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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
CHAPTER 16: The Rattlesnake Skin Does Its Work
After sleeping for most of the next day, Huck and Jim continue on their way to Cairo, where Jim believes he will find freedom. He is excited over the fact and starts talking about how he is going to work hard and save enough money to buy back his wife and children; he says if necessary he will steal his children out of slavery. Huck is suddenly troubled over the fact that he is helping a run-away slave to gain freedom. He even wonders what harm Miss Watson had done to him that he is aiding her servant to escape. To ease his conscience, he decides to go ashore and turn Jim in. Just as he is about to leave in a canoe, Jim tells him what a good friend he is; he adds that for the first time in his life, a white man has kept a promise to him. These kind words stop Huck in his tracks.
A few minutes later, a skiff comes along with two armed slave hunters, but Huck cannot betray Jim. When they ask Huck if he belongs on the raft, he replies that he does. When they ask him who else is on board, Huck, thinking quickly, says that his father, who is suffering from smallpox, is on board and needs help. When they hear of the smallpox, the slave hunters are frightened; they quickly give Huck twenty dollars and depart. After saving Jim, Huck is again miserable because he has done something wrong; he wonders if he would have felt better if he had given Jim up. When he goes back to the raft, Huck does not see Jim and wonders where he could have gone. Jim has been hiding in the water from the slave hunters. He comes out of the water and says that he will never forget Huck for saving him.
A little later, Jim and Huck realize that they have passed Cairo. They have also lost the canoe, so they cannot paddle back upstream. As they float down the Mississippi, a steamboat rams into their raft. Huck and Jim go overboard and are separated. Huck looks for Jim and calls out to him a couple of times. When he does find not him, Huck swims ashore and sees a large house surrounded by a number of dogs.
In the last chapter, Huck changed his view about Jim; he realized his humanity and apologized to him for the cruelty of his trick, vowing never to fool him again. In this chapter, Huck listens to Jim talk about freedom and “stealing” his children from slavery if necessary. Suddenly, Huck realizes the seriousness of what he is doing; he is helping a run-away slave to escape, an immoral and illegal act in society’s mind. He is torn between his relationship to Jim and his relationship to society. He decides to act in society’s behalf and turn Jim in to the authorities. Ironically, just as Huck is ready to go ashore, Jim tells him how appreciative he is for treating him kindly and saving him from capture.
When Huck encounters the slave hunters, he simply cannot betray Jim; his innate sense of right and wrong is really stronger than what society has taught him. He cleverly makes up a story about his father being on the raft and having smallpox. The slave hunters quickly give Huck money and hurry on their way. Now Jim is more beholden than ever to the young Huck.
Ironically, Huck and Jim float past Cairo, the point of freedom for Jim. There is no way for them to paddle back upstream, for the canoe has been lost. Jim naively blames the bad luck on the rattlesnake. To make matters even worse, their raft is hit by a steamboat. Jim and Huck both go overboard and are separated. Unable to find Jim, Huck finally swims ashore.
It is important to notice the significant irony that Twain weaves throughout this chapter. It is ironic that Jim says he will “steal” his children if he cannot “buy” them. Twain realizes the sin of enslaving people, especially young ones, is much greater than any “sin” a father can commit in order to regain custody of his own children. Unfortunately, the naive Huck does not realize this. Slavery is simply an accepted part of his culture, and he does not feel wise or strong enough to question it. As a result, he feels he is committing a great sin by helping Jim. In ironic juxtaposition to the helpful Huck, the slave hunters with their guns are out to kill other human beings just because they are black, and society smiles on their actions; but these same men refuse to help a man who is supposedly infected with smallpox, even though he is white. Huck, understanding human nature, realizes that the men will refuse to help, which is why he cleverly manufactures the story. The men soothe their consciences by giving Huck twenty dollars. The irony in the chapter clearly points out man’s basic inhumanity to man.