The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel by American author and humorist Mark Twain. The picaresque novel was published in 1884 and has since been a topic of vast discussion and controversy. The book follows Huckleberry (more commonly referred to as Huck), a young white boy who escapes his abusive alcoholic father, and Jim, a runaway slave trying to save his family. The two go on a wacky adventure across the South similar to those you hear in old folk tales of Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett.

However, the book isn’t as innocent as it seems. The book was immediately banned across the United Kingdom and the United States for being so vulgar and being a direct attack on society. The n word is repeated over 200 times and there are multiple instances of extreme violence that could leave even the most thick-skinned reader uneasy.

Twain used Huck Finn to attack multiple institutions and beliefs. The crudeness of the story isis all to drive in the points he attempted to make.

He created the book to be a satire of most anything you could think of being apparent in the 1880s; religion, racism, Southern ‘nobility’, the legal system’s faults, et cetera, are all alluded to in the most ridiculous and shocking manners that you wonder why he even thought putting it all on paper was a good idea. Instances of mockery in its crudest form can be found in gang wars killing children, fake kings scamming entire towns, and children planning their own brutal crimes for sport.

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Though being over a hundred years old, this book can still be strongly connected to the modern day. It’s rather shocking how a book written in the 1800s can still be relevant in multiple aspects, especially when we speak of how much we have grown as a society.

A hard hitting topic that the plot of Huck Finn alludes to is child abuse. There are four main types of child abuse: physical, emotional/psychological, sexual, and neglect/malnourishment. Three of four are shown throughout the book along with its effects. The United States has one of the worst reputations when it comes to child abuse. reports that four to seven children die every day due to abuse in the States alone. To visualize this on a 30-day scale, picture 1/4th of the class of 2020 all getting raped, beat, or bullied, resulting in their death. If that’s not a big enough concept for you, 6.6 million children are referred to child protection agencies each year; however, only 3.2 million cases are investigated. These statistics don’t even include child neglect cases. In fact, if neglect was included the numbers would rise by 50%. 90% of child fatalities are attributed to abuse. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn portrays a young boy’s life during and after extreme physical abuse and neglect which culminates in Pap threatening Huck for being smarter than him, Huck showing signs of trauma due to his mistreatment, and Huck faking his death to escape his father.

When Pap, Huck’s father, makes his first appearance he immediately cements his abusive nature. The proof is on page 25 where one of his first dialogue pieces is him degrading and threatening Huck by saying, “Ain’t you a sweet-scented dandy, though? A bed; and bedclothes; and a look’n’-glass; and a piece of carpet on the floor—and your own father got to sleep with the hogs in the tanyard. I never see such a son. I bet I’ll take some o’ these frills out o’ you before I’m done with you.’ He says that when he sees that Huck, taken in by Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, has become rich and educated. This is an example emotional abuse, specifically terrorizing and verbally assaulting. You can also argue that this statement from Pap includes isolating and corrupting techniques.

Terrorizing is defined by Prevent Child Abuse America as when an adult ‘creates a climate of fear, bullies and frightens the child, and makes the child believe that the world is capricious and hostile.’ While verbally assaulting is described as when an adult ‘humiliates the child with repeated name-calling, harsh threats, and sarcasm that continually ‘beat down’ the child’s self-esteem.’ The same scene has more examples of this including quotes like “You’ve put on considerable many frills since I been away. I’ll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You’re educated, too, they say—can read and write. You think you’re better’n your father, now, don’t you, because he can’t? I’ll take it out of you,’ (P. 23, 24) and ‘Now looky here; you stop that putting on frills. I won’t have it. I’ll lay for you, my smarty; and if I catch you about that school I’ll tan you good. First you know you’ll get religion, too. I never see such a son” (P.24).

Pap criticizes Huck for being a ‘sweet-scented dandy’ and being better than him. Words of criticism like this can horribly effect a child’s wellbeing even after the abuse ends. An anonymous woman reported to Psychology Today with her view on how verbal abuse, like Huck experiences, permanently affected her. She states, ‘I’m very critical of myself and overly sensitive. I have a very poor self-image even though I’ve accomplished a great deal. I over-analyze other people’s intentions in anticipation of rejection. I’m not overly social and can be very negative. I wonder if I seek out depressed feelings—I like melancholy songs or stories. One of my greatest fears and motivators is not being enough for someone I care about.’ Science writer Peg Streep, also a survivor of abuse, follows this up by saying, ‘This woman suffers from rejection sensitivity and low self-esteem, has an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment, and is prone to rumination and perhaps depression—and all of this co-exists with high achievement in the world.’ While Huck is still a child and hasn’t yet grown into a successful adult, years of abuse culminate into multiple unhealthy behaviors of which he has no control.

In chapter nineteen, Huck exhibits whats called a traumatic stress reaction. He experiences a cognitive error which is defined by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) as, ‘Misinterpreting a current situation as dangerous because it resembles, even remotely, a previous trauma.’ The incident happens when Huck, paddling in a canoe he found on a search for berries, sees a group of men running towards him and yelling. ‘I thought I was a goner, for whenever anybody was after anybody I judged it was ME—or maybe Jim. I was about to dig out from there in a hurry, but they was pretty close to me then, and sung out and begged me to save their lives…’ (P. 141). Although it turns out they aren’t going to harm Huck he still exhibits a triggered response embedded in his psyche by years of torment.

