The Role of Huck’s and Tom‘s Practical Jokes in Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn"

An Approach Towards a Deeper Understanding of the Characters, their Relationships and Affiliations

Term Paper, 2012

11 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The Practical Joke in Huckleberry Finn
2.1 Definition of the Practical Joke
2.2 Tom Sawyer’s Jokes
2.3 Huckleberry Finn’s Jokes

3. Comparison and Conclusion

4. References

1. Introduction

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."[1] These words from Ernest Hemingway show the impact Mark Twain’s most famous work had, and still has today. Without going deeper into the reasons why Hemingway used such superlative language, the quote does hint at why scholars from all around the world have published so many books, articles and essays on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

There are certainly many different ways to look at the story of Huckleberry Finn, the half-orphan, who ran away from his abusive father and from civilized, white middle-class America and his companion Jim, the runaway slave, traveling down the Mississippi river together. In this essay, I would like to consider the role of practical jokes within the story, especially concerning the development of the characters of the two white boys, Tom and Huck, and their relationship to Jim.

Why is such a seemingly childish theme of any importance to the understanding of the book? First of all, one has to take into consideration “Mark Twain's enormous, lifelong obsession with play and games” (Michelson 1980: 108), as pointed out by Bruce Michelson. Michelson even wants readers to look at Huckleberry Finn as a book “about people who play games, who make games out of everything, including matters of moral consequence” (108). He certainly has a point. The play motif runs like a thread through the whole book, ranging from the rather harmless practical jokes and tricks in the first couple of chapters over the King’s and the Duke’s frauds on small towns by the river, to Tom’s orchestration of the great evasion in the last third of the book. The second reason to consider this theme lies in the nature of the practical joke itself, which Richard Tallman was the first to analyze in 1974. While clearly defining the line between the prankster and the victim, it is used as a tool to mark social borders, matters of class and of superiority and inferiority. Or, if this is not the explicit intention, it still reveals underlying prejudices and ways of thinking.

Thirdly, and most interestingly, is that practical jokes can be even more exposing and unmasking when the joke backfires on the prankster himself – which happens several times in the book.

This essay begins by providing a short description and history of the practical joke and then looks at two of Tom’s and two of Huck’s jokes, which provide an insight into the statements above. The book is full of other, mostly smaller and more harmless pranks, but these are not examined. The essay then compares the two characters based on the information gathered and concludes with some remarks on the role and importance of the practical jokes in connection with the boys’ relationships to Jim.

2. The Practical Joke in Huckleberry Finn

2.1 Definition of the Practical Joke

The folklorist Richard S. Tallman was one of the first to do research on the practical joke and offered a classificatory definition in his essay “A Generic Approach to the Practical Joke”, published in 1974. He looked into the practical joke as a folklorist phenomenon, played by all different kinds of people and groups. Or, to put it in his words: “The practical joke (…) has been an integral part of man’s cultural baggage for centuries” (Tallman 1974: 259). This is his generalized definition:

(…) the practical joke, as a folklore form, is first an event, a competitive play activity in which only one of two opposing sides in consciously aware of the fact that a state of play exists; for the joke to be successful, one side must remain unaware of the fact that a play activity is occurring until it is “too late”, that is, until the unknowing side is made to seem foolish or is caused some physical and / or mental discomfort (Tallman 1974: 260).

Tallman distinguishes between “Actors” and “Action”. The actors are grouped into “Prankster(s)” and “Victim(s)”. The action is classified as “Nature of Prank”, “Intent of Prank” and “Result of Prank” (262-265). For the purposes of this essay, it is worth having a closer look at the intent and the result, as the actor’s theme is fairly easy to understand and the nature of prank only plays a marginal role when one focuses on the meaning and denotation of practical jokes.

There are three possible intentions when playing a practical joke. The first is “benevolent”, meaning the prank “is not intended to be irrevocably harmful or hurtful, either physically, mentally, or socially” (265). The second is “initiative”, meaning “to initiate one or more persons into an esoteric group” (265). This type is most commonly used in fraternity initiation rituals and therefore not of too much interest for this essay. The third is “malevolent”, which is where the prank is clearly “intended to be harmful or hurtful, physically, mentally, and / or socially”. He goes on: “(…) the prank will be divisive and thus will create greater tension in the relationship between the two sides” (265). This is extremely important to understand, as this is also the type of prank that reveals most about matters of inclusion and exclusion, which is what I will deal with in this essay.

