Friday, August 20, 2010

Required Work: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Well it is as I thought – I don’t actually have time to read and finish Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence by the time my class starts. I toyed with the idea of just doing two more reviews of books I have been reading for fun, but instead I decided to note a required work I have already read several times to make up for not being able to do the optional work I had planned for.

I am going to go ahead and say this: I do not like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Much like Moby Dick, I respect this book and can appreciate it, and even understand why it is often hailed as a Great American Novel (much more than I can with Moby Dick). However, that doesn’t mean that I have to like it, and I don’t. The first time I read it I just kept thinking, “When are they going to leave the river?” Of course, as we all know now, the river is the focus of the entire novel. Also, once the king and the duke enter the novel I am ready to stop reading. And once we are rid of them, enter Tom Sawyer with his ridiculous pranks that only prolongs the suffering of others. Now, I will end your suffering and step off of my soap box so I can discuss…


Huckleberry Finn is a lot of things, but probably the easiest box to put this book into is that of satire. Parts of this book have the same effect on me that reading Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court did (which I actually liked, strangely enough). There are parts that are just laugh out loud funny, but then you feel bad for laughing. And with that, Twain makes his point. Since this book was published, critics and readers have agonized over why Twain had Tom Sawyer enter at such a crucial point, and effectively take over the entire ending of the book. Tom prolongs Jim’s suffering only because for him it makes a great adventure and a great story. He does not care that Jim is having his feet eaten by rats, and he loves being the one to reveal that Jim had been free all along, and that there was no reason for any escape plan, much less the overly complicated one that he came up with. However, even the reader laughs or giggles or chuckles, or even cracks the slightest smile even once, then there is not much we can say. What Tom puts Jim through is terrible, but these were not uncommon tricks for a young boy who grew up in the racist south and read adventure novels (the type Twain did not approve of). Twain uses Tom to make a point on how blacks in the post-Civil War era were treated and sometimes re-enslaved even after they were declared free…but I will say more on that in the history section.

Twain also pokes fun at racist attitudes of the day by making Jim one of the most gentle, moral, and generally likeable characters in the entire novel. He is not supposed to smart, and is supposed to be below Huck in station, but there are many times throughout the work that he proves to be the better person. When Huck plays a trick on Jim and pretends to be dead and or missing, Jim is deeply affected, and later completely overjoyed once he realizes Huck is safe. When he realizes that the entire even was a trick, he is again deeply affected, and Huck feels like the worst person in the world, and is willing to do anything to make it up to Jim. In this event, the humanity of the black slave, a race of people often referred to as animals, is proven stronger than that of a white boys. Still, Huck has moments where he shines as well, and even though he is a little boy, he is shown to be wiser and a better human being than most of the adults he meets up with in the novel. Through the voices of a small child and a childlike black man, Twain manages to ridicule and shame popular ideas and beliefs of the time.

This novel can also be placed in the genre of adventure (it is in the title after all). This of course fits quite well because of the trip down the river, and all of the events and characters Huck and Jim encounter along away the way. Pretty much every time Jim and Huck come to shore, they have another mini adventure that is separate from the raft ride down the river. Nevertheless, while this novel is similar to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in its title, it is not in fact a children’s book, even with narrator having the voice of a child. Twain manages to play several little tricks with this book, and every reader somehow falls for at least one.


Let us go ahead and list the obvious ones that need very little explanation: racism, slavery, freedom (for everyone…they are all looking for freedom from something), and prejudice.

Now, the one that is less obvious and cannot be discovered from a simple plot summary is that of Huck’s moral struggle with the fact that Jim is technically property and does belong to someone. Now, Huck is on the raft because he also is looking for freedom, but having Jim along with him means he is helping a black slave escape, and this is a crime that, for a good chunk of the novel, Huck is not very sure he wants to commit. Of course, there is that defining moment when he decides that if helping Jim is indeed the wrong thing to do and that God will punish him for it, then he will just go to hell.

But even with this defining moment, it can still be argued that Huck Finn is not a coming of age story, as Huck does not change completely. He may be the narrator and the main character, but it has often been argued that the hero of the story is in fact Jim. And if this is true, the Twain has pulled another trick on the readers of his time, and more than a few in ours.


Huck Finn was written in the post-Civil War era when there was a strong reaction from whites against the blacks they still wanted to enslave (and often times they succeeded). However, the book is set before the Civil War, and during the time of the Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed harsh punishment for any slaves caught attempting to escape their masters and anyone who was found out to be helping them. I wonder if Twain wrote this book in an effort to show that the time in which the novel is set was not much different from the time he was writing it, even though when he was writing it, slaves had their freedom. Despite this major difference, there were many of the same prejudices, and much of the same brutality. Plus, slavery was kinda still around. Tom’s “re-enslavement” of Jim mirrors what was actually happening in Twain’s time. Mostly white people were using any means they could to put blacks back into the same kind of unpaid labor they were doing before, but they just put a different name to it. What Tom does to Jim often makes readers angry, and the thing is, it is supposed to.

Next week, I will do what I did with Moby Dick and attempt to come up with some questions that will hopefully help all exam takers dig a little deeper into this novel. The following weeks will then focus on the novels I will be reading for my class, a good number of which are on the exam as well (bonus!).

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