The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Analysis

Mark Twain

At a Glance

  • Mark Twain was well-known for writing in dialect. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn includes examples of several different dialects, including Midwestern, Southern, and African American dialects. Twain's use of vernacular makes the dialogue feel more natural, though it can, at times, make the novel difficult to read.
  • Unlike Tom Sawyer, who has a lot of romantic ideas about heroism and adventure, Huck Finn is a realist, and he narrates his story in a straightforward, chronological manner. Huck's narrative voice is notable for its matter-of-fact depiction of absurd events. Twain uses Huck's voice to counterbalance the inherent humor in the narrative.
  • Twain alludes to three Shakespeare plays in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III. Note that these plays are all considered tragedies, but that their mangling by the King and the Duke provides some necessary comic relief after the darkness of the Shepherdson and Grangerford feud.


(Novels for Students)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a breakthrough in American literature for its presentation of Huck Finn, an adolescent boy who tells the story in his own language. The novel was one of the first in America to employ the child's perspective and employ the vernacular—a language specific to a region or group of people—throughout the book. Many critics have characterized the smoothness of Huck's language as the most unique feature of the book. Lionel Trilling sees Twain's creation of Huck's voice as a measure of his genius. He writes that Huck's language has "the immediacy of the heard voice." Shelley Fisher Fishkin has suggested that Twain created Huck's style of speech from that of a real boy, an African-American child that he met in the early 1870s, combined with dialects of white people he had heard as a child. But Huck's unique perspective is that of a lower-class, southern white child, who has been viewed as an outcast by society. From this position, Huck narrates the story of his encounters with various southern types, sometimes revealing his naivete and, at other times, his acute ability to see through the hypocrisy of his elders. Many readers have commented on Huck's unreliability as a narrator, though, especially in his admiration of the gaudy taste exhibited by the Grangerfords and his inability to see through his own prejudices when he tells Aunt Sally that no one was hurt on board the ship, although a "nigger" was killed.

Another distinctive aspect of the novel is its setting. Because it takes place when slavery was at its height in America, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn addresses in a roundabout way the prejudices of southern whites that had laid the foundation for slavery and were still omnipresent in the Reconstruction South of Twain's time. The discussion of slavery in the text, then, takes on a new meaning for a post-Civil War audience. It forced them to confront the legacy of slavery in...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Mississippi River

*Mississippi River. The novel’s primary backdrop, the Lower Mississippi is the motive force that drives both the raft and the narrative. Most of the novel’s action actually takes place ashore, but no character ever strays far inland, and the river’s presence always looms. Rich in symbolism, the river washes away sin (such as bawdy houses and murderers), bestows wealth (including bountiful fish and valuable flotsam), and wreaks destruction (destroying both steamboats and towns), all the while inexorably carrying everything upon it ever deeper into the South and its harsh plantation slavery—exactly where Huck and Jim do not want to go. They allow the river to carry them south because they lack the means to navigate upriver and because forces beyond their control repeatedly prevent them from obtaining such means.

Twain was intimately acquainted with the river. He spent his childhood on its banks and as a young man piloted steamboats between St. Louis and New Orleans. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does a masterful job of conveying the river’s beauty and terrible majesty through the eyes of its ingenuous narrator, Huck.

St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg. Sleepy riverfront Missouri village in which Huck lives with the Widow Douglas and her sister when the novel opens. It is modeled on Twain’s boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri. The village and the widow’s proper home represent decency and the forces of civilization, against which Huck rebels. After his alcoholic father kidnaps him and takes him upstream to a crude hut on the Illinois shore, Huck initially feels liberated. However, after his father repeatedly abuses him, Huck runs off on his own. He never expresses an interest in returning to St. Petersburg. Indeed, the novel ends with him expressing a wish “to light out for the Territory”—presumably an allusion to the untamed West.

Jackson’s Island

Jackson’s Island. Mississippi River island below St. Petersburg to which Huck flees on a canoe after faking his own murder. There he finds Jim, a slave running away from St. Petersburg because he fears he is about to be sold “down the river”—every Missouri slave’s worst nightmare. The island is easy swimming distance from the free state of Illinois, but that state offers no refuge to Jim because fugitive slave laws make its western shores the dangerous hunting ground of slave catchers. Huck and Jim remain on the island until the prospect of imminent discovery spurs them to load their things on a raft and flee downriver.