It is obvious that there are two possible results of pranks, namely “Prank succeeds” and “Prank does not succeed”. A succeeding prank can either change the “relationship between the two opposing sides” (265-266), for the good or the better, or not change anything at all. The same can happen if the prankster is “caught” and the prank fails. In opposition to the succeeding prank, the failing prank can backfire, meaning that the “prankster becomes [the] victim” (266). This last point will prove to be of great importance for the last part of this work.

Based on these clear definitions this essay now considers the practical jokes in the book.

2.2 Tom Sawyer’s Jokes

In the world of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer is undoubtedly the master of the practical joke. He is the impersonation of Mark Twain’s earlier mentioned “obsession with play and games”[2]. To readers who have read Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer this is obvious anyway, although even for those who have not, Tom’s playfulness becomes clear very soon. Every single appearance of Tom is connected with some kind of joke or game.[3] It is also important to note, that Tom is an established part of the white middle-class society. Although an orphan himself, he was raised by his Aunt Polly in a respectable and well-run household[4]. In the following passage, we see Tom playing his first practical joke:

(…) but nothing would do Tom but he must crawl to where Jim was, on his hands and knees, and play something on him. (…) Tom said he slipped Jim’s hat off of his head and hung it on a limb right over him, and Jim stirred a little, but he didn’t wake (Twain, 1999: 19)[5].

Tom acts as the prankster, Jim is the victim. Later, when Jim wakes up and discovers what has happened to him, he claims that “witches bewitched him and put him in a trance” (Twain 1999: 19). He invents even more fantasies to support his story and soon becomes a kind of celebrity, for slaves from all over would come to listen to his story. The five cents, which Tom left on the kitchen table to pay for the candles he stole earlier, serve Jim as proof.

This first practical joke by Tom can be classified as malevolent, based on Tallman’s definition. Tom, who grew up among slaves, is fully aware of their superstitions and ruthlessly plays on them to make Jim and the other slaves look like fools. The notion of racism and awareness of class cannot be overlooked, for the prank draws a clear line between the insiders, the white middle-class, and the outsiders, the black slaves. Tom does not seem to have any regrets about what he did, so it is fair enough to draw the conclusion that his relationship to Jim completely lacks empathy – meaning he does not see the individual human being in Jim, but only the abstract form of “the slave”[6].

This becomes even clearer, when we look at the second prank he plays on Jim. I refer to the “Great Evasion”, the huge play Tom carries out to “free” Jim. Although it can be argued, that many of the ideas[7], which Tom gets from “the best authorities” (Twain 1999: 249), are malevolent and cruel in themselves, the full outrageousness of the whole set-up does not become obvious until he explains how Jim has been free the whole time anyway.

“Turn him loose! he ain’t no slave, he’s as free as any cretur that walks this earth!” (…) “I’ve knowed him all his life, and so has Tom, there. Old Miss Watson died two months ago, and she was ashamed she ever was going to sell him down the river, and said so; and she set him free in her will” (Twain 1999: 291).


[1] See Ernest Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa (1934).

[2] See also Michelson 1980: 120, note 1.

[3] E.g. the “Gang-Scene” in Chapter II or the arrival at his uncle’s and aunt’s farm in Chapter XXXIII.

[4] See Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).

[5] All pages numbers refer to the Norton Critical Edition of the book, which is listed in the references.

[6] The term “abstract“ in opposition to “individual” or “concrete” is used by James P. McIntyre to describe Huck’s changing attitude towards Jim in the story (McIntyre 1968: 34). I will get to that later.

[7] E.g. telling Jim to write signs with his own blood (249 et al.) or putting snakes, spiders and other animals in his cabin as “companions” (267 et al.).

Excerpt out of 11 pages


The Role of Huck’s and Tom‘s Practical Jokes in Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn"
An Approach Towards a Deeper Understanding of the Characters, their Relationships and Affiliations
University of Constance
American Realism and Naturalism
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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huckleberry finn, tom sawyer, mark twain, practical joke, folklore, huck, tom, jim, racism, local color fiction, naturalism
Quote paper
Jan Philipp Wilhelm (Author), 2012, The Role of Huck’s and Tom‘s Practical Jokes in Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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