Friday, August 27, 2010

Why Huck Finn May Be One Giant Trick

Okay, so I really only came up with one good question for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…and I stole it from a handout one of my professor’s gave the class last semester. To be fair, it is better than anything I probably would have been able to come up with on my own. So, here we go:

1. It has been argued that American writers have frequently chosen the dark man as a companion for the white precisely because of those racist assumptions which insist that the relationship remain limited, thus allowing the hero that essential isolation he values more than brotherhood or equality. And of course in all these characterizations of nonwhites we still find that the companion is merely an agent rather than a fully developed being in his own right. He has remained, in other words, strictly a symbolic projection of the white hero, a metaphor of some buried psychic force or the large unknown itself – elsewhere imaged as the sea or forest – the new “context” in which the isolated white man defines only himself. Argue for or against this idea as it applies to Twain’s novel.

It would be easy to argue for this idea as it applies to Twain, especially with so many examples that preceded him. When I read this question I immediately think of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Of course, Defoe was not an American writer, but his novel still follows the idea behind the question. For twenty some odd years, Crusoe gets this essential isolation that the hero of such a story would require. He gets an entire island all to himself until he gains a companion in Friday, a local native that finds himself separated from his own people. Despite Friday being the native, and also the one with cannibalistic impulses, he immediately becomes the submissive. He doesn’t even get to choose his own name. He never becomes a fully realized being, but simply someone that the reader can compare Crusoe against. Friday and Crusoe are not equals, they aren’t even friends.

On the surface, it can be argued that Twain has done the same thing with Huck and Jim. Huck is white, Jim is black, and Huck is the narrator and essentially main character of the story. I would not go so far as to say that Huck and Jim are equals as both Huck and Jim are extremely aware that Jim is a black slave and Huck, although a child, is a free white child. They are, however, friends, and Huck is willing to help set Jim free, even though that means risking repercussions from the law and being sent to hell by God (as he reasons it). Jim is a fully developed character, and not just someone the reader can define Huck against. In Twain’s novel, Huck can be better defined against Tom Sawyer, or even the duke or the king, or even better yet, the society he was raised in and thus trying to escape from. And this is Twain’s trick.

Twain names the novel Adventures of Huck Finn, which is eerily similar to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is a children’s book. There is even a child narrator. However, about two or three chapters in it becomes pretty clear that Huck Finn is not for children. Twain then gives Huck a companion in Jim, a large but seemingly childlike slave. But as the novel moves on, Jim becomes a much more rounded and complex person than most characters of color in other American (and some British) novels. Finally, after Huck and Jim have this epic journey all to secure Jim’s freedom, Twain has Jim re-enslaved just so Tom can have some fun. The whole last part of the book easily comes off as one big cruel joke on Jim. The thing is, as awful as what happens to Jim is, and as angry as the reader may get with Tom, Twain uses such an illustration to make the point that even though slavery had been abolished by the time the book was published, it did not mean slavery wasn’t still happening. Jim was free all along, and Tom knew it, but he put Jim through hell all for his own pleasure.

And to twist the knife a little more, we as readers feel even worse about the ending if any point we found it even the slightest bit the amusing.

Next week, I’ll begin writing about whatever we are reading in my class. I’ll post a tentative schedule, and then, let the semester begin.

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