The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn doesn’t feature a single, human antagonist. Instead, Huck and Jim encounter several minor antagonists along their journey. These minor antagonists all act in ways that interrupt Huck and Jim’s progress downriver. Significantly, the antagonists do not typically act in direct relation to the traveling pair. Instead, they act according to their own selfish needs or desires, and their actions have an indirect effect on the protagonist. Pap, who is the first minor antagonist to appear in the book, offers a good example. Pap is an alcoholic, and alcoholism drives his violence against his son. Pap needs money for booze, and Huck has a lot of it. But when Huck refuses to give his money up, Pap threatens his life and locks him in a cabin. This event indirectly sets the plot in motion by forcing Huck to flee. After escaping from the cabin and faking his own death, Huck sets off on his journey down the Mississippi River.
Other minor antagonists that appear in the novel include the Grangerford family and the duke and the dauphin. The encounters with these antagonists help shape Huck’s personal and moral development. The Grangerfords prove helpful to Huck at first, but he quickly gets mixed up in their longstanding feud with the Shepherdsons. The feud escalates, leading to a violent encounter that leaves nearly everyone but Huck dead. Huck associates this social conflict with a sense a claustrophobia, and he returns to the raft and the open water with a renewed sense of freedom. The next antagonists to emerge are the duke and the dauphin. After allowing the two grifters to board their raft, Huck and Jim get caught up in a series of increasingly cruel cons. Huck manages to escape from the grifters, only to find out that the dauphin has sold Jim to the Phelpses, who in turn hope to fetch a handsome reward for his return. This turn of events creates a crux in which Huck’s moral development reaches its peak. Faced with the choice of whether to leave Jim behind or to save him, Huck decides to go against social expectations and his own conscience and free Jim.
Aside from the minor antagonists Huck and Jim meet on their adventures, a more abstract and all-encompassing, nonhuman antagonist drives the novel as a whole: the institution of slavery. Slavery permeates every aspect of the novel, and the intensity of its influence increases as Huck and Jim move deeper into the South. More than any other antagonist, the issue of slavery and the question of its moral justness drives Huck’s crisis of conscience. Slavery creates a social environment characterized by racism, violence, and dehumanization. As he travels with Jim and faces ever greater danger because of it, Huck must decide whether to accept or reject the standards of his social environment. In the end, Huck refuses the notion that Jim is property and flouts society by asserting Jim’s humanity. Despite the change in Huck, however, the actual institution of slavery remains untouched by the end of the novel, as pervasive as ever.