The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the best-known works of American literature, known as much for the controversy surrounding it as for the indelible characters it creates. Written by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens’s pen name), it was published in England in December 1884 and in America in February 1885. Among its most defining characteristics is that it is written in vernacular style, a radically different way of crafting dialogue introduced by Twain into American literature. Twain’s characters speak in regional dialect, not standard English, and their words are spelled and punctuated to convey not only what they say but how they sound. Twain’s use of vernacular style reflects the local color movement that developed in American literature after the Civil War as writers incorporated specific realistic details in their descriptions of people and places in uniquely different geographical sections of the country; local color writing retained many of the elements of Romanticism while moving toward Realism in American fiction.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is both romantic and realistic. Twain romanticizes the beauty of nature and the freedom of life on a river raft, but there is no romance in his depiction of society beyond the banks of the Mississippi: it is morally corrupt. The novel presents an accurate and uncompromising representation of a society rooted in the ignorance and cruelty of institutionalized slavery. Like the writers of realism that followed him, Twain exposes the truth about subjects previously considered taboo in American literature, and he does so through an unlikely voice as the story is narrated by Huckleberry Finn, an illiterate boy with no real home who forges a friendship with a runaway slave.
Twain is famous for approaching serious issues in a humorous way, and there is much humor and satire in the novel; however, it is the troubling questions Twain raises about American values and American identity that make it a cultural milestone. His attitude toward social conventions, literary icons Emerson and Longfellow, and even the Bible is irreverent. The novel’s themes include some that were rarely addressed at the time, such as superstition. Twain develops the superstition theme to bring humor and local color to the story, but it also illustrates the lack of education among some Americans of this time. Superstition reflects the human desire to make sense of world, and nothing makes sense, Twain suggests, in a society that embraces slavery and cannot distinguish right from wrong.
It is essential to understand the novel in its historical context. The setting is pre-Civil War Missouri sometime in the 1840s. At that time, slavery was institutionalized, and the Slave Codes were enforced. Slaves could not own property, testify against whites in court, or make contracts; slave marriages were not recognized by law. By the time the novel was published in the 1880s, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, the antebellum South depicted in it no longer existed. New laws had extended some rights to black Americans, such as the right to legally marry and own property, but curfews were imposed on them and racial segregation was enforced through state and local laws known as Jim Crow laws. Slavery had been eradicated, but racism remained entrenched. Thus Twain’s portrait in Huckleberry Finn of the pre-Civil War society that permitted, justified, and promoted racism when slavery was legal resonated as a savage critique of an American society that had continued its racist practices.
The novel has stirred up a great deal of controversy over the decades. Its early detractors were mainly concerned with its coarse language and what they considered to be disrespectful, immoral examples of behavior set by Huck, a lower-class hero. Despite those objections, literary critics increasingly recognized it as a major work, and by the 1950s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was firmly established in the American literary canon. Ernest Hemingway called it “The Great American Novel,” and H. L. Mencken said it was “perhaps the greatest novel ever written in English.” T. S. Eliot agreed, writing that he viewed Huckleberry Finn as “the most American of heroes” and “one of the permanent symbolic figures in fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other great discoveries that man has made about himself.”
However, after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Twain’s novel was attacked once again, this time for its language; its nineteenth-century characters use the word “nigger,” the most demeaning and inflammatory of racial epithets, more than two hundred times. Fears that the book promotes racism or simply presents racial issues that are too complex for anyone but an adult to understand resulted in its being banned from some school libraries and reading lists; the controversy continues today as Twain’s use of language is either condemned as being racist or defended as being necessary to present realistically the setting of the novel. In “This Amazing, Troubling Book,” African-American author Toni Morrison points out that removing it from students’ hands is not the best solution. She calls that approach a “narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term ‘nigger’ would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones,” suggesting that preventing this work from being read rules out students’ investigating it, learning from it, and being enriched by it. As Morrison points out, “the brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument is raises.”
