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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

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Irony In Huckleberry Finn

What are examples of irony in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

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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. 

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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...

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will encounter. And that is another irony (situational irony).

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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.

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What are some examples of hypocrisy in the text of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  

Hypocrisy is saying you have moral beliefs that you don't practice or adhere to in your real life.

The king offers one of the most audacious examples of hypocrisy in a novel with no shortage of hypocrites.

The king is a heartless, probably sociopathic, liar, cheat, fraud, and money lover. He would murder his best friend for a few bucks and leave a child to starve if he could get hold of the child's money. Nevertheless, at a camp revival meeting, the king responds to an altar call and relates the following to the crowd, as Huck summarizes it:

Thanks to goodness he’d been robbed last night and put ashore off of a steamboat without a cent, and he was glad of it; it was the blessedest thing that ever happened to him, because he was a changed man now, and happy for the first time in his life; and, poor as he was, he was going to start right off and work his way back to the Indian Ocean, and put in the rest of his life trying to turn the pirates into the true path . . .

This is an example of over-the-top, laugh-out-loud hypocrisy. The king would never be happy to be robbed, he is not a changed man, and he has no intention of preaching the word to pirates, as he believes Christianity is a joke. Nevertheless, he pretends to be a humble Christian who doesn't care about money. He pretends he is living to save souls for Jesus.

Sadly, the crowd falls for this and takes up a collection. The king is delighted to have gotten a good haul of money, all of which he will spend on himself.

One of Twain's messages is that hypocrisy pays, which means that people will continue to pretend to be what they are not until they suffer unpleasant consequences for it.

A form of hypocrisy that permeates the novel in the broadest way is the idea that you can be a good Christian and own slaves. Anyone who truly believes in Christian morality, which at the very least says do unto others as you like done unto you, could never own slaves. Yet Huck, caught in a hypocritical society, believes it is more immoral to help a slave escape than to question the institution of slavery.

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What are some examples of hypocrisy in the text of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  

Pap Finn offers a few examples of hypocrisy. He claims ownership over his son's money though he had no part in raising Huck, took no part in procuring the money and took no risk to get it as Huck did. The argument Pap makes in this case is based on family obligation. 

An argument on filial loyalty made by the degenerate Pap Finn is plainly hypocritical given his history of abuse, negligence and disappearance. 

The King and the Duke also present examples of hypocrisy. One instance of this comes when Huck finally tries to make his escape from the two men after one of their attempts to defraud a town goes awry. 

Huck runs from the Wilks funeral grounds back to the boat, attempting to escape with Jim on the raft. The King and the Duke, however, also make it back to the raft. 

They deride Huck for running out on them and being disloyal. Huck reflects on the fact that they did not lose any time in looking for him as they fled the funeral. If they had, Huck could have gotten away. 

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What are some examples of hypocrisy of the "civilized" society in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

The various hardships Huck has endured have made him self-reliant, so much so that he cannot imagine living a regular "civilized" life back in town. He tries, reluctantly, after the Widow Douglas takes him under her wing, but he just can't. Though still outwardly a boy, Huck's experiences have already made him enough of a man for him to feel tied-down by the home comforts of a respectable upbringing.

Huck's lack of civilization helps him to gain a much broader perspective on things, to be able to see the petty foibles and faults of folks who've been raised in the conventional manner. Huck's natural existence, out there in the forests and floating down a raft on the Mississippi, has given him a valuable insight into how people behave, and how complicated, cruel, and foolish they can be.

It's Huck who brings his untutored folk wisdom to bear on the seemingly pointless, bloody feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons. These are wealthy, God-fearing people—civilized people, so-called. Yet they've been at each other's throats for years and no one quite knows why. Huck's incredulity at the feud and the violence and death it entails provides much-needed wisdom and maturity when those around him appear to have none.

Huck's various hardships also provide him with a much more mature attitude towards money than most "civilized" adults. Despite sharing $6,000 in reward money with Tom Sawyer, he understands that sometimes money can be more trouble than it's worth. And his shrewdness is confirmed when Pap Finn crawls out of the woodwork to try and get his greedy hands on his son's reward money.

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What are some examples of hypocrisy of the "civilized" society in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

In Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "civilising" means external compulsion.

  • While living with Miss Watson, Huck is compelled to wear shoes, he cannot smoke, and must read the Bible. Huck notices some incongurity in the religious faiths of Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas:

I could see that there was two Providences, a a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow's Providence, but if Miss Watson's got him there warn't no help for him any more.

  • In the latter part of the narrative, Huck finds himself again immersed in a conflict of thought as he has learned to love Jim and realize that he differs little from other people except in his loving warmth and his altruism. For, Jim is willing to sacrifice his freedom in order to find or help Huck. 
  • In Chapter XVIII, Huck encounters two aristocratic Southern families that have a feud:  the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons: "Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see," Huck narrates; yet, Buck Grangerford greets by trying to shoot him. These "civilized"people have a blood feud going that costs Buck and his cousin Joe their lives. Huck is so traumatized that he hides in a tree, uncomprehending of how such "civilized" people could be so murderous.
  • In Chapter XXXI, Huck writes Miss Watson about Jim, but he momentarily reflects,

I remembered how good he always was to me. And finally I remembered the time I saved him by telling the men people infected with smallpox were aboard our raft, and how he’d been so grateful and said I was the best friend he’d ever had and the only one he had now. And then I happened to look down and see my letter to Miss Watson.

  • So, Huck decides against a hypocritical society that keeps a good man like Jim a slave. Huck also wonders about what kind of religion can keep a man like Jim in slavery. So, he decides, "All right, I'll go to hell!"
  • In Chapter XXXIV, Tom Sawyer chastises Huck for stealing a watermelon and makes him give the blacks a dime for it; however, Tom thinks that it is perfectly all right that they force Jim to pretend that he is captured so they can fabricate his "escape."
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