retrieve a 12 x 16-foot raft, well-built and sturdy.
They bring it back to the island for possible use later.
On another outing, they climb into the window of a two-story house
that’s floating by. In one room they find the body of a man who has
been shot in the back. Jim covers the man’s face to keep Huck from
seeing it. Jim’s behavior might be a little puzzling here, but it will
be explained later. He seems to be trying to keep Huck away from the
body. Huck, however, isn’t much interested in seeing it.
They ransack the house for equipment and supplies they may need.
Then they go back to the security of their island.
The next morning Huck wonders aloud how the dead man was killed. Jim
says it would be bad luck to talk about it. He adds that unburied
corpses are more likely to haunt people than buried ones. That
sounds reasonable to Huck, so he drops the subject.
Most of this chapter is about bad luck and its causes. As you read
it, you should be able to detect Mark Twain in the background,
having a laugh over some of the superstitions he believed when he
was a boy.
Huck tells us that after he handled some snakeskin, Jim warned him
that bad luck was coming. Sure enough, three days later Jim is
bitten by a rattlesnake because of something Huck has done.
Even though Huck is directly responsible for what happens to Jim, he
counts this as the bad luck that Jim predicted. Twain is probably
making a small joke here about how superstitious people will go out of
their way to find things that make their superstitions seem true.
But he’s also setting us up for another joke on the same topic. Huck
tells us a story about Hank Bunker, who waited a full two years before
his bad luck finally showed up. The funniest part of the story is
the description of what happened to the man and how he was buried.
NOTE: The subject of good and bad luck comes up often in Huck’s
narration, and you might have suspected by now that it’s more than
simply a way for Twain to get some laughs. Jim’s attitude toward the
supernatural, for example, should tell you something about his
self-image and about his view of the world.
Maybe you remember a conversation the two had when they first met on
the island in Chapter 8. Huck asked Jim why he never talked about
signs of good luck, why he dwelt so much on bad omens. Jim’s
response was that, first, there are very few signs of good luck; and
second, that good luck wasn’t the sort of thing you had to know
about in advance.
To Jim, the world is an endlessly threatening place. Danger is
hiding behind every tree and under every rock. At any moment,
everything you have could be taken away from you by forces over
which you have no control.
If you can imagine growing up as a slave in 19th-century America,
you can understand how Jim could have developed such a view of life. A
slave had no status as a human being; he could be beaten or even
killed by a master; he was a piece of property who could be sold on
a whim, even if that meant permanent separation from his own family.
To someone who grew up under conditions like these, dark and
unexplained forces could become a part of everyday life. But how about
Huck? Does the same explanation hold true for him?
It’s true that Huck has had his share of hardship; you don’t have to
look any farther than Pap. To a kid, the unpredictable behavior of a
cruel, drunken father is no less frightening than the things a slave
had to worry about all the time.
That unwarranted and unpredictable cruelty could help to explain why
Huck has such a low opinion of himself. If his own father treats him
like a piece of dirt, he probably finds it easy to believe that he
is a piece of dirt. And if his own father could turn on him in an
instant and suddenly start beating him, Huck might find it easy to
believe that the world is filled with unexplained forces that could
ruin his life just as suddenly.
Still, there are at least two differences between Jim and Huck.
One is that Huck is white. No matter how badly he thinks of himself,
somewhere, deep inside, he knows that there’s at least a chance that
he could be a respectable person some day. For Jim, that would be
A second difference is that Huck is a boy, on his way to becoming an
adult. He’s also inclined to examine ideas before accepting or
rejecting them. So he asks a lot of questions about the omens that Jim
believes with all his heart.
In most cases Huck ends up accepting what Jim tells him. But that
doesn’t mean he always will. He still has the potential of learning
and of outgrowing things he now believes. As you read on, you’ll see
some of this taking place.
The chapter ends with Huck dressing up as a girl so he can go to
town and find out the latest news about him and Jim. He puts on a
dress and a bonnet that they took from the floating house the night
before. After paddling the canoe to the mainland, he finds himself
outside the house of someone who has just moved into town.
In this chapter the question of lying will come up again. You
remember that Huck gave up $6000 to avoid having to tell his father
a lie. In this chapter you’ll see him concoct tales about himself with
all the confidence of an experienced artist painting a portrait.
He not only has no qualms about telling such lies, he seems to enjoy
it (and he’s very good at it, besides). As you read the chapter, think
about his apparently contradictory attitude toward telling the truth.