The controversy over Twain’s novel is understandable, but it is ironic, as well, since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stands as one of the strongest condemnations of slavery in American literature. Huck believes truly that he will “go to Hell” if he does not obey the law and turn in a runaway slave. He knows this is true because every voice in his society has taught him that it is, but he chooses to exchange his soul for Jim’s freedom. Huck’s being confronted with this decision emphasizes the depth of the moral corruption inherent in his racist society and its effects on him; in deciding to accept damnation rather than send Jim back into slavery, Huck is acknowledging its profound horror. Despite certain and unbearable consequences, Huck finds slavery to be an evil so great he cannot impose it on another human being. Mark Twain never tells readers explicitly what to think or feel about his young hero, but in Huckleberry Finn’s innocence and moral courage, Twain’s novel leads them to examine the nature of their own humanity.
By the end of the unit, the student will be able to
1. Explain why Huckleberry Finn has been a controversial book since its early publication and has been and continues to be subjected to censorship.
2. Identify issues of racism, as well as of slavery and its stereotypes, and discuss how they are challenged through the character of Jim.
3. Analyze the way Mark Twain uses humor to satirize the evils of society and point out hypocrisies in the antebellum South.
4. Understand how superstition functions as a theme and informs the book.
5. Investigate whether or not Huck’s character develops morally over the course of the novel.
6. Analyze the way in which the Mississippi River functions as a symbol, and contrast it with life ashore in “civilized” society.
7. Explain why the book has been called “The Great American Novel,” and discuss which aspects of it are uniquely American.
8. Discuss what makes Huckleberry Finn’s narrative voice unique.
9. Identify specific details in the novel that make it realistic in its regional setting.
10. Identify elements of Romanticism in the novel, including Twain’s treatment of the Mississippi River, Huck’s relationship to nature, and Huck’s innocence and intrinsic morality.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Chapter Guide
- The Chapter Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the novel. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
- Chapter Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content.
- Before Chapter Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
(The entire section is 480 words.)
1. The novel begins with a note from the author. What does it say to the reader? Should it be taken seriously?
2. In the first chapter, Huck notes that the widow’s efforts to “sivilize” him make for “rough living,” and in the last chapter, Huck wants to escape so Aunt Sally will not try to “sivilize” him. What does the term “sivilize” mean to Huck, and does that change over the course of the novel?
3. How does Jim’s character illustrate stereotypes about slaves? How does that work against them?
4. Compare and contrast the bloody shoot-out between the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords with the scene immediately afterwards where...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
bad place: (in context) hell
Bulrushers: a biblical reference to the Pharoah’s daughter who discovered the baby Moses floating in basket made of bulrushes and adopted him
good place: (in context) heaven
sivilize: dialect civilize
stretcher: (in context) big lies
sugarhogshead: archaic a large barrel
1. As the book opens, how does Huck Finn introduce himself? What information about his past does he share?
Huck identifies himself as a character that appeared in one of the author’s previous books, The Adventures of Tom...
(The entire section is 813 words.)
five-center piece: a nickel
nation: euphemism for “damnation”
saddle-boils: sore blistered areas on the skin caused by a long ride in a saddle (in this case, the witches were riding Jim and he got sores)
skiff: a flat-bottomed open boat
tanyard: the section or part of a tannery that houses tanning vats
the quality: slang people of high social status
1. Whom do Huck and Tom encounter as they try to sneak away from the widow’s garden? What situation results, and how do Huck and Tom have similar or different reactions to it?
When Huck makes a noise as he trips...
(The entire section is 856 words.)
ambuscade: slang ambush
fat up: slang gain weight
hived: slang nabbed
hog-drovers: hog drivers
Providence (capitalized): God
shot tower: a place where gunshot is made
sumter: fancy name for a pack animal
whale: slang beat upon
1. Why does Miss Watson take Huck into the closet to pray? What does she tell him he’ll get in return for praying and does Huck believe her?
Miss Watson takes Huck into the closet to pray because she is disappointed that he got his clothes all dirty with grease and clay. She tells...
