The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Plot Summary and Characters

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Godin

Katherine is a teacher of middle and high school English and has an M.A. in English Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Administration.

'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' is a story of two friends working against societal racism. Explore the novel's characters and plot, as Huck and Jim leave St. Petersburg, travel the Mississippi, and form a lasting friendship along the way. Updated: 08/26/2021

Breaking New Ground

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain and published in the United States in 1885, is considered one of the greatest stories and most criticized works of American literature ever written. The sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, this novel chronicles the travels of the young narrator, Huck Finn, as he leaves his hometown and dysfunctional family in Missouri and treks into the South down the Mississippi River. The story gives the reader an uncensored 13-year-old view of pre-war society in the region where, Huck finds, racist sentiment is ingrained in the fabric of life. The novel's characters and plot are archetypal in its emergence as a new kind of American literature. So, too, are the ultimate messages of acceptance, friendship, hope and independence that are reflective of the struggles of the time period.

As a result of the importance of the choices Twain made about his characters and topics and the impact that the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had on our literary history, our study of this book will be covered in two lessons. In this first lesson we will outline the novel's characters and cover important plot elements. Remember - it is truly an adventure. The travels of the characters involved don't often follow a typical route, which is, as you will see, appropriate. For its time period, nothing about this story is typical.

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  • 1:28 Characters
  • 2:18 Plot: In the Beginning
  • 4:20 Plot: Leaving St. Petersburg
  • 6:15 Plot: Travels on the…
  • 7:38 Plot: The King, The…
  • 9:17 Plot:Resolution
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While it's generally easier to discuss most characters in the context of the story itself, it's important here to start with the major players. By now, you know our narrator - Huckleberry Finn. Huck is a 13-year-old boy who lives (at the beginning of this story) with an older, wealthier widow who takes him in when it is clear that Huck's father and town drunk Pap will not put the boy through formal schooling. The Widow Douglas, who informally adopts Huck, shares a house with Miss Watson, her sister. Jim, Miss Watson's slave, is a kind friend to Huck throughout the novel.

And then, of course, there's Tom Sawyer. Tom, who was introduced in Twain's previous novel, is Huck's intelligent and imaginative sidekick who participates in quite a bit of mischief with Huck. While he does not appear in much of the novel, Tom is ever present in Huck's mind and serves a greater purpose when he shows up again at the end of the story.

These characters play an important role in the plot.
Huckleberry Finn Important Characters

In the Beginning

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn starts where the first in the series, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, leaves off. Huck mentions this and introduces us to his unique narrative voice and style in these first sentences of the book:

'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.'

After having found a robber's stash of gold in a cave in the first book, Huck and his buddy Tom are both quite a bit richer. But now, Huck's life is a bit different. We find out that he's been living, still in St. Petersburg, Missouri, with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson while they attempt to educate him and civilize him in the ways of school, religion and manners.

Poor Huck is not so thrilled with this. He prefers running off with his buddy Tom, playing barefoot in the dirt and pulling pranks on unsuspecting victims. In fact, Huck is often inclined to leave the ladies altogether, but it is Tom who convinces him to stay with the Widow so that he can at least appear respectable. Huck does stay, but decides to sign his newly acquired money over to Judge Thatcher in the form of a trust.

He does this just in time because his aimless father, Pap, arrives back in town, demanding his son and the money. While Pap tries to get his son back, Huck becomes accustomed to life with the Widow Douglas. This is, of course, until one day when Pap kidnaps Huck and takes him to a small shack across the river. Huck's father really doesn't have much of a parental instinct and locks his son in the cabin whenever he leaves and beats him when he is there.

After tiring of the unpleasant routine and fearing for his safety, Huck hatches a plan to leave. So he does what any boy in his situation would do - he cleverly fakes his own death by smearing the cabin with blood from a pig he killed so that he can, once and for all, escape.

Leaving St. Petersburg

After Huck stages his own murder, he takes off and hides on Jackson Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. He knows there are parties out searching for him. He soon finds out that he is not alone on the island and meets Jim once more - remember, Jim is Miss Watson's slave. Jim is also hiding because he thinks he's going to be sold and sent further into the South, where he will never see his family again. Jim feels that his best chance is to get away and ultimately, find his way to Ohio, a free state, where he can earn enough money to buy his family back. Huck is conflicted about what to do - tell someone about Jim or continue on with him. Ultimately, Jim's honesty and personal story win Huck over and give him many reasons to reconsider the morality of slavery.

So, they join forces. Both know that if Jim is found alone, he would probably be connected to Huck's death, and if found together, Jim would be blamed for the kidnapping. The two are smart and begin searching for food and goods to bring along when the island is no longer a safe refuge. When a raft and a house float by after a flood, they take the raft for their own travels and loot what they can from the house. Unfortunately, there is a dead man inside the house. Jim sees this but, in a move that really highlights Jim's sense of caring and friendship, he will not let Huck see it, explaining that it's just too gruesome.

They feel as though their discovery on the island is imminent after Huck sneaks into town disguised as a girl. It is there that he finds out about the reward that is out on Jim's head.

So, they immediately load up everything they have and head out on the river. Their plan is to head down the Mississippi until they reached the Ohio River. At that point, the idea was to travel up the Ohio by steamboat until they landed in the free state.

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