As Jim and Huck float downriver, Jim restlessly searches the riverbank for the town of Cairo. Each time Jim mentions how soon he will be free, Huck feels increasingly guilty. Huck knows that helping Jim escape is breaking the law, but Jim is also his friend. Thus, Huck is trapped in a difficult moral dilemma. After a great deal of reasoning, Huck realizes he will feel possibly even worse if he turned Jim into the authorities, and decides it would be best to let him escape.
Huck makes this decision spontaneously, when heading to shore to determine what town they are near and with the intention of reporting Jim. On his way to shore, Huck meets two white men searching for runaway slaves. The men ask him who else is on his raft and rather than telling them about Jim, Huck tells them his Pa, mother, and sister are aboard. Huck pretends to be eager for their help and tells them no one else has been willing to pull the raft to shore. At this news, the men become suspicious and finally conclude that Huck's family must have smallpox. Each man then puts a twenty dollar coin on a log and floats it over to Huck to avoid any interaction with him, but only after making him promise not to land anywhere near their town. Huck's ingenious lie fools the men and saves Jim from capture.
Huck and Jim are thrilled to have received so much extra money, which is enough for several trips up the river. They continue watching for Cairo, but are unable to locate it. After several days, both Huck and Jim begin to suspect that they passed Cairo in the fog several nights prior. The next night, Huck and Jim start to plan to use the canoe to paddle upriver. However, the canoe disappears, forcing them to continue downriver in hopes of buying a new canoe. While drifting downstream, they encounter an oncoming steamboat. Instead of getting out of their way as the steamboats usually do, the boat ploughs directly over the raft. Both Huck and Jim are forced to dive overboard. Huck emerges and grabs a piece of wood with which he paddles to the shore. Jim is nowhere to be seen. Huck is soon surrounded by dogs and stands dripping wet and immobilized.
Huck knows better than to run when surrounded by dogs, and stands stock still. Within a few moments, a man calls out to him from the house telling him to be still. After several of the men in the house prepare their rifles, Huck is allowed to approach. He cautiously enters the house and when the family sees him, they immediately become friendly. Huck has happened upon the Grangerford household, which is in a drawn out and violent feud with the nearby Shepherdson family. When the Grangerfords recognize that Huck is no relation to the Shepherdsons, they welcome him with open arms.
Huck tells the family that he is an orphan named George Jackson from down south who has lost everything, and arrived at their home after falling off of a steamboat. The Grangerfords offer him a place in their home and he agrees to stay. The youngest son, Buck, is near to Huck's age and they soon become good friends.
As Huck grows acclimated to his new home, he learns that the family had a younger daughter named Emmeline who passed away several years earlier. She was a talented poet and painter, and concentrated her work on eulogies for the dead. Huck thinks Emmeline's poetry is very beautiful and wishes that he could compose some lines devoted to Emmeline, but is unable to come up with anything.
The family is quite wealthy considering their location. They own a fairly large house with nice furnishings and even have intellectual books in the parlor. Huck is happy to stay there, especially when he discovers their wonderful cooking.
Huck introduces the reader to most of the Grangerford family. The father of the house is Colonel Grangerford, whom Huck describes as a powerful, well-respected and honored man. The family owns a considerable amount of land and over one hundred slaves, including a slave for each member of the household. The two eldest sons are Tom and Bob, and the youngest is Buck, with whom Huck becomes friends. There are two daughters: Miss Charlotte, who bears herself like her father, and Miss Sophia, who is timid and kind.
While out hunting one day, Huck and Buck hear a horse approaching behind them. Quickly, they run behind a bush and wait to see who arrives. Harvey Shepherdson passes by and Buck takes a shot at him, knocking off his hat. Harvey then follows the two boys into the woods but is unable to catch them. At this point, Buck explains the family feud to Huck. For over thirty years, the men in each family have been committed to killing off the men in the opposing family. No one remembers why the feud started, but several men have been killed each year.
When the Grangerfords attend church, all the men carry guns with them, and ironically listen to preaching about brotherly love. After the service and once they have all returned home, Miss Sophia pulls Huck aside and urgently asks him to return to the church and fetch her Testament, which she accidentally left there. Huck does as he is asked and finds the book, but also sees a note that has been slipped into it which reads, "half past two." Huck returns the Testament to Sophia, and promises that he did not read the note.
When Huck goes outside, he realizes that his personal slave is following him very closely, which is unusual. The slave offers to show him some water moccasins, an offer which he had extended the day before as well. Huck realizes that the slave is speaking to him in some kind of code and that something else is going on. Huck agrees to follow him and in the swamp is surprised to find Jim asleep on the ground. Jim has the raft, which he completely repaired, and is waiting for Huck to rejoin him so they can continue their trip downriver.
The next day Miss Sophia elopes with Harvey Shepherdson, and the feud is rekindled in full force. Buck's father and both his brothers are killed in an ambush, and Huck arrives at the harbor in time to see Buck and his cousin shooting at five grown men. Eventually the men manage to sneak around Buck and kill both the boys while Huck watches from a tree that he climbed in an attempt to find safety. Once the Shepherdsons have left, Huck pulls Buck and the other boy out of the river and onto dry land where he weeps and covers their faces.
Huck runs back to the house and sees that it is quite silent in the wake of the family tragedy. He goes to the swamp, finds Jim, who is glad to see that Huck lived through the massacre, and together they push the raft into the river and start floating downstream.
Huck and Jim continue down the river for a few days, enjoying the fresh air and warm breezes. Huck finds a canoe and uses it to paddle up a stream about a mile in search of berries. Two men come running through the woods and beg him for help. Huck makes them cover their tracks and then all three paddle back to the river.
