Historical Context in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Transition from Romanticism to Realism: Having been published after the American Civil War, The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn reflects the influence of both romanticism—which focuses on human emotion and an appreciation of nature, among other things—and regionalism. Though romanticism had been the dominant literary force during much of the 19th century, it gave way to regionalism, a style that roots itself in a particular place and its traditions and dialect. Eventually, regionalism would serve as a bridge between romanticism and realism.

American Slavery: Although written after abolition, The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn is set while slavery is still legal in the United States, sometime in the 1830s/1840s. Because slaves were considered property of their owners, to aid one to freedom, as Huck does for Jim, was, according to social customs, a morally reprehensible goal that constituted theft.

Historical Context Examples in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

Chapter I 2

"Moses and the Bulrushers..."   (Chapter I)

According to the Bible, Moses' mother hid him in a basket that floated down the river when the Pharaoh declared that all the male Hebrew children were to be drowned in the river. This story is an example of foreshadowing in the novel, which will later see Huck float down the river on a raft.

"The Adventures of Tom Sawyer..."   (Chapter I)

Though not exactly a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is written in the same style and features a number of the same characters. When we first see Huck in Tom Sawyer, he's wearing an old suit several sizes too large and carrying a dead cat. Twain was so taken with the character that he continued to write about him.

"Tom poked about amongst the passages..."   (Chapter II)

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom and his love interest Becky get lost in a cave while they escape Injun Joe, the villain of that novel. This scene alludes to that one and presents us with a version of Tom that doesn't appear at first to have learned from his mistakes but at the very least isn't putting anyone in danger.

"pirate-books and robber-books..."   (Chapter II)

Pirates and robbers were common subjects of the 18th and 19th Century adventure stories Tom refers to here, among the most popular of which is Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. His fascination with adventures stories and their common tropes will play a major role in the last chapters of the novel.

"Strange niggers would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder...."   (Chapter II)

What racist stereotype is suggested here?

"Jericho..."   (Chapter III)

Jericho is a city situated on the Jordan River in the West Bank. In the Bible, the city's famed wall was said to have been destroyed by the sounding of trumpets. Jesus was also said to have healed one or two blind beggars in Jericho, which explain why Huck said he'd "see" a man in Jericho before taking orders. Huck would've heard this story from either the widow or Miss Watson, suggesting that while he doesn't put much stock in the Bible, he's not the worst student.

"temperance..."   (Chapter V)

"Temperance" means abstinence from alcohol. In the 1830s, when the novel is set, the temperance movement, as it's called, adopted teetotalism, an extreme form of temperance. This new Judge's attempt to convert Pap to teetotalism at once reinforces the fact that he's new in town and recalls the more modern phenomenon of "interventions."

"Angel of Death..."   (Chapter VI)

In the Book of Exodus, God sent down the Angel of Death to deliver the tenth plague, which killed the first-born sons of the Egyptians in an effort to free the enslaved Hebrews. It's unlikely but not impossible that Pap known this story in his psychosis and is either hallucinating or imagining that Huck is the real Angel of Death.

"Adam..."   (Chapter VI)

Adam of the Adam and Eve story. In the Bible, God is said to have formed Adam and Eve in His own image out of clay or mud, like a sculptor. This allusion isn't meant to suggest Pap's holiness but rather filthiness and perhaps also his propensity for sin.

"six months..."   (Chapter VI)

Pap is referring to a law stating that any slave who'd resided in the state for six months without being registered would be free at the end of the term. Pap gets it wrong when he claims the free slave can then be sold again into slavery. Not unsurprisingly, he's misinterpreting the law.

"raised Cain..."   (Chapter VI)

In the Bible, Cain killed his brother Abel out of jealousy when God decided that He liked Abel's offering best. To "raise" Cain then means to go around town in a drunken, violent rage, jealous of the things other people have and angry at the world for not being "fair."

"It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a state in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out...."   (Chapter VI)

What is the social critique found in this story?

