The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Chapter 16 Summary

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

A bit of good luck is followed by bad luck, and then worse luck, as Huck struggles with the morality of his actions. This lesson focuses on the summary of Chapter 16 of ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.''


Huckleberry Finn and the runaway slave Jim have been floating down the Mississippi River. They've had many adventures as they've traveled the river, including a really close call with a gang of murderers on a wrecked steamboat. They are heading for Cairo, Illinois and are getting close to their goal. There, they hope to take a boat up the Ohio River and to the free states. Huck has played a mean trick on Jim in the fog, and is forced to apologize. They continue on their journey.

Freedom for Jim?

They start out the night behind a huge raft that Huck is sure carries thirty or more men. He spends a moment admiring the raft, which is so much bigger than their own. The night is cloudy and hot, the trees on both sides of the river block out their view, and Jim and Huck worry they won't know Cairo when they get to it. Huck's worried because it's only a little town, but Jim points out that the two big rivers, the Mississippi and the Ohio, join up there. Wouldn't they know it?

Maybe they'd think they'd just passed an island, Huck reasons. So they decide Huck should head to shore as soon as they see the next light, pretend he'd arrived ahead of his father, and ask how far it is to Cairo. Jim likes this plan.

Jim's anxious to get to Cairo, because he knows the Ohio River can lead to his freedom. Every few minutes he jumps up, thinking he's spotted the town. But each time, he is wrong.

Huck's Dilemma

Suddenly, Huck has a fit of conscience. He realizes that Jim's running away is against the law, and that he's helping him do it. He feels bad, like he's stealing from Miss Watson, who only ever wanted to help Huck out. He's so miserable he 'most wished' he was dead.

Jim talks about his plans for freedom, making Huck feel even worse. Jim says he'll earn money to buy his wife and then he'll buy or steal his two children. Huck feels awful: now, he's sure he's cheating not only Miss Watson, but another slave-owner, a man he doesn't even know.

Huck's guilt swirls around him until he promises himself that as soon as they see the first light on shore, he will paddle in and tell. Even though Jim will go back to slavery, Huck feels this is the right thing to do. Instantly his guilt is assuaged, but just then, they do see a light. Jim's sure it is Cairo, but Huck says he'll take the canoe and go see.

Jim tells Huck that he's the best friend he's ever had, and Jim will never forget him for helping him gain his freedom. This confuses Huck no end, and now he's no longer sure what is right or wrong in the situation, whether he should turn Jim in, or continue to help him. Jim calls after Huck as he paddles off, 'Dah you goes, de ole true Huck; de on'y white genlman dat ever kep' his promise to ole Jim.' Now Huck feels even worse.

Huck and the Men in the Canoe by Achille Sirouy, 1886
Huck and the Men in the Canoe by Achille Sirouy, 1886

Huck's Choice

As Huck heads towards shore, he meets two men in a skiff. Both of them have guns. They are looking for five escaped slaves. The men ask Huck if there is anyone with him on the raft. Huck answers that there is just one man. But then one of the men asks him if his man is white or black.

Here's Huck's chance to tell the truth, but he finds he can't do it. He stares at the men for a long moment, then answers that the man on the raft is white.

The men tell Huck they will go see for themselves. Thinking quickly, Huck makes up a story. He tells the men that he is thankful, because his father is very sick and so are his mother and sister. In fact, maybe the men can help Huck tow the raft to shore.

The men say they have no time for that, but Huck tells them that he would be grateful. In fact, he's asked others but they've refused. The men tell him that's very mean and strange of the others. Then, one of the men asks what is wrong with Huck's father.

Good Luck

Huck stammers a bit and says it's nothing much. The men freak out and accuse Huck of not telling them about his father's smallpox. Huck never confirms or denies this, and just says he can't tell them or they'll leave.

They tell him they are very sorry, but they don't want smallpox. They tell him that the light on the shore is just a lumber yard so he shouldn't stop there, but should drift twenty miles south where he can get help. Then, to relieve their guilt about leaving the boy, they each give him twenty dollars in gold. They paddle away quickly.

Huck returns to the raft, feeling even guiltier than before. He's kept Jim's secret, lied to the men about a sick father, gotten $40 that isn't his. He asks himself what the point of being good is, if being bad gets him more rewards. He decides to not think so much about right and wrong, and just do what is easiest at the time. He and Jim decide that $40 is a pretty good haul, and now they can pay to take a steamboat up the Ohio River to Jim's freedom.

Bad Luck

They stop for the day, and then get going again that night. When they come across the lights of a town, Huck stops to ask a man whether these lights are Cairo. The man calls him a 'blame' fool', but won't tell him what town it is. Huck, confused, gets back on the raft. They pass another town, but this one is surrounded by high banks, and they know Cairo isn't.

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