The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain - Essay

Mark Twain


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain

The following entry provides criticism on Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

Long considered Mark Twain's masterwork as well as a classic of American literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was the first important American work to depart from European literary models. It used frontier humor, vernacular speech, and an uneducated young narrator to portray life in America. Although at first the novel was roundly denounced as inappropriate for genteel readers, it eventually found a preeminent place in the canon of American literature. Huckleberry Finn, wrote Ernest Hemingway, is the novel from which “all modern American literature comes. … There has been nothing as good since.”

Plot and Major Characters

Begun as a sequel to Twain's successful children's book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows a similar picaresque form as its predecessor, but has a much more serious intent. Narrated by the title character, the story begins with Huck under the protection of the kindly Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Fearing that his alcoholic father, Pap, will attempt to claim the fortune that he and Tom had found (in Tom Sawyer), Huck transfers the money to Judge Thatcher. Undaunted, Pap kidnaps Huck and imprisons him in a lonely cabin. Huck escapes, leaving a trail of pig's blood to make it appear he has been killed, and he finds his way to Jackson's Island, where he encounters Miss Watson's runaway slave, Jim. One night Huck, disguised as a girl, goes ashore, where he learns that people believe that Jim killed Huck, and that there is a reward for Jim's capture. The two set out on a raft down the Mississippi River but are separated when the raft is struck by a steamboat. Swimming ashore, Huck is taken in by the Grangerford family, who are engaged in a blood feud with the Shepherdsons. In time Huck finds Jim and the two set out on the raft again, eventually offering refuge to two con artists, the Duke, and the King. These two perpetrate various frauds on unsuspecting people, claiming to be descendants of royalty or, at other times, famous actors, evangelists, or temperance lecturers. Learning of the death of the well-to-do Peter Wilks, the Duke and the King descend upon the family, claiming their inheritance as long-lost brothers. Huck helps to foil their plans, and he and Jim attempt to slip away without the Duke and the King, but the rogues catch up with them and the four set out together. When they come ashore in one town, Jim is captured, and Huck is shocked to learn that the King has turned him in for the reward. After a battle with his conscience, Huck decides to help Jim escape. He goes to the Phelps farm where Jim is being held and is mistaken for Tom Sawyer, who is the nephew of the Phelpses. Huck decides to impersonate Tom. When the real Tom arrives, he joins in the deception by posing as his brother, Sid. He concocts an elaborate plan to rescue Jim, during the execution of which Tom is accidentally shot, and Jim is recaptured. From his sickbed, Tom announces that Miss Watson has died, setting Jim free in her will. He got involved the “rescue,” he says, simply for the “adventure of it.” Jim then reveals that Huck's father is dead, that he had found the body in an abandoned boat. Aunt Sally Phelps suggests that she might adopt Huck, but the peripatetic Huck cannot foresee living in “sivilization” and resolves to “light out for the territory.”

Major Themes

Twain once described Huckleberry Finn as a book in which “a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers a defeat,” and the novel traces Huck's moral development as he encounters a seemingly haphazard array of people and situations. During his journey down the river, with its series of encounters, he undergoes a rite of passage from unthinking acceptance of received knowledge and values to an independently achieved understanding of what is right. In his decision to free Jim, Huck overcomes his “conscience,” which, formed by a racist society, tells him this act is wrong, to reach a higher morality. Twain skillfully plays upon the irony of that moment as he describes the conflicts between what Huck has been taught and what he gradually acknowledges to be right. Another dominant theme in the story is the contrast between the constricting life on shore and the freedom offered by the river. Huck and Jim's journey is widely regarded as a symbolic statement on the corruption of society and a condemnation of a “sivilization” which encourages greed and deception, destroys innocence, and enslaves human beings. Whether the novel speaks to a typically “American” theme of unlimited mobility and broader horizons is a question still being asked by readers and literary critics.

