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Huck Finn Teacher's Guide
Culture Shock Huck Finn in Context: The Curriculum

Section 4: The Novel as Satire
  Suggested length: 7-14 days
This section of the curriculum focuses on Huck Finn as satire -- a lens through which most English teachers have traditionally looked at the novel. Many of the questions and activities, which help students understand what a satire is, and how Twain uses this form to ridicule and rebuke the slaveholding society of Huck Finn, will probably be familiar. Here students are asked to think about Twain's satire and the author's intent in terms of the controversy surrounding the book.

Review with the class the meaning of satire and irony and how they differ. You may also have students read literary criticism that explores this topic in relation to Huck Finn. In addition to the essays noted below, you may also want to use the following books: Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Bloom's Notes Contemporary Literary Views Book, by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996) and Huck Finn among the Critics: A Centennial Selection, edited by Thomas M. Inge (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1985.)

Companion Readings for Teachers and Students

Hoffman, Michael J. "Huck's Ironic Circle." In Modern Critical Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, 31-44.

Marx, Leo. "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn." In The Critical Response to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, edited by Laurie Champion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991, 50-60.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think the author chose Huck -- an illiterate young boy -- as the voice through which to tell this story?

  • Why have the Phelps Farm section and the ending of the novel been considered problematic by critics over the years? How does the current controversy echo and extend those complaints?

  • Is Mark Twain speaking through Huck, or do you think Huck's point of view is different from Twain's? Explain.

  • Is Twain speaking through Jim, or is Jim's point of view different from Twain's? Explain.

  • Who uses the word "nigger"? Based on who is speaking, what might have been the effect on a nineteenth-century reader? What do you think Twain is saying in how he uses the word?

  • Huck begins and ends the novel by revealing his discomfort with being "sivilized." Why do you think he feels this way? What do you think Twain's message is?


  • How is using satire different from delivering an overt message? After exploring the meaning of irony and satire, ask students to find a section of Huck Finn that they think is particularly satirical and summarize it in a one- or two-sentence "message." Discuss with students how and why what Twain did in Huck Finn is different from delivering his message outright.

  • Bring in or ask students to bring in something from popular culture that employs satire to make its point (an episode of The Simpsons, for instance). What is the writer's point of view about the society he or she portrays? How can you tell? How is he or she using satire? Now ask students to answer those same questions about Huck Finn. You might then have students form small groups and find as many similarities as they can between the two works, such as similar targets of the authors' satires, methods of satirizing, or even reactions from the public when the piece was first presented. In reporting back to the class, each group might also identify the scene in each work they find to be the most effective use of satire.

  • Stage a challenge for students: Have them work in small groups and give them twenty minutes to list as many examples of irony or satire in the novel as they can find. As each group shares some of their selections, let the rest of the class discuss whether the instances cited are, in fact, satirical or ironic.

  • Direct students to Chapter 6, in which the drunken Pap Finn uses the word "nigger" multiple times. Why might Twain have used the word here with such intensity and frequency? Ask students to rewrite the speech without using the word, or by changing it to "slave" or "African American." Have the class discuss how changing this word changed the meaning or impact of the section. How does this scene support or refute the charge that the book is racist? Students can also use a section from John Wallace's version, The Adventures of Huck Finn Adapted (Falls Church, VA: John H. Wallace and Sons Co., 1983), in which he rewrites Huck Finn without using "nigger."

  • As Huck and Jim journey down the Mississippi, readers may begin to notice that their experiences alone on the raft, or in nature in general, are very different from their experiences whenever they are on the shore in "sivilization." What is Twain saying by creating this division? Have each student construct his or her own map of the journey. Each map should show what they believe are the most important events in the novel, and should include a significant quote at each map point. Overall, their maps should visually express the symbolic differences between the river and "sivilization."

Next: Section 5: Reclaiming the Self -- The Legacy of Slavery

See also: Controversy at Cherry Hill

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