At a Glance
- Huckleberry Finn, an adventurous boy who fakes his death to escape his abusive father.
- Jim, a former slave who joins Huck on his journey down the Mississippi.
- Tom Sawyer, Huck's best friend, who appears at the end of the novel.
- Pap, Huck's abusive father.
- The Widow Douglas, Huck's guardian, who tries to teach him manners.
- The King and the Duke, two con artists who stage a production of mangled Shakespeare plays.
- The Shepherdons and Grangerfords, two feuding families.
Huckleberry Finn, a small-town boy living along the banks of the Mississippi River before the American Civil War. Perhaps the best-known youthful character in world fiction, Huck has become the prototype of the boy who lives a life that all boys would like to live; he also helped to shape such diverse characters as Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. He makes an adventurous voyage with the slave Jim, drifting down the Mississippi on a raft. When he contrasts himself with his flamboyant and wildly imaginative friend Tom Sawyer, Huck feels somewhat inadequate, but deep inside he has a triumphant reliance on the power of common sense. Thus the world of Huck’s reality—his capture by and escape from old drunken Pap; the macabre pageant of his townsfolk searching the Mississippi for his supposedly drowned body; his encounters with the King and the Duke, two preposterous swindlers; his stay among the feuding Grangerfords and Shepherdsons; and his defense of the pure, benighted Wilks sisters—is proved to be far more imaginative than Tom Sawyer’s imagination. Yet Huck is not some irresponsible wanderer through adolescence; he has a conscience. He knows it is illegal to be harboring a runaway slave, but his friendship with Jim makes him defy the law. His appreciation of the ridiculous allows him to go along with the lies and swindles of the King and the Duke until they seem ready to bring real harm to the Wilks sisters, and he himself will fib and steal to get food and comfort; but his code of boyhood rebels at oppression, injustice, hypocrisy. Mark Twain has created in Huckleberry Finn a magnificent American example of the romanticism that rolled like a great wave across the Atlantic in the nineteenth century.
Jim, the black slave of Miss Watson. Believing that he is about to be sold down the river for eight hundred dollars, he runs away and hides on Jackson’s Island, where Huck also takes refuge after faking his own murder in order to escape from Pap. Ignorant, superstitious, gullible, Jim is nevertheless, in Huck’s words, “most always right; he had an uncommon level head, for a nigger.” He will laugh at everything comical, but he suffers poignantly when he thinks of the family he has left in bondage. He protects Huck physically and emotionally, feeling that the boy is the one white person he can trust, never suspecting that Huck is struggling with his conscience about whether to turn Jim in. When the two companions encounter the King and the Duke, Jim is completely taken in by their fakery, though at one point he asks, “Don’t it sprise you, de way dem kings carries on, Huck?” Typically, Jim is subservient to and patient with whites. Even when Tom Sawyer arrives at the Phelpses, where Jim has been caught and held, he goes through Tom’s complicated and romantic ritual of escape with grumbling good nature. Jim is a sensitive, sincere man who seems to play his half-comic, half-tragic role in life because he is supposed to play it that way.
Tom Sawyer, Huck’s friend, who can, with a lively imagination stimulated by excessive reading, turn a raid by his gang on a Sunday school picnic into the highway robbery of “a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs . . . with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand sumter’ mules, all loaded down with di’monds. . . .” He is a foil to the practicality of Huck; he is the universal boy-leader in any small...
(The entire section is 4,113 words.)