Critical Reception

When Huckleberry Finn was first published in the United States in 1885, critical response was mixed, and a few libraries banned the book for its perceived offenses to propriety. Such controversies, however, did not affect the book's popularity, and it has remained the best selling of all of Twain's works. After Twain's death his works gradually became elevated as national treasures, but following World War I commentators such as William Faulkner and Van Wyck Brooks cast doubt on the greatness of Huckleberry Finn. Hemingway's comments on the novel, along with the centenary of Twain's birth in 1935 and favorable comments by Lionel Trilling and T. S. Eliot in the late 1940s and early 1950s, revived the book's reputation. Later critics gave it nearly universal acclaim, praising its artistry and its evocation of important American themes. A recurrent critical concern was the role of Jim, who was variously called only a foil for Huck's exploits, a possible homosexual partner, or a father figure. Others critiqued Jim's role as a racial stereotype, while Twain defenders said he was used to expose the hypocrisy and bigotry of southern separatism. During the 1950s a number of critics such as Bernard DeVoto and Leo Marx raised objections to the abruptness of the book's ending, but by the 1960s Twain was again being lauded by such scholars as Walter Blair and Henry Nash Smith. The hundredth anniversary of the American publication of the novel in 1985 sparked new editions, bibliographies, and critical appraisals. Around this time, more and more questions were being raised about the racial slurs in Huckleberry Finn, and a number of public schools sought to ban the book from their required reading lists. In addition, African American critics and others continued to challenge the book's reputation as a classic of American literature. That controversy goes on, even as criticism of the novel has taken new directions. Since the 1990s some scholars have continued to do close textual readings, and others have emphasized the novel as a cultural product. The question of literary canonization has been addressed by critics such as Jonathan Arac and Elaine and Harry Mensch. Other commentators, including Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua, have noted the importance of the confluence of white and Black cultures in the story. Several new editions, especially the annotated edition published in 2001 by the Mark Twain Foundation, have encouraged further scholarship. Critical interest in Huckleberry Finn, then, shows no signs of waning, and debates over its stature and reputation, and the issues the novel raises, appear certain to continue.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (short stories) 1867

The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims' Progress (sketches) 1869

Roughing It (sketches) 1872

The Gilded Age [with Charles Dudley Warner] (novel) 1874

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (novel) 1876

A Tramp Abroad (sketches) 1880

The Prince and the Pauper (novel) 1881

Life on the Mississippi (memoirs) 1883

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (novel) 1884

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (novel) 1889

Pudd'nhead Wilson, A Tale (novel) 1894

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by Sieur Louis de Conte (novel) 1896

The Mysterious Stranger (novel) 1916

Mark Twain's Autobiography (autobiography) 1924

Julius Lester (essay date fall 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lester, Julius. “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, edited by James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis, pp. 199-207. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Lester maintains that Huckleberry Finn fails to confront the realities of slavery.]

I don't think I'd ever read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Could that be? Every American child reads it, and a child who read as much as I did must have.

As carefully as I search the ocean floor of memory, however, I find no...

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David E. E. Sloane (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sloane, David E. E. “Huck Acts, an Escape from Sivilization.” In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: American Comic Vision, pp. 50-60. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, Sloane notes the importance of Huck's ability to act with determination to shape his and Jim's fate in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.]

Huck is a passive hero for most of the book. The negative description of his mother, his isolation and loneliness, and his laconic deadpan, self-effacing manner of humorous speech all seem to account for this passivity. Nevertheless, he reacts on Jim's behalf on several occasions in important ways. Unfortunately, the last part of the...

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Ernest D. Mason (essay date September 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mason, Ernest D. “Attraction and Repulsion: Huck Finn ‘Nigger’ Jim, and Black Americans.” CLA Journal 33 (September 1989): 36-48.

[In the following essay, Mason discusses Huck's ambivalent attitude toward Jim and suggests that readers should rethink their admiration for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.]

According to most of the literature on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck's final decision to help Jim escape represents Huck's belief in and affirmation of Jim's humanity. In a very dramatic scene, Huck states emphatically that he will steal Jim out of slavery and willingly “go to hell” for doing so. Yet closer reading of the novel...

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Gregg Camfield (essay date June 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Camfield, Gregg. “Sentimental Liberalism and the Problem of Race in Huckleberry Finn.Nineteenth-Century Literature 46, no. 1 (June 1991): 96-113.

[In the following essay, Camfield discusses Twain's debt to the dynamic of literary sentimentalism in Huckleberry Finn.]

Mark Twain is one of those rare writers loved by both academics and the larger public, though it should surprise no one that the academy and the public seem fond of him for different reasons. One can get some idea of the popular response to Twain by looking at how he has been marketed since his death. His tremendous popularity led Hollywood quickly to turn his works to account; studios...

