The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: An Overview

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Date: 2019
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Work overview; Critical essay; Plot summary; Essential overview
Length: 9,681 words
Lexile Measure: 1100L

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Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is told from the point of view of Huck Finn, a barely literate teen who fakes his own death to escape his abusive, drunken father. He encounters a runaway slave named Jim, and the two embark on a raft journey down the Mississippi River. Through satire, Twain skewers the somewhat unusual definitions of “right” and “wrong” in the antebellum (pre–Civil War) South, noting among other things that the “right” thing to do when a slave runs away is to turn him in, not help him escape. Twain also paints a rich portrait of a the slave Jim, a character unequaled in American literature: he is guileless, rebellious, genuine, superstitious, warmhearted, ignorant, and astute all at the same time.

The book is a sequel to another of the author's successful adventure novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, originally published in 1876. Although The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is very much a “boys' novel”—humorous, suspenseful, and intended purely as entertainment—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also addresses weighty issues such as slavery, prejudice, hypocrisy, and morality.

After Twain finished writing the first half of the novel, he expressed doubts about the book's potential success. In a letter to his friend William Dean Howells in 1877 (quoted by biographer Ron Powers in Mark Twain: A Life), Twain confessed: “I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have got, & may possibly pigeonhole or burn the MS [manuscript] when it is done.” Fortunately, Twain did not burn the manuscript; when it was published in England in 1884 (U.S. publication 1885), it quickly became the most successful book Twain had yet written.

Soon after it was published, the public library in Concord, Massachusetts, refused to carry The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of its perceived crudeness. This ban turned into a publicity coup for Twain and his book. In a letter published in the Hartford Courant, the author responds gratefully, noting that “one book in a public library prevents the sale of a sure ten and a possible hundred of its mates.” Twain also notes that the library's newsworthy action

will cause the purchasers of the book to read it, out of curiosity, instead of merely intending to do so ... and then they will discover, to my great advantage and their own indignant disappointment, that there is nothing objectionable in the book after all.

Despite Twain's assurances, the book continues to spark controversy over its subject matter even today. Some modern critics argue that the book is inherently racist in its depiction of Jim and its frequent use of the term “nigger.” Other critics, speaking in support of the book, point out that the terms used in the book are authentic to the story's setting; they also point out that Jim is by far the most heroic character in the novel, and is the only major character to demonstrate kindness and self-sacrifice without hesitation. The book has generated so much critical material that a...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|OQRZHK336294238