1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 111: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Mark Twain

In reading The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn the first time, I was inclined to heed the instructions set out by Mark Twain in his ‘Notice’: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”  The ‘Notice’ is one of the most interesting parts of the work.  In it Twain attempts to extend ownership of the piece past the simple authorship of it, and seeks to define how the work is read as well, but such attempts are always futile once a work enters the public sphere.  As Tom Quirk points out in his piece ‘The Flawed Greatness of Huck Finn’, the work is ripe with mistakes, and it seems clear that Twain was very much aware of this and that his ‘Notice’ likely aims to excuse those faults by admitting to them before the narrative begins.

Jim and Huck Finn.

Jim and Huck Finn.

In my first reading of the book I came away unimpressed with the narrative itself, though I thought the use of dialect to be admirable and quite an accomplishment.  I read it with younger eyes though, and re-reading it I have come to develop an appreciation for the content, even if the narrative remains largely unfulfilling.  It was especially interesting reading the book after reading passages from Henry David Thoreau’s ‘On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience’.  In that work Thoreau write that “As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.”  This could be read as a mantra for Finn, who often rejects human constructs of civility and opts instead to live in nature.  Thoreau also writes: “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right… Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”  This again seems fitting for Huck who, throughout the novel, has to grapple with moral dilemmas, not the least of which is his decision to help Jim escape.  He is forced to consider what the law says, and what his conscience says, ultimately going with his conscience and stating: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”, seemingly taking Thoreau’s advice word for word.

 

 

Jim and Huck Finn.

Jim and Huck Finn.

In considering how Twain lampoons European notions of romance, I think the book offers interesting and entertaining satire, while also highlighting the hypocrisies present in American as well as America’s blind adherence to tradition.  We see from the onset of the novel that white children are taught that Black slaves are subhuman and incapable of the understanding and emotion of the white population.  This flawed logic is highlighted when Tom Sawyer boasts of reading The Three Musketeers, which was authored by a Black Frenchman named Alexandre Dumas.  While many whites saw Blacks as inferior, they still allowed, unbeknownst to many, Black literature to permeate their culture. Blind adherence to tradition is ever present in the novel, but perhaps most present with regard to the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons.  The two families have been feuding for thirty years, but nobody can remember the cause of the feud.  Here we see that the characters, in complete ignorance as to the reason for the feud, follow it faithfully and fatally.  Though there is not an explicit parallel between this tradition and slavery, it is clear that a parallel does exist.  Slavery was handed down from generation to generation, and though nobody knew why such an institution justified, they embraced it, claiming ignorantly that their economy depended on it, though European and Northern economies functioned profitably without the presents of slavery.  Civil-war era Southerners were not present when slavery was introduced, it was simply a tradition handed down to them from generations before, and they clung to it desperately with no cause, just as the Gangerfords and Shepherdsons clung to their blood feud.  The irony is that the tradition of slavery flew in the face of Christian beliefs and nobody claimed to be more Christian than Southern Americans.  This is also present in the narrative featuring the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons as both families attend the same church, and both brings guns with them to the sermons, prepared to kill each other as the preacher delivers a sermon about brotherly love.  This demonstrates the almost dissociative level of compartmentalizing that was done by Southern Americans.  To hold Christian beliefs and be loyal to them, while at the same time committing to a lifestyle and tradition that could not sit in starker contrast with their religious beliefs requires one to develop a dissociative identity disorder just to function on a daily basis.

 

Jim and Huck Finn.

Jim and Huck Finn.

The magnitude of the Civil War is disheartening, but even more tragic when one considers that most white people in the South didn’t even own slaves, yet still felt the need to go to war so that the ruling classes could maintain their wealth.  Though curious, the mentality that allowed such support for an institution that didn’t even benefit the majority of Southerners becomes clear when one examines Colonel Sherburn.  Sherburn, who shoots and kills a drunkard, a drunkard who can easily be aligned with Finn’s own father, finds a lynch mob upon his house, but he denounces the crowd from the roof of his porch and suggests that the lot of them are followers with no real moral conviction.  They simply fear that they will be seen as cowards should they not follow in the lead of other, braver men.  One can see such social pressure motivating men to fight on behalf of the South in the Civil War, and one can also see that morally corrupt men, like Sherburn, can get away with whatever sins they choose so long as they have the courage to challenge the weaker masses.  So the men in the mob allow Sherburn to live on, unpunished, just as slave owners were allowed to deprive men and women of their freedom and went unchallenged by the overwhelming majority of people who did not benefit from slavery.

 

Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn.

