Huck Finn Essay On Each Chapter

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

a bully.

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

different personalities.

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

sickly mess.

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

he’s white.

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

the Mississippi.

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

more enjoyable:


TEXAS A shelter for officers on the upper deck, also called the

texas deck

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 “

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