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The setting of Huckleberry Finn-a relatively short southern stretch of the Mississippi River-is an area that Mark Twain knew as well as anyplace on earth. It includes not only his home town of Hannibal, Missouri, fictionalized as St. Petersburg, but the river he loved as a boy and came to revere during his days as a riverboat pilot.
Many people have said that the river is a character in the novel, a living, powerful, even godlike force that has as much to do with what happens to Huck as any of the human characters he meets during the story. Huck himself encourages this kind of comment, since he reserves his most touching language for his descriptions of the river. Even after a flood, even after a river accident that nearly destroys the raft, Huck never has an unkind word to say about this "character."
But the river makes up only part of the book's setting. There are also all those towns and villages that Huck visits, and the people who live in them. These limbs of civilization on the body of the river give Huck-and Twain, of course-a chance to observe and comment on 19th-century American society.
If Twain becomes poetic when he's writing about the river, he can be vitriolic about the people who live near it. Neither of these extremes alone would have resulted in a very satisfactory novel, but Twain is successful in playing one against the other. He can rail at the human race and sing hymns to one of nature's greatest creations, and he can do it because of the shifting setting, because Huck goes from river to town and back again throughout the novel.