One of the first allusions that Twain includes in Huckleberry Finn is another book he himself wrote called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Huck as the narrator references the book in the opening sentences of Huckleberry Finn:
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter.
Tom Sawyer was written in 1876, nine years before Huckleberry Finn, and set in the same community. Huck is present in the book as one of Tom’s friends in his gang of boys. Though the titles of the two books suggest similar styles—adventurous coming-of-age novels of two young friends—the novels are, in reality, very different. Tom Sawyer centers on themes of boyhood rebellion along with fantasy and escape through play, whereas Huckleberry Finn focuses more on political themes like the horrors of slavery. Still, Twain did weave some social commentary into Tom Sawyer—raising questions about the hypocrisies of American society during the Second Great Awakening (an early 19th-century Protestant religious revival)—that he builds off of in Huckleberry Finn. It’s possible that Twain titled Huckleberry Finn the way he did in hopes that readers would expect another adventure novel and, instead, find searing moral critique.
Near the beginning of the novel, Huck is spending time with Tom Sawyer and his gang of boys and challenges some of the far-fetched stories that Tom tells about invisible people and animals. In recounting Tom’s response, Huck makes an allusion to the book Don Quixote:
He said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote, I would know without asking. He said it was all done by enchantment.
This is a reference to Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes in the early 1600s and widely recognized as the first modern novel. Like Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote tells the story of a lower-class man who goes on adventures, trying to stay committed to his own morality in a corrupt society. Don Quixote was also viewed as satirizing the romantic stories that came before it, similar to how Huck Finn satirizes the adventure stories that Tom likes so much. Tom’s reference to Don Quixote shows that he does not fully understand what the novel is about, and Huck pushing back against Tom’s romanticism shows that he is the one who is acting more in alignment with the protagonist's intentions.
Near the beginning of his time on the Mississippi River with Jim, Huck learns that Jim is running away because he doesn’t want to be sold and end up separated from his wife and kids. After sharing this with Huck, Jim asks Huck not to tell anyone, and Huck's response contains both an allusion and foreshadowing:
“People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t agoing to tell, and I ain’t agoing back there anyways.”
Here, Huck alludes to Abolitionism, a pre-Civil War movement to end slavery, led by both Black and white Americans (primarily in the Northern states). While Black Abolitionists faced the brunt of physical violence, white Abolitionists also faced repercussions—including mob attacks—for publicly showing their support for Black people.
Though Huck is acting of his own self-interest here—he “ain’t agoing back there” to tell anyone about Jim because he himself wants to run away and be free from his abusive father, Pap—his declaration that he doesn’t care if he’s seen as an Abolitionist foreshadows his genuine desire and efforts to help Jim become free. Over the course of the novel, Huck moves from passively helping Jim move toward freedom to actively caring for him and doing whatever he can to keep him from being recaptured.
After being separated from Jim and winding up in the care of the aristocratic Grangerford family, Huck looks around their house and notices a pile of books. This moment contains an allusion to Pilgrim's Progress:
There was some books, too, piled up perfectly exact, on each corner of the table. One was a big family Bible, full of pictures. One was Pilgrim’s Progress, about a man that left his family it didn’t say why.
Pilgrim’s Progress is an allusion to an allegorical novel by English writer and preacher John Bunyan. Considered to be one of the most significant books of theological fiction, Pilgrim’s Progress tells the story of a Christian man’s journey to heaven. This book in the Grangerfords’ home is meant to signal the family’s hypocrisy: though they are educated and live in a fancy home full of spiritual and moral texts, their ongoing, murderous feud with the Shepherdsons is utterly barbaric. This is just one example of Twain’s commitment to raising questions about how moral ardent Christians really are.
It is worth noting that Twain even wrote a satirical travel book called The Innocents Abroad OR, The New Pilgrim’s Progress published 15 years before The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Partway through the novel, Huck is separated from Jim and ends up being taken in by an aristocratic family called the Grangerfords. It is through a conversation with Buck Grangerford that he learns the family is in a vicious feud with another family called the Shepherdsons, which is likely an allusion to the Hatfield-McCoy feud:
‘‘Well, then, what did you want to kill him for?’’
‘‘Why, nothing—only it’s on account of the feud.’’
‘‘What’s a feud?’’
‘‘Well,’’ says Buck, ‘‘a feud is this way: A man has a quarrel with another man, and kills him; then that other man’s brother kills him; then the other brothers, on both sides, goes for one another; then the cousins chip in— and by and by everybody’s killed off, and there ain’t no more feud.’’
Though never confirmed by Twain, many scholars believe the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud to be an allusion to the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud. The Hatfields and McCoys were two real-life families who lived in the West Virginia-Kentucky area and were locked into a violent feud that spanned the latter half of the 19th century. Similar to Buck’s description of the fictional feud, the Hatfield-McCoy feud led to deaths of several different family members with no clear rationale apart from revenge.
By making an allusion to this real-life feud, Twain again points to the hypocrisy of American society. Each family thinks it is doing what is “right” and fails to see that everyone loses when they don’t think critically about what they’ve been taught. Unlike the feuding families, Huck develops a moral compass that is all his own.
Near the end of the novel, Tom tries to convince Huck to help Jim escape from captivity in a dramatic fashion, alluding to several historical figures in the process:
“Why, hain’t you ever read any books at all?—Baron Trenck, nor Casanova, nor Benvenuto Chelleeny, nor Henri IV., nor none of them heroes? Whoever heard of getting a prisoner loose in such an old-maidy way as that?”
Baron Franz von der Trenck, Giacomo Casanova, Benvenuto Cellini, and Henry IV of France are all people who escaped from prison, and whose stories of doing so have been romanticized. These allusions make it clear that Tom is more interested in having an adventure than in freeing Jim from being resold into slavery. Huck, on the other hand, has a relationship with Jim and wants to rescue him so that his friend can live a free life. This moment Highlights how Huck has become more ethical and practical as he’s grown up over the course of the novel—he is no longer the naïve boy who would go along with Tom’s plans just because Tom told him to. He is more discerning and has his own moral commitments.