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Sherwood Cummings (essay date September 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cummings, Sherwood. “Mark Twain's Moveable Farm and the Evasion.” American Literature 63, no. 1 (September 1991): 440-58.

[In the following essay, Cummings notes that Twain evades the issue of race in Huckleberry Finn by placing the Phelps farm in Arkansas.]

The Quarles farm, southwest of Hannibal, where young Sam Clemens spent his summers with his aunt and uncle and their slaves, was as important in Mark Twain's imagination as Hannibal itself. Used simply as setting, the farm came, as Mark Twain said, “very handy to me in literature once or twice.”1 His most signal use of it was to turn it into Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas...

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James Hirsh (essay date fall 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hirsh, James. “Samuel Clemens and the Ghost of Shakespeare.” Studies in the Novel 24, no. 3 (fall 1992): 251-72.

[In the following essay, Hirsh traces the influence of Shakespeare on Huckleberry Finn, and explores the anxieties Twain experienced in comparing himself with Shakespeare.]

Because Shakespeare's works are so famous, a later writer's adaptation of Shakespeare is apt to seem trite unless the source is significantly transformed, but this transformation may obscure the influence. Like the location of the purloined letter, Shakespeare's influence sometimes does not become obvious until after it has been pointed out. The extent of Samuel...

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Laura E. Skandera-Trombley (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Skandera-Trombley, Laura E. “The Charmed Circie.” In Mark Twain in the Company of Women, pp. 30-34. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

[In this excerpt, Skandera-Trombley discusses the effects of women and women's fiction on the composition of Huckleberry Finn.]

Mary Ann Cord played a crucial role in the shaping of Clemens's fiction. Born enslaved in Virginia, Cord had been sold twice and had all her children taken from her before she escaped to the North (Jerome and Wisbey 8). Charles Langdon's daughter, Ida Langdon, in an address delivered to the Elmira College Convocation in 1960, remembered Cord as a “dogmatic Methodist” (Jerome...

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Jane Smiley (essay date January 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smiley, Jane. “Say It Ain't So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain's ‘Masterpiece’.” Harper's 292, no. 1748 (January 1996): 61-7.

[In the following essay, Smiley casts doubt on whether the reputation of Huckleberry Finn is deserved, comparing its cultural message unfavorably with that of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.]

So I broke my leg. Doesn't matter how—since the accident I've heard plenty of broken-leg tales, and, I'm telling you, I didn't realize that walking down the stairs, walking down hills, dancing in high heels, or stamping your foot on the brake pedal could be so dangerous. At any rate, like numerous broken-legged...

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Clara Claiborne Park (essay date winter 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Park, Clara Claiborne. “The River and the Road: Fashions in Forgiveness.” American Scholar 66 (winter 1997): 43-62.

[In the following essay, Park traces similarities between Huckleberry Finn and Rudyard Kipling's Kim.]

When Lionel Trilling collected the essays that became The Liberal Imagination, was it chance or subliminal recognition of affinity that caused him to place his discussions of Huckleberry Finn and of Kipling side by side? Five years separated the essays—that on Kipling written in 1943, in response to the then recent essays by Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot (“critical attention … friendlier and more interesting than...

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Jonathan Arac (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Arac, Jonathan. “Nationalism and Hypercanonization.” In Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time pp. 133-153 Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Arac disputes the idea that Huckleberry Finn, is emblematic of quintessential “American” values.]


I am not an Americanist by professional formation, and as in the 1980s I came to focus my teaching and reading in American literature, I was struck by what seemed to me, compared with other national literatures I knew or had studied, a state of hypercanonization. By...

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Hugh J. Dawson (essay date winter 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dawson, Hugh J. “The Ethnicity of Huck Finn—and the Difference It Makes.” American Literary Realism: 1870-1910 30, no. 2 (winter 1998): 1-16.

[In the following essay, Dawson explores the Irish-American heritage of Huck and the ways it affects his relationship with Jim.]

In an article describing the source and significance of Huckleberry Finn's surname, James L. Colwell has proposed that Mark Twain chose his character's “joyously and unmistakably Celtic” family name very purposefully.” From the ancient Finn McCool to Finnegans Wake, it is a name that rings through Irish legend and literature.1 (Its cognate appears in the name of the...

