Background Information for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written by Mark Twain (1835-1910). Mark Twain is the pseudonym (false name) or writing name that Samuel Langhorne Clemens used. Mark Twain is also famous for writing the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (McGraw-Hill). Because of his books and his speaking tours, Mark Twain became the most famous person on the planet during the time in which he lived. Even though he died about a hundred years ago, people around the world still know about him. Impersonators pretend to be him in plays, and an actor played Mark Twain as a character on a couple of episodes of Star Trek -The Next Generation.
THE TIME AND PLACE
The story is set in the Mississippi River Valley, around 1840. It occurs after the events described in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. During the course of the novel, Huck and Jim float down the Mississippi River. They travel from their hometown of St. Petersburg, Missouri north of St. Louis, hundreds of miles into the Deep South. Some of the places they visit are real, while others are imaginary. Many critics believe that the Mississippi River is so important to the novel that it can be considered a place, a character, and a symbol.
Excerpt from Chapter 1
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. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom's Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before. (Note Huck’s uneducated voice.)
In Chapter 1, we learn that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ended with Tom and Huckleberry finding gold some robbers had hidden in a cave. The boys received $6,000 apiece, which the local judge, Judge Thatcher, put into a trust. The money in the bank now earns a dollar a day from interest. The Widow Douglas adopts and tries to “sivilize” Huck., but Huck can’t stand it, so he throws on his old rags and runs away. He returns because Tom Sawyer tells him he can join a pretend new band of robbers Tom has created if Huck lives with the Widow to live “and be respectable.”
The Widow frequently complains about her failure to reform Huck. The Widow tries to teach Huck about Moses, but Huck loses interest when he realizes that Moses is dead. The Widow’s sister, Miss Watson, tries to give Huck spelling lessons. She does teach Huck to read.
Huck feels especially restless because the Widow and Miss Watson constantly attempt to improve his behavior. When Miss Watson tells him about the “bad place”—hell—he says that he would like to go there, for a change of scenery. When Huck asks, Miss Watson tells him that there is no chance that Tom Sawyer will end up in heaven. Huck is glad “because I wanted him and me to be together.”
One night, after Miss Watson leads a prayer session with Huck and the household slaves, Huck goes to bed feeling “so lonesome I most wished I was dead.” Just after midnight, Huck hears movement below the window and hears a “me-yow” sound, to which he responds with another “me-yow.” Climbing out the window onto the shed, Huck finds Tom Sawyer waiting for him in the yard.
Huck and Tom tiptoe through the Widow’s garden. Jim, one of Miss Watson’s slaves, hears the boys from inside. Tom and Huck try to stay quiet. Jim says aloud that he will stay put until he discovers the source of the sound, but after several minutes, he falls asleep. Tom wants to tie Jim up, but the more practical Huck objects, so Tom settles for simply playing a trick by putting Jim’s hat on a tree branch over Jim’s head. Tom also takes candles from the kitchen, despite Huck’s objections that they will risk getting caught.
Later Huck explains that after this trick is played on him, Jim tells everyone that some witches flew him around and put the hat atop his head. Jim expands the tale further, becoming a local celebrity among the slaves, who enjoy witch stories. Around his neck, Jim wears the five-cent piece Tom left for the candles, calling it a charm from the devil with the power to cure sickness. Huck notes somewhat sarcastically that Jim nearly becomes so “stuck up” from his newfound celebrity that he is unfit to be a servant.
Note: In this chapter and the book, Mark Twain is using “foil characters.” This symbolic way of writing has two characters whose actions and characteristics are opposite from each other. This method of characterization gives us a better understanding of both of their characters. Twain uses Tom to satirize (make fun of) Romantic literature. It is very important that the reader know that Tom is a liar who pretends all the time. He gets his ideas from fiction books. Huck is the opposite. He is a realist. He sees the truth and says it.
Twain satirizes Romantic literature because he belonged to the Realist Period of American literature.
Look at the original text below. The different dialects make the story hard to read. We have seen Huck’s uneducated speech. Now we see him telling us about Jim, and then we see Jim’s dialect:
“When we was passing by the kitchen I fell over a root and made a noise. We scrouched down and laid still. Miss Watson's big nigger, named Jim, was setting in the kitchen door…”
"Who dah?" [Who’s there?]
“Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn' hear sumf'n. Well, I know what I's gwyne to do: I's gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin."
[Say, who are you? Where are you? Dog my cats if I didn’t hear something. Well, I know what I am going to do. I’m going to sit down here and listen until I hear it again.]
Mark Twain. The Impious Digest. The Impious Digest. Web. 14 Jan. 2007.
McGraw-Hill Companies. “Study Guide for ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’.” The McGraw-Hill Companies: Glencoe. McGraw-Hill Companies. n.d. PDF file. 31 Jan. 2010.