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Motifs and Irony in Huck Finn

 (recurring ideas or situations, repetition and variation of themes)  Motifs unify the episodic plot and provide clues to the composer’s underlying concerns in creating meaning through patterns of design.

For each of the following find other instances of these motifs and discuss the significance of each motif.

1) Kingship.  Solomon,  Books on Royalty, King and Duke

2) Tricks on Jim,   hat,  snake,  fog,  Jim’s escape from Phelps

3) Moral decisions,   Jackson Island,  Cairo,  after Jim is sold,    stealing food, 

4) Snakes.  Jim’s warning,  bitten by one,  Tom in cell,   dripping from the rafters.

5) Rogues.  Packard and Bill, Duke and King.

6) Overhearing conversations.  Packard and Bill,  Jim and Miss Watson, Play of King and Duke,

7) Crowds.   Searching for Huck,  Lynch mob,  camp meeting,  around the coffin

8) Excessive greed.   Royal Nonsuch,  Wilks episode,  Feathers Impostors,  Phelps farm.

9) Desertion,  Bill and Packard,   impostors at Wilks funeral

10) Disgust for humanity.  Grangerford/Shepherdson killings,  schemes of King and Duke,  tarring and feathering of King and Duke,  sale of slaves.


11) False identities (new masks or facades)  Huck as girl,  Huck as Tom..

12) Malapropisms.  Disease – deceased,  Duke of Bilgewater (Bridgewater)  Orgies – obsequies,  Dauphin – Dolphins.

13) Misquotation of classics (reliance on ‘authority’)  Hamlet’s soliloquy,  Tom and Huck on Royalty.

14) Humour.  Understatement – “no scarcity of snakes”,  French speakers,  burlesque,  - performances of King and Duke.

15) False sentimentality.  Judge of Pap,  Camp meeting of pirates,  impostors at funeral,  Mawkish poetry of Emmeline Grangerford, 

16) Romanticism.   Tom Sawyer on royalty,  the far-fetched escape plan.

17) Gullibility.  Jim on many stories,  victims of the King and Duke,   Harny and Sophie. 

Jim is a captive of his fears and superstition while Tom is captive to the codes and “rules” of his romantic novels, but Huck eventually rids himself of the constraints of “sivilisation”.

The King and the Duke are used as devices of humourous satire as the more bizarre and brazen they are and the sillier the sentimentality – the greater the gullibility of the masses.

18) Satire and irony  Pap on government, on church, on negroes.  Huck’s evaluations are not that the responder should necessarily accept.  Jim is travelling south for freedom?  (See Irony in Huck Finn)

19) Hoaxes.  (deception)  Huck’s fake death,  Royal Nonsuch,  Wilks incident,  deception at Phelps,  The escape plan; both to the Phelps and to the responder.

20) “Stretchers”.  They all have an element of unconscious truth to them; usually involving his father’s death which ironically turns out to be true. They are generally told to assist Jim in his escape.

Irony in Huck Finn

Huck blames himself for:

a) not fitting in and conforming to society – while we the responder place the guilt squarely with  hypocritical and corrupt society.

b) complicity in freeing Jim and decides to “go to hell” – go against his conscience,  while we applaud his decision as the correct moral and ethical choice.

The Grangerfords and Shepherdsons keep their guns handy in Church as they listen to some “pretty ornery preaching all about brotherly love and such tiresomeness”  and then emerge to go out and savagely murder each other.

The feuds in Romeo and Juliet and the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons stem from long forgotten origins or causes and are both re-ignited by romantic love.


Widow Douglas takes snuff yet hypocritically denies Huck his pipe.

Huck’s escape from Pap and Jim’s elaborate release from prison were both unnecessary, as Pap had died and Jim had been freed in Miss Watson’s Will.

Once he passed Cairo, by travelling south, Jim is travelling deeper into Slave territory rather than freedom.

The prevailing and pervading irony of the novel is that we the responder see through and beyond what Huck observes and frequently see that Huck’s interpretation of reality is just the reverse.

Huck admires Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry, yet we see it for what it is; drivel – doggerel.
b) Huck looks up to Tom’s  Knowledge about “authority” - how things should be done in Romantic chivalric and honourable ways, but we see through this as being tawdry romanticism, faded sentimentalism and false chivalric codes of honour, thoroughly discredited in the Grangerford Shepherdson disputes.
 Though the novel is written in the 1870’s, after the Civil War (1860 – 63), it depicts the society of the 1840’s; America about 20 years before the Civil War emancipates the slaves.

Novels are notoriously difficult to end; to bed down or to exit in a satisfying manner for everyone.   Do we want a neat tidy ending with all the loose knots tied, or an ambiguous one where we have to imagine our own solutions.  Happy endings can be unrealistic, while tragic ones can leave an audience utterly dissatisfied. 

 Mark Twain had worked a long time on this novel and the first two thirds of the book is brilliant, but the last one third he reverts to the banality of his earlier book, Tom Sawyer.

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