(The entire section is 581 words.)
cowhide: slang a beating
down in de bills: dialect predestined
forty-rod: slang whiskey strong enough to knock a man forty rods
pungle: to pay up, to hand over
raspy: slang harsh
sass: impudent speech, back-talk
shinning: slang running
soundings: measurements of depth
stanchion: an upright bar, post or support
stile: double sets of steps straddling a fence
1. As the chapter opens, what changes can be noted in Huck?
He is becoming more accustomed to going to school, and he has...
(The entire section is 551 words.)
delirium tremens: an acute mental disturbance with tremors that is induced by excessive and prolonged use of alcoholic liquors
fagged out: slang tired
hick’ry: slang a switch or cane of tough hickory wood used especially for punishing a child
mulatter: dialect a person of mixed white and black ancestry
nabob: a person of great importance
palavering: talking profusely or idly
roust: to drive (as from bed) roughly or unceremoniously
stabbard: dialect starboard; the right side of a boat looking forward
State: (in context) Missouri
stern: the rear of a boat...
(The entire section is 924 words.)
Ablitionist: dialect abolitionist; especially prior to the Civil War, a person who advocated outlawing slavery in the United States
Barlow knife: a one-bladed jackknife, named for the inventor
cooper: a barrelmaker
corn-pone: similar to cornbread but cheaper to make (usually made without milk or eggs)
currycomb: a comb, usually with rows of metal teeth, for grooming horses
fan-tods: slang the shakes, the willies
gapped: slang yawned
Honest injun: slang honestly; seriously; deeply meant
quicksilver: mercury; a silver-white poisonous heavy metallic element in the periodic table
(The entire section is 813 words.)
calico: a plain-woven cotton cloth, usually printed with a pattern on one side
hocus: to trick; to fool
lynched: put to death by hanging without legal authority
1. What does Huck do at the start of Chapter 10? What is the result? What emotional reaction does he have, and what does it signify?
Huck kills a rattlesnake, and as a practical joke, he curls it up at the foot of Jim’s blanket. The dead rattlesnake’s mate is drawn to the spot and bites Jim. Huck feels terrible about the result of his joke and doesn’t want Jim to know that his being bitten was Huck’s fault. This signifies Huck’s...
(The entire section is 608 words.)
bitts: pairs of short posts with a crosspiece for securing cables
chimbly-guy: dialect wires that brace the chimneys of a steamboat
harrow-teeth: straight steel teeth set in horizontal bars, as on a farm tool
labboard: dialect larboard; left side of a boat while facing the front
pilot house: the structure on a steamboat usually on top of the texas
spondulicks: slang money, cash
stabboard: dialect starboard; right side of a boat while facing the front
texas: dialect the officer’s cabin on the upper deck of a steamboat
treed: driven to or up a tree; suggests having being put in...
(The entire section is 843 words.)
dolphin: Huck’s term for the dauphin, the son of Louis XVI, King of France, who was beheaded in 1793 (He almost certainly died in prison, but there were rumors that he escaped.)
gaudy: ostentatiously or tastelessly ornamented
1. Who almost ruins Huck and Jim’s chance to escape the steamboat?
Just as Huck and Jim are about to steal the robbers’ skiff, the robbers themselves—the Packard brothers—arrive and get ready to climb in. Luckily, the brothers suddenly remember they left money in Jim Turner’s pockets and go back to get it, allowing Huck and Jim to climb into the skiff and make an escape.
(The entire section is 876 words.)
aft: towards the stern (rear) of a boat
green hand: slang novice
Injuns: dialect Native American Indians
juba: patting knees, hands, right shoulder, left shoulder—or a similar sequence—in time to music.
trading-scow: a large flat-bottomed boat with broad square ends
1. Why does Huck take the risk of climbing aboard the big raft occupied by lots of rough men? What happens to him?
Huck and Jim are trying to figure out the location of Cairo, Illinois, because that’s the place where they can begin heading north to the free states. Huck hopes to overhear...
