The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by: Mark Twain

Chapters 2–3

Read a translation of Chapter 3 →

Analysis: Chapters 2–3

These chapters establish Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as foils for each other—characters whose actions and traits contrast each other in a way that gives us a better understanding of both of their characters. Twain uses Tom to satirize romantic literature and to comment on the darker side of so-called civilized society. Tom insists that his make-believe adventures be conducted “by the book.” As Tom himself admits in regard to his gang’s oath, he gets many of his ideas from fiction. In particular, Tom tries to emulate the romantic—that is, unrealistic, sensationalized, and sentimentalized—novels, mostly imported from Europe, that achieved enormous popularity in nineteenth-century America. Tom is identified with this romantic genre throughout the novel. Whereas Tom puts great stock in literary models, Huck is as skeptical of these as he is of religion. In both realms, Huck refuses to accept much on faith. He rejects both genies and prayers when they fail to produce the promised results. Twain makes this contrast between Tom’s romanticism and Huck’s skepticism to show that both points of view can prove equally misleading if taken to extremes.

Although Huck and Tom are set up as foils for one another, they still share some traits, which help to sustain their friendship throughout the novel. Perhaps most important, the two share a rambunctious boyishness; they delight in the dirty language and pranks that the adult world condemns. Yet Huck’s feelings about society and the adult world are based on his negative experiences—most notably with his abusive father—and ring with a seriousness and weight that Tom’s fancies lack. We get the sense that Tom can afford to accept the nonsense of society and romantic literature, but Huck cannot. On the whole, Huck’s alienation from the “civilization” of the adult world is a bit starker and sadder.

Ironically, the novel that Tom explicitly mentions as a model for his actions is Cervantes’s Don Quixote. In his masterpiece, Cervantes satirizes romantic adventure stories as Twain does in Huckleberry Finn. In referencing Don Quixote, Twain also gives a literary tip of the hat to one of the earliest and greatest picaresque novels, which, through its naïve protagonist’s wacky adventures, satirizes literature, society, and human nature in much the same way that Twain does in Huckleberry Finn. By means of the reference to Don Quixote, Twain tells us that, though he intends to write a humorous novel, Huckleberry Finn also fits into a longstanding tradition of novels that seek to criticize through humor, to point out absurdity through absurdity. In this chapter, for instance, Twain comments on Tom’s absurdity and blind ignorance in basing his actions on a novel that is so clearly a satire. Tom, who is interested in contracts, codes of conduct, fancy language, and make-believe ideas, believes in these frilly ideas at the expense of common sense. He cares more about absurd stylistic ideals than he does about people. Tom also displays some of the hypocrisy of civilized society. For instance, he makes the members of his gang sign an oath in blood and swear not to divulge the group’s secrets, but when a boy threatens to betray that promise, Tom simply offers him a bribe.