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47 pages 1 hour read

Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1884

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was published in 1884 as a companion to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, written in 1876. While the story of Tom Sawyer is lighthearted and adventurous in the style of juvenile fiction of its day, Huck Finn’s adventure is darker and more satirical. Huckleberry Finn often finds himself in physical danger, yet the greatest danger he faces are threats to his morality and character. As he navigates the Mississippi River by raft with his close companion, the runaway slave Jim, Huck confronts issues relating to the value of human life and friendship. Most strikingly, Huck’s adventure is a valuable and controversial document of slavery’s legacy. This summary refers to the 2014 Penguin Classics edition.

Plot Summary

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is set in the Mississippi Valley in the 1840s. Huckleberry Finn and his friend Tom Sawyer continue their adventures from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Huck is now in danger of being “civilized” by his adoptive caretaker, the widow Douglas. Jim, a slave belonging to the widow’s sister Miss Watson, predicts that Tom’s missing father is alive and that both father and son stand upon a perilous moral edge. Soon after, the father in question appears, upending Huck’s life.

Huck stands to inherit $6,000, a fortune in 1840s America, and pap wants all the money. The authorities in the town of St. Petersburg fend Huck’s father off and attempt to win sole guardianship of Huck from the widow, and so pap kidnaps Huck, keeping him under lock and key several miles outside town. Huck finds uncivilized life rewarding but hates and fears his father, so he fakes his own death and escapes on a canoe down the river.

On Jackson Island, Huck discovers Jim, who ran away from Miss Watson upon learning he was to be sold to a crueler master down the river. They spend a few leisurely weeks on the island, exploring the nearby surroundings. They discover a dead body in a collapsed house, and Jim hides its identity from Huck. Later, when they discover that Jim is wanted for Huck’s murder, they assemble a raft and float south with the current.

As they travel, they learn more about each other and marvel at the passing lights of St. Louis. They discover a criminal conspiracy in a wrecked riverboat and learn to adapt to various assumed identities when negotiating with the people they meet. They plan to meet the Ohio riverhead and to purchase riverboat fare into the Northeastern free states, but they lose the crossing in a dense fog. Continuing south, they deftly avoid a pack of slavecatchers, only to get upended and separated by a riverboat.

Thrown onshore, Huck is adopted by the Grangerford family. Huck becomes fast friends with the family, especially with Buck, a boy his own age. The Grangerfords are in a mortal rivalry with the Shepardsons. When Huck assists in the elopement of two members of the rival families, violence erupts. This skirmish leaves most of the male Grangerfords dead. Jim and Huck escape on the raft, which Jim has repaired while in hiding.

Soon after, Jim and Huck aid in the escape of a couple of scoundrels who introduce themselves as the king of France and the duke of Bridgewater. The scoundrels quickly take command of the raft and recruit Jim and Huck in a series of money-making campaigns. First, the king makes considerable money collecting from a revival meeting, concocting a story about saving the souls of immoral pirates. Then, a town over, the pair put on a Nonesuch play, fleecing the town of their admission fees. Later, they learn everything there is to know about the recently deceased patriarch of the Wilkes family and about a pair of lost Wilkes brothers up for a large inheritance.

The duke and the king quickly ingratiate themselves to the trusting Wilkes family, gaining a large bag of money and rights to the Wilkes estate. Huck privately foils the plan, but not before the Wilkeses are put into miserable disarray. The scoundrels barely escape with their lives. Further downriver, the king and the duke sell Jim to a man named Silas Phelps under false pretenses. The men are soon discovered to be frauds for other reasons and are run out of town.

Huck plots to rescue Jim and discovers that Silas and Sally Phelps are kin to his friend Tom Sawyer. The Phelpses mistake Huck for Tom. Tom soon arrives, excited for a new adventure, and agrees to pretend to be another Phelps cousin named Sid. Together, the boys conspire to rescue Jim from Silas Phelps’s log cabin prison. This culminates in the accidental but nonfatal shooting of Tom and a near-riot among the townsfolk. Tom soon recovers from his wound and confesses, admitting his and Huck’s true identities and revealing that Miss Watson freed Jim long ago. Jim then reveals that Huck is free of his father, whose dead body Jim found early in their travels. Huck concludes that he’s had enough of civilization and intends to travel west.

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