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.

Symbols

The Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is the geographical focus of the story. Its waters and banks serve as the location for all of the action. Huck and Jim both know the river and feel comfortable on it. It is a place with many moods from angry to playful to enigmatic. The river represents an area outside of society, unrestricted and untouched by the "civilizing" influence that Miss Watson and the widow embody. Huck, practically an orphan, and Jim, a runaway slave, are both outsiders and it is not surprising that they feel most comfortable on their raft floating down the river. There they are not being ordered around by anyone and they are not at risk of being discovered as they float along at night. They make their own schedule and their own decisions about where to go. Though they have the control that they lack in regular society, they are still at the mercy of the forces of the river and their fate is still partly up to chance and whether they have good or bad luck.

The Raft

Their raft is connected to the river on which they float. Just as the river represents the world outside of society, their raft is their means for navigating it--their common sense, their luck and their emotional strength. The river is the environment in which they feel most comfortable and in which they are safest. The raft contributes the most to Huck's development as it is a place outside of the influences of society and thus an area in which he can make decisions for himself and work out what he believes is right and wrong. It is their tie to the natural world and is the complete opposite to the constricting environment of the widow's house.

Money

Money, for Jim, is the fulfillment of his superstitions, as it is predicted that he will be rich some day. It is not a symbol of success, but a necessary thing for bringing his family together. His only need for money comes from his desire to buy his wife and children from their slave owners. For Huck, money is a burden and he tries to separate himself from it if possible. From his experience with his father, he knows what it can do to people and as he watches the king and duke he is dismayed at the lengths to which they will go in order to gain it. He is ashamed of the human race because of the display they put on. For Huck, money is not a measure of success, but a cause of much unhappiness.

Food

For Huck and Jim food represents comfort and security. Those who offer Huck food are offering him protection and he appreciates it greatly. He is dismayed by the food at the widow's house, which is not made for the enjoyment of it. Food is a sensual pleasure which is ignored by the widow and Miss Watson. At the Grangerfords and later at the Phelpses' farm he comments on the food, and in these places he feels the most secure and looked after. It is a sign of the their hospitality and genuine concern for his well-being. Jim also cooks for Huck and he describes his delight at the sight of the corn cakes and ham after the distress of the end of the feud. For Huck, food is a symbol of the attention and concern that he never got from his father.

Nature

The natural world, like the river, is a symbol of the world outside of civilization. It is the space in which Huck and Jim feel the most comfortable because it is the most like their ideal state. It is connected to the motif of superstitions, in that it is at odds with "civilization." Just as religion teaches that superstitions are supposed to be laughed at and ignored as a thing of the past, civilization looks to the natural world as something to be conquered and tamed. Huck and Jim reflect the natural world because there is nothing in them that is constructed or artificial. Unlike the Grangerfords, who are genteel on the surface, yet perpetuate a savage feud for nothing but honor, and unlike the king and duke, who put on any disguise in order to trick people out of money, Huck and Jim are completely genuine. They thrive on the island and on the river because they are flexible and easygoing, willing to follow the flow of time and where it might take them.

Motifs

Superstitions

The belief in superstitions and the reliance on luck is very prevalent motif throughout the novel. Huck accidentally kills a spider and worries about the consequences, doing everything he can think of to stave off the eventual bad luck. He upsets a salt shaker and impeded by Miss Watson, is unable to throw some over his shoulder to negate the effects. The result of these two signals is the appearance of his father, one of the worst consequences possible for Huck. In order to find out more, he consults Jim's magic hairball and thus, from the beginning, we see that Huck and Jim are on equal footing in terms of belief in superstition. Jim's hairy chest signifies that he will be rich; a prophesy true in the past that becomes true again at the end of the novel. Huck is convinced that his accidental contact with the snakeskin results in a terrible amount of bad luck. Both Huck and Jim believe wholeheartedly in the power of superstitions.

Though throughout the novel it is most often the slaves who stand by their superstitions and openly profess a belief in witchcraft, this cannot be taken as a sign of their inferiority since Huck demonstrates that they are not the only ones who place stock in what others might consider silly notions of good and bad. The way that the slaves in this novel follow the whims of superstitions can be seen as an natural result of their position. They are considered by the society in which they live to be practically sub-human; they have no control over their own lives or the futures, which is completely at the whim of their owner. In this way, they cannot help but believe in luck since that is all that governs their fate. As with Huck, who is a basically an orphan and also a kind of outsider, superstitions grant a kind of order to the unpredictability of life.

Lies

As Huck and Jim make their way down the river, they find themselves in a variety of situations. With most of the people they meet, a lie or a con is somehow involved. This is most evident when they meet the duke and king, who take over their raft. These are two con-men who make their living by lying to people and they take Huck along with them. Their very identities, a duke and a king, are false, generated by their own greediness. Their biggest con is pretending to be Harvey and William Wilks, two Englishmen who show up at the death of their brother, Peter. Peter's daughter, Mary Jane, takes them in and believes them to be genuine. Huck watches as the king and duke attempt to take everything possible from Mary Jane and her orphaned sisters. Huck is disgusted by the entire affair, as he is for all that the duke and the king do. The lies that they tell are despicable.

On the other hand, Huck discovers that not all lies and cons are bad. While they are still living on the island, Huck dresses up as a girl and pays a visit to a woman on the edge of town, in order to find out what is happening. From her he learns that a party of men is forming to search the island for Jim. This lucky discovery allows Jim and Huck to escape in time. On several occasions, he is forced to lie to people in order to protect Jim from discovery, such as when a group of men who are looking for a runaway slave ask him about his raft. He convinces them that they are suffering from small pox, which scares the men away. In order to help Jim escape, he pretends to be Tom Sawyer, who arrives and pretends to be Sid, Tom's half-brother. Tom develops the con in which they will help free Jim, but not without causing some trouble in the process. This con turns out to be somewhat harmful but not as malicious as the duke and the king's plans. Huck is the only character who mostly lies not for personal gain, but in order to help someone else. This is one way in which Huck's path to maturity is evident in this coming of age story.

Romance and Adventure Novels

Tom Sawyer is the main proponent of Romance and Adventure novels. He is an avid reader of them and they serve to fuel his overactive imagination. At the beginning of the novel, they guide his creation of a gang of robbers, which he calls "Tom Sawyer's Gang." The boys question the logic of some of his plans but he remains firm in his adherence to the procedures set forth by stories such as Le Comte de Monte Cristo and Arabian Nights . Twain intensely disliked romantic fiction and blamed it, especially the novels of Sir Walter Scott, for allowing the sham of aristocracy to maintain itself in the modern world. For Twain, the novel Don Quixote had worked to sweep away the silliness of royalty and the degraded nature of religion, but Scott's novels built those dangerous myths up again in the South. Tom refers to Don Quixote most often, but fails to see its satire, demonstrating the way that the South at that time built itself on decaying folklore and empty traditions. This is most evident in the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, who kill each other over an insane proclamation of honor.

Huck recognizes the futility and the stupidity of the feud, as well as the illogic of Tom's plans. Though he defers to Tom because of the force of Tom's personality, he repeatedly expresses his misgivings. He seems to understand that there is a potential for Tom's games to get out of hand, which they eventually do. Fortunately, events turn out well in the end but Twain's portrayal of the danger of believing in flimsy ideals clearly denounces much of Southern society during his time.

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