Huck Finn: A Treasure Trove of Satire

In 1884, Mark Twain published the sequel to his critically successful The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Rather than writing the sequel as "another 'boy's book' in the light comic tone"1 in which Tom Sawyer was written, Twain took a different approach. He took it upon himself in this new novel to expose the problems which he saw in society, using one of the most powerful methods available to him. The novel was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; the method was satire. The beauty of using satire was that it was humorous with a serious message, subtle yet powerful. The novel was both a work of humor and serious social commentary. Twain uses generous amounts of satire of man's cruelty to man, of religious hypocrisy, of Romanticism, and of superstition in Huck Finn both to amuse the reader and, more importantly, to make the reader aware of the social "ills" which Twain saw at the time.

However, even since its publishing, the debate has gone on over what Twain's purpose was in writing Huckleberry Finn. One school of thought contends that the book is merely a work of humor. Indeed, when it first came out, few took the novel to be a work of the "social history of an era and the atmosphere of a region"2 and commentary upon this; the reading public failed to see the commentary, and it was the humor and adventure that carried the novel to success.3 In fact, some even go so far as to say that satire plays no part in the novel. "David Burg...posits that this novel elaborates 'a picaresque tale in the amoral fable form' and does not use satire to reform any wrongs."4 This however is an extreme view.

On the other end of the scale, there are those who maintain the novel is primarily satire used as commentary by Mark Twain. "The truly profound meanings of the novel are generated by the impingement [through satire] of the actual world of slavery, feuds, lynching, murder..."5 They do not dismiss the humor in the book, but believe it enhances the story: "Huck is a funny book suitable for children, too, but the grownups who read it will find depths in its humor and in its meaning."6 This school of thought sees the satire in Huck Finn as social commentary on the part of Twain.

Whichever view a person holds, it is difficult to say that there is no satire in the novel. The undeniable purpose of satire is "to criticize or make fun of something bad or foolish."7 Thus when Twain named the sinking steamboat after Sir Walter Scott, or when Huck teased Jim after being separated in the fog, he was not just making fun of anything; he was making fun of some particular thing which he saw as being bad or foolish. Through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the readers eyes are opened to the things which Twain saw in society and which he didn't like the looks of.

One wrong which Twain saw and didn't like was that a man could be so cruel and inhumane to his fellow man. Showing this satire perfectly is treatment of Jim as he is being held by the Phelpses. In the story, Jim has been sold back into slavery by the king, in itself showing cruelty of one man to another. The Phelpses are good meaning, well intentioned Christian people, but society has taught them that slavery is perfectly alright and that slaves are something less than people. And so Jim is treated accordingly: locked up in a shed, although the Phelpses do not leave him locked in solitary confinement the whole time, as they were good Christians. Yet it was not Mr. or Mrs. Phelps who was most cruel to Jim, nor the king, who sold him back into slavery, but Tom Sawyer. Tom had needlessly risked the life of Jim, who had already (though not to his knowledge) been set free, which was the most cruel thing one could do to him. Indeed, almost the whole while they had the ability to set Jim free. In fact, they even let Jim out in order to help move a grindstone into the shed: "We see it warn't no use; we got to go and fetch Jim. So he raised up his bed and slid the chain of the bed-leg,"8 and after moving the grindstone inside, "we helped him fix his chain back on the bed-leg."9 Tom put Jim through all this trouble even though Jim could have gotten free right then.

After Jim escaped he was still treated with cruelty, because of staying to help Tom, who was shot in the leg. The doctor who removed the bullet from Tom's leg explained to the group of men how Jim had risked his freedom to help Tom. "So every one of the promised...that they wouldn't cuss him no more. Then they come out and locked him up."10

Even Huck, who for most of the story was trying to help Jim escape, was cruel to Jim. Earlier in the novel, Huck and Jim had become separated on the river in the fog. Eventually, Huck made it back to the raft, and found Jim asleep. He pretended to just wake up, and when Jim was surprised to see him, he told Jim he hadn't been anywhere. Huck convinces Jim that he dreamed the whole thing, and Jim interprets the dream to Huck. Then Huck points out the broken oar and leaves and trash, and as the "punch line" of his joke on Jim asks "but what does these things stand for?" to which Jim responds "Dat truck dah is trash, en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed."11 Huck was ashamed and never again would be mean to Jim.