(The entire section is 773 words.)
bowie: a stout single-edged hunting knife
decanters: ornamental glass bottles used for serving wine or other beverages
frowsy: messy, unkempt
mud-cat: a variety of catfish
obituary: a notice of a person’s death usually including a short biography of the deceased
ornery: having an irritable disposition
pendulum: the swinging weighted element of a clock
phrenology: the pseudoscience of reading character from the natural bumps and valleys of the head
reticule: a woman’s drawstring bag used especially as a carryall
roundabout: a short jacket
scalped: to have one’s scalp removed in the manner...
(The entire section is 643 words.)
cipher: to figure, to calculate
handbill: a small printed sheet to be distributed (as for advertising) by hand
histrionic: deliberately affected; theatrical
linsey-woolsey: a coarse cloth made of linen and wool or cotton and wool
mourners’ bench: front-row pews in a church reserved for penitents
seven-up: a card game
sockdolager: outstanding; exceptional
1. What explanation does Huck give to the duke and the king to justify the fact that he and Jim travel at night and sleep during the day?
He tells them a story about Jim’s being the family slave. He explains that since his family is all...
(The entire section is 549 words.)
acquit: to find not guilty
bully: slang wonderful, amazing
greenhorns: people who lack experience
parasol: an umbrella
tar and feather: physical punishment that involves covering a person in hot tar and then feathers; characteristic of mob vengeance in feudal Europe and on the early American frontier
1. What must Sherburn confront as Chapter 22 begins?
A mob is swarming towards Sherburn’s house calling for him to be lynched.
2. From Sherburn’s speech to the assembled crowd, what do we perceive is the author’s attitude regarding mobs and...
(The entire section is 710 words.)
doxolojer: slang the doxology, beginning “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”
hare-lip: a cleft lip
jake: slang a fellow
1. What becomes troubling for Jim as the group decides to continue pulling ashore and “working the towns”? How is the problem resolved?
When Huck, the king, and the duke leave the raft, they always have to leave Jim tied up so that it’s clear that he is not a slave on the run. Jim doesn’t like spending whole days tied up and wants another solution. The duke hits upon the idea of painting him blue and dressing him up in a wild costume and labeling him with a...
(The entire section is 417 words.)
beats: slang deadbeats
cheatsmelodeum: a small reed organ
Congress water: mineral water from the Congress Spring at Saratoga, New York
garret: part of a house just under the roof
pallet: a straw-filled tick or mattress
1. How does Huck almost get caught out as an imposter at the Wilks’s home? Who defends him, and what impression does his defender make upon Huck?
Huck is posing as the valet of the king and duke, so he has dinner in the kitchen with one of the Wilks daughters. Asking him a lot of questions about England, she realizes Huck is making up answers. The daughter makes him swear on a...
(The entire section is 622 words.)
erysipelas: a severe skin disease
Goliar: Goliath, as in the Biblical myth of David and Goliath
muggins: dialect a fool
sand: slang courage
yallerjanders: yellow jaundice, a liver disease
1. When does Huck decide that telling the truth “is better, and actuly safer, than a lie”? What truth does he tell?
When Huck sees Mary Jane crying about the separated slave family, he feels moved and blurts out that the slave family will surely be reunited within two weeks, hoping to help her feel better. When she wants an explanation of how such a...
(The entire section is 636 words.)
doggery: slang saloon
pegged: hustled; moved along quickly
1. Of whom is Huck afraid as Chapter 30 opens, and how does he escape their wrath?
Huck is scared of the king and the duke when they come aboard the raft. He makes up a story about a man who believed Huck resembled his dead son and encouraged him to make a run for it. After Jim verifies the story, the duke also defends Huck, reminding the king that he wasn’t exactly concerned with Huck’s welfare when they made their escape from the graveyard.
2. What do the king and the duke argue about? What results from the argument?...
(The entire section is 597 words.)
ash-hopper: container that holds lye for making soap
grounding: a ship’s going aground on a sand bar
meeky: slang to come meekly
Methusalem-numbskull: slang an imbecile as old as Methusalah
1. At the start of Chapter 32, Huck arrives at the Phelps plantation with hopes of finding Jim. Contrast the description of the plantation with the prior descriptions Huck has given of life on the river.
