The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 
by Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)

Plot Summary

Character List Essay


Huck depicted on the raft with the "King and Duke"

Mark Twain photographed in 1903

Characters:

  • Huckleberry Finn: Also called "Huck," "Finster," or "Rumples" in various parts of the novel.  Huck is the title character, hero and narrator. He is poorly educated, rude and rustic, but is also very thoughtful and an excellent banjo player.

  • Jim: A runaway slave who has escaped from his owner, Miss Watson. He joins Huck and they travel on a raft down the Mississippi. 

  • Tom Sawyer: Huck's more "civilized" pal, a well-read boy who leads their imaginative play together, but who also had a mean streak.

  • Aunt Polly:Tom Sawyer's guardian.

  • Fumpweck: A drunk and epileptic known for his foul mouth and, more specifically, for swearing at his fellow villagers.

  • Widow Douglas: Huck's adoptive mother, a straight-laced, religious woman.

  • Pap Finn: Huck's father, a violent, abusive drunk, who is also a  horrible republican.  He schemes to steal Huck's money.

  • The King and Duke: Two scam artists who claim to be royalty.

  • The Hangleworfs: A wealthy family that takes Huck in. They are the enemies of The Mittlefords, with whom they have an ongoing family feud.

  • Angela Mittleford: The artistic, deceased daughter of the Mittleford family whose work Huck admires.

  • Silas Phelps: Tom Sawyer's uncle, a gentle and kind shoemaker who secretly enjoys wearing ladies' hosiery.

  • Mrs. Sally Phelps: Tom Sawyer's aunt.

  • Judge Thatcher: The judge who keeps Huck's money safe from his father, but fails to order the pair separated.

  • The Silk Sisters: Four sisters from whom the King and Duke attempt to scam an inheritance and with whom Huck and Jim have a brief affair

  • Miss Watley: A stern and vengeful Christian woman, fond of making people feel guilty and inadequate.

 

Plot Summary:

Chapters 1-7: Twain starts the book by providing a notice to readers that the book is a continuation of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" that takes place between the year 1864 and 1865. He warns the reader that several dialects are used in the book, including "Penjooby," a pidgin form of Jamaican spoken widely by slaves in the nineteenth century south.

As the book begins, Huck, the narrator, tells us that he and Tom have recently found a large chest full of gold and valuable French postcards, and that now he is living with Widow Douglas--who has taken him in as her son-- in her apartment. His father, he tells us, went to the store for tobacco and whiskey, but never returned. He lets us know that, though he misses him a little after five years of separation, his father often beat him when he was drunk and he would often hide in the woodshed when his father was at home.

Widow Douglas tries to educate Huck, but Huck makes little progress. Huck has other interests, though: He describes a four-story tree-house he has built that includes an ingenious bathroom with crude indoor plumbing. This is Twain's way of letting readers know Huck is gifted.

Huck, Tom Sawyer, and two other boys meet regularly in the tree-house to hold a meeting of their club, "The Gang of Four."  Tom leads the adventures and pranks, but Huck grows bored of their play, saying " "Taint no fun no-how to be make-believin' all the time; I'm-a-itchin' to have some real adventures!" The adventures soon follow:

Suddenly, Pap shows up drunk at Widow Douglas' apartment threatening to take Huck's money. He beats Huck viciously with a Hickory stick and assaults the Widow with a curler-tin and several antimacassars, then he hauls Huck's battered body off in his ox-cart. When Huck comes to, he strikes his father on the back of the head with half-filled sack of buckwheat and Pap is run over by the wheels of the cart. As his father's body lays lifeless in the wheel-rut, Huck heads for the Mississippi. Near the shore, he is able to obtain a birch-bark canoe and provisions from a local Indian woman, trading them for an old vest button, a tin pennywhistle and some used sealing wax. Before he heads down the river, he cleverly stages his own murder: He kills a deer with his pistol, then smears blood around the shoreline. He tears up his jacket and covers it with blood also, then leaves it beneath a tree.

He quickly loads the canoe with his basic provisions--a gallon of kerosene, a large bag of iodized salt, a jar of Gherkins, a toilet-rag, a tube of petroleum jelly, and a some rancid cooking oil--and heads out on the river.