Twain used such satire to expose the situations faced by blacks in those days; slavery had been abolished by the time Twain wrote Huck Finn, but prejudice and racism hadn't. In the novel, satire is used as a vehicle for "shaping people's awareness of the dynamics of racism."12 Also, through Twain's depiction of African Americans, he provides the "potential for the service of truth."13 W.H. Auden, referring to Jim's escape, wrote "When I first read the book I took this to be abolitionist satire on Mark Twain's part. It is not that at all."14 Twain was not trying to spread abolitionist propaganda with this book but was pointing out the cruelty he saw against blacks.

Nowhere, however, in the novel is the satire of man's cruelty to man more predominant than the tarring and feathering of the king and duke. The two of them, who had been swindling and cheating people during their entire stay with Huck and Jim on the raft, were finally repaid in full. Huck notes the terrible cruelty of the situation: "Human beings can be awful cruel to one another."15 Not only does this point out the satire of the situation, but it also is an epiphany for Huck, and an underlying theme of the novel. That however, is another story. Through this event, Twain points out that not just crooks and criminals have the capacity to be cruel, but any human being.

Closely connected in the novel to satire of man's cruelty to man is the satire of religious hypocrisy. A prime example of this can be seen as Huck is staying with the Grangerfords. Huck has Buck Grangerford explaining the Grangerford- Shepherdson feud. Huck's narration goes right from Buck saying that the Shepherdsons don't breed cowards into "Next Sunday we all went to church...The men took their guns along,"16 and finally into the preaching in church being about brotherly love. Brotherly love indeed, the Grangerfords carrying guns along, ready to continue the feud on the way to or from church.

Satire of religious hypocrisy also shows up at the Phelpses. When Huck first arrived, he didn't know who he was supposed to be that these people were expecting, and he made up the excuse that the steamboat had blown a cylinder-head.

"Good gracious! anybody hurt?" [asked Aunt Sally.]
"No'm. Killed a nigger."
"Well, it's lucky...two years ago...the old Lally Rook...blowed out a cylinder-head and crippled a man. He was a Baptist...I remember now, he did die"17
Aunt Sally thought nothing of a "nigger" who supposedly died, but right away went into talking of a man who was killed once in a similar accident, not forgetting to mention his religion. So Mrs. Phelps became a vehicle for Twain's satire of religious hypocrisy.

Mr. Phelps too was a vehicle for the same kind of satire. Mr. Phelps (Uncle Silas) had paid forty dollars to hold Jim for the reward, and left Jim locked up in a shed as if he were a garden tool like a shovel or a hoe. Yet "Jim told him [that] Uncle Silas come in every day or two to pray with him."18 The only reason Uncle Silas comes in to pray with Jim is because Silas hasn't really got anyone else to pray with, not because he truly cares about Jim (as Huck does). And so in this way, Twain poked fun at all the religious hypocrites.

It was Romanticism, though, that seemed to be Twain's favorite target for satire. His most direct attack was aimed at Sir Walter Scott, the Romantic writer. Huck strands a gang on a wrecked steamboat, and finds a captain to go out and save them from the wreck. "'What wreck?' 'Why, there ain't but one.' 'What, you don't mean the Walter Scott?'"19 This shows "Twain's obsession with Sir Walter Scott's influence on Southern Culture...tallied in the name of the steamboat Huck and Jim board in order to have an adventure."20 Yet their adventure almost takes a turn for the worse, showing Twain's belief that Romanticism can be a dangerous thing.

Less direct but seen more through the story is satire of Romanticism through the character of Tom Sawyer. "Twain satirizes close-minded conformity" through Tom, who "does everything 'by the book',"21 and that book is always a work of Romantic fiction. Whether he is chasing a bunch of "A-rabs" or keeping women for ransom in their cave -- "'Ransomed? What's that?' ... `Well I don't know. But per' means that we keep them till they're dead"22 -- or making a rope ladder for Jim's escape out of the ground-level shed, Tom does it just like it is done in all the Romantic stories which he has read. Through the satire through Tom, Twain depicts the ridiculousness of Romanticism.