The plantation is described in depressing terms. It’s “lonesome,” and it makes Huck feel “mournful.” The setting is grim, with a big, bare yard and the sound of a spinning wheel wailing along...
(The entire section is 860 words.)
caseknife: a metal blade with a handle, used as cutlery
1. How do the boys discover Jim’s whereabouts?
Tom Sawyer sees a slave bringing a plate of food with watermelon on it to a hut on the Phelps Plantation. He deduces that nobody would feed watermelon to a dog, and figures out it must be Jim in the hut. Huck is very impressed and sees it as further proof of Tom’s amazing intelligence.
2. Characterize the proposal Huck makes for freeing Jim. How does Tom react to the idea, and what does it show about Tom’s character?
Huck’s plan is simple and straightforward and involves...
(The entire section is 527 words.)
biling: slang complaining
bullyrag: to abuse, to threaten
counterpin: counterpane, bedspread
knocked the cat galley-west: slang out of kilter, cockeyed
1. Describe what Tom is referring to when he says, “It ain’t right, and it ain’t moral.” Does Huck apply the same level of moral examination to the way something is accomplished? Which approach seems to be more practical and to show more humanity?
Tom thinks it’s not right that they will use picks to dig out the tunnel instead of using caseknives. He agrees to use picks so long as they still “let on” or pretend that they are...
(The entire section is 674 words.)
coat of arms: an emblem bearing the official symbols of a family or state
grindstone: a revolving stone disk used for grinding, polishing, or sharpening tools
jewsharp: slang (Jew’s harp; various spellings in book) a small lyre-shaped instrument that when held between the teeth gives tones from a metal tongue struck by the finger
mullet-headed: slang trusting and stupid
1. What event in Chapter 38 is the most ridiculous so far in Tom’s plan, and how does it reveal Jim’s loyalty and commitment to the boys?
Tom gets the idea to carve a coat of arms on a rock, and he wants to use Uncle...
(The entire section is 545 words.)
full tilt: as fast as possible
harum-scarum: slang motley
1. After Huck sneaks down to the cellar to steal some butter and Aunt Sally catches him, what happens? Who does Huck see and what does he realize?
Aunt Sally tells him to go into the “setting-room” and wait for her to come back and question him. As he walks in, he sees a group of “fifteen farmers, and every one of them had a gun” who are gathered to ward off the “desperadoes” named in Tom’s false anonymous letters. Huck realizes that he and Tom are now in a bad position for pulling off their plan, and that they need to get Jim and leave as quickly...
(The entire section is 715 words.)
Territory: America’s wild and unsettled western frontier
1. What distracts Aunt Sally from reading a letter that has arrived from her sister?
Tom, who she thinks is Sid, is being carried up to the house on a mattress. With him is the doctor and also Jim; Jim is wearing Aunt Sally’s calico dress with his hands tied behind him. A crowd of people is following Jim.
2. What happens to Jim after he is re-captured? How has his relationship with Huck changed?
Some townspeople threaten to kill Jim, but they end up deciding not to, not because of Jim’s exemplary...
(The entire section is 597 words.)
1. During what period is the novel set?
2. Jim is the slave of which character?
A. Mrs. Judith Northrup
B. Widow Douglas
C. Miss Watson
D. Mary Jane Wilks
E. Mary Williams
3. Which theme is first introduced in the scene with Huck, the candle, and the spider?
A. Pain and suffering
B. The natural world
C. Man’s cruelty to animals
D. The inhumanity of slavery
(The entire section is 1096 words.)
1. Choose three key examples in the novel that illustrate Huck’s struggle to decide whether or not to inform on Jim. Are they easy decisions for Huck to make? What do they reveal about his development as a character?
The novel’s central conflict is Huck’s struggle to reconcile his friendship with Jim and the civil and social laws that make such a connection taboo and even criminal. The reader is first explicitly introduced to the conflict in Chapter 8, when Huck encounters Jim on Jackson’s Island. As soon as he realizes Jim’s identity, he must grapple with the question of whether or not to inform on Jim. The decision not to report him seems fairly easy for Huck to make. He clearly considers the consequences of...
(The entire section is 3425 words.)