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The major example of irony that runs throughout the entire book is the portrayal of a society that calls itself civilised and Christian yet very often behaves in a quite different manner. The treatment of slaves, indeed the very institution of slavery runs counter to the Christian ideals of mercy and kindness and love that this society proclaims to have. Also, the aristocratic feud between the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords afford a particularly cutting example of irony, when Huck describes how they all go to church to listen to preachings about love and brotherliness while all the time resting their guns against the wall.
A good example of Twain’s use of irony occurs when Huck struggles with whether or not he should turn in Jim and go to hell for doing it. This type of irony, known as dramatic irony, occurs when the audience understands that Huck is really doing the right thing by not turning in Jim, but he doesn’t realize it yet. Huck thinks he is breaking the law by harboring and helping Jim run away. As an audience, we know that Huck has learned to love Jim as a friend and father figure and finds it impossible to hurt Jim by sending him back to Miss Watson. However, he is still so brainwashed by society’s values that slaves are property, he feels he is doing the wrong thing and will “go to hell” for tearing up the letter he thought of sending to Miss Watson.
Huck struggles with his conscience throughout the novel when he has the chance to turn in Jim to the slave hunters on shore and when he goes along with Tom’s tortuous antics with Jim at the end of the book. However, we, as readers, cheer for Huck when he makes the right decisions concerning Jim in these examples of dramatic irony.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the skillful way in which Twain relates Huck’s thoughts. By telling the story from the first person point of view, Twain not only lets the reader into Huck’s mind, but he also allows Huck to characterize himself in terms of dialect—his manner of speaking, as we hear his thoughts in his own uneducated and thoroughly “countrified” voice.
This technique also makes possible a constant run of verbal irony throughout the story. Verbal irony is the effect of saying one thing but meaning another. While most people are verbally ironic on purpose (we usually call it sarcasm), Huck is completely unaware of his double meaning. The fact that he has no idea that he is saying something funny, or sometimes accidentally insightful, reveals his innocence—he is thoroughly himself and a creature youthful exuberance, something we all probably yearn to be.
Twain doesn’t waste any time getting Huckleberry started in this vein. In the second paragraph Huck addresses the reader directly:
The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways;
The irony here lies in the use of the word “decent.” Huck has problems living with the Widow Douglas, who is always looking out for what she considers Huck’s best interests, because she is too “decent.” By extension we can assume that Huck does not consider himself to be decent—he’s too wild and too dirty and too uneducated. However, as we will find out over the course of the book, Huck is likely the most decent person we will encounter. And that is another irony (situational irony).
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