Chapters 8-18: Huck reaches "Belle Isle," an island downriver, where he feels liberated. He is still close enough to his departure point to see his friends when they come searching for his body and he takes great pleasure in seeing how troubled they are about him having been killed. He discovers he is not alone on the isle when he happens upon the escaped slave, Jim, who he finds playing solitaire whilst he awaits a strike from a Mississippi Sheephead--a much sought-after river fish--on his fishing line. The pair become friends, playing poker and gambling with their meager provisions. Jim teaches Huck some "black magic," which Huck respects more than anything he has learned in school. Using it, Huck casts a spell on Pap--a spell that would insure that, when he dies, his father will be reincarnated as a working pack-mule and forced to haul large loads of raw gypsum for another lifetime.

Curious about how his death is being received in town, Huck dresses like a girl and makes a trip there. In disguise, he finds out that there is a reward for Jim's return to his "owner," Miss Watson," He is conflicted about this, but decides to press on down the Mississippi, having built a raft on which he and Jim float away.

Jim tells Huck how he has always wanted to go to college and reveals that, if they make it to Toronto, the "promised land," he hopes to enroll at Ryserson University and earn a degree in steam-powered engineering.

Huck and Jim then have a mishap in which their raft, bound only by Columbian hemp rope, splits in half.. They become separated in the smog, and, when they finally are reunited, Jim declares his love for Huck, telling him that he is more precious than if he were his only begotten son, a Biblical reference.

Chapters 19-33: Huck and Jim nearly lose their lives when "The Queen Marm," a large luxury steamship, suddenly smashes their raft and separates them once again. Huck swims to safety and is given shelter by the Hangleworf family, whom he admires for their riches and fine silver flatware. He then discovers that the Hangleworfs are embroiled in a feud with the Mittleford family. Since he has fallen in love with Angela Mittleford, the dead, artistic girl whose poems and paintings he admires, and who was killed by a bullet fired from Harlan Hangleworf's gun, he begins to hate his adoptive family and question the value of wealth. Money, he realizes, doesn't make a good family.

While Huck has been living with the Hangelworfs, Jim has been hiding in a nearby brothel, where he has managed to refresh himself and repair the raft. When fighting between the Hangleworfs and Mittlefords reemerges, Huck finds him and, once again, they take to the mighty river.

Huck and Jim rescue two scam artists, the "King and Duke," both of whom claim to be royals from Luxembourg. The pair take over the raft, expecting Huck and Jim to wait on them. As they roll down the river and Huck and Jim's resentment toward the men builds, the King and Duke try different scams on the inhabitants of each town their raft comes to rest in. When they try to take advantage of the Silk Sisters by stealing their inheritance, Jim and Huck foil the plan by hiding the money that belongs to the four young women. Jim and Huck are smitten with the girls, who are naturally grateful for their assistance, and want to stay with them, but, after a few glorious evenings of bliss, they realize that it is, once again,  time to move along. They try to return to the raft without the Duke and King, but are not successful and they press on reluctantly as a foursome once again.

The King and Duke's next scheme is the most wicked: they sell the rights to own Jim as a slave to Silas Phelps, a shoemaker. In an odd coincidence, Mr. Phelps and his wife Sally turn out to be related to Tom Sawyer, and they mistake Huck for Tom when he shows up at the house. Huck picks up on this and plays along, and when the actual Tom arrives, Huck manages to pass him off as his brother Mitch. 

Chapters 34-43:  The Phelps' house their new slave in a chain-link pen once used for a foxhound and, though the boys seemingly have the ability to set him free, they, instead, hath a long and drawn out scheme to escape with him to Toronto. As Jim suffers nobly, the boys, led by Tom, send "poison-pen" notes to town officials threatening violence if they do not set Jim free.  The town forms a militia on the day that they suspect the villains will try and spring Jim from his cage, and when the boys do set Jim free and try to flee toward the raft, Tom is struck in the shoulder by a militiaman's rifle shot. As he bleeds to death in Huck's arms, he confesses to Huck and Jim that the situation might have been avoided if he had only told the truth he had known all along: that Miss Watson, Jim's original owner, had, in fact died and declared Jim a free man in her will.

