The book was written as a sequel to Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Twain decidedly makes Tom critical to the plot line in the second half of the novel. The novel is set in the antebellum south, and is commonly viewed as a satire of racism, religion, morality, and social attitudes of the time. Huck Finn, the protagonist and narrator of the story, introduces the reader to his world on the banks of the Mississippi River. He is a poor boy who acquired a large sum of money as a result of his adventures with Tom in the preceding novel. Since then, Huck was adopted by Widow Douglas and Ms. Watson, sisters who attempt to educate Huck, rid him of his bad habits and transform him into a traditionally respectable and pious member of the community. Huck is not happy with this recent life change and longs to be free. In the next turn of events, Huck’s father, Pap, returns to the scene. Eventually he kidnaps Huck after learning about his inheritance and locks him in a cabin across the Mississippi River. After being held captive for some time Huck executes an elaborate plan and escapes to an island in the middle of the river where he meets Jim, a runaway slave (Ms. Watson happened to be his owner), also hiding out on the island. The remainder of the novel follows Huck and Jim as they make their way down the river and encounter robbers, feuding families, and con artists who kidnap Jim and sell him to a farming couple, scamming them and saying that Jim is a local runaway for whom there is a large reward. It turns out that the couple holding Jim are Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle, and Tom returns to the scene, devising an elaborate plan to free Jim. Ultimately, the plan fails, as the group manages to escape the confines of the house but then Tom is shot in the leg and Jim sacrifices his freedom to nurse Tom. We soon find out that Jim was actually a free man all along because Ms. Watson died since Huck ran away and she freed Jim in her will. Rather than return to Widow Douglas’s care, Tom decides to pursue his freedom and sets out West.
The plot of the book is intentionally satirical but the themes run deep and provide material for multiple levels of analysis. The most controversial theme is that of racism and Twain’s commentary on slavery throughout the novel. With regard to this theme, the book has drawn criticism from just about every racial group and circle of literary critics one can think of, and one should note that the criticism within these groups is not monolithic. Commentary on racial themes manifests itself in a variety of ways. For example, diction: each character expresses him or herself through a distinct dialect, although the difference between Huck and Jim is more pronounced than Huck and other white characters. Secondly, a large body of analysis exists on the theme of morality in the book: Huck’s character development has been analyzed according to Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development, as well as the vastly different analysis of the morality of white society. Particularly through the paradigmatic shift that occurred in American and western political thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that evoked values of personal liberty, longing for freedom and self determination that coincided with the antislavery movement. This shift in thought is also associated with political revolutions and decolonization movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Despite the novel’s depth and witty commentary on life in the antebellum south and on American society at large, controversies surrounding this work resurface with regularity, as do cases to publish updated and improved editions that revise language (e.g. Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama, brought forth a case in 2011 to replace the word ‘nigger’ in the novel with ‘slave,’ thus profoundly altering diction, intention, and potential for analysis in the book). Other school systems have banned teaching of the book altogether for similar reasons. Advocates of teaching the novel contend that Twain carefully considered character development, plot development, themes, and diction to provide a strong case against racism, supremacy, and slavery in a satirical fashion.
In many ways, the controversy that continues 129 years after the first publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is demonstrative of the fact that the discomfort Mark Twain brought to the forefront of post-civil war American society still exists today, although in an altered context. Perhaps that is the beauty of such canonical works: to leave an impression on American society that continues to evoke passion and opinion throughout history. Ernest Hemingway famously declared that the book marked the beginning of American literature: “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”