Raft. Flat craft on which Huck and Jim float down the river. After a brief idyll on the island, Jim and Huck learn that slave catchers are coming and flee together on a lumber raft with a pine-plank deck about fifteen feet long and twelve feet wide that they have salvaged from flotsam delivered by the rising river. Their primary home through most of the remaining narrative, the raft represents their most reliable sanctuary from the evils of the shore and thus symbolizes the freedom they both seek. Huck’s descriptions of life on the raft contain several idyllic masterpieces.


*Cairo (kay-ROH). Town at Illinois’s southern tip where Huck and Jim intend to land, sell their raft, and buy steamboat passage up the Ohio River into free territory. In a critical juncture in the narrative, however, they drift past Cairo in the fog. The Mississippi continues carrying them ever deeper into slave territory and thwarts every plan they make to return upstream.

*Ohio River

*Ohio River. Major tributary of the Mississippi River, which it joins below Cairo. As the major physical barrier separating northern “free” states from southern “slave” states, the Ohio represented a threshold of freedom to African Americans and was thus an appropriate choice as Huck and Jim’s primary destination. Although Huck and Jim never actually see the river, the distinct clear-water channel that its water creates in the muddy Mississippi alerts Huck to the fact that he and Jim have drifted past Cairo. A detailed and colorful explanation of the differences between the waters of the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers is a crucial part of the novel’s so-called “raft chapter,” which has been omitted from most editions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because Mark Twain used it earlier in Life on the Mississippi (1883).

Grangerford home

Grangerford home. Prosperous plantation apparently located on the Kentucky side of the river. After their raft is smashed by a steamboat, Huck is separated from Jim and taken in by the prosperous Grangerford family, whose home represents the thin veneer of southern civilization. It offers everything Huck wants in life, but after all the Grangerford men are killed in a senseless feud that unmasks southern degeneracy, he returns to the river with Jim, who has repaired the raft while hiding nearby.

*Pike County

*Pike County. Real Missouri county, about fifteen miles south of Hannibal, from which Huck claims to come when he meets the King and Duke, scoundrels who board the raft and take control, again making it impossible for Huck and Jim to return upriver. The county was notorious as the birthplace of worthless frontier characters before the Civil War and is thus another symbol of the South’s decadence.


Bricksville. Arkansas town in which Huck witnesses still more depravity: a shooting, a would-be lynch mob, and the King and Duke’s lurid stage show, the Royal Nonesuch. “Bricksville” is ironically named, as its streets are all mud, and its houses are rotting wood-frame structures gradually sliding into the river.


Pikesville. Shabby Arkansas village that is the raft’s last stop. Jim becomes a prisoner on the nearby farm of Tom Sawyer’s Uncle Silas and Aunt Sally Phelps. In a wholesale departure from the tone and movement of the narrative, Huck and Tom spend the novel’s last chapters in a farcical plot to free Jim. Afterward, Huck rebels against Aunt Sally’s plan to adopt and “sivilize” him and proposes “to light out for the Territory”—presumably the vast Indian territory west of Arkansas and Missouri.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Riverboat Print Published by Gale Cengage

The issue of slavery threatened to divide the nation as early as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and throughout the years a series of concessions were made on both sides in an effort to keep the union together. One of the most significant of these was the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The furor had begun when Missouri requested to enter the union as a slave state. In order to maintain a balance between free and slave states in the union, Missouri was admitted as a slave state while Maine entered as a free one. And although Congress would not accept Missouri's proposal to ban free blacks from the state, it did allow a provision permitting the state's slaveholders to reclaim runaway slaves from neighboring free states.

The federal government's passage of Fugitive Slave Laws was also a compromise to appease southern slaveholders. The first one, passed in 1793, required anyone helping a slave to escape to pay a fine of $500. But by 1850, when a second law was passed, slaveowners had become increasingly insecure about their ability to retain their slaves in the face of abolitionism. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law increased the fine for abetting a runaway slave to $1000, added the penalty of up to six months in prison, and required that every U.S. citizen assist in the capture of runaways. This law allowed southern slaveowners to claim their fugitive property without requiring them to provide proof of ownership. Whites and blacks in the North were outraged by the law, which effectively implicated all American citizens in the institution of slavery. As a result, many who had previously felt unmoved by the issue became ardent supporters of the abolitionist movement.