"a steamboat..."   (Chapter VII)

In the 18th and into the 19th Centuries, steamboats were the primary means of travel by water and were employed on the Mississippi as both passenger and cargo ships. Twain was himself a pilot of a steamboat and drew his pen name, Mark Twain, from the term meaning the water was two fathoms deep (safe for a steamboat to travel).

"The river looked miles and miles across..."   (Chapter VII)

This is the Mississippi River. In Twain's youth, he was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, an experience he chronicled in his nonfiction work, Life on the Mississippi. His experience and the characters he met on the river greatly influenced this book, which is largely set on the Mississippi.

"Abolitionist..."   (Chapter VIII)

Abolitionists were activists campaigning to put and end to slavery in the United States. Huck's fear of being labeled an Abolitionist is an unfortunate byproduct of the times, but will change later in the novel as Huck's friendship with Jim and his understanding of slavery deepens.

"the parson..."   (Chapter VIII)

A member of the clergy, like a pastor or a priest. Missouri was officially settled in 1803 after the Louisiana Purchase, and Hannibal, MO, where the first chapters of the novel are set, wouldn't have had time to set up a rigid church hierarchy by this time. This parson is likely one of just a handful of clergymen in the area.

"the Illinois edge of the island..."   (Chapter VIII)

The Mississippi flows along the border of Illinois and Missouri, where both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the first chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are set. Though technically part of Missouri and based on real-life Glascock's Island, Jackson's Island would've been divided in Huck's mind into Missouri and Illinois sides, or "edges."

"dress up like a girl..."   (Chapter X)

Twain intends this cross-dressing to be humorous and light-hearted, a clever way for Huck to conceal his identity and procure information that will move the plot forward. This is a common trope on the stage and in literature. In real life, however, cross-dressing was reviled and frowned upon in the 1800s, and the cavalier way Twain uses it here underscores a deep-seated prejudice against transvestites, people who are transgender, genderfluid, and non-binary, and anyone who doesn't uphold this status quo. This prejudice is at the root of many of the problems members of the LGBTQI community face today.

"one of the calico gowns..."   (Chapter X)

A calico dress is made out of unbleached, often unprocessed cotton. In the 19th Century, when this novel was written, calico dresses often had structured whale-bone hoop skirts that made the dress puff out, giving Huck enough room to wear both the dress and his trousers. If not for the concealing nature of 19th Century women's clothing, Huck would have no hope of passing for a woman.

"But I tell you you don't get the point...."   (Chapter XIV)

Even though Huck himself is superstitious, he eventually takes Jim’s superstitions seriously (recall that Huck’s doubts about Jim’s rattlesnake superstitions were erased once they came into some “bad luck” with rattlesnakes.) Jim points out that even though his own views might be seen as silly, he considers the widow’s religion silly and illogical to him as well. Huck’s immediately assuming that Jim simply does not understand the story illustrates his being raised in a racist culture that deems African Americans less intelligent than whites.

"Louis Sixteenth..."   (Chapter XIV)

King of France from 1774 - 1791. Louis XVI was beheaded during the French Revolution along with his wife, Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI's reign was marked by periods of famine and unrest brought on by his deregulation of the grain market, which led to a sharp increase in the price of bread. His reign was succeeded by the leaders of the newly-established First French Republic, which brought a violent end to the monarchy before being itself defeated by Napoleon in his conquest of Europe. Huck mentions Louis XVI to make being a king sound just a little less glamorous.

"the dolphin..."   (Chapter XIV)

Huck means "dauphin," the French word for both Prince and dolphin. Louis XVI actually had two sons, Louis Joseph and Louis-Charles; the former died at the age of seven and was succeeded as dauphin by the latter, who died at the age of ten after his father was killed in the French Revolution.

