Huck puts on his store-bought clothes and goes to see Silas Phelps, the man who is holding Jim. While on his search, Huck encounters the duke putting up posters for The Royal Nonesuch. When the duke questions him, Huck concocts a story about how he wandered the town but found neither Jim nor the raft. The duke initially slips and reveals where Jim really is (on the Phelps farm) but then changes his story and says he sold Jim to a man forty miles away. The duke encourages Huck to head out on the three-day, forty-mile trip.Read a translation of Chapter 31 →
In the aftermath of the Wilks episode, the duke and the dauphin lose the last vestiges of their inept, bumbling charm and become purely menacing and dangerous figures. Although the standoff over the Wilks estate ultimately is resolved without any physical or financial harm to anyone, the depth of greed and sliminess the con men display is astonishing. Then, just when it appears the duke and the dauphin can sink no lower, the catastrophe that Twain has foreshadowed for the last few chapters materializes when Huck discovers that Jim is missing. Just as it has throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, evil follows Huck and Jim onto the raft and thwarts their best attempts to escape it.
Jim’s capture significantly matures Huck, for it convinces him to break with the con men for good and leads him to a second moment of moral reckoning. Huck searches the social and religious belief systems that white society has taught him for a way out of his predicament about turning Jim in. In the end, Huck is unable to pray because he cannot truly believe in these systems, for he cares too much about Jim to deny Jim’s existence and humanity. Huck’s thoughts of his friendship with Jim lead him to listen to his own conscience, and, echoing his sentiments from Chapter 1, Huck resolves to act justly by helping Jim and “go to hell” if necessary. Once again, Huck turns received notions upside down, as he figures that even hell would be better than the society in which he lives. Huck then sets out on his first truly adult endeavor—setting off to free Jim at whatever moral or physical cost to himself. It is vital to note that Huck undertakes this action with the belief that it might send him to hell. Though he does not articulate this truth to himself, he trades his fate for Jim’s and thereby accepts the life of a black man as equal to his own.