Study Guide

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Themes

By Mark Twain

  • Race

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    Surprise: a book set in the pre-Civil War South with a black man as one of the main characters deals with the theme of race. We're shocked. But seriously, Huckleberry Finn tackles some major issues. Remember that, even though slavery had ended by the time Huck Finn was published, the whole country was still deeply racist. Is Twain anti-racist? Does he truly believe that black people are equal to white people, or is he only pointing out the South's hypocrisy? And would Twain have had black friends?  

    Questions About Race

    1. Is Huck able to overcome the racism of his childhood? Let's say he can't: can you blame him?
    2. How much has Jim assimilated white racism against blacks? What does this do to his character? What does Jim think about black people?
    3. How do Huck and Tom differ in their feelings for and about Jim? What about Jim's feelings for Huck as opposed to for Tom?
    4. What kind of prejudices might you hold that people 150 years from now won't have?

    Chew on This

    Change shmange. Huck Finn is just as racist at the end of the novel as he is at the beginning.

    Huck totally learns his lesson over the course of the novel, and he comes out the other end much more tolerant.

  • Morality and Ethics

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    If you're like Shmoop, you run into moral issues everyday. Should I copy my friend's trigonometry homework? Do I need to leave a note for the person whose car bumper I just dinged? Whose $5 bill is this on the ground, and can I keep it? Huck has moral quandaries, too—only his are more along the lines of, "Is it right to steal another person's property, if that property is a person?" Oooh, tricky. (Not.) But Huck figures out the answer. He also figures out that sometimes, society has it all wrong: in Huckleberry Finn, sometimes you just have to follow your heart. (Just don't try telling that to the police officer who pulls you over for speeding.)

    Huck Finn Video

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Huck isn't the only one who has moral crises every now and then. Do these other characters change as a result of their moral crises? Does Huck? How so?
    2. Does guilt help our hero (that would be Huck) or hinder him?
    3. What's up with Tom "having principle?" Is "principle" just the same thing as "morality," only with a few more consonants in the word? Or is it something different?

    Chew on This

    In his struggle to come to terms with society's rules and laws, Huck ends up defining his own (correct) set of moral beliefs.

    While plenty of characters struggle through moral dilemmas, Jim is the only truly moral character in the story.

  • Rules and Order

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    Don't touch that. Don't slouch. Don't put your feet up. Go to church. Go to Sunday School. Just… go to school, period. Huck is surrounded by rules, and they're not all as easy to follow as "sit up straight." From the rules of honor and principle that govern the ridiculous Shepherdson-Grangerford feud to the nonsensical rules of "adventure" that Tom Sawyer picks up from his storybooks, Huckleberry Finn brings multiple conflicting systems of order into conflict to suggest that, just maybe, we shouldn't all blindly follow the rules. It's like that poster hanging in your middle school classroom says: "What's popular is not always right, and what's right is not always popular." We're pretty sure that Huck would agree.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. All kinds of people try to convince Huck that their system of rules and order is the right one. What are these systems, exactly, and how are they different?
    2. Every so often, we run into some good old mobs and lynching. Do these mobs replace the real laws of state? Which norms end up being more powerful? (Check out Sherburn's speech in Chapter 22. He's got a few things to say about mobs.)
    3. What system of rules is Jim operating under, if any? Is there any logic or order to his superstitions?

    Chew on This

    Tom's ridiculous rules of adventure seem childish, but they're no more absurd than southern morality in general.

    Despite his misgivings, Huck is ultimately unable to define a new system of behavior separate from that of the South.

  • Lies and Deceit

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    When is a lie just a lie, and when it is a con? Thirteen-year-old narrator Huck Finn can hardly open his mouth without an untruth spilling out, but his lies are all for a good cause: getting Jim to safety. Conmen like the Duke and King, however, are just bilking innocent townspeople of their money. Their reward? A quick trip to the tar-and-feather brigade. So, where does The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn draw the line? Which lies are harmless (or even benevolent) untruths—and which ones are morally bankrupt deceptions?

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Why does Huck enjoy lying so much?
    2. Ever notice how simple lies can end up really complicated? Why is that? Does Huck seem concerned about this at all?
    3. What's the difference between the way that Huck deceives and the way that the duke and king do? Can you really draw lines in the sand between "good" lying and "bad" lying in Huck Finn?

    Chew on This

    At first, Huck enjoys making things up. Through observing the duke and king, he eventually comes to realize the negative aspects of deceit.