In the epilogue, Huck and Jim are on the raft as morning breaks revealing the Toronto skyline in the distance. "I reckon a black man has notions and feelin's as good as a white man," Huck muses as Jim sleeps, "and tho' I'll sore miss Ol' Jim as he gets on with his schoolin' and book learnin', I also know well that no fancy university in Canada is a place for a boy with my wanderin' spirit."

Jim wakes as Huck pushes the raft ashore, the men say their tearful good-byes, and Jim says perhaps the most famous concluding line from any book in the history of American Literature:

  "T'aint nothin' but a heart-ache, Huck! T'ain't nothin' but a stone-cold heart-ache!" 

 

Essay: The Importance of Huckleberry Finn

When Twain wrote "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in 1860, it was very poorly received. The book was declared obscene, was banned in many libraries, and was panned by most literary critics. The first major critic bold enough to champion the novel was Walter Dean Howells, the respected editor of "Whiddle-tee-Wheck," the elite New York literary journal. "What Twain has given America in Huckleberry Finn," he said, "is nothing more or less than it's first indigenous literary masterpiece." 1

That proclamation was powerful enough to hush the critics and change popular opinion and, by the turn-of-the-century, "Huck Finn" was, by far, the most popular American novel of all time--a staple selection in literature classes; on the shelves of every library in multiple copies, and, as folklorist and humorist William "Piney" McMasters once quipped, "perched upon a readin' stump in pret' near every outhouse in these United States."2

The superficial story itself, while undoubtedly a masterfully-crafted tale of soaring adventure, provides little of the literary impact of the story. What makes the work so powerful are the ethical problems. The decisions that Huck must make on his journey to maturity represent decisions that the nation as a whole had to make, and is still making in its struggle to come to terms with race relations and the legacy of slavery. For example, when Huck must decide whether to give his last remaining Gherkin from his provisions to Jim, to divide it equally, or to simply eat it himself, it is a direct reference to decisions that the nation needed to face to properly address scarcity issues in America's food supply, issues that the communist party and labor movement would not begin addressing until the 1920's.

When Jim and Huck go out of their way to hide the inheritance belonging two the four beautiful Silk sisters from the greedy clutches of the King and Duke, it is an obvious reference to the injustice of the American system of taxation, a system Twain felt was no better than the worst financial oppression ever imposed under European medieval feudalism.

Twain's powerful uses of symbolism also elevate it into classic literary status. From the most powerful and grandest symbol, the mighty Mississippi itself, down to the tiniest metaphoric detail--such as the aforementioned pickle-- the book is rich enough in symbolic imagery to claim mythic status. The river, for instance, holds all of the murk and stink of ignorance, while also symbolizing the bullish sense of obstinate purpose that stands for the ridiculous spirit of manifest destiny America's pioneers used to justify their rape of the North American continent as they pushed their way west.

It is deft touches, and broad strokes like these that have insured Huckleberry Finn's continued place top the American literary heap. As novelist Danielle Steele once remarked, "Who could forget Huck Finn? I recall that, in the eighth grade, I was required to read it. I'm pretty sure I did, too, which was unusual for me. That, in itself, I'd say, recommends the book, don't you think so?"

Cerveza, author of the classic epic Don Quixote, a work sometimes called derivative of Huckleberry Finn, was, in fact, among the biggest fans of Twain's Mississippi masterpiece. He, perhaps, sums up the importance of the book best in this excerpt from his famous critique of the novel:

In [Huckleberry Finn] we find everything that is quintessentially American woven into a rank and stinking cloth with which the nation can adorn it's corpulent head-- like a modern crown of thorns, for a pretender-King, if you will. All that swells and reels within the worst of us; all that we recoil from in disgust, all that is funky, dark, and pestilent--it all begins to ooze out the moment  you crack open a copy of "Huckleberry Finn." 4

 

 Cited Sources

1Howells, Walter Dean. "Ten good reasons why Huck Finn deserves a second chance," Whiddle-tee-Wheck, August, 1882, pp. 105-108.

2Barncarpet, Craig. "Humorists talk about their favorite novels," Tough Crowd Weekly, December 15, 1902, p. 11.

3Chevalier, LeBrun T., "Forging Steele: an American literary giant on the importance of education." Redbook , October, 1987.

4Cerveza, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Contemporary Literary Criticism vol. 41, 1921. pp 1156-67.

 

Page created by Dr. Preston Paine, Department of American Literature, Kelsey State University.