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Background Info

Author Bio

Full Name: Samuel Clemens

Pen Name: Mark Twain

Date of Birth: November 30, 1835

Place of Birth: Florida, Missouri

Date of Death: April 21, 1910

Brief Life Story: Mark Twain grew up in Missouri, which was a slave state during his childhood. He would later incorporate his formative experiences of the institution of slavery into his writings. As a teenager, Twain worked as a printer’s apprentice and later as a typesetter, during which time he also became a contributor of articles and humorous sketches to his brother Orion’s newspaper. On a voyage to New Orleans, Twain decided to become a steamboat pilot. Unsurprisingly, the Mississippi River is an important setting in much of Twain’s work. Twain also spent much of his life travelling across the United States, and he wrote many books about his own adventures, but he is best known for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), having written in the latter what is considered to be the Great American Novel. Twain died of a heart attack in 1910.

Key Facts

Full Title: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Genre: Children’s novel / satirical novel

Setting: On and around the Mississippi River in the American South

Climax: Jim is sold back into bondage by the duke and king

Protagonist: Huck Finn

Antagonist: Pap, the duke and king, society in general

Point of View: First person limited, from Huck Finn’s perspective

Historical and Literary Context

When Written: 1876–1884

Where Written: Hartford, Connecticut, and Quarry Farm, located in Elmira, New York

When Published: 1884 in England; 1885 in the United States of America

Literary Period: Social realism (Reconstruction Era in United States)

Related Literary Works: The great precursor to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Both books are picaresque novels. That is, both are episodic in form, and both satirically enact social critiques. Also, both books are rooted in the tradition of realism; just as Don Quixote apes the heroes of chivalric romances, so does Tom Sawyer ape the heroes of the romances he reads, though the books of which these characters are part altogether subvert the romance tradition. It could also be said that with its realism and local color, Huckleberry Finn is a challenge to romantic epics like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which Huck might dismiss as impractical. Compare also Harriet Beecher Sotwe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel that also treats the injustices and cruelty of American slavery but which, unlike Huckleberry Finn, might be considered less a literary and more a propagandistic achievement.

Related Historical Events: Twain began writing the novel in the Reconstruction Era, after the Civil War had ended in 1865 and slavery was abolished in the United States. But even though slavery was abolished, the white majority nonetheless systematically oppressed the black minority, as with the Jim Crow Laws of 1876, which institutionalized racial segregation. Mark Twain, a stalwart abolitionist and advocate for emancipation, seems to be critiquing the racial segregation and oppression of his day by exploring the theme of slavery in Huckleberry Finn. Also significant to the novel is the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that occurred in the Unties States from the late eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century. Twain was critical of religious revivalism on the grounds that Christians didn’t necessarily act morally and were so zealous as to be easily fooled, a critique articulated in Huckleberry Finn.

Extra Credit

Dialect. Mark Twain composed Huckleberry using not a high literary style but local dialects that he took great pains to reproduce with his idiosyncratic spelling and grammar.

Reception. A very important 20th-century novelist, Ernest Hemingway, considered Huckleberry Finn to be the best and most influential American novel ever written.