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An Essay On Criticism Satire In Huckleberry

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain

The following entry provides criticism on Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

Long considered Mark Twain's masterwork as well as a classic of American literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was the first important American work to depart from European literary models. It used frontier humor, vernacular speech, and an uneducated young narrator to portray life in America. Although at first the novel was roundly denounced as inappropriate for genteel readers, it eventually found a preeminent place in the canon of American literature. Huckleberry Finn, wrote Ernest Hemingway, is the novel from which “all modern American literature comes. … There has been nothing as good since.”

Plot and Major Characters

Begun as a sequel to Twain's successful children's book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows a similar picaresque form as its predecessor, but has a much more serious intent. Narrated by the title character, the story begins with Huck under the protection of the kindly Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Fearing that his alcoholic father, Pap, will attempt to claim the fortune that he and Tom had found (in Tom Sawyer), Huck transfers the money to Judge Thatcher. Undaunted, Pap kidnaps Huck and imprisons him in a lonely cabin. Huck escapes, leaving a trail of pig's blood to make it appear he has been killed, and he finds his way to Jackson's Island, where he encounters Miss Watson's runaway slave, Jim. One night Huck, disguised as a girl, goes ashore, where he learns that people believe that Jim killed Huck, and that there is a reward for Jim's capture. The two set out on a raft down the Mississippi River but are separated when the raft is struck by a steamboat. Swimming ashore, Huck is taken in by the Grangerford family, who are engaged in a blood feud with the Shepherdsons. In time Huck finds Jim and the two set out on the raft again, eventually offering refuge to two con artists, the Duke, and the King. These two perpetrate various frauds on unsuspecting people, claiming to be descendants of royalty or, at other times, famous actors, evangelists, or temperance lecturers. Learning of the death of the well-to-do Peter Wilks, the Duke and the King descend upon the family, claiming their inheritance as long-lost brothers. Huck helps to foil their plans, and he and Jim attempt to slip away without the Duke and the King, but the rogues catch up with them and the four set out together. When they come ashore in one town, Jim is captured, and Huck is shocked to learn that the King has turned him in for the reward. After a battle with his conscience, Huck decides to help Jim escape. He goes to the Phelps farm where Jim is being held and is mistaken for Tom Sawyer, who is the nephew of the Phelpses. Huck decides to impersonate Tom. When the real Tom arrives, he joins in the deception by posing as his brother, Sid. He concocts an elaborate plan to rescue Jim, during the execution of which Tom is accidentally shot, and Jim is recaptured. From his sickbed, Tom announces that Miss Watson has died, setting Jim free in her will. He got involved the “rescue,” he says, simply for the “adventure of it.” Jim then reveals that Huck's father is dead, that he had found the body in an abandoned boat. Aunt Sally Phelps suggests that she might adopt Huck, but the peripatetic Huck cannot foresee living in “sivilization” and resolves to “light out for the territory.”

Major Themes

Twain once described Huckleberry Finn as a book in which “a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers a defeat,” and the novel traces Huck's moral development as he encounters a seemingly haphazard array of people and situations. During his journey down the river, with its series of encounters, he undergoes a rite of passage from unthinking acceptance of received knowledge and values to an independently achieved understanding of what is right. In his decision to free Jim, Huck overcomes his “conscience,” which, formed by a racist society, tells him this act is wrong, to reach a higher morality. Twain skillfully plays upon the irony of that moment as he describes the conflicts between what Huck has been taught and what he gradually acknowledges to be right. Another dominant theme in the story is the contrast between the constricting life on shore and the freedom offered by the river. Huck and Jim's journey is widely regarded as a symbolic statement on the corruption of society and a condemnation of a “sivilization” which encourages greed and deception, destroys innocence, and enslaves human beings. Whether the novel speaks to a typically “American” theme of unlimited mobility and broader horizons is a question still being asked by readers and literary critics.

Critical Reception

When Huckleberry Finn was first published in the United States in 1885, critical response was mixed, and a few libraries banned the book for its perceived offenses to propriety. Such controversies, however, did not affect the book's popularity, and it has remained the best selling of all of Twain's works. After Twain's death his works gradually became elevated as national treasures, but following World War I commentators such as William Faulkner and Van Wyck Brooks cast doubt on the greatness of Huckleberry Finn. Hemingway's comments on the novel, along with the centenary of Twain's birth in 1935 and favorable comments by Lionel Trilling and T. S. Eliot in the late 1940s and early 1950s, revived the book's reputation. Later critics gave it nearly universal acclaim, praising its artistry and its evocation of important American themes. A recurrent critical concern was the role of Jim, who was variously called only a foil for Huck's exploits, a possible homosexual partner, or a father figure. Others critiqued Jim's role as a racial stereotype, while Twain defenders said he was used to expose the hypocrisy and bigotry of southern separatism. During the 1950s a number of critics such as Bernard DeVoto and Leo Marx raised objections to the abruptness of the book's ending, but by the 1960s Twain was again being lauded by such scholars as Walter Blair and Henry Nash Smith. The hundredth anniversary of the American publication of the novel in 1985 sparked new editions, bibliographies, and critical appraisals. Around this time, more and more questions were being raised about the racial slurs in Huckleberry Finn, and a number of public schools sought to ban the book from their required reading lists. In addition, African American critics and others continued to challenge the book's reputation as a classic of American literature. That controversy goes on, even as criticism of the novel has taken new directions. Since the 1990s some scholars have continued to do close textual readings, and others have emphasized the novel as a cultural product. The question of literary canonization has been addressed by critics such as Jonathan Arac and Elaine and Harry Mensch. Other commentators, including Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua, have noted the importance of the confluence of white and Black cultures in the story. Several new editions, especially the annotated edition published in 2001 by the Mark Twain Foundation, have encouraged further scholarship. Critical interest in Huckleberry Finn, then, shows no signs of waning, and debates over its stature and reputation, and the issues the novel raises, appear certain to continue.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Satire as a Tool for Social Criticism

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Mark Twain in his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells of a journey that is undertaken by Huck, a self-proclaimed uncivilized boy, and a runaway slave named Jim. Although Mark Twain is often described as a comic writer, throughout this novel his uses satire in a manner that clearly illustrates a variety of problems faced by American society at the time that the novel was written.

