The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Study Guide

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel by Mark Twain about Huck, a mischievous boy, who runs away from his drunken father. Huck meets up with Jim, a runaway slave and they travel down the Mississippi on a raft. The two escape through various misadventures, including the family feud between the Grangerfofrds and Shepherdsons and the conning "duke and king." Finally, Jim is captured on the Phelps' farm, Huck plans an escape and, finally, it is revealed that Jim is now a freeman and Huck's father has died.

Conflict

Though Huck finds himself in conflict with several other characters over the course of the novel as he makes his way down the river, the major conflict within the novel is between Huck Finn and society. From the beginning, Huck does not fit in to society; he is uncomfortable with having to follow the widow's rules. Though he appreciates the attention he receives, he cannot maintain the behavior that the widow and her sister expect from him. Once his father returns and takes him to a cabin in the woods, though he dislikes the kind of attention he receives from his father, he is finally comfortable with his situation. In the woods they hunt and fish and have no worries about manners or education. Huck finds it very easy to live this life because the wagging fingers and scolding tongues of society are far away from him.

As the novel progresses, Huck's conflict with society takes on greater significance. He no longer rejects society's restrictive dress and codes of behavior; in a way, he begins to question its morality as well. As he spends time with Jim, and Jim's humanity is clearer to him, he finds himself more at odds with society's principles concerning slavery. Though Huck has followed his father's advice to steal when possible, if it suits you, his transgressions never go beyond petty theft. After he gets involved with Jim, he eventually makes the decision to do what his society believes is one of the lowest acts possible: helping a slave get his freedom. This is a far more serious offense than what he had previously done, and it demonstrates the extent to which Huck does not believe in the society which he left.

When he debates his relationship to society, the conflict that is happening within himself is highlighted. He frequently berates himself for being weak-willed and not having the strength to do what society says is right. He struggles with his impulses to work against society, and on some occasions makes an attempt to do as he is told. He succeeds from time to time, but for the major issue of whether or not to follow society's dictates and notify Miss Watson, his conflict within himself is eventually resolved, and he realizes that he must go against society's demands, whatever the consequences.

Setting

The setting of the novel is the Mississippi River and the towns on its banks. The novel begins in a town called St. Petersburg, Missouri, modeled after Hannibal, Missouri, the town in which Twain lived in from ages 4-18. It was the setting for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , and he returns to it here for the beginning of the novel. Much of Twain's fiction centers on this area of the United States, and his seemingly idyllic boyhood was an influence on much of his work. He was also affected by the time he spent working on steamboats, which is evident in the use of the river as the geographical focus of the novel. The Mississippi River is elaborately described, and the knowledge that Twain must have had of the river is imparted to Huck and Jim. The peculiarities of the weather on the Mississippi River add drama to the story, and cause difficulties for Huck and Jim.

As they get further down the river, Huck finds himself ashore more often, especially after they meet the duke and the king, who take over their raft. On land he does not experience the same freedom as on water, which is an area outside of society's influence. He interacts with society through his experiences on land, and they teach him dismaying lessons about humanity's limitations. In Kentucky, he stays with the Grangerfords, who seem to be a perfect Southern family until he discovers that they are taking a part in a bloody feud that results from something no one can remember. Though he does meet positive characters, such as Mary Jane Wilks, who is compassionate and trusting, and Silas Phelps, who is generous and kind, the South as a whole is subject of his critique as he attacks the institution of slavery, which was propagated by that area of the United States.

Point of View

Huckleberry Finn tells his own story, and through his eyes the readers experience the United States of the mid-nineteenth century. By using Huck as a narrator, Twain is able to include his own ironic commentary on the personalities that inhabit the Mississippi delta. Huck is almost an orphan and was raised by his drunken father on the outskirts of town; Huck is an outsider. His status as such makes things difficult for him to accept society's rules when he is adopted by the widow, but more importantly, it gives him a unique perspective. He is able to identify the underlying issues of any given situation. He is able to directly point out inconsistencies of logic and question blind faith in things like honor and religion.

Huck is a straightforward boy with a logical mind. By describing his confusion over the way that some people act, he exposes the silliness or tragedy of the situation. His no-nonsense narrative style is unimpeded by the sentimentality and false-fronts of the adventure fiction that Tom Sawyer adores. Twain disliked that kind of fiction and consequently, Huck is the exact opposite of the narrators that inhabit those stories; his ironic descriptions uncover the truth of the situation. He questions Tom's need to make things complicated when forming a gang or working to free Jim. He watches the king and duke pretend to be two Englishmen in order to con a family out of its inheritance. His wary appraisal of the circumstances uncovers the gullibility of people who want to believe something, and the depths to which people who want steal something will go to get it. The duke and the king sink to the lowest levels of society and Huck observes their canny manipulation of the Wilks girls. From his unique position, Huck is also able to step in when necessary and prevent misunderstanding from further occurring.

Tone

The tone of the novel varies greatly depending on the circumstances being detailed. Huck's adventures involve a number of different places and kinds of people. Throughout he relates the events in a straightforward manner, offering his thoughts but not often making outright judgments. Twain uses this simple style to highlight the irony or humor of a situation. Huck's tone is most often youthful and enthusiastic, especially at the beginning of the novel before he and Jim experience trouble on the river. As the story progresses, his tone reflects his growing maturity and he is bolder in his critique of the society with which he interacts. At times, he becomes extremely thoughtful, as he tries to work out what he believes is right and wrong. His most philosophical moments occur as he considers his feelings towards Jim's quest for freedom.

Irony

Twain's novel is filled with irony, sometimes used for comical purposes, more often to make critical comments on Southern society. His initial target is the widow and Miss Watson's religion, as Huck innocently reports what he is taught by them. Watching the king and the duke, Huck's assessment of their antics ironical demonstrate the ways in which the good and the innocent will be taken advantage of. Tom Sawyer is also the center of much ironic comment, as he allows his imagination to dictate the way in which Jim makes his final attempt at freedom. Huck's simple style of narration and no-nonsense attitude form the atmosphere in which Twain's irony thrives.

Form/Structure

The novel is a picaresque narrative, which is a (usually satiric) story in which the protagonist, who is generally of low social status finds him/herself in a series of different and completely separate situations within a partially or completely corrupt society. He must use his luck and his intelligence to survive. One of the most famous of these, Don Quixote was a favorite of Twain's, which he also respected for attacking the frivolities of aristocratic fancies. This novel begins with a series of short events in which the characters are developed, which is followed by Huck and Jim's departure from the island, and Huck's real adventures begin. He finds himself in a variety of situations in each of which he has to create a lie or story in order to protect himself and Jim. When he can he attempts to right the wrongs that have been performed against the good or innocent, such as when he informs Mary Jane Wilks of the king and duke's con.

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