The novel features dozens of biblical, historical, and literary allusions, as well as some allusions contemporaneous with the setting. Here are a few groupings that indicate Twain’s penchant for employing allusions in developing the characters and setting, often humorously.
Biblical Allusions: Twain employs religious allusions for a variety of purposes. Their pervasiveness along the Mississippi’s settlements shows the widespread influence of Judeo-Christian traditions in the rural American South during the time period, and mispronunciations of famous figures underscore characters’ lack of formal education and add to the novel’s comedic tone.
- One of the ways the Widow Douglas goes about educating Huck involves introducing him to biblical stories, the relevance of which Huck sometimes fails to see (for example, his pronouncement that “Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people”).
- Biblical education also extended to slaves; for example, Jim references “old King Sollermun” (Solomon).
- To “raise Cain”—a common phrase in the 1840s—alludes to the story of Cain, who slew his brother, Abel. It means to incite violence or mischief, upsetting social order.
- Other biblical allusions include “Goliar” (Goliath) and his strength; “Methusalem-numskull” (Methuselah), said to have lived almost 1000 years, whom Huck employs as an insult; the twelve disciples of Jesus; and references to the duke’s change of clothes making him seem regal and pious, as though he had stepped “right out of the ark,” referring to Noah’s ark, which kept the righteous man alive through the world’s flooding; and Huck’s mistaken suggestion that “old Leviticus himself” used the ark rather than Noah.
Historical Allusions: Similarly to the purpose of biblical allusions, references to historical figures—often mispronounced or misidentified—are used to show a character’s level of education, often to humorous effect.
- The duke and dauphin claim to be a variety of long-dead monarchs, such as “Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antoinette” (King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of France, both beheaded during the French Revolution) and Charlemagne. The con men’s incompetence is further showcased by pretending to be “Bilgewater” (a mispronunciation of the English Duke of Bridgewater’s title) and Edmund Kean, a famous English Shakespearean stage actor who would have been dead or elderly by the time of the novel’s events.
- There are other references to George Washington, Henry Clay, Christopher Columbus, William the Conqueror, and numerous English kings and French kings.
Literary Allusions: Twain assumes his audience is fairly well-read, making allusions to many popular works of the time. In typical Twain fashion, he both skillfully characterizes and satirizes a variety of situations.
- The duke combines “a thousand and one tales” (One Thousand and One Nights, a famous collection of folktales where Scheherazade tells the stories to a king to prevent her execution) with the Domesday Book, a record of the taxes owed to William the Conqueror throughout England, to show that his claims are fictitious.
- The Grangerfords’ house is rife with literary allusions, which Huck peruses at his leisure. They include references to Highland Mary, a subject of Robert Burns’s poetry, Pilgrim’s Progress, a famous religious allegory, and Friendship’s Offering, an annual anthology of literary works often illustrated with engraved artwork, among others.
- Tom shows his interest in—and insistence on adhering to the conventions of—popular adventure novels of the time when devising an escape plan for Jim, referencing both Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo’s “Castle Deef” (Chateau d’If) and the titular character of Dumas’s “The Man...
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- in the Iron Mask.”He also bases his notion of what prisons should be on X.B. Saintine’s Picciola (which he refers to as “Pitchiola”).
- The duke and dauphin show their creative incompetence in their performance of Shakespeare to humorous effect, reciting an incorrect version of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: “To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin . . .”
Contemporaneous Allusions: Twain’s charlatan characters insist that they are proficient in both mesmerism and phrenological readings. Because Twain lets these unlikeable and immoral characters claim these skills, it suggests that he puts little stock in their value.
- Mesmerism is another name for hypnosis, sometimes conducted as part of a stage show or a confidence scheme. This foreshadows that the duke and dauphin are masters of deception and can convince unsuspecting victims of outrageous lies.
- Phrenology was a pseudoscience popular in the 1800s that contended that someone’s character and level of intelligence could be determined by studying the shape of the head and “reading” the configurations of the skull. It was utilized as a scientific basis for racism and allowed scientists to classify those of African descent as less intelligent or trustworthy due to skull shape.