The portrayal of Jim has long been considered one of the more troubling aspects of the novel.  For many, Jim was an extension of the minstrel depiction of Blacks, and upon a surfacing reading of the novel it could be suggested that this is a reasonable concern, but a deeper reading demonstrates that there is more than one way to look at Jim.  Yes, Jim is superstitious, and can be seen as ignorant, and that is problematic if he is meant to be a representation of all Blacks, but it can also be seen as an accurate representation of a person who has been deprived of education for his entire life.  I did have a problem with the level of naivety present in Jim and would have liked to see a more articulate character, but Jim may very well have been an accurate representation of many slaves in the era.  From a contemporary stand point, it is fair to say that he is overly superstitious and ignorant, but likewise, many whites from the era can be seen in the same way.  Though this is a legitimate concern, I think there is an emotive depth in Jim that illustrates he is more than simply an ignorant, superstitious slave.  The most touching point in the novel is when Jim cries before Huck and confesses that he once hit his daughter, believing that she intentionally ignored an instruction from him, only to find out that she had gone deaf due to an illness.  The grief and remorse present in Jim is one that is utterly absent from his white counterpart, Pap, Huck’s father, who regularly beat Huck and showed no remorse.  Slave owners likewise displayed no remorse when they beat the enslaves class.  This scene causes Huck to admit that Jim has a love for his family as deep as the love any white person has for their own and humanizes Jim.  This was not the first instance of Jim emotive equality superiority, though, as before their journey down the Mississippi began, Jim shielded Huck from seeing a corpse, a corpse that belonged to Huck’s father.  We see how sensitive Jim is to Huck, and later, when Huck plays a trick on Jim, making him believe that he had dreamed a series of events that had separated the two, Jim is deeply hurt and expresses his pain to Huck, who then apologizes.  Huck notes that he had to humble himself before Jim, which was difficult since everything he had learned about slaves indicated that they were not capable of feelings, but this illustrates again the emotive depth of Jim and how Huck comes to humanize him through this.  Towards the end of the novel Jim is likewise given an opportunity to run, but opts instead to risk his freedom in order to help Tom.  Again, in contrast to the adults that peopled the adult world in this book, Jim comes away looking like a saint.  Though Jim’s intellect is not presented in a complimentary way, the emotive depth presented in the character does humanize him, and his ignorance can be attributed, not to an innate flaw in his nature, but in the fact that he has been deprived of an education by white society.

 

 

Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn.

The ending of the narrative can also be seen as problematic.  In it, Tom Sawyer arrives and knows at once that he has the power to free Jim because Jim’s owner has passed away and freed Jim in her will, but rather than do this, Tom sees potential for an adventure and delays the freedom already given to Jim.  This can be seen as problematic because Tom usurps the freedom given to Jim for his own entertainment.  In looking at this portion of the novel it is important to consider that Twain was first and foremost a comedian.  He had developed an audience that had certain expectations and Twain no doubt aimed to please his audience.  The scenes in which Tom organizes the ‘escape’ of Jim can be seen as comical.  This portion of the novel is perhaps less a commentary on slavery, and more a satire of romantic conventions of European literature. It suggests that romantic notion and ideologies, when applied to contemporary issues like slavery, fail to offer solution and the novel is may therefore be suggesting that a new way of looking at the world needs to be employed to solve the contemporary issues such as slavery.  Tom’s problem is that he cannot separate the real world, and the fantasy world, which is emblematic of society’s collective disillusionment on such issues.  Tom develops certain expectations based on the romantic novels he has read and hopes to live out these expectations.  In this sense, Twain is able to mock and satirize the expectations of the romantic world, and also present a commentary on how white society placed its own aspirations above the consideration of the people around them, be they other white people like Huck, or Blacks like Jim.  This is typical of white American in Twain’s time (and even still today).  Also, in reading William C French’s ‘Characters and Cruelty in Huckleberry Finn: Why The Ending Works’,  (which can be found on JSTOR) French notes that Twain, though he published the work in 1885, began working on it as early as 1875.  French onserves that after the enslaved classes were freed, the northern states sent representatives down south to ensure freedom was served to them, but after ten years these northern left, leaving the south to govern again as they saw fit and that ‘freedom’, was quickly taken away.  Though granted the right to vote, Blacks quickly found that when the south was left to its own devices, they had no rights in practice.  French suggests that Tom Sawyer’s usurpation of the narrative at the end is a parallel with the south’s attempt to undermine the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.  French has some other observations to contribute, but I think this is the most interesting.  There is also a parallel between Huck and Tom.  To Huck, Jim has been humanized, and so believes he should be free, but Tom remains a member of the ‘great unwashed’ and is oblivious to Jim’s humanity, and so has him jump through hoops to obtain his freedom.  The end, where Huck suggests he is going to go out west to find adventure among the ‘injuns’, is a dark foreshadowing, both of the question of slavery’s expansion into the west, and also about another group of people marginalized by white America: the Native Americans.

 

Huck Finn.

Huck Finn.

Quirk’s essay likewise touches on the flawed ending, noting that the fact Jim was freed negates the value of the entire journey.  It seems like a typical Hollywood ending where everybody gets what they were hoping for, and it does come across as a cop out.  There are some interesting moral riddles in the book, Huck for example feels guilty for helping Jim steal his freedom, but with the pronouncement that Jim is freed by his owner, everybody is allowed to forgo having to make choices, though in what some have considered one of the greatest lines written in the English language, Huck had already decided to go to hell when confronted with what he should do in regards to helping Jim remain free.  Quirk also notes that this is typical throughout the novel.  We are presented with narratives that are never completed, and we never discover the answers to the dilemmas that plague the world Huck and Jim travel through.  What happens to Colonel Sherburn?  Is he lynched at night as he dictates is the southern way?  What of the criminals in the sinking ship?  We perhaps assume they die, but there is no verification.  What of the Gangerfords and Shepherdsons?  How does the feud end?  Does the marriage of two respective members of the family resolve the issue like a southern re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet? Or does this Americanization of the Capulets and Montagues have as tragic an ending?  It seems that Twain often fails to answer the questions he presents.  This may have been intentional and a commentary on American tendencies to push back resolutions and allow problems to fester longer than they should.  The novel is problematic, but so to is American history, and America’s ongoing xenophobia.  In that light, the book serves as an effective reflection of America, standing in stark opposition to the blissful resolutions in the romantic narrative Twain lampoons through the work.

 

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Words I thought I’d look up:

Palavering: Empty talk.

Rapscallion: A naughty child.

Phrenology: The study of bumps on skulls.

Doxology: Christian hymns.

Obsequies: Funeral rights.

Dexter: To be on the right.

Escutcheon: Protective shield.

Chevron: A v-shaped ornament or symbol.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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