Literary Devices in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Picaresque Structure: Once Jim and Huck escape on the raft, the novel takes on an episodic structure that follows their visits to various places along the Mississippi River. Each setting has its own major conflict—the Grangerford and Shepherdson feud, the conmen’s impersonation of Peter Wilks—which is either resolved or escaped just in time. Unlike traditional picaresque heroes, Huck experiences major emotional and moral growth.
Vernacular Writing: Twain wrote the novel in the local vernacular with characters speaking in the dialects of the region. Huck and the other characters use the conversational vocabulary, expressions, and word pronunciations of the people in that geographical region at that time in order to lend a sense of realism to the story and ground it in a specific setting.
Literary Devices Examples in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
"Ben Rogers..." See in text (Chapter II)
Tom's repetition of Ben's full name serves two purposes: 1) it belittles Ben, who's name in this process becomes a kind of joke, and 2) it allows Twain to identify who's talking and who Tom's responding to without having to use the normal "he said" construction. This enhances the humor of the situation without sacrificing any clarity.
"—and then I was pretty soon comfortable again...." See in text (Chapter II)
Notice how Twain buries Huck's scratching in this aside. After using the word "itch" eight times in two paragraphs, he very wisely chose not to use it again and instead imply the act of itching by stating it's result ("comfort"). These logical leaps are common in Twain's work.
"his own self..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Notice how many of these chapters end on a cliffhanger: Huck sneaking out of the house, Pap showing up in his room. This novel, like many of Twain's books, was published in serial form before it was collected into a novel; because of this, Twain had to write in short, digestible chapters, which accounts for the novel's episodic structure.
"a cross in the left boot-heel..." See in text (Chapter IV)
This is the second time we've seen the cross come up as an image outside the Church (the first being the cross that a member of Tom's Gang would cut into their victims' chests). This adoption of religious iconography for superstitious and sacrilegious purposes is common in Twain's work and gives the reader a sense of his opinion on organized religion.
"he come back and put his head in again..." See in text (Chapter V)
Twain's comedic timing is impeccable. Modern readers will recognize this delayed return as a tactic used in sketch comedies and films and a byproduct of Twain's pacing and expert use of dialect. Huck clearly thinks this is funny, too, or else he wouldn't have told the story this way.
"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...." See in text (Chapter VI)
What is the social critique found in this story?
"I knowed why I was going to leave that..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Twain wisely withholds this information for a few more paragraphs, leaving the reader in suspense and creating an air of mystery and foreboding. When we do finally learn what Huck's planning to do with the axe, it fulfills this line's promise of violence and danger and sets the stage for future acts of deception later in the novel.
"they'll follow the track..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Notice how Twain switches from past to present tense in this passage and how he differentiates between direct speech and private thoughts by writing Huck's inner monologue without any quotation marks. This proves that, while the novel might be written in dialect, that doesn't mean it isn't literary.
"en boun' to git his money back a hund'd times..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Neither Balum nor Jim understands that their preacher was speaking figuratively, and that the hundred-fold riches promised to them as a reward for their generosity are spiritual riches of the kind that might get them into Heaven. Their inability to understand this nuance (and their expectations about money) provide another humorous layer to Jim's backstory, making him all the more endearing to the reader because of his foolishness.
"it was death..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
This isn't the first time that Huck and his actions have been likened to death. In a previous chapter, his Pap hallucinated that he was actually the Angel of Death, and there have been many references to murder, death, and drowning. Twain will continue to build this theme as the novel progresses.
"further and further off..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
Notice how Twain uses sound and the physics of sound to manipulate time in the novel. In this passage, the sound of the cannon booming gets further and further away, which measures not just distance but time. Twain's use of the word "further" (a measure of degree) instead of "farther" (a measure of distance) further supports this.
"he might come and ha'nt us..." See in text (Chapter X)
Jim means this in both a literal and a figurative sense: the dead man's ghost will come to haunt them and the image of the dead man's body in the house will "haunt" them psychologically, reminding them of the horrors of death and murder. It's important to note here that there is a "ghost" haunting Huck throughout the book: his father, whose abuse make him run away and whose whereabouts Huck won't learn until much, much later.
"Well, we can wait the two hours anyway and see, can't we?..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Huck and Jim made a similar compromise earlier in the chapter when they decided not to steal crabapples and persimmons. Here, the two robbers agree to let Turner drown, effectively murdering him without getting their hands dirty, so to speak. Twain draws a parallel between the robbers and the runaways to emphasize how relatively innocent Huck and Jim are by comparison.
"Jim Turner..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Notice how Twain makes a point of repeating the name in this scene so that the reader can keep track of who's talking. He employed this same technique in Chapter II, when he has Tom Sawyer repeat "Ben Rogers" over and over again. This makes it easier for the reader and frees Twain from having to right "he said, she said" in scene.
"I wish Tom Sawyer was here..." See in text (Chapter XII)
Huck draws an indirect comparison between Jim and Tom, implying that he prefers Tom's adventurous, carefree attitude to Jim's boring, careful one. This comment seems particularly insensitive when Jim responds by grumbling, no doubt feeling judged by Huck, whom he'd been thinking of as a friend. In this line, both Jim and the reader can see where Huck's true loyalties lie.
