The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Notes

 

Historical Background

Characters

Setting

Point of View

Themes

Symbolism

 

 

Historical Background

Novel is set along the Mississippi River during the 1830s or 1840s.

This region was still a frontier area.

Large stretches of land were sparsely inhabited.

Few cities and towns.

Majority of people lived off the land, farming, hunting, fishing and trapping.

Industrialization was still in its early stages.

Steam technology was becoming dominant.

Few schools in rural Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Most children attended classes only long enough to learn to read and write.

No theaters, libraries, or museums in the region.

Entertainment and popular education were offered by traveling showmen, musicians, circus performers, preachers, and lecturers.

In the 1830s and 1840s, after the North had abolished slavery, there began the great national debate over its extension in the new states created from the western territories.

Northerners opposed the extension of slavery, citing moral as well as practical objections.

Southern states were dependent on slave labor.

The whites in the South generally defended slavery and supported its extension into the new states.

Most white American, no matter where they lived and what their attitudes toward slavery were, agreed that blackk people were intellectually and morally inferior to white people.

Racist beliefs, attitudes, and behavior that would be considered reprehensible today were commonplace then.

 

 

Characters

Huckleberry Finn

  • Narrator of the story
  • An adolescent boy who is resourceful, clever, and wary of "sivilization."
  • Uses his skills as a mimic, actor, and teller of tales to escape from danger
  • Believes only in superstitions that seem to work and is rational in devising means to achieve his objectives
  • Is ethical, kind, sensitive to the feelings of others, and loyal to his friends
  • Rejects the immoral ways of Pap, the duke, and the king but believes that it is senseless to oppose them openly
  • Dislikes the mean spirit shown by Miss Watson in her advocacy of formal religious demeanor but admires the religious spirit practiced by the Widow Douglas in taking care of him and other people
  • Is realistic and practical in voicing his understanding of the civilized world and impressionable and lyrical in expressing his appreciation of the natural world

Pap

  • Huckís father
  • The unhealthy, unkempt town drunkard
  • Determined to get Huckís money
  • A drifter and a troublemaker
  • Beats and imprisons Huck
  • Resents those who are educated, well dressed, mannerly, or "uppity" in other ways

Tom Sawyer

  • Huck Finnís best friend
  • A member of a middle-class family and values respectability
  • Creates such roles of romantic fantasy as pirate, robber, and cutthroat for himself and his friends to act out
  • Fails to consider the feelings of others in devising and carrying out his fantastic schemes

Jim

  • Miss Watsonís household slave
  • A middle-aged man whose wife and children have been separated from him and sold to a different slaveowner
  • Uneducated, superstitious, and naÔve but intelligent, honest, and resourceful
  • A sensitive, devoted, and caring friend to Huck
  • Shows loyalty, courage, compassion, and a spirit of self-sacrifice to help his friends
  • Reveals a profound sense of dignity, which he also recognizes and affirms in everyone he meets

The duke and the king

  • Two con men who travel the Mississippi River
  • Absurdly claim noble descent and demand deference from Huck and Jim
  • Experienced at tricking small-town and backwoods people long enough to defraud them
  • Use words that sound sophisticated to them and think of fancy ways to convince naÔve people that they are learned
  • Set out to deceive and betray everyone

Setting

The main action takes place along the Mississippi River, which propels Huck and Jim into the southern states of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

The river functioned as the border between the relatively settled and industrial East and the primarily unsettled and undeveloped West.

The Miss. River was a major artery of transportation between the North and the South. The Mississippi River and its tributaries, the Ohio and the Missouri rivers, also connected the East to the western frontier.

By the 1840s steamboats dominated the Mississippi, although it was still possible to travel the river at little cost by raft, flatboat, keelboat, and canoe.

On the Mississippi, rich and poor, Northerner and Southerner, frontiersman and city dweller, come together seeking adventure.

Some, including Huck, traveled to escape from constraints of civilization.