The two men are humbugs and frauds who were running away from townspeople who meant to tar and feather them. One man is about seventy and balding, and the other is in his thirties. The younger man specializes in printing and theater while the older man often "works" camp revivals.
The younger man then tells them that he is actually the direct descendent of the Duke of Bridgewater and therefore is a Duke. Both Huck and Jim start to treat him as royalty and cater to his every need. This makes the older man jealous and so he then tells them that he is the Dauphin, or Louis the XVII. Huck and Jim treat both men as aristocracy, although Huck comments that it is pretty obvious neither is true royalty.
Huck explains to the King and Duke that he is a farmer's son who has lost his father and brother. He tells them that Jim is the last slave the family owns and that he is traveling south to Orleans to live with his Uncle Ben. Huck also says that he and Jim travel at night because they keep getting harassed by people who think Jim is a runaway slave. The Duke tells him that he will figure out a way for them to travel during the daytime.
That night, the Duke and King take over Huck and Jim's beds. A large storm causes the river to become choppy, and Huck watches for danger. Soon Jim takes over and Huck falls asleep until he is washed overboard by a large wave. Jim bursts out laughing at the sight of Huck flailing about in the water.
The next day, the King and Duke brainstorm money making schemes. The Duke decides that they should put on a play where they perform short scenes from Shakespeare and the King agrees. After dinner, they go into a nearby town to see what luck will bring them. The men find the town deserted, as everyone has gone to a revival meeting. The Duke breaks into a printer's shop and takes orders from some farmers. He collects cash and promises to print advertisements in the paper. In his final project, he makes a handbill showing a runaway slave and describing Jim. He tells the others that this handbill will make it seem as if they are taking Jim back to collect the reward.
The King goes to the revival meeting with Huck and chances upon a crowd being listening to the preacher. The people get inflamed with the spirit of repentance, and in the middle of all their crying and yelling, the King jumps up onto the stage. He tells the audience that he was once a pirate in the Indian Ocean and that their meeting made him regret the actions of his former life. The King says that he would return to the Indian Ocean to convert his former colleagues, if only he had the money to do so. Immediately, a collection is taken up and the King leaves with over eighty-seven dollars.
These chapters focus on social commentary of the people and places along the Southern Mississippi. Each chapter introduces new characters and adventures that highlight particular prejudices or follies. Huck is also forced to play different roles as he tries to assimilate himself into each new situation. Through each of Huck's roles, the reader receives new insight into his personality and character.
Twain offers social commentary in three separate escapades in the novel. First, two slave-hunters approach Huck's raft and Huck makes them believe his smallpox ridden family is aboard. Desperate to avoid the plague, each man forks over $20 just to keep the raft away from town. While disease is a valid concern, Twain demonstrates the fear with which people treat other sick people who need assistance and support. Rather than offering to help, the two men try to buy off the family and send them elsewhere.
Second, the Grangerford and Shepherdson families participate in a violent, tragic feud. In fact, the happenings reflect a modern day Romeo and Juliet theme, as a Grangerford daughter and Shepherdson son elope, causing a familial massacre. Ironically, the two lovers are the only ones that survive. Huck explains how civilized, wealthy and respected the Grangerford family is, but then shatters this image by detailing the feud's excessive and tragic killings. Here, Twain demonstrates the utter stupidity of even the most educated and respected families, who can destroy themselves through nonsensical behavior and excessive pride.
The last escapade in occurs when the King bilks an entire congregation out of money. His story about being a pirate and wishing to convert his brethren is laughable and silly, but at the revival meeting, everyone is so overcome by the love of God and their fellow man that they believe him and donate to his cause. With this anecdote, Twain is commenting on the gullibility of religious zealots, which is consistent with his attack on religion in the very first pages of the novel, when Huck decides that praying and heaven as described by Miss Watson as lousy alternatives to having fun. Twain's view of religion is lucidly set forth in this and other novels, and he tends to express that devotion to religion is simply a waste of time.
Throughout these chapters, Huck consistently assumes different characters and roles in order to survive and to protect Jim. At the Grangerfords, he pretends to be an orphan, to the slave-hunters he pretends to be an innocent boy living with a sick family, and to the Duke and Dauphin, he pretends to be an orphan traveling with his only slave. Each of these roles provides great insight into Huck's personality. When Buck is killed, Huck is deeply affected by the entire tragedy and even admits to crying upon pulling his friend's dead body out of the river. He wishes that he had not played a role in causing the death of so many people, and, at the same time, realizes how foolish the feud is.
Remarkably, Huck constantly pretends to be less intelligent or less capable than he really is. It is easy to forget that he is only a boy of fourteen when he and Jim are floating down the river together. But, when they meet other people, Huck's interactions are always at a lower, less mature level. For instance, he tells the slave-hunters he is too weak to drag the raft ashore by himself, when in reality he has handled the raft alone many times. When he and Buck are together, he shows far more maturity than Buck, evidenced by his restraint in matters concerning the feud. Tom Sawyer also comes across as a young child in comparison to Huck's common sense approach to life.
Huck's interaction with the Duke and the King is at first puzzling and later annoying. He and Jim both are quite aware that the two men are con artists, forcing the reader to question why they put up with them. In fact, Huck is afraid of the consequences of crossing either man. He compares the men to Pap and remarks, "I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way." Thus, Huck and Jim realize that rather then stir up trouble with either of the men, it is best to play along and pretend they have been duped. Jim is unhappy with the situation, commenting at the end of Chapter 20 that he would prefer it if no more kings arrived during the trip. Huck seems to be considering a way out of the situation, but is unable to come up with a good plan. Partially, Huck enjoys watching the two men at work, since their actions create more of an adventure for him.