Summary: Chapter 20

The duke and the dauphin ask whether Jim is a runaway slave. Huck makes up a story about how he was orphaned and tells them that he and Jim have been forced to travel at night since so many people stopped his boat to ask whether Jim was a runaway. That night, the duke and the dauphin take Huck’s and Jim’s beds while Huck and Jim stand watch against a storm.

The next morning, the duke gets the dauphin to agree to put on a performance of Shakespeare in the next town they pass. They reach the town and find that everyone in the town has left for a religious revival meeting in the woods, a lively affair with several thousand people singing and shouting. The dauphin gets up and tells the crowd that he is a former pirate, now reformed by the revival meeting, who will return to the Indian Ocean as a missionary. The crowd joyfully takes up a collection, netting the dauphin more than eighty dollars and many kisses from pretty young women.

Meanwhile, the duke takes over the deserted print office in town and earns nearly ten dollars selling print jobs, subscriptions, and advertisements in the local newspaper. The duke also prints up a “handbill,” or leaflet, offering a reward for Jim’s capture, which will allow them to travel freely by day and tell anyone who inquires that Jim is their captive. Meanwhile, Jim has been innocently trying to get the dauphin to speak French, but the supposed heir to the French throne claims that he has forgotten the language.

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Summary: Chapter 21

Waking up after a night of drinking, the duke and dauphin practice the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet and the swordfight from Richard III on the raft. The duke also works on his recitation of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, which he doesn’t know well at all, throwing in lines from other parts of Hamlet and even some lines from Macbeth. To Huck, however, the duke seems to possess a great talent.

Next, the group visits a one-horse town in Arkansas where lazy young men loiter in the streets, arguing over chewing tobacco. Huck gives a detailed, absurd description of the town. The duke posts handbills for the theatrical performance, and Huck witnesses the shooting of a rowdy drunk by a man, Sherburn, whom the drunk has insulted. The shooting takes place in front of the victim’s daughter. A crowd gathers around the dying man and then goes off to lynch Sherburn.

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Summary: Chapter 22

The lynch mob charges through the streets, proceeds to Sherburn’s house, and knocks down the front fence. The crowd quickly backs away, however, as Sherburn greets them from the roof of his front porch, rifle in hand. After a chilling silence, Sherburn delivers a haughty speech on human nature in which he attacks the cowardice and mob mentality of the average person. Sherburn tells the crowd that no one will lynch him in the daytime. The mob, chastened, disperses.

Huck then goes to the circus, a “splendid” show with a quick-witted clown. A performer, pretending to be a drunk, forces himself into the ring and tries to ride a horse, apparently hanging on for dear life. The crowd roars in amusement, except for Huck, who cannot bear to watch the poor man in danger. That night, only twelve people attend the duke’s performance, and they jeer throughout the entire show. The duke then prints another handbill, this time advertising a performance of The King’s Cameleopard [Giraffe] or The Royal Nonesuch. Bold letters across the bottom read, “Women and Children Not Admitted.”

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Analysis: Chapters 20–22

Although these chapters involving the duke and the dauphin appear purely comic on the surface, a dark commentary undercuts the comedy in virtually every episode. On the surface, the duke and the dauphin seem to be just two bumbling con artists, but they present an immediate threat to Huck and Jim. The two men constantly and cruelly toy with Jim’s precarious status as a runaway slave and even use this fact to their own advantage when they print the fake leaflet advertising a reward for Jim’s capture. Moreover, the fact that the duke and the dauphin run their first scam at a sacred event—a religious meeting—demonstrates their incredible malice. At the same time, however, it also suggests that the religious revival meeting may be as much of a scam as any of the “royal” pair’s shenanigans. Continuing the pattern that we have seen throughout Huckleberry Finn, nearly everyone Huck and Jim encounter on the river is an unsavory character or a fake in one way or another.

Read more about lies and cons as a motif.

Sherburn’s murder of the drunk and the subsequent mob scene continue this vein of simultaneous absurdity and seriousness in the novel and contribute to the sense of moral confusion in the town. Although Sherburn’s shooting of the drunk is cold-blooded, his speech to the angry mob is among the most profound meditations on human nature in Huckleberry Finn. Sherburn’s criticisms of the cowardice and despicable behavior of his fellow citizens are accurate, and his eloquence is impressive. Furthermore, much of what he has to say about cowardice applies directly to the townspeople's deplorable behavior, which has put Huck and Jim in peril in the first place. All the while, however, we are aware that this thoughtful speech comes from the mouth of a man who has just shot a defenseless drunk. Like Huck, we are confused and disoriented.

Read more about the series of antagonists encountered in the novel.

Rather than provide some relief from this world of malice and chaos, Huck’s leisurely trip to the circus only complicates matters further. Coming between the religious revival and the con men’s performance, the circus illustrates just how fine the line is between spiritually enriching experience, legitimate entertainment, and downright fraud. Huck’s concern for the seemingly drunk horseman is an elegantly constructed ending to this set of chapters. In a world like the one Twain depicts in the novel, one can no longer distinguish between reality and fakery, doom and deliverance.

Read more about the allusions Twain is making in these chapters.