Chapters 14–18 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on May 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1497
The next morning, Huck and Jim examine the contents of the men’s boat, which they had removed before sinking it. There are boots, blankets, clothes, many books, a spyglass, and three boxes of cigars. Huck reads the books and talks to Jim about the kings and nobles described in them. They discuss King Solomon, who had about a million wives, according to Huck, though Jim does not think this shows any particular wisdom on Solomon’s part. He also casts aspersions on Solomon’s solution to the problem of the two women who claimed the same child, complaining that half a baby would be no good to anyone. He insists on this despite Huck’s exasperated assurances that he has missed the point. It is equally difficult for Huck to explain foreign languages to Jim, who cannot see the point of the French using different words from English-speaking people.
Huck loses the raft in a fog. He goes after it in the canoe, but the fog is so thick that he cannot make any progress, and eventually he goes to sleep. When he awakes, the fog is gone, and the stars are out. He sees a speck on the water, and it turns out to be the raft, with Jim on it, fast asleep. Huck lies down next to Jim, then wakes him up. He pretends he has never been away from the raft and that he knows nothing of the fog, persuading Jim that he has been dreaming. Jim believes him, until he sees that one of the oars has been smashed and that the raft is covered with leaves and other detritus. He realizes Huck has tricked him and speaks reproachfully, saying that it broke his heart when he thought he had lost Huck, and all Huck was thinking about was how to play a mean-spirited trick on him. Huck feels terrible at this and apologizes to Jim.
Huck and Jim intend to follow the Ohio River, which branches off at Cairo, up to the free states, where Jim will be safe. However, with thick timber obscuring everything on both banks, they realize that they may not know when they have reached Cairo and may mistake the fork in the river for the foot of an island. Huck suddenly feels guilty about helping a slave to escape, which he sees as tantamount to stealing valuable property from Miss Watson. Jim, meanwhile, is already making plans to secure the freedom of his wife and children, about whom he has not previously spoken.
Jim thinks he sees Cairo ahead, and Huck goes ahead in the canoe to investigate. He is feeling extremely conflicted. On one hand, he thinks it his moral duty to prevent Jim from escaping. On the other, Jim has said that Huck is the only white man who has ever kept a promise he made to Jim and treated him honorably. Huck soon sees a skiff containing two armed men. They ask him about his raft and prepare to investigate it, but Huck convinces them that the people on the raft have smallpox, and the men depart. However, he later discovers from a man in another boat that the town nearby is not Cairo, though the man angrily dismisses any further questions about where they are. Huck thinks they may have passed Cairo in the fog. As they are discussing this, a steamboat hits the raft, and both Huck and Jim are thrown into the river. Huck manages to reach the bank, where there is a big house made of logs, but as soon as he sees this, a group of dogs jump out at him, howling and barking.
Disturbed by the dogs, the residents of the house demand to know who is there. Huck gives his name as George Jackson and claims to have fallen off the steamboat. They greet him with great suspicion, and at gunpoint, demanding to know if he is a Shepherdson. When they conclude that he is not, they relax their guard and provide him with food and dry clothes. The clothes come from a boy called Buck, who is about the same age as Huck and instantly decides to befriend him.
Huck admires both the family, who are called the Grangerfords, and the house, which is large, elegant, and finely furnished. He describes the pictures and poetry of Emmeline Grangerford, the daughter of the family, who is dead. Emmeline seems to have been obsessed with death, which provided the subject matter for both her pictures and her poetry, leading Huck to conjecture that “with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard” than she had in her lifetime.
Colonel Grangerford, the head of the family, is “a gentleman all over.” Huck describes him as a natural aristocrat, with a commanding presence, flawless manners, and a distinguished appearance. These are qualities shared by his family: his wife, three sons, and two daughters. The men are handsome and dress in pure white linen, and the women are beautiful and elegant. Each of them has a slave in constant attendance, and they assign one to Huck, though he is used to doing things for himself, so his slave has “a monstrous easy time.” There used to be more of the Grangerfords, but Emmeline died, and three of the colonel’s sons were killed.
Huck soon learns what the Grangerfords meant by asking if he was a Shepherdson. The Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons are the two local clans of “aristocracy” in the area. Both are equally wealthy and powerful, consisting of several families and owning large tracts of farmland and many slaves. The two families use the same steamboat landing, a couple of miles from Colonel Grangerford’s house, and Huck sometimes sees “a lot of the Shepherdsons there on their fine horses.”
Buck explains that there is a longstanding feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, in which many members of both families have been killed. While Huck is staying with the Grangerfords, Sophia, one of the colonel’s daughters, runs away to marry the young Harney Shepherdson. This provides the occasion for a gun battle between the two families. Jim has recently discovered that Huck has been living with the Grangerfords and has been hiding out nearby and repairing the raft. The two are now reunited and resume their journey together.
This section introduces an element of racial tension into the novel, making the relationship between Huck and Jim more complex as Huck begins to experience doubts about helping a runaway slave. As in his use of language, Twain’s primary concern here is with realism. Huck has been brought up with the institution of slavery and sees Jim as a valuable piece of property belonging to Miss Watson, as well as regarding him as a loyal friend. The difficulty of holding these two ideas about Jim in his mind at the same time finally comes to the surface in chapter 16, when Huck considers betraying Jim, not for any reward or other advantage, but simply because he considers, with part of his conflicted mind, that this would be the most ethical course of action. According to this view, helping Jim to achieve his freedom would be tantamount to stealing. Huck is even more shocked when Jim talks about freeing his wife and children. He intends to work hard, to make enough money to buy their freedom, but is prepared to smuggle them into one of the free states should this prove impossible. If Jim does this, Huck reflects, he himself will have assisted in the theft of slaves from people he has never met, which he seems to regard as an even more heinous crime than helping Jim to escape.
The section ends with the memorable vignette of feuding Grangerfords and Shepherdsons. The story of Harney Shepherdson and Sophia Grangerford is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but the focus is on the families rather than the young lovers. The Grangerfords fulfill both a didactic and a comic purpose in the dichotomy between their status as the perfect representatives of the American landowning class and the brutal, senseless conflict which occupies so much time and effort on their part. Twain spends some time extolling the virtues of the Grangerfords’ splendid house and their gracious way of life, painting Colonel Grangerford in particular as the ideal Southern gentleman. They all treat Huck with great kindness and courtesy as soon as they are satisfied that he is not a Shepherdson. As far as the Shepherdsons are concerned, however, the Grangerfords are implacable and murderous. One of the great ironies in this situation, as Twain points out several times, is that from an outsider’s perspective, the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons are practically identical. Buck Grangerford even admits this when he hotly disputes Huck’s imputation of cowardice to one of the Shepherdsons, who, he says, are no more cowards than his own family.