Triggers, as explained also by SAMHSA, are ‘stimuli that set off memories of a trauma or a specific portion of a traumatic experience…’ Triggers can be anything from noises to visual scenarios. In extreme scenarios, triggers can be mundane things such as certain days or even the temperature. Triggered responses differ, but the average response is being mentally sent back to whatever situation the trigger reminds you of. Huck seems to be triggered by people yelling and running towards him. Earlier in chapter 6 Huck mentions he avoids Pap’s beatings by outrunning him (P. 28), so it is easy to connect his triggered response with his father. He also seems to have another traumatic stress reaction in chapter 8 where on page 48 he states, ‘I didn’t sleep much. I couldn’t, somehow, for thinking. And every time I waked up I thought somebody had me by the neck.’ Even while Huck sleeps he is aware that his Pap may hurt him. This effects him even when he isn’t with him.

An extremely important detail in Pap’s characterization is his alcoholism. When he first appears he makes Huck give him his only dollar. ‘He took it and bit it to see if it was good, and then he said he was going down town to get some whisky; said he hadn’t had a drink all day.’ (P. 25). He is almost always drinking or drunk when he appears and is frequently jailed or hospitalized due to his drunken rampages. In one scenario he breaks his arm (‘In the night some time he got powerful thirsty and clumb out on to the porch-roof and slid down a stanchion and traded his new coat for a jug of forty-rod, and clumb back again and had a good old time; and towards daylight he crawled out again, drunk as a fiddler, and rolled off the porch and broke his left arm in two places, and was most froze to death when somebody found him after sun-up. ‘ (P. 27) ) and was arrested for disrupting the town (‘I borrowed three dollars from Judge Thatcher, and pap took it and got drunk, and went a-blowing around and cussing and whooping and carrying on; and he kept it up all over town, with a tin pan, till most midnight; then they jailed him, and next day they had him before court, and jailed him again for a week.’ (P. 26)).

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics states that there are about 30 million children born to alcoholic parents. Multiple studies have found that child abuse and alcoholism are frequently found hand-in-hand. Alcohol effects cognitive and physical function which makes it hard for those under the influence to control their behavior. If someone is almost always drunk then it is a given that they are not fully capable to handle the needs of a child. This leads to neglect and, in some cases, abuse.

Huck’s experience with his father fortunately reaches a climax, though the experience is by no means a pleasant one. It starts when Huck, trapped in a cabin where his father had forced him into after kidnapping him, wakes to Pap, ‘looking wild, and skipping around every which way and yelling about snakes. He said they was crawling up his legs.’ (P.34). He goes into a state of Alcoholic hallucinosis which is defined by the PMC as ‘a rare complication of chronic alcohol abuse characterized by predominantly auditory hallucinations that occur either during or after a period of heavy alcohol consumption.’ As the episode goes on, slowing getting worse and worse, Pap finally (from the perspective of Huck) ‘rolled out and jumped up on his feet looking wild, and he see me and went for me. He chased round and round the place with a claspknife, calling me the Angel of Death, and saying he would kill me, and then I couldn’t come for him no more. I begged, and told him I was only Huck; but he laughed SUCH a screechy laugh, and roared and cussed, and kept on chasing me up.’ (P. 35). The episode only ends when Pap falls asleep, and he remembers none of it in the morning.

This event seems to be Huck’s breaking point. ‘I took the axe and smashed in the door. I took the axe and smashed in the door. I beat it and hacked it considerable a-doing it. I fetched the pig in, and took him back nearly to the table and hacked into his throat with the axe, and laid him down on the ground to bleed; I say ground because it was ground – hard packed, and no boards. Well, next I took an old sack and put a lot of big rocks in it – all I could drag – and I started it from the pig, and dragged it to the door and through the woods down to the river and dumped it in, and down it sunk, out of sight. You could easy see that something had been dragged over the ground.’ (P. 39). Huck fakes his murder just to escape his father. Such a drastic escape plan can only mean that the trauma has reached its peak. He exhibits one of the key behavioral indicators of abuse; running away. A study from the New York Times claims that most runaway children are running from abuse. 73% of the children interviewed had been physically abused.

Child abuse has always been a key issue in modern society. Though The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written in 1884, the insights Twain gives of a child whose life has been destroyed by his Pap’s mental instability and violent tendencies still apply to mistreated children of 2018. Twain approaches this issue as a simple side note and almost dismisses it, all to implement the satire that the book is fueled by. With such a dismissive attitude, Twain mimics many adults’ reactions to abuse even now. The fact that he even covered this topic is significant. Only ten years before had the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children been established after the first trial and sentencing of the abusive mother of Mary Ellen Cormack. Until then adults had legal protection that allowed them to abuse their children almost freely. The presence of this topic in the book ties into multiple different issues including the legal system, violence, and debatably even religion in some peoples’ perspectives. It is just another point that he made that makes us question our current society.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (2022, May 12). Retrieved from

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