    Huck's stories involve elaborate descriptions of parents and siblings, and so they display his longing for a real family.

  • Religion

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    With stories about babies found in bulrushes and kings who propose cutting infants in half, you can see why Huck is a little skeptical of religion. And it seems like Twain might be a little skeptical, too: Huck basically has to renounce his religion to decide that it's okay to help Jim escape to freedom. So, we know that religion isn't all good. The question remains: in Huckleberry Finn, is religion good for anything?

    Questions About Religion

    1. Huck pretty much rejects Miss Watson's religion, right? So, what does he put in its place? A different set of beliefs? Or an ethical system that doesn't rely on religion at all?
    2. We said Huck renounces his religion… but maybe we're wrong. After all, he still talks about going to hell all the time and worries about saving his soul and praying. What is he rejecting, then, and what does he still cling to?
    3. Huck says, "You can't pray a lie" (31). What is he getting at there? What would it mean to "pray a lie"?

    Chew on This

    Religion gets in the way of Huck's developing friendship with Jim.

    Twain presents religion as universally bad. Even the "good" religious characters, like Aunt Sally or the Widow Douglas, are small-minded slave-owners.

  • Friendship

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    Huck takes friendship so seriously that he's willing to swear blood oaths on it. Worse, he's willing to risk eternal damnation—because that's what he thinks awaits him for helping Jim escape. But, once he realizes that Jim is his friend, he can't do anything else. Huck values loyalty more than anything else, so he sticks with Jim to the end. (Now that's a status you can like.) But we have to ask: if Huckleberry Finn values friendship so highly, why does Huck ditch everyone and everything he knows at the end?

    Questions About Friendship

    1. There are lot of different kinds of camaraderie going on here, and a lot of different friendships. Huck, for instance, is close both to Jim and to Tom. Are those different kinds of friendships, and if yes, how so?
    2. Which characters recognize the friendship between Huck and Jim, and which don't? How can you tell? Is it seen as somehow less genuine than a friendship between Huck and Tom?
    3. Does the duke-king relationship indicate that there's such a thing as a bad friendship? A friendship that seems to make both people worse off than before?

    Chew on This

    The self-serving friendship acts as a foil to the selfless friendship between Huck and Jim.

    Huck and Jim's friendship isn't actually a real friendship; it's always affected by Jim's race.

  • Man and the Natural World

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    Huck is like that hippie kid with questionable hygiene who can't stop talking about how he once hiked the Appalachian Trail. No walls, houses, beds, and chairs for this guy; he'd rather be living in filth down by the river and chilling with the squirrels. But to put a positive spin on it, Huck does turn out to be the only character in Huckleberry Finn who's able to make the right moral decision. Maybe there is something to be said for all that communing with nature.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Huck is Mr. Indecisive when it comes to, well, deciding things, namely whether he would prefer to eat with a napkin on his lap or hunt for fish with his bare hands. What does Huck really want? Does he want to be one with nature, or does he have a secret hankering to get "sivilized"?
    2. Huck spurns religion (sort of), but holds his reverence for the natural world. Look at those scenes where he describes the stars or the river and the lightning. Is this a kind of religion in itself? If not, what does the wilderness mean to Huck?
    3. Are there other characters who seem to have a special relationship to nature? What about Tom? Jim?

    Chew on This

    Huck may like being outside, but in the end he prefers the civilized world of family and home.

    Although he doesn't mind the civilized world when he's there, Huck really belongs outdoors on the river.

  • Family

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    Huck leaves behind one family—an abusive, drunken one—to find family after family as he travels down the Mississippi River, from the feuding Grangerfords to the grieving sisters to the cozy Aunt Sally. He also comes up with fake families, one after another, whenever he needs a good tall tale to spin. It's almost as though he's trying to make up for how lousy his own family situation is. But in the end, Huck leaves behind both his potential new family of Aunt Sally and his family-like bond with Jim and Tom to become a true orphan, setting out for the territories. In Huckleberry Finn, does family make you stronger—or does it just hold you back?

    Questions About Family

    1. Huck chills out with a lot of different families along the river. What are differences between these families, and what does each one do for Huck's character?
    2. We spend all this time talking about the families Huck gets involved with along the river—but what about the one he's already got on the raft with Jim? Is that like a family? If so, are they more like brothers, or is there a father-son dynamic going on?
    3. Huck's real father is an abusive alcoholic. Does that mean he is no longer a father to Huck? Does he lose parental privileges because of his actions? What kind of privileges does Pap think he deserves—and what kind of responsibilities does he think he has?