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Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chadwick-Joshua, Jocelyn. “Whah Is de Glory?: The (Un)Reconstructed South.” In The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, pp. 115-35. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

[In the following essay, Chadwick-Joshua discusses what the character of Jim reveals about post-Reconstruction America and the persistence of racial stereotypes.]

All the experiences of the central section have prepared Huck for the final conflict, his decision to free Jim from being made a slave “again all his life … amongst strangers … for forty dirty dollars” (269). With that resolution, Huck casts off his old cultural beliefs and embraces new ones that...

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Eric Carl Link (essay date summer 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Link, Eric Carl. “Huck the Thief.” Midwest Quarterly 41, no. 4 (summer 2000): 432-47.

[In the following essay, Link traces Huck's moral development through his growing awareness of the seriousness of theft.]

Fortunately, Tom got shot. It may be lovely to live on a raft, but only when you can live high, hogging watermelons without having to “chaw” over a lot of Tom's “gold-leaf distinctions.” Had the grand evasion gone as planned, had Tom, Huck, and Jim made it to the raft safely, the beauty and simplicity of raft life would have been diminished by Tom's insistence that they leave off “borrowing” the occasional chicken or cantaloupe from local...

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Carl F. Wieck (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wieck, Carl F. “Huck and Jim on the Mississippi: Going with the Flow?” In Refiguring Huckleberry Finn, pp. 70-81. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Wieck discusses the river motif in Huckleberry Finn.]

The majestic Mississippi River is of central importance to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and, over the years since the novel first appeared, an impressive amount of scholarly effort has been expended in evaluating its role. While many perceptive observations and theories have been put forward to explain various aspects of the qualities that the river displays and embodies, relatively little...

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Stacey Margolis (essay date March 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Margolis, Stacey. “Huckleberry Finn; or, Consequences.” PMLA 116, no. 2 (March 2001): 329-43.

[In the following essay, Margolis responds to other critics who have castigated Huckleberry Finn for its approach to racism, arguing that the novel indicts post-Reconstruction racism by establishing social accountability.]

“You are very kind; but there must be some mistake. I have not killed anything.”

“Your house did, anyway,” replied the little old woman, with a laugh; “and that is the same thing.”

—L. Frank Baum,...

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Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date spring 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J. “Twain and the Garden of the World: Cultural Consolidation on the American Frontier.” Southern Quarterly 39, no. 3 (spring 2001): 82-95.

[In the following essay, Folks outlines Twain's use of certain cultural mythologies in Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, concluding that Twain both accepts and resists the ideas of cultural unity and assimilation.]

In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain positions culturally dominant values of commercialism, educational training, and other forms of cultural discipline in opposition to the...

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Sanford Pinsker (essay date autumn 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Huckleberry Finn and the Problem of Freedom.” Virginia Quarterly Review 7, no. 4 (autumn 2001): 642-49.

[In the following essay, Pinsker argues that Huckleberry Finn is a subversive book concerning the impossibility of true freedom for either of the main characters.]

“… he ain't no slave; he's as free as any cretur that walks this earth.”

—Tom Sawyer spilling the beans about Jim

“We're free … We're free …”

Linda Loman at Willy's graveside

Freedom is America's...

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Laurel Bollinger (essay date winter 2002)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bollinger, Laurel. “Say It, Jim: The Morality of Connection in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.College Literature 29, no. 1 (winter 2002): 32-52.

[In the following essay, Bollinger focuses on the theme of connectivity in the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.]

The American literary tradition has often been defined by its moments of radical autonomy—Thoreau at his pond, Ishmael offering his apostrophe to “landlessness,” Huck “light[ing] out for the Territory ahead of the rest” (Twain 1995, 265). In fact, Twain's novel is often taught as the text that epitomizes this tradition, with Huck held up as its exemplar: a boy courageous enough to...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Alberti, John. “The Nigger Huck: Race, Identity, and the Teaching of Huckleberry Finn.College English 57, no. 8 (December 1995): 919-937.

Reviews the reception history of Huckleberry Finn, especially the reaction to the word “nigger,” and suggests guidelines for teaching the novel in the modern classroom.

Arac, Jonathan. “Putting the River on New Maps: Nation, Race, and Beyond in Reading Huckleberry Finn.American Literary History 8 (spring 1996): 110-29.

Review of books about Twain.

———. “Why Does No One Care about the Aesthetic Value of...

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