Chapter 32 begins what could be called the last segment of the novel. Huck’s solemn narration is evident at the beginning of the chapter, when he describes the breeze that occasionally washes over the farm. For Huck, the breeze comes across as a whisper of spirits long dead, and readers are reminded of those that have already died earlier in the novel. The entire journey appears to weigh heavily on Huck, and at one point he “wished I was dead” after hearing the lonesome hum of a spinning wheel. In a sense, the Phelps farm is symbolic of Huck’s return back to civilization. Although he and Jim have traveled hundreds of miles down the Mississippi River, they find themselves in a situation very similar to the life they left with Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas.
Huck’s climatic decision to free Jim has brought about an unconscious epiphany or revelation in Huck’s character, and when he nears the farmhouse, he does not pause, but looks to “Providence to put the right words in my mouth.” Although Huck has always been prone to improvisation, he now credits his ability to Providence. The statement reveals that Huck, despite his own belief that he is now damned, places his fate (and Jim’s) in the hands of another. Ironically, the person who arrives is the real Tom Sawyer, the nephew of Silas and Sally Phelps.
Literary critics have argued that the coincidence of Huck arriving at the Phelps farm is implausible in a “realistic” novel. It is important to remember, however, that Twain’s original intentions for the novel included Tom as a main character. The first edition was entitled Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade), and therefore it is not surprising that Tom reenters the novel before its conclusion.
Tom’s arrival on the Phelps farm signals that a new leader will control the future of Huck and Jim. Whereas Huck and Jim shared responsibility for their fate, Tom now dictates their plans of “adventure” and escape. By allowing Tom to control the conclusion of the novel, Huckleberry Finn turns away from Huck’s constant struggle with his conscience and reverts back to a story intended for boys and girls. The dramatic tonal shift can be attributed to several factors, including the fact that Huckleberry Finn was written in three stages. But it also reflects Twain’s indecision over the conclusion of the novel and how to reconcile his scathing social commentary on American, and especially Southern, society.
Tom’s reintroduction signals that playful and harmless pranks are soon to follow. The reunion of the two boys, however, does not completely overshadow the violent setting that Twain has carefully constructed. Huck still observes the squalid nature of “civilization” and tries to compensate through kindness, a trait reminiscent of the Widow Douglas. The tarring and feathering of the duke and the king reveals Huck’s sympathetic view toward everyone, even those who have been cruel to him. Instead of standing by and watching the two con men receive their punishment, Huck tries to save the duke and the king from the town and a fate that could include death. When he fails to save the duke and the king, he comments that “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.” The statement could be applied to the entire novel, as Huck has witnessed countless incidents that were void of humanity.
smokehouse a building, especially an outbuilding on a farm, where meats, fish, etc. are smoked in order to cure and flavor them.
bars a thing that blocks the way or prevents entrance or further movement, as in a sandbar.
Methusalem Methuselah, one of the biblical patriarchs who was said to live 969 years.