Allusion in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Biblical and Shakespeare Allusions: Prominently used among civilized characters are biblical allusions, meant to show their formal instruction in morality and level of education. It is telling of Twain’s view of rote religious memorization that Huck, whose biblical knowledge is scattered at best, ends up being the character best able to make difficult ethical decisions. The duke and the dauphin also perform warped versions of Shakespeare’s plays—which Twain’s readers would have recognized—to humorous effect.
Allusion Examples in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
"ole King Sollermun..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
King Solomon, the son of David, a character in the Bible best known for building the first Temple in Jerusalem and making wise decisions. Once, two women came to him, both claiming to be a baby's mother, and to determine who was the real mother he ordered that the baby be cut in half, reasoning that whoever protested the most to this was the real mother. This is the story most people refer to when they say Solomon was wise. It's unclear why he didn't just ask around and see who had recently given birth.
"Dr. Gunn's Family Medicine..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
Dr. Gunn's New Family Physician, a medical text published in 1864, which includes some strange, ineffective treatments, including one to cure irritable bowels by soaking one's feet in lye water. His off ideas about medicine are nevertheless representative of the time period, in which people like Jim falsely believe that drinking whiskey will cure a snakebite.
"Henry Clay's..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
A lawyer and politician from Kentucky, Clay was known as "The Great Compromiser" because he brokered agreements about major social issues like slavery and was the main proponent of the Compromise of 1850. Henry Clay was also a very skilled orator, and his speeches were collected in the mid-19th Century and are still studied today. It's likely that Twain is alluding to Clay to indicate that the Grangerfords are by no means Abolitionists.
"Friendship's Offering..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
An annual anthology that appeared in the mid 19th Century, including work from writers like Mary Shelley and from the artist John Sartain, a publisher of Friendship's Offering and pioneer of mezzotints, a form of engraving that was popularized in part by the artwork collected in this anthology. Twain alludes to this to emphasize how cultured and refined the Grangerfords are when they aren't feuding.
"Pilgrim's Progress..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
A work of religious allegory written by John Bunyan in 1678 while he was imprisoned for holding religious services that weren't approved of by the Church of England. In the first half of Pilgrim's Progess, the protagonist (named Christian to enhance the affect of the allegory) journeys from the so-called "City of Destruction" to the Celestial City, i.e. Heaven. This isn't the first journey that Twain has alluded to in the novel, and he uses it here to raise the question of why Huck left his "family" (meaning Tom Sawyer and the Widow Douglas) behind to go on this journey.
"where Moses was when the candle went out..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
This isn't a reference to any particular Bible story, as Huck's response suggests. Moses, the man who defied the Pharaoh and famously led the Israelites out of Egypt by parting the Red Sea, was never himself a slave, having been raised in the royal family after being found in a basket, but led the slaves to freedom in much the same way Huck is leading Jim to his freedom. Twain makes this allusion to align Huck with Moses. It's also the set-up for a joke.
"the sword fight in Richard III. and the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet..." See in text (Chapter XX)
The Duke alludes to two of the most iconic scenes in Shakespeare's plays. First, the fight scene from Richard III, in which King Richard III cries, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Second, the famed balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet, in which Juliet asks, "O Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" These are both great tragedies, and in alluding to them the Duke implies he's highly skilled as an actor.
"Some of the fences had been whitewashed..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
This might be an allusion to perhaps the most famous scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: the whitewashing of the fence. Tom, the clever loaf, tricks the other children into whitewashing a fence for him by making them think that it's a game. In the end, they pay him to do his chores, and the fence is whitewashed to perfection. It looks like this town could use a Tom Sawyer.
"Edmund Kean..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
A famed Shakespearean actor who was born in London and went on to perform around the world. He's perhaps best known for his great portrayals of Richard III and Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. Like Garrick, he's considered one of the finest Shakespearean actors to have ever lived, and Twain alludes to him to underscore the Duke and the King's comparative lack of skill.
"till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
A plot point in Macbeth. The titular character was told by the three witches that he wouldn't be defeated until Birnam Wood came to the castle. Since trees can't walk, he assumed he'd never be dethroned, but his enemies rather ingenuously cut the branches off of the trees and used them as camouflage, thus bringing them to Dunsinane.
"To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
This soliloquy is an absurd medley of various speeches from different Shakespeare plays, including most notably Hamlet and Macbeth. It's notable in that, despite its absurdity, it's flows well and is technically grammatically correct. Faking a Shakespeare soliloquy takes a great deal of skill, which gives the reader a sense of Twain's genius.
