Dramatic Irony

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by

Mark Twain

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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Dramatic Irony 3 key examples

Definition of Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a character's understanding of a given situation, and that of the... read full definition
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a character's understanding of a given... read full definition
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a... read full definition
Chapter 6
Explanation and Analysis—Pap's Racism:

Near the beginning of the novel, Pap—Huck’s abusive alcoholic father—gets drunk and bemoans the fact that a Black professor is allowed to vote, creating a moment of dramatic irony:

“They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to?”

Twain is writing Hucklberry Finn years after Black men in the United States had been granted the right to vote. By including this rant, he is hoping that readers will see the irony in Pap’s words and reflect on the hypocrisy of pre-Civil War society, where educated Black men were unable to vote but uneducated and brutish white men (like Pap) were able to do so. Twain uses this moment to point out that Black people being granted basic rights was never a problem—rather, white people dehumanizing and belittling them was the problem.

Chapter 22
Explanation and Analysis—The Circus:

In a playful example of dramatic irony, Huck goes to the circus for the first time and finds himself enraptured by the performance, believing the ringmaster to have been successfully fooled by a performer who pretended to be a drunk audience member:

Then the ringmaster he see how he had been fooled, and he was the sickest ringmaster you ever see, I reckon. Why, it was one of his own men! He had got up that joke all out of his own head, and never let on to nobody. Well, I felt sheepish enough to be took in so, but I wouldn’t ’a’ been in that ringmaster’s place, not for a thousand dollars.

Readers know, but Huck does not, that the ringmaster is only pretending to be fooled, creating a humorous moment of dramatic irony. This moment leaves readers with a sense of Huck’s youthful naivety, setting him up to grow wiser and more mature later in the novel, such as when he discerns that the duke and the king (two conmen he and Jim meet along their journey) are duping people.

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Chapter 31
Explanation and Analysis—Huck Helping Jim:

An example of dramatic irony that is present throughout the novel is Huck’s belief that, by helping Jim escape from slavery, he is committing a sin or doing something wrong. As Twain wrote the book many years after the Civil War—and the official end of slavery in the United States—he assumes readers will understand that Huck is actually doing the right thing in helping Jim. It is this tension between what readers understand and what Huck understands that creates dramatic irony.

The moment that best captures this irony comes about half-way through the novel when Huck decides to destroy the note he has written to Miss Watson telling her Jim’s whereabouts:

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 is writing under the assumption that readers probably won't agree that Huck will go to hell for this action. But the fact that Huck thinks he will, and decides to stand with Jim anyway, shows how much he has grown throughout the novel. Unlike most of his white Christian community, he is developing his own moral compass and prioritizing the well-being of Black people like Jim over nonsensical religious and "moral" rules.

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