"harem..."   (Chapter XIV)

A house or part of a house where women in Muslim families live. The term "harem" has been widely used in the Western world to refer to a house where women like concubines and prostitutes live. This usage stems from the erroneous belief that all Muslim men have dozens of wives and that they live in a state of sexual freedom. Huck uses this definition of the word here to make the life of a king seem even more luxurious.

"ole King Sollermun..."   (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.

"made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom..."   (Chapter XVI)

This line can be read in a few different ways. One way is that Jim is elated about the prospect of reaching the free states. An alternative reading though suggests that the concept of freedom might be a little more complicated for Jim. Consider that many freed slaves would often start their lives in the north with very little or no support. Additionally, once Jim gets safely to the north, he still must find a way to get his children back. This is a terrifying prospect with many unknowns, and we can read this line as being indicative of this mixture of intense emotions—terror, anxiety, elation, relief—all at once.

"the old regular Muddy..."   (Chapter XVI)

The big Muddy, the nickname for the Mississippi River, the river Twain sailed as a steamboat pilot. Their plan was to catch a steamboat well before reaching the Mississippi and ride it up to the free states; but now that they've passed Cairo their only choice is to go South on the big Muddy (unless, of course, they abandon the raft there and travel by foot in a slave state, which wouldn't work out well for Jim).

"but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time..."   (Chapter XVI)

In theory, this sounds dangerously like moral relativism, which states there's no such thing as morality and that everything can seem either good or bad depending on an individual's perspective, e.g. helping a runaway slave even though some people would say that's a crime. In practice, however, Huck's moral relativism isn't really about breaking the law but rather about keeping people out of harm's way (as when he saves the Widow Douglas in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer).

"smallpox..."   (Chapter XVI)

Often called the "pox," smallpox is a virus that results in small blisters breaking out all over the body of an infected person. It's one of only two infectious diseases to have been declared fully eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Before the vaccine was invented and widely disseminated, smallpox claimed some 300 - 500 million lives in the 20th Century alone.

"big parlor that had a new rag carpet ..."   (Chapter XVII)

A “parlor” is a sitting room, or what we might call the “living room” today. During the time frame that the novel is set in, a parlor room would typically be reserved for entertaining guests. Families that could afford houses with these rooms were usually middle-class or higher. The fact that this family has a “big parlor” with a “new rag carpet” suggests that they are somewhat well-off, though we do not know the source of their wealth.

"where Moses was when the candle went out..."   (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.

"he ain't mixed up in it..."   (Chapter XVIII)

This isn't entirely true. Jack can say that he hasn't seen Huck and Jim together, yes, but he can't say that he didn't know Jim was a fugitive, or that he didn't help a runaway slave. These were serious crimes in the antebellum south and would've resulted in any slave who helped Jim being beaten, if not worse. Huck knows this, of course, but fails to realize the full gravity of their situation (perhaps because he likes living with the Grangerfords so much).

"preforeordestination..."   (Chapter XVIII)

Predestination. A theological doctrine that asserts all events happen according to God's will and that an individual's fate has already been predetermined by God. This is an example of religious determinism, and it's part of the traditional doctrine taught by Roman Catholicism. Those who believe in predestination will often absolve themselves of guilt for their actions by saying that it was all God's will, and that may well be how the Grangerfords are justifying their actions to themselves.

"she was twenty-five..."   (Chapter XVIII)

In the 1800s, when this novel is set, most women were married off by the time they hit twenty-five, or if not married then certainly engaged. That Miss Charlotte isn't married should be considered a red flag, just as Bob and Tom living as bachelors can be seen as a red flag, given that they're older than Miss Charlotte and certainly have the means to marry. The Grangerfords children are thus characterized as part of a tight-knit family with reasons for staying together that we'll soon learn.

"the late Charlemagne..."   (Chapter XIX)

Charlemagne (768-814), the King of the Franks and the founder of the Holy Roman Empire. As we know from Chapter XIV, when Huck and Jim discussed King Solomon, that Louis XVI was beheaded and that his son, the dauphin, died of illness. However, there was a rumor that he escaped from prison and made his way to America. Regardless of whether or not that's true, Charlemagne was born a millennia before Louis XVI, so this old man certainly isn't him.

