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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
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If the king and the duke made Huck ashamed of the human race just by fooling the townspeople, they're about to outdo themselves with the family of the dead Peter Wilks. Huck reacts to the three Wilks daughters more tenderly than he does to anyone else he meets in the book. And because of that reaction, this particular swindle causes him no end of moral grief.

If he's disgusted, then why is he going along with the masquerade? Remember, he has a friend on the raft, a friend who can't leave now that they are back in a Southern slave state. He knows what the two men-especially the king-are capable of, and he won't risk having Jim turned in to the authorities.

So for the time being at least, he has to take part in the swindle. He says several times in this chapter that he finds the thieves' behavior "disgusting" and "sickening," but he's their captive and he has to go along with them.

The "brothers" have been left $6000 in gold, which they get to examine in private. The duke wants to take off immediately, but the king is overcome by greed for all the property he can add to the gold.

He hatches a plan for winning the confidence of the three girls- and the townspeople-in the hopes of robbing the girls of everything they have. Huck relates in disgust how successful the plan is.

There is one little hitch in the plan, but the king is able to overcome it. The town doctor, who was away earlier in the day, returns as the townspeople's sympathy for the thieves is at its highest. He listens to the king for a few minutes and laughs in his face.

The doctor knows immediately that they're dealing with a couple of frauds, because he realizes what a terrible imitation of a British accent the king is doing. As a friend of the dead man, he denounces the thieves and tells the daughters to do the same.

But the girls are too deeply caught up in the mob sentiment. Mary Jane, the oldest daughter, turns down the doctor's advice and dramatically makes a presentation to the thieves to express her confidence in them. Peter Wilks' friend has been rebuffed, and the swindlers have been accepted into the dead man's family. The chapter ends with the king throwing a sarcastic remark at the doctor.

Huck's disgust at the behavior of the king and duke is easy enough to share. But if you read closely, you might see Twain expressing disgust with more than those two.

The townspeople may mean well, but Twain paints them as something less than admirable. How could anyone, for example, believe that the king's speech pattern was that of an Englishman? Once the possibility of fraud is brought to their attention by a respected citizen of the town, how could they persist, and even cheer when Mary Jane refuses to listen to the doctor?

Although the rest of this episode focuses on the king and the duke, there are occasional references to the narrow vision of the townspeople. These references are subtle, so keep an eye open for them as you read. When the episode reaches its climax in Chapter 30, Twain will drop some of the subtlety and have Huck comment openly on certain townspeople.

What it all adds up to is an indictment, not only of "rapscallions" like the king and duke, but of all of us. It's Twain momentarily forsaking the role of trenchant humorist, and airing his grievances against the human race.

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