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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
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Read Chapters 14 to 16 together and you'll see three important developments. First, the relationship between Huck and Jim begins to change, in a way that Huck would never have considered possible. Second, Huck has serious doubts about the morality of helping a slave escape. And third, the two of them are separated by an accident on the river.

You might find several different layers of meaning in Chapter 14. I'll talk about two of them here.

The first level is the comic one. Huck and Jim have a conversation that's similar to dozens you've seen in movies and TV comedies, usually with comedy teams.

In this "classic" comedy situation, two characters are talking about a subject, and neither one knows very much about it. But one of the characters is the dominant one, in charge of the situation, maybe even the bully. The audience knows that they're both uninformed, and that's where the laughs come from. The dominant character always wins the argument, of course, but not because he or she really knows more.

If you aren't familiar with Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, you may remember Lucy and Ethel from the TV series "I Love Lucy." All three pairs of comedians used this kind of comedy routine, and earlier in the book Twain used it himself, when Tom Sawyer called Huck "a perfect saphead" for not understanding things. (He'll use it again, often.)

In this chapter Huck is the dominant character because he's white. He and Jim talk about the Old Testament story of King Solomon, who had a reputation for being wise. In the biblical story, two women came to him to settle a dispute over who is the real mother of the baby that one of them was carrying.

Solomon said there was no way to settle the dispute, and he ordered that the baby be cut in two, and one half be given to each woman. One woman said that was fine with her; the other was appalled at the suggestion and offered to give up her claim to allow the baby to live. Solomon concluded that the second woman was the real mother and gave the baby to her.

Jim contends that no really wise man would have suggested cutting a baby in two as a solution to a dispute. Huck tries to tell him he's missing the point, but Jim is adamant in contending that it was a stupid thing to do.

The outcome of the argument is the second level of meaning in the chapter. The important thing to notice is that Huck gives in without winning the argument. Huck is willing to lose an argument to a slave; and Jim dares to argue with a white person until he wins. Without realizing it, both characters have undergone a radical change in their attitudes, a change that would have shocked just about everyone they both knew.

The chapter ends with a second argument, which Jim also wins. This one shows Twain having some fun with one of his favorite targets-the French. He had a powerful bias against the French people, the French language, and-most of all-Americans who spoke French and wore French clothing to show how sophisticated they were. He gets in a little dig at these people at the end of Chapter 14.

One other point: showing off his superior knowledge, Huck tells Jim that the son of the French king is "the dolphin." The real word is dauphin, pronounced doe-FAN. It's only a small joke here, but the word will come up again later in the novel.

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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Huck Finn by Mark Twain-Free

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