Twain's has a point to make and he's going to get it across, with the story's plot line as well as through Huck's explanation of his inner thoughts. Here's a good tone example from Chapter 31:
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all the happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me up against him, but only the other kind. (31)
But besides Huck's many moral quandaries and important, life-changing decisions, there's also a ton of humor in the novel. Twain was a master of irony, wit, sarcasm, and satire, and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is riddled with all of them. Twain drops all kinds of irony into the plot, but one of his favorite tricks is showing that Huck isn't nearly as smooth as he thinks he is—like when Mrs. Judith Loftus, after hearing Huck spin a whole roomful of lies, looks him "straight in the face, and very pleasant, and says, 'Come, now, what's your real name'" (11).
But Huck isn't the only one whose self-image is a little inflated. The duke and the king say they are a real English Duke and the rightful King of France (the "lost" son of the assassinated Louis XVI)—but know through Huck's description that neither of them is even remotely believable as a European aristocrat, like when the young man asks the old one "What're you alassin' about?" (19).
And if that doesn't make you LOL, then you should probably go back to watching cat videos.
Kid on a raft, bad guys, several snake-related incidences—you're just one Samuel L. Jackson (and a few technological innovations) away from Snakes on a Plane. (Although, to be fair, Twain is also clearly drawing from classic adventure epics, particularly The Odyssey. Don't believe us? Well, consider that, throughout the whole epic, the main character is called the "wily" or "crafty" Odysseus. Translation: the guy is really good at spinning a story—just like our friend Huck.)
But there's clearly something else going on here. For one, take Twain's "Notice": "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
Um, satirical, much? By reading this first, we know that we should pay close attention: this may look like a kid's book, like one of the adventures rotting Tom Sawyer's brain, but everything is not as it seems. It may look like a kid's book, but in fact it's a complicated examination into racism, slavery, and the moral issues that go with them.
And speaking of morality: Huck doesn't exactly grow up over the course of his travels, but he does develop his moral compass to a significant degree, which is a big part of becoming an "adult." Sure, he's not about to settle down with a nice girl and a picket fence—but he's definitely growing up.
Okay, so, the novel is about a kid named Huck Finn having some adventures. Pretty clear.
But we think there's actually something more going on here. "Adventures" sounds like kid stuff. In fact, it sounds a lot like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain's earlier novel. This confuses people. Imagine if J.K. Rowling published Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and followed it up with Hermione and the Magic Cat, which wasn't so much about a magic cat as about immigration controversies in the U.S. In fact, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, while it does have some adventures in it, is more about race and slavery in antebellum South.
So why mess with us this way? Part of the novel's charm is that it tricks us into examining weighty issues through the eyes of a naïve thirteen-year-old boy. Now, just picture Twain saying "Gotcha!"
Jim is free, Tom's leg is healed, Huck still has his $6,000, and Aunt Sally has offered to adopt him. Talk about your Hollywood ending.
Well, not so fast. Settling down with Aunt Sally—as nice as she is—is about the last thing Huck wants to do. Instead, he decides to "light out" for the territories, the unsettled land west of the Mississippi (43). He may have had a moral breakthrough, but he's not about to settle down with a mortgage and a 401(k).
We're pretty convinced that this is Twain making Huck into a symbol for the American spirit—but it might also be his way of showing that someone like Huck, who is capable of making moral and ethical decision for himself—is never going to fit in with the boring old townsfolk who may be nice but certainly aren't good.
Admit it: wouldn't you have been a little disappointed if he had settled down to become some boring kid like Tom Sawyer?
Slavery is legal. Everyone drunk. And you'd better not touch any rattlesnake skins, because you'll be sure to have bad luck.
Welcome to the South, circa twenty years before the Civil War.
And this isn't the gracious, refined South where everyone is drinking sweet tea and wearing giant dresses. It's a backwater south, full of uneducated, superstitious, and misguided hicks who say things like this: "Deed you ain't! You never said no truer thing 'n that, you bet you" (12).
But we do also see that people can be good and kind: the Grangerfords take Huck in right away; Mrs. Judith Loftus tells Huck—who's a stranger—to "send word… and I'll do what I can to get you out of [trouble]" (11); and Aunt Sally welcomes Huck like a long-lost child instead of a boy who isn't even really her cousin.
And there's real beauty in this South, too. When Huck is on the river, he responds to this natural beauty: "There was freckled places on the ground where the light sifted down through the leaves, and the freckled places swapped about a little, showing there was a little breeze up there. A couple of squirrels set on a limb and jabbered at me very friendly" (8.1).
So what's Twain saying with this setting? Well, like a lot of people who write about the South—like William Faulkner—he seems to see its good and its bad sides—and, more than that, he seems to think that it could change.
Twain is writing in a style that you could call "vernacular" if you were feeling fancy, and "ordinary speech" if you were feeling, well, ordinary. (Vernacular specifically refers to language as it's spoken in particular regions—so, the way that Valley Girl speech is different from the way they talk on Jersey Shore. If that's even language.)
