Today, I will be talking about one of my personal favorite classics in Huck Finn. What a book! Also, I apologize for not posting much. I’ve had too much to do recently, with finals approaching and preparation for summer (job hunting, internship searching, etc.) occupying my time. I’ve spent a lot of my time on this blog preparing this post. I love this book, and I hope you will appreciate it more after reading this!
Now, I want to mention that this book is highly controversial. It features the n-word over 200 times throughout. However, it reveals the racial ignorance and delusion in the antebellum American South in a unique and revealing way. It uses satire and seriousness to show this point, which is common of Mark Twain, the author. Racial ignorance and stereotyping was everywhere in the American South during this period. The genius of the book is in the way in which the author reveals said ignorance, through the incredibly compelling main character.
Clearly, Huck Finn is an American classic, similar to the Great Gatsby, which I talked about last week. And while the ending may depreciate the overall quality of the novel, the rest of it remains endearing and intellectual all the same for readers to enjoy. One of my old English teachers used to say: if you turn your brain off for the last part of the novel, you’d enjoy it a lot more than if you had it on.
Alright, no more ranting about the unfavorable ending! Time to provide background!
Mark Twain, if you haven’t heard the name or read his fiction before, also called Samuel Clemens in some parts of America, is a true gem of satire and fiction. Much of his work comes – or at least is partly inspired – from the experiences of his own life, growing up in the 19th century in America in Mississippi. Twain was upset with the world as he was writing. Although he grew increasingly cynical as he aged, it came from his dissatisfaction with the state of public opinion. He saw Huck Finn as a novel capable of changing American society for the better, towards more racial acceptance, and towards a more negative and cynical view of the era he lived in. Unfortunately, the societal change would come posthumously. Twain wrote Huck Finn with all the intention in the world of creating the Great American Novel. Did he achieve it? I’d say he did.
In my opinion, much of the greatness of the novel comes from its perceived innocence and adventure at the inset and its intellectual enlightenment and fulfillment by the outset.
The story is about young-but-ignorant Huck Finn, previously seen (chronologically speaking) in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He enters a physical, mental, and moral journey that takes him from Mississippi to the Deep South of antebellum America. Most critics, including myself, see Huck Finn as a classic tale of a young character losing his/her naivety and innocence as he explores a mature, ever-changing world.
At the onset, Huck is part of a religious, theological world. He is under custody by the widow. Although she is well-meaning, she controls him and his development, ensuring he follows the (somewhat corrupt) morals of the world. Twain is a notoriously hard critic of organized religion, and expresses that through Huck’s orphan parents here. Ultimately, Twain is a satirist so it’s important to remember that whilst reading. Of course, if you are sensitive about the effects that organized religion had on the “justification” for slavery in the South, I recommend taking Twain’s points lightly.
The plot of Huck Finn is truly its highlight, in my opinion. Although The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are renowned by critics for their “loss of innocence” stories, I believe that Huck Finn is the greatest example that American literature can provide. While the story is primarily about Huck and the slave Jim, it talks to the entirety of social change and development in the 19th century.
In an unfortunate turn of events, Huck Finn’s father returns when he discovers that Huck has a lot of money stored in the bank, and wants to claim it at his legal, rightful guardian. The unfortunate part is that his father is an alcoholic child-abuser, and will soon be taking Huck away from his guardians (who weren’t necessarily the best kind of people in hindsight, but kept Huck “civilized” and “stable” while he was with them). Huck didn’t want to be civilized by his guardians anymore, but he also didn’t want to necessarily return to his father, who only wanted him for his money. Thus, he devised a plan to escape from his father and exploit his drunken tendencies. As he escaped from the small hut/house that his father built by a stream, away from civilization, Huck triumphed by outsmarting him. A rite of passage!
He escapes to Jackson’s Island, where he stumbles upon someone who will change his life forever – and no, not a future romantic interest. Huck Finn’s previous guardians owned a slave named Jim, who had a family but was removed from it by the people who bought him. Of course, Huck Finn stumbles upon Jim. Huck was always taught by his guardians that slaves were lesser people. They shouldn’t be trusted, respected, or talked to. But, because of his innocence and supposed “immaturity” and “uncivilized” nature, Huck looks past those thoughts and thinks of Jim as a human being. Thus, the story of Huck Finn is under way.
And that’s only the beginning. From there, it only gets better (until the ending) and from there, you see the relationship of a “dumb, stupid, uncivilized boy” named Huck Finn and a “dumb, stupid, uneducated slave” named Jim develop into respect, admiration, and bonding. The moral circumstances of this friendship are profound. Mark Twain’s point lies in the fact that the only person capable of seeing the truth, the enlightenment of things, is a young immature uncivilized boy who can barely read and write. It is when one is resistant to the education that culture and society demands of a “civilized” boy that you begin to break the mold. And Huck Finn certainly breaks many molds as he travels down a river, on a raft, with a slave.