He goes into the woman’s house and presents himself as a girl on her
way to her uncle’s house at the other end of town. He gets the woman
to talking, and when she finally gets around to the stuff that
matters, he learns that Pap has disappeared and that Jim is a prime
suspect in Huck’s murder. Worse than that, the woman has seen campfire
smoke on Jackson’s Island. Her husband is planning to go there with
a friend late that night to hunt for the runaway slave and collect the
In his nervousness over hearing this news, Huck starts fooling
with the woman’s sewing equipment. She watches him try to thread a
needle, and the way he does it makes her suspicious. She then comes up
with two other “tests” for Huck, and the way he reacts convinces her
she’s talking to a boy, not a girl.
Has Huck’s real identity been discovered? Huck is too quick witted
to let that happen. He admits that the woman is right, but makes up
a sad story about the terrible events that led him to try this
disguise. The woman not only believes him; she offers him some
advice on how to act more like a girl, and she prepares a snack for
him to have on the rest of his trip. (You’ll have to decide for
yourself on the reliability of the woman’s tests for the differences
between males and females.)
As soon as Huck’s out of the woman’s sight, he races to the canoe
and paddles back to the island. He stops first at the north end and
lights a campfire to attract the men who will be looking for Jim. Then
he goes to the south end and rouses Jim.
When Huck says “They’re after us!,” Jim acts quickly, without asking
questions. They pack everything they own on the raft, push it out, and
silently leave the island. Their long journey down the Mississippi
River has begun.
With this chapter, the main part of the book begins. Chapters 12 and
13 deal with Huck and Jim’s first adventure while traveling along
Huck begins by telling us that Jim built a wigwam on the raft so
they could keep their things dry, and he even built a fire when it
rained. (Keep in mind that the raft is 12 x 16 feet, about as big as a
large bedroom in many modern houses.)
He gives us another of his quietly moving descriptions of living
on the river, including a comment on seeing the city of St. Louis
for the first time. He describes going ashore late each night to buy
food and to “borrow” things they couldn’t afford.
This section includes some interesting distinctions between stealing
and borrowing. There’s no doubt that Twain intended the distinctions
to be funny; but they also remind us that Huck has a private set of
moral standards. The standards may be unconventional, and sometimes
laughable, but he does try to live up to them, and that’s an important
thing to remember.
Then comes the incident with the disabled steamboat, the Walter
Scott. In using this name for a ship that was on the verge of sinking,
Twain was probably making a small joke. Sir Walter Scott, author of
Ivanhoe and other romantic novels, was a popular novelist in the
19th century. Twain often wrote scathing criticisms of such novels,
believing that they were written by hacks who knew little about the
real world and nothing about the people who live in it.
NOTE: Twain has Huck describe his search of the steamboat in some
detail, and he uses a number of nautical terms you might find
confusing. Here’s a brief glossary that should make your reading a bit
TEXAS A shelter for officers on the upper deck, also called the
PILOT-HOUSE An enclosed structure from which the ship is navigated
DERRICK A device for lifting cargo on or off the ship
LABBOARD (larboard) The left side of the ship
STABBOARD (starboard) The right side
GUYS Ropes or cables
SKYLIGHT The pilot-house roof, which can be opened and closed
Against Jim’s wishes, they climb aboard the steamboat to see what
they can find. When they hear voices, Jim races back to the raft,
but Huck is too curious to leave without finding out what’s going on.
The justification he uses is interesting: “Tom Sawyer wouldn’t
back out now.” After all the things that have happened to Huck, and
even now, in the midst of something really dangerous, he still sees
himself as a follower of a boy who “holds up” Sunday School picnics
and steals turnips.
When he finds out that the voices belong to three thieves, and
that murder is part of their plan, Huck decides to get out. Jim
gives him the bad news that the raft has broken loose, and the chapter
ends with a cliffhanger.
Huck knows that a steamboat always has a small boat- a skiff- that’s
used for taking one or two people ashore in shallow water, and he
and Jim start looking for it. They almost lose their chance at the
skiff, since two of the thieves plan on using it themselves; they mean
to abandon the third to sink along with the steamboat.
But greed interrupts their escape, and the two thieves go back
inside to get some money they’ve left behind. Huck and Jim get into
the skiff, cut it loose, and silently slip away.
As soon as they’re free, Huck begins to worry- not about himself and
Jim, but about the three men they have left stranded. He thinks of
“how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix,” and he
tells Jim he wants to go ashore and try to get some help for them.
They find the raft, load it with the thieves’ loot from the skiff,
and climb aboard. Then Huck arranges for a meeting place with Jim
and rows the skiff to the shore.
