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.”Read a translation of Chapter 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.
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.
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.