    Chew on This

    Huck's journey along the river and the tales he tells about family are all part of his search for the perfect home. But he finds the entire familial system so flawed that he gives up and heads west at the end of the novel.

    Huck's search for the perfect family ends in his realization that he already has a perfect family in his friends.

  • Youth

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    Huck Finn’s youthful naiveté is part of the charm of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Because of his young age, he is able to approach conflict with an innocence and curiosity that an older protagonist might lack. Too young to be fully indoctrinated with the values of antebellum (pre-Civil War) South, Huck gets to examine issues in light of his own still-evolving moral compass. Tom Sawyer’s runaway imagination adds another layer of adventurousness to the plot, and Huck’s contentment with the simple things in life remind us we’re not dealing with somebody who’s got a ton of personal baggage. Lastly, the playful tone of Huck’s narration strikes an interesting balance with the weightier topics of the novel, such as slavery, morality, and racism.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Huck is a young guy, but he has these earth-shattering realizations about morality, government, religion, law, and family. Why did Twain write it that way? Could an older person have had the realizations Huck did?
    2. Tom seems to bring out the playful, childish side in Huck. Is this the biggest difference in them? Why did Twain throw Tom back in the mix at the end?
    3. Does the novel portray Jim and Huck as equals? Remember that one is a grown man the other a young boy. In what ways are Jim and Huck on the same level, and in what ways are they not?

    Chew on This

    Huck’s friendship with Jim is made possible only by the naiveté and malleability of Huck’s youth.

  • Foolishness and Folly

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    For the most part, characters in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are made fools by other characters. Pranks, cons, tricks, and deceptions seem to be everyone’s stock and trade in this novel, which means a healthy supply of gullible nitwits is in demand. And there seems to be no shortage. As one character succinctly remarks (shortly before being made into an utter fool himself), the group of fools in any town always comprises the majority. True – at least as far as the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is concerned.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Who is the most foolish character in this story?
    2. What’s going on with this mob business? We only ask because we see this recurring theme where there’s a mob of ignorant people and then one guy saying something really smart that everyone ignores. If the mob is so dumb, and this one guy is so smart, why does no one recognize that?
    3. What does it mean to be foolish in this text? What if someone isn’t foolish so much as ignorant?

    Chew on This

    The foolishness of "the mob" in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serves as a parallel to the folly of the whole of Southern culture for its beliefs on slavery.

    "Foolishness" with regards to intellect is inversely proportional to wisdom and morality in the characters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The smarter the man, the more immoral.

  • The Supernatural

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    Belief in the supernatural and superstition in general are the marks of multiple characters in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s their mutual belief in certain superstitions that originally draws Huck and Jim together. Neither has a strong religious faith, and their belief in certain superstitions help both Jim and Huck explain things that they cannot otherwise explain. It is possible that the novel parodies religion by comparing it to mere superstition, since some characters take advantage of both belief systems to manipulate and deceive. Often, superstitions are used as attempts to explain why bad things happen. When a character gets rewarded, or when something good happens, most would like to take credit for that positive outcome. But when someone is punished, or something terrible happens...well, it’s a lot more comforting to blame that on plain old rotten luck.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Does Twain make religion appear similar to superstition?
    2. Who are the main proponents of superstition in the text? What does it say about them?

    Chew on This

    Superstition, like religion, is detrimental to those who follow it, mostly because manipulative characters are able use it against them.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

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    Alcohol use in Huck Finn is usually portrayed as compulsive and excessive, and it’s always a harmful activity. Huck’s father is an abusive alcoholic, and therefore his son can see nothing positive about the substance in any given situation. Every time a man touches a drop of alcohol in the novel, needless harm comes to him and/or innocent bystanders. Besides Pap’s drunken abuse of Huck, the king sells Jim back into slavery in order to get cash for a whiskey binge. Even a harmless town alcoholic (Boggs from Chapter 21) gets killed because he directs one of his drunken rants at the wrong guy.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. How does having an alcoholic father affect Huck’s relationship with others (like other father figures, for example)?
    2. There’s a lot of boozin’ going on in this story, which is also concerned with larger issues like race and morality and friendship and loyalty. What’s the connection here?

    Chew on This

    Alcohol serves to satirize, denigrate, and condemn Southern culture in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.