The scene that follows is interesting in two respects. First, you’ll
see Huck once again proving himself a champion liar- or yarn
spinner, as Twain probably would have preferred to think of him. In
order to save the three criminals from almost certain drowning, he
tells a ferryboat captain an elaborate tale about his family being
stranded on the disabled steamboat.
The second thing to note about the scene is Huck’s quick mind and
his understanding of what makes people tick. Early in the conversation
the captain makes a chance reference to someone named Jim Hornback.
Huck is shrewd enough to figure out how the captain feels about
Hornback, and he works the man’s name into his plea for help.
When he leaves the captain, Huck feels better for having done what
he could to help the men. “I wished the widow knowed about it,” he
says. “I judged she would be proud of me for helping these
rapscallions, because rapscallions and dead-beats is the kind the
widow and good people takes the most interest in.”
What Huck is referring to here- without realizing it, of course-
is the traditional Christian belief that sinners deserve more help
than the rest of us. Several of the parables of Jesus in the New
Testament make this point.
Huck doesn’t understand why good people would be most interested
in helping “rapscallions and deadbeats,” but his instinctive urge to
help such lowlife puts him much closer to at least one Christian ideal
than almost everybody he comes across in this novel.
Read Chapters 14 to 16 together and you’ll see three important
developments. First, the relationship between Huck and Jim begins to
change, in a way that Huck would never have considered possible.
Second, Huck has serious doubts about the morality of helping a
slave escape. And third, the two of them are separated by an
accident on the river.
You might find several different layers of meaning in Chapter 14.
I’ll talk about two of them here.
The first level is the comic one. Huck and Jim have a conversation
that’s similar to dozens you’ve seen in movies and TV comedies,
usually with comedy teams.
In this “classic” comedy situation, two characters are talking about
a subject, and neither one knows very much about it. But one of the
characters is the dominant one, in charge of the situation, maybe even
the bully. The audience knows that they’re both uninformed, and that’s
where the laughs come from. The dominant character always wins the
argument, of course, but not because he or she really knows more.
If you aren’t familiar with Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello,
you may remember Lucy and Ethel from the TV series “I Love Lucy.”
All three pairs of comedians used this kind of comedy routine, and
earlier in the book Twain used it himself, when Tom Sawyer called Huck
“a perfect saphead” for not understanding things. (He’ll use it again,
In this chapter Huck is the dominant character because he’s white.
He and Jim talk about the Old Testament story of King Solomon, who had
a reputation for being wise. In the biblical story, two women came
to him to settle a dispute over who is the real mother of the baby
that one of them was carrying.
Solomon said there was no way to settle the dispute, and he
ordered that the baby be cut in two, and one half be given to each
woman. One woman said that was fine with her; the other was appalled
at the suggestion and offered to give up her claim to allow the baby
to live. Solomon concluded that the second woman was the real mother
and gave the baby to her.
Jim contends that no really wise man would have suggested cutting
a baby in two as a solution to a dispute. Huck tries to tell him
he’s missing the point, but Jim is adamant in contending that it was a
stupid thing to do.
The outcome of the argument is the second level of meaning in the
chapter. The important thing to notice is that Huck gives in without
winning the argument. Huck is willing to lose an argument to a
slave; and Jim dares to argue with a white person until he wins.
Without realizing it, both characters have undergone a radical
change in their attitudes, a change that would have shocked just about
everyone they both knew.
The chapter ends with a second argument, which Jim also wins. This
one shows Twain having some fun with one of his favorite targets-
the French. He had a powerful bias against the French people, the
French language, and- most of all- Americans who spoke French and wore French clothing to show how sophisticated they were. He gets in a
little dig at these people at the end of Chapter 14.
One other point: showing off his superior knowledge, Huck tells
Jim that the son of the French king is “the dolphin.” The real word is
dauphin, pronounced doe-FAN. It’s only a small joke here, but the word
will come up again later in the novel.
Huck figures that they’re now only three nights away from Cairo,
Illinois, the point at which they’ll be in a free state and Jim can
stop running. The next night, though, they run into a heavy fog.
Huck gets into the canoe to look for a place to tie the raft to, and
he loses the raft.
What follows is another detailed description of the river; this one,
though, is not touching, but frightening. Huck goes on for three
full pages, telling us exactly what he did to try to get together with
Jim in the fog, and it’s easy to hear the experienced voice of Mark
Twain, river pilot, in this passage.
When he finally does find the raft, Jim is sound asleep at the
steering oar, and Huck decides to play a prank on him. He wakes Jim
and pretends nothing has happened.