"the Duke of Bridgewater..."   (Chapter XIX)

Bridgewater, a peerage in the UK, hasn't had a Duke since 1803. The Third and last Duke of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton, was born in 1736 and is best known for the Bridgewater Canal, which is said to be the first true canal in the world. Twain likely chose this name because he knew that there wouldn't be any other Dukes of Bridgewater and that consequently he wouldn't be defaming anyone.

"a little temperance revival..."   (Chapter XIX)

A temperance revival is a kind of church service that seeks to "save" alcoholics through temperance (or the act of abstaining from alcohol). This bald-headed man runs the revival solely to make money off the entrance fee and is run out of town when he's revealed to be a drunk hypocrite. This is very similar to what happened to Pap in Chapter V when he was taken in by the judge, who "talked to him about temperance and such things till the old man cried."

"tar and feather..."   (Chapter XIX)

A popular form of punishment in those days. A person would first be covered in tar and then covered with feathers, which would together burn the person's skin without killing them. This was typically used as a form of humiliation and was carried out by angry mobs such as the one following these men.

"Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened..."   (Chapter XIX)

Huck and Jim are having a philosophical debate about the theory of "intelligent design." Jim believes that God created the universe and that the stars are part of his plan or design, but Huck believes that the stars just "happened" or evolved. Huck doesn't understand the astrophysics behind this and certainly doesn't know about the Big Bang, but has learned from his time on the river that nature has the power to perpetuate and reinvent itself.

"the unities..."   (Chapter XX)

Aristotelian unities, so named because they were first posited by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. His three unities were: the unity of time, meaning that tragedies should take place in the course of a single day; unity of space, meaning that there should be one scene or location in a play; and unity of action, meaning that there should only be one major plot line and no subplots.

"just crazy and wild..."   (Chapter XX)

This is not unlike what the scene would've been at the King's revival. One could liken this to a modern day evangelical megachurch where one charismatic preacher leads a community in prayer, usually from a stage or concert hall in place of a tent. Given that the King has been in and run revivals like this one before, it's no surprise that he knows how to swindle the audience at one.

"lining out a hymn..."   (Chapter XX)

In communities where not everyone was able to afford a hymnal or a Bible, preachers would often read or sing hymns line by line, a habit referred to as "lining." This was especially common in poor towns and in African-American communities where many people were illiterate.

"the sword fight in Richard III. and the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet..."   (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.

"Garrick the Younger..."   (Chapter XX)

David Garrick (1717 - 1779) was a prominent Shakespearean actor and theatre manager and was well-known even in Twain's time as being one of the best actors to ever perform in a Shakespeare play. Twain alludes to Garrick to both prove to the reader that the Duke has had some theatrical training and to prepare us for his being a very bad actor.

"Barlow knives..."   (Chapter XXI)

A “Barlow” knife is a large pocket knife with a single blade. This style of knife was a popular gift to give to young men during Twain’s time, and Twain mentions it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as well.

"eating bread that's got sand in it..."   (Chapter XXII)

It used to be that wheat for bread was milled on large rock slabs and that sand or grit would often get caught in the flour in the process. In ancient cultures, this lifelong consumption of gritty bread would wear down a person's teeth until they were just nubs, leaving them in near constant pain. Modern milling practices prevent sand from getting in flour, but this still sometimes happened in the 1800s, when this novel is set.

"sk'yarlet fever..."   (Chapter XXIII)

Scarlet fever is a bacterial disease that results in a bright red rash that covers the body. The illness can cause a high fever that during Twain’s time was potentially life-threatening, especially to infants and children. Today there are antibiotics to treat scarlet fever and it is relatively manageable with adequate medical attention.

