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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Analysis

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is considered Mark Twain’s masterpiece and one of the first American novels. Its view of American life is more complex than that of its predecessor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).
  • The appearance of Tom Sawyer in the final ten chapters of Huckleberry Finn emphasizes that while Huck has grown up, Tom has remained childish, and his selfish behavior in this section alienates many readers.
  • The final chapter reasserts the novel’s essential spirit of freedom and optimism, with both Huck and Jim set free by the deaths of members of the older generation.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, is sometimes called the first American novel. Since it is not even Mark Twain’s first novel, this requires a certain amount of explanation. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, its predecessor, is essentially a children’s book, narrated by the sagacious, omniscient voice of Mark Twain. Huckleberry Finn is something more complex and wide-ranging, generally acknowledged as Twain’s masterpiece and as one of the first American novels in its scope and power, if not in terms of pure chronology. It is also, like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a book about travel and the open road (or, in Twain’s case, the open river), which ranges widely across the center of the continent, exposing the reader to a panorama of American life. In this sense, it rivals Whitman’s collection of poems for the accolade of being considered America’s national epic.

The novel was extensively revised over a seven-year period between 1876 and 1883. Twain originally intended that the novel should be a bildungsroman covering a much longer period, following Huck from childhood to adulthood over a number of years. This would have been an even more different book from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer than the one Twain eventually wrote. The shift in treatment and topic is encapsulated in the way Twain changed the title from Huckleberry Finn’s Autobiography to one which exactly parallels that of the earlier work.

Huck’s narrative voice is deceptive in its simplicity. This is particularly evident in his attitudes to his two closest associates, Tom and Jim. Tom, despite his penchant for romantic rebellion, is part of respectable St. Petersburg society and, as such, more educated and more conventional than Huck. Huck refers to Tom several times throughout the novel, always saying that Tom Sawyer would know what to do in this situation or would have handled it with particular aplomb. Huck never quite sees that, while he has been growing up, Tom has remained a child. This is particularly evident at the end of the book, when Tom insists on introducing a series of ludicrous complications into their plan to release Jim from captivity. Tom’s behavior here alienates many readers, and it does not improve matters when he announces that Jim has been legally free all the time he was on the Phelps plantation and the plan to rescue him was never anything but a game. This childish selfishness serves to emphasize that Huck has outgrown Tom, as have most readers.

In Huck’s relationship with Jim, the roles are reversed. Now Huck is the worldly sophisticate and the representative of educated society. Much of the comedy comes from just how ill-adapted he is to this role, as he tries to explain to Jim matters which he entirely misunderstands himself. If Huck sometimes appears as a holy innocent in his essential good nature and lack of malice, Jim is positively saintly. Again, this aspect of his character is particularly emphasized at the end of the book, as Tom Sawyer places his life and freedom in danger with his elaborate charade. Although Jim has been freed in Miss Watson’s will, the danger is real, as is dramatically demonstrated when some of the crowd around Jim favor hanging him.

In fact, Tom’s complacent reliance on the law is a demonstration of his privileged position, in relation to both Jim and Huck, another element which makes the last ten chapters such an uneasy conclusion. Throughout the book, the land through which Huck travels is shown to be almost entirely lawless. No sheriff or other representative of the law appears, and they are rarely mentioned. The Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons are able to murder each other with impunity. When Sherburn shoots Boggs, the immediate public response is to lynch him, and when he proves stronger than the mob, he apparently goes entirely unpunished. The Duke and the Dauphin are tarred and feathered, which seems to be the default punishment for such serial impostors, since it is also what Mary Jane Wilks suggests when Huck reveals that the two men are not her uncles. After the reader has seen rough justice dispensed by angry mobs throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom’s assertion that Jim is safe because he is legally free seems thoroughly naïve.

The ending of the book is unsatisfactory in many ways, stretching out Tom’s ludicrous plan in chapter after chapter. However, the very last, very short chapter does reassert some major themes and conclude on a note appropriate to the rest of the book. Both Jim and Huck have been set free. In both cases, this is due to the death of a member of the older generation who had been an oppressive and constraining presence, Miss Watson for Jim and Pap Finn for Huck. Jim believes he will become rich, which means that he will be able to buy freedom for his wife and children. Huck is already as rich as he wants to be and has the world open before him, filled with opportunities for adventure which, this time, he will not even constrain himself by committing to paper. The book therefore ends in the spirit of freedom, optimism, and wide expansive vistas for which most readers remember it.

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