Some of the social problems raised through Twain’s use of satire include social issues related to slavery, religion, morality, and class prejudice. The superficial nature of the humor occasioned by the satire fades and eyes are opened as the reader is forced to confront the need for social changes. Twain’s satire is most intimately associated with the pointing out of flaws and hypocrisies as they apply to individuals, to social institutions, and to society.

Huck and Jim confront these types of flawed social institutions and corruptions of ideal notions of ethical norms as they struggle to come to terms with their own roles in society. Twain therefore uses satire to create a point of view in which an apparently humorous journey actually represents a type of social criticism. The satire thus provides serious insights into human nature and society in addition to being entertaining and humorous at a superficial level.

One of the ways that Twain accomplishes this is by creating a low class boy in the form of Huck who seemingly represents an unethical lifestyle while simultaneously using Huck to point out what is morally wrong and hypocritical about the higher and respected classes who regularly attend church and present themselves as models of human respectability. This paper will discuss how Twain uses satire to accomplish these goals and what precise purposes that this use of satire served.

As a preliminary matter, before examining specific instances of Twain’s use of satire, it is necessary to note that Mark Twain knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It has been noted, for example, that “Despite what is often the darkness of Mark Twain’s message, he is also America’s great comic writer.” (Johnson, 1996, p. 223)

This is important because it demonstrates that Twain was known for using humor and satire in order to make political messages or to offer his own social criticisms. The following social criticisms made through the use of satire, as a result, are not simply opinions but well-established features of Twain’s writing style. It is also necessary to define what is meant with reference to the use of satire in literature. One Mark Twain expert has stated that “Satire is defined as literature in which vice and folly or certain human weaknesses are held up to ridicule, often with the purpose of instigating reform.” (Johnson, 1996, p. 223)

Two conclusions can therefore be drawn. First, Mark Twain was well-known for inserting dark messages into his writing while simultaneously making the stories humorous. Second, these dark messages are conveyed through the satirical portrayal of human weaknesses.

In his Explanatory note, Twain even uses satire to hint that he will be engaging in social criticism when he writes that “IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. (Twain, 1912, p. ix)

Twain is telling the reader in advance that there is nothing haphazard about his satire of individual speech and individual behavior; quite the contrary, he is telling the reader that his satirical techniques have been painstakingly considered and employed. Having established that Twain’s satirical intentions were deliberately used to convey social observations and criticisms, it is therefore time to apply these concepts to a couple of examples from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Satire and the Notion of Being Civilized

One of Twain’s main social criticisms is that American society is not really moral or ethical. He makes this criticism by using Huck to portray other individuals as proper and civilized while having Huck refer to himself as lacking these character traits. This happens from the very beginning of the novel until the end of the novel. In the beginning, for example, Huck states that “The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.” (Twain, 1912, pp. 1-2)

Twain uses satire to portray the Widow Douglas as a respectable member of society who can teach Huck how to behave properly. But what Twain is really doing is ridiculing her because he also provides that Huck cannot stand her house and that he has no interest whatsoever in her notions of civilization. Despite the humor, Huck is leaving for a reason. The society and the civilized behavior represented by the Widow Douglas must not be all that it appears to be.

During Huck’s adventures his fears and distrust of people and society are consistently confirmed. Even when things seem to be working out at the end of the novel, Huck again rejects any attempt to be adopted. This time it is by Sally and Huck states that “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” (Twain, 1912, p. 405)

By ridiculing the civilizing desire of respectable members of society once again, Twain is criticizing conformity and the real social values. In much the same way that Huck is critical of civilizing influences and society, it is highly likely that Twain was also critical of the civilizing dogmas and social norms of his era, too.

Satire and Racism

In addition to using satire to criticize the true worth of civilized values and society, Twain also uses satire to point out the ugliness of racism. When Jim has finally been captured and is being held to be returned to his owner, Huck writes the following letter, “Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN.” (Twain, 1912, p. 296)

Miss Watson is a respectable member of society, but she owns another human being and she can get him back if she pays a reward. Twain is ridiculing the so-called respectable person wanting the reward and Miss Watson. Huck is at this point being used by Twain to show that all human beings can choose whether to be hypocrites or to follow their own moral values.

Twain has Huck make his own choice when he refuses to send the letter to Miss Watson; specifically, Twain had Huck state that “It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:”All right, then, I’ll go to hell”–and tore it up.” (Twain, 1912, p. 297)

The good people owned and sold other human beings, but Huck was going to hell because he refused to engage in the racist thoughts and practices. This is an excellent example of how Twain used satire to convey a social criticism of racist ideas and practices. Huck was a moral human being despite descriptions the contrary.


In conclusion, satire was consistently used by Mark Twain throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in ways that highlighted flawed individuals, flawed ideas about civilized behavior, and flawed notions of moral societies. His most critical attacks seemed to be against social hypocrisy and racism. But everyone has a choice and Twain allowed Huck to make his choice. Huck chose to flee and remain free in his own mind rather than being forced to become a flawed member of respectable American society.


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Johnson, C. D. (1996). Understanding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Satire as a Tool for Social Criticism

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