"smell around the wreck for Miss Hooker's remainders..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
Twain uses personification to liken the ferryboat to someone sniffing around the wreck, like a dog. Recall that in the previous chapter Jim worried about the woman fetching a dog to catch their scents. Here, the image is repurposed to suggest that the robbers were the ones people should've been looking for and that Huck and Jim should be left alone.
"Alas..." See in text (Chapter XVII)
Twain uses repetition to emphasize the affectation and melodrama of the girl's pictures, which all show young women who, for one reason or another, have been left behind by their loved ones and have since been reduced to weeping and waiting. Keep these pictures in mind as we learn more about the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, as the image of a woman waiting for a lover will help to illuminate one of the central plot points of the feud.
"trod the boards..." See in text (Chapter XX)
An idiom meaning to act professionally on the stage. It derives from the act of walking (trodding) back and forth across the stage (boards). The Duke uses this phrase to assert his familiarity with the stage and his professional training as an actor. Notice how the Duke has begun to take control of their operation and plot their course of action.
"h-wack! bum! bum!..." See in text (Chapter XX)
Twain uses onomatopoeia to imitate the sound of thunder: H-wack This has the added effect of making the storm more real to readers. Huck makes it sound like a great and glorious thing, a piece of can't-miss entertainment, and as a result heightens the drama of the scene for the reader. As the novel's title implies, this is all one big adventure to Huck, and he enjoys every second of this storm.
"he's killed him, he's killed him!..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
Notice that Boggs is murdered after Huck and his cohorts have already advertised the performance of Shakespeare's tragedies. Twain’s placement of this murder leads us to compare Boggs’s fate with tragedy: While Boggs was a troublemaker, nothing warrants this brutal end. Twain leads us to reflect on the fact that Sherburn’s status as a wealthy, white business owner grants him the power to decide who lives and dies—largely without any repercussions.
"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.
"and everybody just a-howling with pleasure and astonishment..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
Twain juxtaposes this episode with the "drunk" circus performer and the scene with Boggs to show us how things should've gone: Boggs would've been drunk and harmless to anyone but himself, the crowd would've gotten a good laugh, and nobody would've died. Instead, the Sheriff had to take a hard line with Boggs, and it ended in tragedy.
"then dived in under the tent..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
Twain juxtaposes Sherburn's long speech about courage and moral fortitude with a short scene of Huck bending the rules in order not to pay to attend the circus. His moral relativity in this instance tempers the somewhat judgmental tone Huck has adopted in these past two chapters and reminds the reader that Huck doesn't have the moral high ground. He's a scamp, too, just of a different kind.
"haw-hawed..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
An example of onomatopoeia. "Haw-hawed" mimics the sound of the audience's laughter, which is uproarious, delighted, and crass. Just as the Duke suspected, this crowd doesn't need a great Shakespearean tragedy to entertain them; they just need someone to prance around on stage naked. This onomatopoeia, then, serves to both indicate the nature of the laughter and the character of those laughing.
"as splendid as a rainbow..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
Twain uses a simile to compare the King's body-paint with a rainbow, referring both to its impressive spectrum of color and to its half-moon shape, which the King unintentionally mimics by prancing around on all fours with a hunched back. This simile is yet another example of Huck describing something with images from the natural world, thus building on the theme of nature developed throughout the book.
"I reckon I couldn't 'a' stood it all..." See in text (Chapter XXVII)
Here, Twain illustrates the power that the symbol of family has to break down barriers of race and perceived difference in order to evoke empathy. Note that the slaves, the Wilks sisters, and the townspeople are all very distraught that the king has torn apart a family. Huck is disgusted by this, and while he still has a long way to go, he has grown enough to feel the ugliness of this act. Ultimately, the only thing that keeps Huck from taking a stand against this violence is that he knows that the slaves will be brought back once the ruse has been discovered.
"So, then, what you want to come back and ha'nt me for?”..." See in text (Chapter XXXIII)
Notice that Tom’s reaction to seeing Huck for the first time after Huck faked his own death is very similar to Jim’s. Both immediately think that Huck is a ghost who has come to haunt them. Recall that Tom exploited Jim’s spirituality and superstition for a cruel practical joke in the beginning of the novel. Twain points out Tom’s hypocrisy here—Tom thinks Jim’s spirituality is silly and uses it as a means to look down on Jim, but Tom is superstitious himself. Twain pushes the reader to compare Tom and Jim to ultimately point out that while they are very different in character, they share a few very human similarities.
"just you slide down cellar and fetch it..." See in text (Chapter XL)
Tom wants to make Jim’s “rescue” feel as close to his adventure novels as possible, so he frequently treats Huck and Jim as if they were his personal servants. Tom behaves like a dictator and many of the tasks he has had Huck and Jim carry out are pointless and self-serving. In this way, Twain uses Tom as a foil for characterizing Huck. They are alike in certain ways, both mischievous and intelligent, but they are different in one crucial aspect: Huck learns as he grows up to use his sneaky smarts for good—and Tom does not. Twain uses Tom to show us how much more mature Huck is than Tom is, despite their many similarities.