As Jim and Huck travel down the river, they plan to take the Ohio River back up to free territory. Unfortunately that doesn’t work out for them, as they miss the spot they needed to go to. Instead, they end up traveling down the Mississippi River into the Deep South. During the day, Jim needs to hide. He is a slave who Huck’s previous guardians and town officials are looking for. Huck’s father is looking for him. Everyone’s looking for something, and they need to stay safe. When it’s nighttime, they are free to roam. This is a symbolic contrast, present in the novel because of Twain’s brilliant satirical background.
The novel is dominated by symbolic contrasts. Along with the contrast of night and day, civilization and nature are also significant. As the shade of night protects the duo from harm and being caught, so also does the river. The Mississippi River is Huck’s protective parent. The sides of the river, which are inhabited by towns and people, are dangerous. The river, which is an embodiment of nature, instinct, and impulse, is kind. Keeping in mind that the book was written before naturalism became a study, this is a pretty profound development. Although naturalists believed that nature is unforgiving, unpredictable, and ruthlessly uncontrollable, the roots of the study lie in Huck Finn, in my opinion, because of the great attention that Twain places on nature.
Huck notices these contrasts and adapts to his environment very quickly. While he’s around robbers and felons, he’s quick on his feet. There’s one instance early into the novel where Huck and Jim encounter a sinking boat on the side of the river. As they look closer, there’s three thieves in there debating their shares of the rewards and money they just stole. Meanwhile, the ship is sinking. They don’t realize that. Huck does. Huck also realizes that Jim needs to be safe, so he leaves the ship when he can’t find Jim there. This small story is another example of Twain’s indictments of human behavior. These thieves may be cunning, but not particularly bright. They lack common sense. Huck, on the other hand, is cunning, but also realizes that he’s going to sink with the ship if he doesn’t get off soon.
Another example of Huck thinking quickly on his feet occurs when some local town officers try to examine his raft. There’s a tent in it, and Jim hides in there. Huck doesn’t want the officers to reach Jim, by no means. For that reason, he can’t have them search the small tent he’s in. So, in classic Huck fashion, he claims that his family is in the tent, and that they have smallpox. He says it’s very contagious, and that he might have it too, so it’s best they leave the raft and not catch it from him or his family. Genius.
This is the kind of maturation that Huck needs, and it’s ultimately what he gets throughout the journey. While his guardians wanted to teach him reading and writing, he wanted to go into nature, into the world. He’s realistic, understanding, and mature, though. At the end of the novel, the reader understands that no one else really shares in Huck’s realistic maturity. Huck is uniquely intelligent yet uncivilized.
Although I’ve disparaged the ending of Huck Finn quite a lot so far, I did enjoy Huck’s eventual revelation. He abandons Tom Sawyer.
In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we see a host of random fantasy out-of-this-world adventures courtesy of the Romantic hero, Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain denied and disliked the Romantic movement of the early 19th century. He disliked it so much that, in Huck Finn, he has the main character, who by now is seen as someone capable of understanding and acting upon complex moral situations at such a young age, defy Romanticism completely. He does so by abandoning Tom Sawyer, the Romantic hero. While it is arguable that Tom is a complete, all-encompassing Romantic hero (I’d hardly give him the title ‘hero’ to begin), he certainly serves to embody the values of Romanticism.
The Romantic movement valued aesthetics, emotion, and feelings. It enjoyed the natural and reveled in the supernatural. From Romanticism, people value staring off at a setting sun over the horizon, enjoying the overflow of emotion and thought as you sit there. A Romantic poet would ask for you to record your feelings verbatim. Romanticism also asserted the importance of nationalism. Now, why does Tom Sawyer embody this movement?
Tom Sawyer is usually the source of great, bounding, incredibly unnecessarily complex ideas and plans to either get money, honor, or some kind of fantasy. He’s big on fantasy. The entire imagination of Romanticism comes directly from Tom. As the novel nears its end, Tom is reintroduced. It spirals downward at this point. All of his complex ideas represent Romanticism. And, when Huck is finally fed up with Tom and his fantastic plans, he abandons him in an ultimate act of maturity and defiance. Not only is he defying all of Romanticism, but society as a whole. At this point, Huck is truly individualistic. He has the choice to go back home, but he refuses. He doesn’t want to be trained to be civilized any more.
How about that? What a great piece of fiction! If you’ve read it, I recommend you do so and immediately spark up a conversation with me about your thoughts. I’d love to hear them. As this is one of my favorite pieces, I enjoy discussing it in deeper detail. And although this piece is somewhat long, I’ve only touched on the novel’s surface. There’s so much more to talk about!
Until tomorrow, fellow bloggers!