Others, including Jim, sought freedom in the next town, the next state, or beyond the frontier.

The state of Missouri also represented a frontier between the North and the South.

One of several border states between the free North and the slaveholding South, it was torn between pro-slavery and anti-slavery sentiment.

Slavery was permitted in Missouri, but the commitment to the peculiar institution evidenced in the Deep South was not shared by many white citizens of the state.

Point of View

First-Person point of view, told by Huck.

Huck is a semiliterate Missouri boy that serves as a wry and observant narrator.

Twain uses a number of devices to make the reader feel that Huck is actually telling the story in his own words.

  1. the frequent use of incorrect grammar and grammatical constructions.
  2. The use of dialect.
  3. The use of unorthodox spellings both to suggest Huckís brief exposure to formal education and to represent Huckís nonstandard pronunciation of certain words.

Huck has a keen eye for visual detail and an appreciation for natural beauty.

For example, his lyrical description of the glories of the Mississippi River in Chapters 12 and 19.

Huck reproduces several distinct dialects as the expressions of individual characters.

Themes

The Individual and Society

  • For Huck, society imposes restriction, and civilization is artificial and colorless. In contrast, the life on the river represents freedom and the opportunity to observe natural beauty.
  • Characters such as Miss Watson, who makes Huck learn useless facts in an oppressive atmosphere, reveal the superficial nature of society.
  • People often unthinkingly act out the primitive practices of their society. Weíll see that in the chapters involving the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons.
  • In society, mob thinking often controls behavior. Weíll see that in the Colonel Sherburn episode.
  • The absence of civilization may lead to ideal human relationships, as expressed in the genuine friendship that develops between Huck and Jim.
  • The absence of civilization, however, may allow brutality to fester and grow. For example, Pap exists outside of civilization, and he is cruel, ruthless, and antisocial.

Slavery and Racism

  • Slavery is taken for granted by all the white characters
  • Nevertheless, racial attitudes toward specific individuals vary widely among the white characters.
  • Papís speech against the free black man in Chapter 6 reveals his ignorance and viciousness.
  • Weíll see the the disregard for the humanity of the slaves in the actions of the king and the duke.
  • By contrast, weíll see basic human decency in the relatively benevolent treatment of Jim by the Phelps family and Miss Watson.
  • Huckís growing recognition of Jimís innate dignity, his increasing affection and respect for Jim, and his increasing capacity to perceive Jimís humanity and thus raise his consciousness beyond the level of racist stereotyping attest to the process of moral maturity that Huck undergoes.

Passages and Transformations

  • Huckleberry Finn can be considered a bildungsroman Ė a novel depicting stages of growth or the process of reaching maturity.
  • Huckís growth is depicted through the evolution of his relationship with Jim.
  • At the beginning, Huck is scarcely aware of Jimís humanity. He treats him as the butt of practical jokes.
  • In Chapter 10, Huckís "joke" puts Jim in a position to be bitten by a rattlesnake; Huck feels remorse.
  • Chapters 15, 23, and 31, will also mark important points in the development of Huckís attitude and feelings about Jim.
  • Jim is transformed from a slave to a traveling companion and from a slave to a free man.

The River as a symbol

The overarching symbol of the book is the Mississippi River.

Twain uses the river to symbolize the confluence of all currents of American life in the first half of the 19th century.

The river accommodates and transports all kinds of craft, from canoes to steam-powered ships, and all types of people, from clergymen to con men.

On the river and along its banks, Huck and Jim witness life and death, tragedy and comedy, strife and peace.

By the end of the journey, the river will have served as the vehicle for Huckís development to maturity and for Jimís transformation.

The river will have also served to wash away Huckís predisposition to use racial stereotypes and to heighten his perceptions of the ethical differences between deceit and honesty, style and substance, fantasy and reality.

The river symbolizes freedom, in contrast to the restrictions and responsibilities Huck experiences on land.

 

 
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