Twain also pokes fun through the character of Emmeline Grangerford (deceased). "This young girl kept a scrap-book... and used to paste obituaries and accidents and cases of patient suffering in it out of the Presbyterian Observer, and write poetry after them out of her own head."23 At first glance this just seems very strange and odd. However, Walter Blair tells us that Emmeline Grangerford was based on the real-life poet Julia A. More, who wrote such 'post-mortem poetry.'24 In this particular instance, it is quite probable that Twain was not criticizing, but rather just put this into the story in order to get a good laugh out of it.

Twain used another target for his satire more because it was funny than because there was something wrong with it. This target was superstition. At several points in the novel Twain satirizes superstition, yet at others he seems to confirm its validity. It seems that Twain satirizes superstition up to a point, since some superstition is grounded in folk-knowledge. Twain recognizes the importance of superstition in many people's lives, but that didn't stop him from satirizing it.

One point where Twain tends to make fun of superstition is after Huck and Jim were reunited after being separated in the fog, and Huck convinced Jim that it was all a dream. Jim "said he must start in and 'terpret' it, because it was sent for a warning."25 Another time Twain makes fun of superstition is when Tom plays a trick on Jim as he sleeps, hanging his hat above him on a tree.

In the humorous vein, there is the belief expressed by Jim when Tom and Huck take his hat off and hang it on a limb: 'Afterward Jim said the witches bewildered him and put him in a trance, and rode him all over the state, then set him under the trees again, and hung his hat on a limb to show who done it.'"26
The other terribly superstitious blacks took in the story "so favorably...that he enlarged the territory covered until the witches 'rode him all over the world.'"27 Through these and other superstitious encounters in Huck Finn (such as Jim's hairball oracle), Twain satirizes superstition.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a humorous, satirical book. The sequel to Tom Sawyer, it was more than just a spin-off, but was a complete story in itself, written in an entirely different style: "The language of Huckleberry Finn was the form of humor which contained the serious issues Mark Twain saw between 1878 and 1884."28 These "serious issues" which Mark Twain saw were man's cruelty to man, religious hypocrisy, Romanticism, and superstition. Funny yet serious, subtle yet powerful, Huck Finn is a novel which will long be remembered for the messages which it presents.


1Alfred Kazin, Afterword, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (New York: Bantam Books, 1981) 282.

2E. Hudson Long and J.R. Le Master, The New Mark Twain Handbook (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1985) 110.

3Long and Le Master 110.

4Patricia M. Mandia, Comedic Pathos: Black Humor in Twain's Fiction (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1991) 16.

5Leo Marx, "Mr. Elliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn," Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968) 73.

6Walter Blair, Mark Twain & Huck Finn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960) 75.

7Webster's New World Dictionary for Young Readers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979) 654.

8Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Bantam Books, 1981) 250.

9Twain 250.

10Twain 250.

11Twain 84.

12Shelly Fisher Fishkin, Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 143.

13Fishkin 5.

14W.H. Auden, "Huck and Oliver," Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1963) 113.

15Twain 222.

16Twain 106.

17Twain 213.

18Twain 239.

19Twain 72.

20James M. Cox, Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966) 162.

21Mandia 38.

22Twain 10.

23Twain 100.

24Blair 209-210.

25Twain 83.

26Long and Le Master 144.

27Long and Le Master 144.

28Cox 160.

Works Cited

Auden, W.H. "Huck and Oliver." Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.

Blair, Walter. Mark Twain & Huck Finn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.

Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Fishkin, Shelly Fisher. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kazin, Alfred. Afterword. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. By Mark Twain. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Long and Le Master. The New Mark Twain Handbook. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985.

Mandia, Patricia M. Comedic Pathos: Black Humor in Twain's Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1991.

Marx, Leo. "Mr. Elliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn." Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Webster's New World Dictionary for Young Readers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

Return to Adamz Hoemwurk Paij.