Chapters 34–38 Summary and Analysis
Despite staying on the Phelps plantation, Huck and Tom have not yet seen Jim. However, Tom notices food being taken into a hut and surmises that this is where Jim is being held. Huck suggests that they should steal the key one night, release Jim, and then continue along the river together on the raft. Tom objects that this plan is “as mild as goose-milk.” He devises something far more difficult, intricate, and stylish, which begins with digging a tunnel, which will take about a week, instead of merely using the key. Tom and Huck ascertain that it is indeed Jim who is being held in the hut and commence their complicated plan to rescue him.
Tom is dissatisfied that, even with the refinements he has introduced, their plan is too simple. There is no watchman to be drugged, nor even a guard dog. The escape would also be more romantic if the hut had a moat, and Tom suggests digging one. He also wants to saw Jim’s leg off to release him, rather than simply lifting up the leg of the bed to which he is chained.
Tom continues to suggest refinements to the plan, all of which he has read about in books, and pouring scorn on Huck’s preference for simplicity. Even digging a tunnel with picks and shovels will not do. They have to use knives. At every turn, Tom wishes the situation were more difficult than it actually is and invents unnecessary complications.
At night, Tom and Huck start to dig their tunnel. They abandon the knives when their hands are covered in blisters and they have little to show for their effort. Tom compromises by using picks and shovels but calling them knives. They manage to dig their way into the hut, where Jim is delighted to see them and wants to get away immediately. Tom, however, insists on sticking to at least some of the formal elements of his plan and postpones their departure.
Tom’s elaborate plan continues to cause trouble, as Silas and Sally Phelps begin to notice that various items of cutlery and bed linen are missing. They have no idea what is happening, as the items Tom chooses and the uses to which he wants to put them are so obscure. They take particular trouble over the construction of a “witch pie,” a rope to assist Jim in his escape, to be smuggled in to him baked in a pie. They obtain enough rope for forty pies and eventually manage to encase some of it in dough inside a large brass warming pan. Jim duly receives the pie and hides the rope in his mattress.
Tom insists that Jim cannot leave without writing messages, and even inscribing a coat of arms, on the wall of the hut. The arrangements for this involve a great deal of fuss and bother over technical details of heraldry and are further hampered by Jim’s illiteracy, and Tom’s insistence that the inscriptions must be made in rock, whereas the walls of the hut are wood. They use a grindstone which they find at the mill. Tom then complains that the hut has no wildlife in it and wants to stock the place with spiders, rats, and rattlesnakes, which Jim would much sooner be without. At this point, even the good-natured Jim is beginning to point out that Tom’s requirements for romantic imprisonment involve a great deal of trouble. Tom retorts that Jim has a golden opportunity to “make a name for himself” as a prisoner, which is entirely wasted on him, whereupon Jim apologizes.
It is easy to see why many readers have found these chapters to be the least satisfactory in the book. Ernest Hemingway, who heaped praise on the book as a whole, saying that “All modern American literature comes from Huck Finn,” added the caveat that one should stop reading when Jim is imprisoned on the Phelps plantation, after which the book degenerates into broad and unamusing comedy.
(The entire section is 1,025 words.)