The problem is, Twain was writing in the nineteenth century, and ordinary speech has changed a lot since then. So, we get lines like "It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up" (1.2), or "he set down on the ground betwixt me and Tom" (2.5). These sentences aren't hard, but they're also not quite as easy as reading status updates on Facebook.
One more thing: don't take any grammar lessons from Huck. Trust us.
Since Huck is our first-person narrator, the whole story is told in his voice. And boy is it distinctive:
I didn't want to go back no more. I had stopped cussing, because the widow didn't like it; but now I took to it again because pap hadn't no objections... But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick'ry, and I could't stand it. I was all over with welts. He got to going away so much, too, and locking me in. Once he locked me in and was gone three days. It was dreadful lonesome. (6)
The grammar isn't perfect, and Twain writes the way Huck Finn talks (hence all the apostrophes subbing for unpronounced letters). And you can tell by the way he talks about pap's abuse—that he got "too handy with his hick'ry"—that he just accepts the beatings as a part of life. Behind the colloquial and friendly tone, it's actually kind of sad.
Besides nailing Huck's education level, social background, and personality, Twain succeeded in telling the story convincingly through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old. (At least, we think so.) The novel drips with dramatic irony, when we can pick up on certain subtext even when Huck doesn't. Like all those conversations where Huck thinks he's fooling somebody into believing one of his lies?
"Muddy Mississippi." "Ol' Man River." "Proud Mary." And even more, if you want them. The Mississippi River might as well be a national symbol; it's definitely a majorly important symbol for Huckleberry Finn. It represents freedom and possibility—but also, maybe, the problems of a drifting life.
Sure, the river is Huck and Jim's transportation. It's taking them from captivity (slavery; child abuse) to (hopefully) freedom in the state of Ohio. But the river ends up symbolizing freedom in its own right.
Before hitting the rapids, Huck feels confined—both by both society (which, figuratively, kept Huck imprisoned by its restrictive rules) and by Pap (who, literally, kept Huck locked up). And the river is the only route they can take if they want to be free both in that present moment and in their respective futures. Check out the way Huck describes it:
So in two seconds away we went a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us. (29)
"Free again," "All by ourselves," "nobody to bother us": to Huck, the river represents a life beyond the rules of society. And that's a life he could get used to.
But is freedom all it's cracked up to be?
After all, the rules and laws that people like the Widow and Judge Thatcher lay down aren't just meant to make Huck's life miserable; they're also meant to protect him. On the river, Huck and Jim encounter all kinds of life-threatening situations: burglars and potential murders; losing their raft; missing the mouth of the Ohio River; losing the raft again; witnessing the Grangerford-Shepherdson bloodbath; meeting up with the duke and king; oh, yeah, and losing Jim back to slavery.
As Huck drifts down the river, he learns that freedom comes with great responsibility: the responsibility to decide for yourself how to be a good, moral person.
We're kind of point A to point B people at Shmoop. Give us a nice four-wheel drive and a good stretch of highway—or, better yet, an airplane with a loaded iPad.
But not Huck and Jim. Their vehicle of choice is a raft: something that can barely be steered and that only goes as fast as the river it's on. But the raft ends up being a kind of no-man's land that seems to operate under different laws than solid ground. In a way, it provides a space for Huck and Jim to get to know each other man-to-man rather than master-to-slave. As Huck says, "we… let her [the raft] float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water, and talked about all kinds of things—we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us" (19.4).
Floating down the middle of the river (and naked) just might be the only place this black man and white boy can speak together as equals. And that makes it a pretty important symbol.
Man, Twain loved the Bard. There the duke and king rehearsing on the boat with an odd amalgamation (now there's a $5 word that just means "mix") of the greatest soliloquies of all time in one totally messed-up speech, the unsuccessful performance in front of the "uncivilized" folk of Arkansas, and the subsequent naked prancing about. (Not to mention the Romeo and Juliet-esque debacle with the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords.)
So what's up with that?
Well, the duke and king are all wrapped up in their own sophistication. They think they're just so worldly and clever. Of course, the joke is on them for being ignoramuses who use words like "orgies" to talk about funeral rites (25). It's the same thing with the Shakespeare; the duke thinks he knows what he's talking about, but he's really going around saying: "To be or not to be; that is the bare bodkin" (21).
All the references to Shakespeare might just be one way for Twain to make fun of the duke and king's pretensions. But it's also a way for Twain to contrast the smart but uneducated Huck with the duke and king—who think they're educated but actually turn out to be full of hot air… and badly quoted Shakespeare.
Huck, a symbol? We think so. Sure, he's a great, well-rounded character—but he could also be seen as a symbol for America. (See Huck's "Character Analysis" for a few thoughts.) Check out the very last line for some pretty convincing proof: "But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before" (43).
In the nineteenth century, there was a lot of mythology built up around the idea of the rugged individual, the frontiersman or pioneer who was completely independent and self-sufficient, and wasn't about the let the guv'mint tell him what to do. (For "guv'mint," read "Aunt Sally" or "the Widow Douglas.") In other words, someone a lot like Huck: smart but uneducated; a little wild but fundamentally honest and moral; and not too fond of table manners.