"a thousand and one tales that way..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
An allusion to One Thousand and One Nights, a famed collection of folk tales in which a young woman called Scheherazade tells a fickle king a different story every night in order to stay her execution. All of these stories are folk tales drawn from Middle Eastern, North African, and West Asian cultures, and were collected over many centuries by various scholars. Huck erroneously equates Henry VIII with this king, to great comedic effect.
"Henry the Eight..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
Henry the Eight, the king of England from 1509 to 1547. He's perhaps best known for his six marriages and for beheading two of his wives, including Anne Boleyn. Huck skips over these details and throughout this passage will misstate facts, dates, and events, which he has only half learned from Miss Watson. Twain uses these mistakes to satirize royalty and emphasize that learning from books is not as important to Huck as learning from experience.
"the signs of a dead cat being around..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
This is an allusion to Huck's first appearance in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where we're introduced to him as a young adolescent boy wearing ill-fitting clothes and carrying a dead cat. Here, Twain repurposes the image to show us that Huck is no longer the poor, abused child carrying the dead cat but is instead the independent free spirit who can smell trouble when it's coming.
"the twelve disciples..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
An allusion to the Bible and Jesus Christ's twelve disciples, who were famously depicted in Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper. This comparison between the tanner (Peter) and the twelve disciples isn't necessarily a suggestion that Peter was holy but is a subtle way for Twain to indicate the degree to which the King and the Duke are pretending to grieve for Peter.
"right out of the ark, and maybe was old Leviticus himself..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
An allusion to the Bible, in which Noah builds an ark to house two of every species (a male and a female) to repopulate the earth after the flood. Huck mixes up his facts again, confusing Noah with Leviticus, a book in the Bible which takes its name from the "Levites," an Israelite tribe that settled in the land of Canaan. This is all to say that Huck is comparing the King to Noah, who was considered a wise and great man for building the ark.
"Goliar..." See in text (Chapter XXIX)
Huck means to compare Hines to “Goliath,” the biblical Philistine warrior-giant whose story is told in the Book of Samuel. Huck once again illustrates only a partial knowledge of the Bible, as he has only learned what the widow taught him. Keep in mind that Goliath is defeated by David in the biblical story, making Huck’s allusion to Goliath an important moment of foreshadowing.
"Methusalem-numskull..." See in text (Chapter XXXIII)
“Methusalem” refers to the biblical “Methuselah,” a man who appears in the Book of Genesis and who, according to the Bible, lived to be 969 years old. A “numskull” is a foolish person. The term “Methusalem-numskull” is used sarcastically by Aunt Sally to suggest that “William Thompson” would have to be about 1,000 years old before she asked him to kiss her.
"the Castle Deef..." See in text (Chapter XXXV)
By “Castle Deef,” Tom means to refer to “Chateau d’If” which is a prison that is located on the island of If in the Bay of Marseille in France. It was made famous in Alexandre Dumas’s adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo, published in 1845. Twain seems to be alluding to this novel, though it is unclear whether he suggests that Tom has read it and is referencing it as well. While Tom has referred to many adventure novels so far, making another reference not out of the question, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is set roughly during the 1830s to 1840s. So Dumas’’s novel may not have been published before Tom mentions the “Chateau d’If,” depending on the exact year in which this takes place.
"The Iron Mask..." See in text (Chapter XXXV)
Tom is referring to “The Man in the Iron Mask” who was an unidentified prisoner arrested during the reign of King Louis XIV. The man was imprisoned in a number of different French prisons, including the Bastille. He has become the subject of many different myths and legends throughout history due to his mysterious identity and the fact that we are still unsure as to why he was imprisoned. Alexandre Dumas writes about this prisoner in his fictional story The Man in the Iron Mask which continues the story of The Three Musketeers. In this story, the prisoner is revealed to be King Louis XIV’s twin brother.
"Pitchiola..." See in text (Chapter XXXVIII)
“Pitchiola” is an allusion to Picciola by X.B. Saintine, a novel about a political prisoner in Piedmont, Italy, who maintained his sanity in prison by cultivating a very small flower that was growing out of the pavement in the prison yard. Tom again shows how influenced he is by literature, but he takes it to the extreme—his desire to act out the fantasies he reads about borders on obsessive.