"all the tea in Boston Harbor..."   (Chapter XXIII)

An allusion to the Boston Tea Party, an act of defiance against British imperial rule that was carried out on December 16, 1773. The Sons of Liberty destroyed the tea (a major export for Britain) in protest of the high tariffs exacted by the British on the colonies. The repercussions of this act were swift and forceful, and the brutality with which the British attempted to squash the rebellion heightened tensions and sparked the American Revolution.

"Domesday Book..."   (Chapter XXIII)

Huck again mixes up his history, linking the book One Thousand and One Nights with the Domesday Book, a real book compiled during the reign King William the Conqueror in order to determine what and how many taxes were still owed from the reign of his predecessor, King Edward the Confessor. This book was compiled nearly five centuries before Henry VIII's reign and is another example of Huck getting the historical timeline wrong.

"Henry the Eight..."   (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.

"a tanner..."   (Chapter XXIV)

Someone who tans animal hides, most often for leather and clothing. Recall that in Chapter II Ben Rogers and a couple of the others boys in Tom Sawyer's gang hid in the old tanyard while they were waiting for Huck and Tom. Twain's repetition of this profession and that of the "dissenting" (Protestant) minister emphasizes the fact that labor had yet to diversify significantly in the antebellum South and that there were only a few professions (and a few families) that were truly successful in business.

"Congress-water..."   (Chapter XXVI)

“Congress-water” is salt water from the Congress Spring in Saratoga, New York. During Twain’s time, Congress-water was believed to have therapeutic and healing properties due to the large amount minerals found in the water. Thus, it would have been a marker of status and wealth to have been able to afford to have it shipped from New York for personal baths, like Joanna mentions having done.

"pluribus-unum..."   (Chapter XXVIII)

“Mumps” is a highly contagious viral infection that affects the salivary glands. Today, a vaccine easily protects against the mumps, but during Twain’s time it was considered a serious illness. The strain that Huck mentions called “pluribus-unum” is not a real strain of mumps. Huck gets the phrase “pluribus-unum” from the United States motto “E pluribus unum” meaning “out of many, one.” The saying refers to the Union that was formed by all of the separate states and congress granted this the national motto in 1776. The saying can be found on U.S. currency.

"goes to everlasting fire..."   (Chapter XXXI)

While at first Huck worries about his reputation if it were to come out that he helped Jim escape, Huck has also been taught that to help a slave escape is “stealing” and that it is a sin punishable in the afterlife. What is ironic here is that the compassion and love that Huck shows for Jim is exactly what the Christian faith purports. Nevertheless, Huck is at odds in a few ways: he wants to help Jim, but to do so breaks written, social, and religious laws or doctrines. Racism is extremely pervasive in all areas of Huck’s life and escaping these ideologies proves to be very difficult.

"No'm. Killed a nigger..."   (Chapter XXXII)

By “anybody hurt,” Aunt Sally was really asking whether or not any white people were hurt, suggesting that she (and the antebellum south in general) views African American lives as less valuable. Notice that Huck replies that no one was hurt, but that an African American was killed. African Americans were seen as being outside the category of “person,” and both Aunt Sally’s and Huck’s remarks highlight this, especially considering that Huck has just noticed that the white and African American children are really no different. Although Huck’s statement denies African American humanity, it is unclear if Huck sees the racism in this ideology or not.

"best old soul I ever see..."   (Chapter XXXIII)

Huck sees Uncle Silas as a virtuous and kind-hearted person. However,even someone like Uncle Silas believes that he is doing the right thing by imprisoning Jim. Consider this in relation to the fact that Huck is in disbelief when Tom, someone he looks up to, also agrees to be Huck’s accomplice in “stealing” Jim. The laws and norms of their time and place are so pervasive and deeply-ingrained that otherwise “kind” or “respectable” people do not even think to question them. By characterizing Uncle Silas as a righteous citizen, Twain emphasizes the insidious nature of institutional racism.