When Huck says he's got to "light out for the territory ahead of the rest," he's taking on the role of the pioneer: heading out to new, untamed country. And we bet that as soon as it starts getting "sivilized," he's going to head out looking for yet another frontier.
Meet Huck—or, as you introduces himself, "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter" (1.10).
So, we know right away that we're getting a first-person narrator, and it's a real first person, full of Huck's personality and viewpoint and youthful voice. Because everything is filtered through Huck, we have to rely on him to interpret the story and present it to us. This subjectivity means taking the narration with a grain of salt, but Huck's is so earnest and truthful with himself—and with us—that we're happy to take him at his word.
Young and naïve hero? Check. Suddenly cast into a strange world… like, say, helping a slave escape despite having grown up in a system of rules and morality where that's no different from stealing someone's iMac? Check. Our young hero "falls" out of "sivilization" and comparative wealth into a life on the lam, and he's ready for some adventures.
This raft stuff is awesome. Huck is super-excited to be in the outdoors again, which is to say not getting beaten up by his alcoholic father—or being told that he'll go to hell if he slouches at dinner.
But part of Huck's brave new world doesn't feel so great, the part where he's bucking all the ethical rules that he learned about not stealing your neighbor's property. Only problem is, in this case, that property happens to be a living, breathing human being. With a family.
The whole morality thing really gets tricky when Huck falls in the with the "duke" and "king," who introduce him to all the shady cons you have to run when you decide to take off down the river with no other means of support but your silver tongue. He keeps trying to do right, but the lies pile up.
Huck's crisis of conscience eventually gets so overwhelming that it literally stops him in his tracks: "I most dropped in my tracks, I was so scared" (31). He tries to pray to be a better boy (which would mean returning Jim to Miss Watson), but he realizes that he can't pray a lie: he wants Jim to be free. So where's the nightmare part? Huck is pretty convinced that helping Jim run away earns him an all-expenses paid ticket straight to Hell.
Escape? Yes. Return? Maybe not. Now that he's realized slavery is, you know, a corrupt moral system, Huck can't exactly return to his cozy pre-escapade life. There's no happy homecoming and settling down a changed man: once all the loose ends are wrapped up, Huck is off to "Injun" country to have new adventures.
When we meet Huck, it sounds like he should be set for life: he's rich, and he's being brought up by a strict but upstanding widow. But something's missing. Adventure… and his deadbeat dad, who shows up to extort money from him. When Huck escapes and stumbles on the runaway slave Jim, he's thrust right into the story's main conflict.
And boy is it a doozy. Should Huck return Jim, who is someone's "property," or should he follow his conscience and help an enslaved man escape to freedom? Sure, it sounds like a no-brainer to us. But we think it's remarkable that a boy living in the pre-Civil War South would even think to ask such a question. Go Huck!
Huck and Jim come up with a pretty good plan involving the small town of Cairo, but their plans are foiled (and foiled… and foiled) by events as diverse as a sinking steamship, a band of robbers, and two Shakespearean conmen. It sure is hard to have a moral crisis when you have to keep dressing up as a girl, are we right?
After a series of misadventures with the "duke" and "king" conmen, Huck realizes that Jim has been sold into slavery again, and the conflict breaks out into a climax: will he help Jim escape, or will he tell Miss Watson that her "property" has been stolen? (Were you expecting pirates? Sorry. This may be an adventure story, but the real struggle takes place in Huck's soul.)
The climax is prolonged by an unexpected encounter: Huck's (and our) old friend, Tom Sawyer. Huck may have had adventures with robbers and conmen, but Tom has been reading about them—and so he's got all sorts of kooky ideas about rope pies and amputation.
Yeah, okay, it's not actually that suspenseful. We're pretty sure Jim won't lose his leg. But we are starting to get worried about his freedom.
The whole debacle culminates in Tom getting shot and Jim about to be hanged… when Tom wakes up from his coma/ inconvenient nap and announces that Jim's owner Miss Watson died a few weeks ago and freed Jim in her will. He's a free (and no longer about-to-be-hanged) man! It looks like everything is wrapping up nice and neat.
Huck is back in "sivilization" with $6,000 and a clean conscience. Time to settle down and grow up a little? No way. He's off to "Injun" country to keep on having adventures. And what kind of conclusion is that?
Huck and Jim run away from their respective enslavements, and we're ready for a wacky road movie. For a while, we get it: they hide out in a cave, trick some robbers, and have a series of nail-biting but not life-threatening adventures. And then they get separated—which means it's time for Act II.
During Act II, Huck continues to have misadventures. Some are serious, like the deadly feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons. Some are not so serious, like the hilariously incompetent conmen. But while Huck is off having the time of his life, Jim is tied up, hiding out, and generally (we imagine) taking the whole thing a lot more seriously. Huck may be on a lark, but Jim? He's got his life, liberty, and family to look after.
Act III begins when Jim is re-captured. Things get serious for a little while, but they quickly become comic when that rascal Tom shows up with his kooky ideas about sawing Jim's leg off. Hilarious! We're rolling in the aisle. Right?
Well, maybe. In any case, things quickly wrap up: Tom is shot, but not seriously; Jim is almost hanged, but is freed in the end. And Huck? He's back off to the open road.