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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

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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 spite of their eagerness to forget its devastating impact and rid themselves of its curse. The physical setting of the novel, most specifically the river and the raft, has also drawn the attention of critics. The Mississippi River itself serves as a kind of no-man's land in the text, a place outside of society that is governed by different rules. The raft becomes a new world for Huck and Jim, where they can be themselves and make up their own rules by which to live. On either side of the river lies the shore, which represents a return to society. Significantly, it is Huck who makes excursions into towns along the river banks for food, information, and fun. While Huck can be a kind of vagabond, travelling from one place to another without being a part of society, Jim must hide on the raft, the only place where he can be safe.


Burlesques, or parodies of elevated or serious forms of literature, were popular as far back as Shakespeare, but they were also the favorites of working-class theatergoers in America starting in the 1840s. In America, burlesques often poked fun at aristocratic types who were subjected to the lowly conditions of the American city or frontier, and they extolled the virtues of a democracy over the pretensions of Europe's high society. Burlesques also became associated with minstrel shows as they were incorporated into the latter in the 1850s. Mark Twain is well known for his adept adaptations of burlesques in his works. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he used the technique to critique the aristocratic pretensions of the King and Duke, and the romantic fantasies of Tom Sawyer. In fact, the last third of the book descends into burlesque, according to the novel's critics, as Tom's outlandish schemes to free Jim take center stage. In addition, some scenes between Jim and Huck are modeled on burlesques, especially their conversation about Frenchmen, in which Jim subtly outsmarts Huck, revealing the wisdom of the supposedly ignorant.

Realism and Regionalism

Mark Twain was a major contributor to the interconnected Realist and Regionalist movements, which flourished from the 1870s to the 1920s. Realism refers to the insistence on authentic details in descriptions of setting and the demand for plausible motivations in character's behaviors. Writers of the Regionalist movement also adhered to these principles as they explored the distinct and diverse regions of post-Civil War America that they feared were being swallowed up by a national culture and economy. Realist and Regionalist techniques are exemplified in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by the specific and richly detailed setting and the novel's insistence on dialect which attempts to reproduce the natural speech of a variety of characters unique to the Mississippi Valley region. In addition, Huck's momentous decision to free Jim, even if it means going to hell, is seen as a classic episode of Realist fiction because it demonstrates the individual's struggle to make choices based on inner motivations, rather than outside forces.

Twain’s Seven Dialects

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Twain’s Seven Dialects in the “Explanatory”

Twain’s “Explanatory” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written to clarify the different dialects used in the novel. Ironically, his explanation has been the subject of confusion and controversy among critics ever since it was published. The varying dialects have often been difficult to differentiate, and some inconsistencies are apparent in the speech patterns of the characters. It is easy to see why critics could view the “Explanatory” as just another one of Twain’s comic witticisms they had come to associate with his writings. The consistencies of the characters’ nonstandard speech patterns far outweigh the inconsistencies, however, and this leads us to believe Twain was serious about the seven dialects used in the novel.

David Carkeet, who has done extensive research in Twain’s use of literary dialects, believes “Clemens’s recall was imperfect; his attempt at consistency, at least in Huck’s dialect, falls short.” Carkeet attributes this “imperfect recollection” to the fact that Twain wrote three-fifths of the novel after he had put the book aside for two years. This led to several pronunciation changes, particularly in the speech of Huck, in the last three-fifths of the novel.

Carkeet concludes that the seven dialects were assigned to the following characters:

Missouri Negro: Jim (and four other minor characters)

Southwestern: Arkansas Gossips (Sister Hotchkiss et al.)

Ordinary “Pike County”: Huck, Tom, Aunt Polly, Ben Rogers, Pap, Judith Loftus

Modified “Pike County”: Thieves on the Sir Walter Scott

Modified “Pike County”: King

Modified “Pike County”: Bricksville Loafers

Modified “Pike County”: Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas Phelps

Representing the living speech of Twain’s day, the following examples of the seven dialects typify a uniqueness of language found in the areas along the Mississippi River.

Missouri Negro: Jim “Goodness gracious, is dat you, Huck? En you ain’ dead-you ain’t drownded-you’s back ag’in? It’s too good for true, honey, it’s too good for true. Lemme look at you chile, lemme feel o’ you. No, you ain’ dead! you’s back ag’in, ‘live en soun’, jis de same ole Huck-de same ole Huck, thanks to goodness!”

Extremist form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect: Arkansas Gossips (Sister Hotchkiss) “Look at that-air grindstone, s’I; want to tell me’t any cretur ‘t’s in his right mind’s a-goin’ to scrabble all them crazy things onto a grindstone? s’I.”

Ordinary “Pike County”: Huck “My folks was living in Pike County, in Missouri, where I was born, and they all died off but me and pa and my brother Ike.”

Modified “Pike County”: Thief on the Sir Walter Scott, Jake Packard “I’m unfavorable to killin’ a man as long as you can git aroun’ it, it ain’t good sense, it ain’t good morals. Ain’t I right?”

Modified “Pike County”: King “Well, I’d ben a-runnin’ a little temperence revival thar ‘bout a week . . . and business a-growin’ all the time, when somehow or another a little report got around last night that I had a way of puttin’ in my time with a private jug on the sly.”

Modified “Pike County”: Bricksville Loafers “Gimme a chaw ‘v tobacker, Hank.”

“Cain’t; I hain’t got but one chaw left. Ask Bill.”

Modified “Pike County”: Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas Phelps “Good-ness gracious!” she says, “what in the world can have become of him?”

“I can’t imagine,” says the old gentleman; “and I must say it makes me dreadful uneasy.”

“Uneasy!” she says: “I’m ready to go distracted! He must ‘a’ come; and you’ve missed him along the road. I know it’s so—something tells me so. . . . Why Silas! Look yonder-up the road!—ain’t that somebody coming?”

Twain wrote in the late nineteenth century when literary dialects were the fashion of the times. Although he helped to create the dialectal mode of writing in American literature, he, at the same time, drew from his contemporaries who were following the same tradition. It is impossible to imagine Huckleberry Finn written in standard English. Twain’s writings were not made up of the dead language of the European past, but exuded the living colloquial speech of his day. This is what has made The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a truly American novel.

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