Among those who were outraged into action by the Fugitive Slave Law was Harriet Beecher Stowe whose novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) galvanized the North against slavery. Dozens of slave narratives—first hand accounts of the cruelties of slavery—had shown white Northerners a side of slavery that had previously remained hidden, but the impact of Stowe's novel on white Northerners was more widespread. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said when he met her during the Civil War, "So you're the little lady who started this big war." White southerners also recognized the powerful effect of the national debate on slavery as...

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Twain’s Seven Dialects

(Novels for Students)

Twain’s Seven Dialects in the “Explanatory”
Twain’s “Explanatory” in The Adventures of Huckleberry...

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

A sequel to Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn takes place in the 1830s or 1840s. It begins in St. Petersburg, a fictional town much like...

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The single most cohesive feature in the novel is Huck's engaging narration. Because the reader often knows more than Huck does, his naive...

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Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Although it begins with the warning, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a...

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Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Although regarded as a classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has engendered controversy from the start. The Concord Public Library in...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a humorous novel about very serious subjects. Discussion leaders should beware that some people may...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1840s: Under the Slave Codes, enacted by individual southern states, slaves could not own property, testify against...

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Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Throughout Huckleberry Finn a variety of lies are told. Discuss which seem to be useful and which harmful. Why?

2. How...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Baetzhold, Howard G. "Samuel Longhorn Clemens." In Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography:...

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Adams, Richard P. “The Unity and Coherence of Huckleberry Finn.” In Huck Finn Among the Critics: A Centennial Selection, edited by M. Thomas Inge. Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1985. Summarizes previous critical opinion about the novel’s structure and argues that its organization of imagery results in symbolic patterns that include the organic ending.

Blair, Walter. Mark Twain and Huck Finn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. Elegantly written classic essay on the writing of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Still valuable as an exploration of the novel’s background of characters and ideas.

Doyno, Victor. Writing “Huck Finn”: Mark Twain’s Creative Process. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. The most nearly definitive essay on the creation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. This original and important work demonstrates conclusively that the major sources for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were black.

Quirk, Tom. Coming to Grips with “Huckleberry Finn”: Essays on a Book, a Boy, and a Man. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. Explores issues in the novel and presents factual contexts for them. Examines Twain’s attitude toward race.

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings. New York: Facts On File, 1995. Contains the most detailed published synopsis of the novel, cross-referenced to analytical essays on all characters and places mentioned in the text.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. University of California, 2001. The complete original manuscript, including more than six hundred excised pages.

Wieck, Carl F. Refiguring “Huckleberry Finn.”Georgia, 2000. A novel approach to the meaning and influence of Twain’s best-known work; Wieck concentrates on certain key words to decipher the text.

Williams, Kenney J. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Or, Mark Twain’s Racial Ambiguity.” In Satire of Evasion? Black Perspectives on “Huckleberry Finn,” edited by James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992. Offers a balanced analysis of racial ambiguity in the novel. Finds that Mark Twain satirized romanticized attitudes toward race problems. Includes bibliographies.

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Compare the character of Tom Sawyer as it is developed in Tom Sawyer with its presentation in Huckleberry Finn. What are...

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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Study the history and form of the minstrel show in the nineteenth century and find evidence in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Twain was influenced by minstrels in his creation of the novel.
  • Research the history of the novel's censorship in America, and argue for or against the exclusion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from a school's curriculum.
  • Using history texts and primary sources like slave narratives, research the conditions under which slaves lived in the 1840s to gain a deeper understanding of what Jim's life might have been like, and tell Jim's story from his perspective.

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Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The book's loose structure may be classified as a picaresque narrative because its unity derives from following a central character through a...

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Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

As a major figure in American and world literature, Huckleberry Finn has appeared in every medium: illustration, film, radio, theater,...

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Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • In the 1930s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was adapted twice as a black-and-white film under the title...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (revised, 1883) tells of the author's years as a steamboat pilot through a series of short articles.
  • Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) is the most prominent slave narrative written, and depicts his development from slave to free man.
  • A Short History of Reconstruction (1990) by Eric Foner, an abridged version of his award-winning study Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, explains the complex reasons for the failure of Reconstruction.
  • In Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (1990), James Oakes...

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For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Anderson, Frederick, ed. Mark Twain: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971. This collection traces criticism of...

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