Jim figures he must have dreamed the whole thing, and he goes
through an elaborate interpretation of what each detail symbolized.
When he’s finished, Huck shows him that it really did happen, and that
he’s just been the butt of a joke.
Jim’s reaction to this is very emotional- and very daring for a
slave who hasn’t reached a free state yet. He says he was ready to die
when he thought he’d lost Huck. He adds that anyone who would play
such a prank on a friend is trash.
Try to imagine it. Try to reconstruct the relationship that
existed between all white people and all black people in a Southern
state in the middle of the 19th century. All his life, Jim has known
that he could be hanged for talking to a white person- any white
person- the way he has talked to Huck. As for Huck, all his life
he’s known that he has the right to have such a black person hanged.
But this knowledge doesn’t stop Jim from saying what he feels,
because he no longer thinks of Huck as a white person. He thinks of
him as a friend.
Huck is a little less certain. “It was fifteen minutes,” he tells
us, “before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a
But he does it. He apologizes to Jim who, at least for the moment,
is his friend, and not a black man.
This apology sets the stage for the next chapter, when Huck makes an
enormously important moral decision.
As they get closer and closer to Cairo, both Huck and Jim begin
getting fidgety. Jim’s nervousness stems, of course, from his
closeness to freedom, something he might never have dreamed of
before his impulsive decision to run away.
Huck, however, is troubled by his gradual realization of exactly
what he’s doing. For the first time, he begins thinking about what
it means to help a slave escape from his owner.
As we’ve seen in earlier chapters, Huck has a sense of right and
wrong that would shame some of the people he refers to as his
“betters.” His conscience is now causing him a great deal of pain
because he can’t find an easy solution to his dilemma. Does he live up
to the rules of the society he’s been brought up in? Or does he do
what seems to be the right thing for a friend?
When he hears Jim talk about getting an Abolitionist to help him
steal his children- children that belong to someone Huck doesn’t
even know- Huck freezes with fear. At that point his conscience
tells him to do the right thing- to turn the runaway slave in.
With the excuse that he’s going to see how far they are from
Cairo, Huck begins paddling the canoe to shore so he can tell the
authorities about Jim. He loses some of his resolve, however, when his
friend calls out that Huck is the only white gentleman who ever kept
his promise to old Jim.
On his way to the shore he’s stopped by two men looking for
runaway slaves. He’s now faced directly with the choice of “doing
the right thing” or turning his friend in. He decides to do wrong.
He tells the men he’s traveling with a white man.
“I warn’t man enough,” he tells us. “Hadn’t the spunk of a
rabbit.” It never occurs to him that what he’s done might be
considered the right thing. He has too low an opinion of himself to
think that. Instead, he makes excuses for acting the way he did.
NOTE: Huck feels terrible for having done wrong. But if he had
turned Jim in, he certainly wouldn’t have felt any better. So why do
right, he reasons, when it doesn’t feel any better?
What he’s trying to work out here is a conflict that everyone has to
face many times in life. Do you live by the rules that someone else
has taught you, even if they don’t make much sense to you? Or do you
follow your own conscience, even if all the people you know live by
the rules they were taught? There’s no question about which answer
Twain favors. He has pitted slavery against friendship, and that
stacks the deck in favor of individual conscience over the rules of
But the same conflict comes up in other situations, where the
opposing forces aren’t as clearcut as slavery versus friendship. In
those situations it may be a lot harder to decide which action to
This is one of the reasons that some people disapprove of The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, especially for young readers. They say
that the book glorifies a lawbreaker by making him likable and by
manipulating the audience into approving of what he does. This is
the same criticism that is often leveled at movies like The Godfather,
or TV shows in which police officers break the law in order to catch
So the larger moral question of conscience versus society’s rules is
one you’ll have to work out for yourself, probably dozens of times.
But in the context of the novel, there really isn’t any question. Huck
has done the right thing, no matter how strongly he insists that
he’s been bad.
As the chapter comes to an end, the raft is split in two by a
carelessly piloted steamboat. The vivid description of what it was
like to see that boat coming and to be on the raft when it hit is
one of the best passages in the book. Read it slowly to get its full
After he’s been separated from Jim, Huck makes his way to shore.
He finds himself surrounded by a pack of barking dogs, and he knows
enough not to move.
NOTE: The word satire is used in different ways. The dictionary
gives more than one definition, and a whole list of synonyms.
Without getting involved in any technical definitions, I’m going to
use satirize to mean “