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.

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!).

Friday, August 13, 2010

This blog has been brought to you by...

I thought I would use this post to mention a few stores, websites, and institutions that are helping me study for this exam in the most efficient and cost effective manner possible. I will go ahead and point out that no, there are not currently any libraries on this list as I don’t like to use them. I have a hard time with the idea of giving the book back. I am really not against libraries in any other way; I just personally do not like to use them. With that being said, here are just a few of my most valued resources:

Half Price Books

I love bookstores. And Half Price Books serves as my sort of substitute library. Because I immediately buy my books without knowing if I will really want to keep them or not, the ones I end up voting against becoming part of my collection end up at HPB. I happily take my .50 that I get for an ordinary paperback and go buy myself a soda.
And of course, HPB has the obvious benefit of offering books at a reduced rate. That would come in handy for anyone really, but especially for someone who does not use libraries. I recently found The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson in the edition recommended by the professors at UTSA. At list price, the book would have cost me over $20, but at HPB I was able to get it for only $8.
I have also been fortunate enough to find two textbooks there. Now of course, this is pretty rare as the selection is hit or miss as it is. When I find a textbook, there is a moment of slight disbelief, followed by an adrenaline rush because I feel that even though I am standing two inches from it, someone else will swoop in and take it.
But perhaps the purchase I am most fond of from HPB is the Barnes and Noble edition of The Canterbury Tales that has both the old English text and a modern day translation side by side on each page as you read. It is brilliant. And speaking of Barnes and Noble…

Barnes and Noble

Once again, I love bookstores. And while I have a special place in my heart for HPB, there is just something about the smell of a brand new book. And for that, B&N is my chain bookstore of choice. And that copy I found of The Canterbury Tales was not my first encounter with a B&N edition. When it comes to buying classics, I always try to get a B&N edition (and fortunately, HPB usually has plenty of them). Even brand new, these editions aren’t very expensive, and I still get that new book smell.
Also, because HPB’s inventory is usually so hit or miss, I use B&N to research which poetry anthologies have everything I need, and then I go to HPB to see if I can find them for a reduced rate.

This well-known website is also good for reduced rates if you know what you’re looking for. And I am always a sucker for the Free Super-Saver Shipping. Even if I intend to buy only one book costing $10.00, I will force my self to find other items equaling at least $15.00 so I can get the free shipping. Granted, if I am buying school books, that is not hard to do.
Another great thing about is that they have a pretty great buy back program for their textbooks. I recently returned a set of Norton Anthologies that were still in great condition even after a semester of use, and got pretty close to half of my money back. Granted, I immediately spent it on a video game, but I can’t blame Amazon for that.

This is a website for readers. Plain and simple. Each user starts out with three basic lists to use: "read," "currently reading," and "to read." From there users can create as many other lists, or “shelves”, as they want. I also have "to buy," and "school books." The site keeps me organized and helps me take note and remember which editions I need to look for. Also, like B&N and Amazon, has an iPhone app. It is probably the app I use the most after Facebook.


Of course I cannot forget the institution that is forcing me to take this monster exam just to prove that I deserve a Master of Arts degree in English. And even though UTSA is the reason for all of this, the professors and staff do provide a wonderful amount of support for all students going through this process. In my fall class, we will be going over four of the optional works included on the list, as well as one required work. In fact, almost each class I have taken has had the students read at least two works that are on the list. This is of course extremely useful because we receive vital information from people who are not only experts in these subject areas, but a lot of them also collaborated on the actual test itself. And when it comes to complex essay questions on works such as The Sound and the Fury, I prefer to not be left to my own devices.

I am sure there will be more sponsors as I continue in the process. One resource that I currently do not use, but many of my fellow students have made extensive use of, is - free audio books read by volunteers. As I get closer to my test, I have a strange feeling that although I have not used it yet, and even though I don’t really care for audio books, I will probably end up using this resource.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Optional Work: Pale Fire

As I said last week, we will be covering Pale Fire in the class I am taking this fall. Therefore, I will try my best not to go into too much detail as I will be visiting this book again in the upcoming months. I do wish to still go over genre, theme, and history, but I’ll try to keep it brief. Of course, the operative word here is “try.”

Once again, I find it very difficult to place this book within any one specific genre. While this book is not as long or as dense as either Bleak House or Moby Dick, it is still complex and hard to pin down.

I suppose I can start with the obvious fact that it does include poetry. The focus of the entire novel in fact is a 999 line poem of the same name as the book, composed by the fictitious John Shade. The novel contains a brief foreword by the second main character in the book, Dr. Charles Kinbote, a friend and neighbor of Shade’s. The foreword is then followed by the poem, and then the remainder (and majority) of the book is a commentary on the poem, also by Kinbote. So while the book is not all poetry, a poem is the center of attention. And because the book is not just poetry, but also a book about a poem, this makes it metafiction (writing about writing).

It can be argued that Pale Fire is both comedy and tragedy. The comedy comes from Kinbote’s commentary, as it is rarely an actually commentary on Shade’s poem, and often just a disjointed story that Kinbote told Shade at one point –a story Kinbote was hoping would be the focus of the poem before Shade finished it. Kinbote’s hopes are immediately dashed upon his first reading of the poem, but as he rereads it, he convinces himself that certain lines in the poem contain references to the adventure he told Shade. It is pretty clear that Shade’s poem is largely autobiographical and that there is almost no evidence of Kinbote’s story anywhere. At certain points during the commentary, Kinbote manages to squeeze in his own story, therefore getting the satisfaction of telling it anyway, despite Shade ignoring it completely the first time.

The comedy can also come from the adventures of Gradus, one of the main characters in Kinbote’s story that crosses the globe in order to carry out an assassination. His trek is full of comical blunders, the best of which may be near the very end where he has trouble finishing his assignment because he keeps having to make trips to the bathroom to relieve his unsettled stomach.

The tragedy of the story comes from the various sad notes in the poem (the death of Shade’s daughter, his own “faint hope” in higher powers, and his encounters with death early in life. And of course, there is the obvious tragedy (spoiler alert!) of Shade’s death, which, although it is a murder, it is an accident as he was not the intended target.
With this book, I find it difficult to be able to fully explore other genres, so hopefully when I get to study it in the fall, I’ll be able to make some more notes.

The only recurring theme I could pull from this novel would be that of self-involvement, most of which comes from Kinbote. He undertakes the publication of Shade’s poem under the guise of caring about his friend’s last literary endeavor. And while he does publish the poem, it quickly becomes overshadowed by the story he really wanted to tell, which in the end the reader finds out (spoiler alert!) was his own. In retelling his own observations of Shade during the period of time when his friend would have been composing this poem, Kinbote refers to the poem as his poem. He also frequently laments the fact that Shade will not share the work in progress with him, despite his knowing full well that Shade only shares his works in progress with his own wife. Close friends are not allowed a peek, much less neighbors that he has only know for a few months.

Another interesting theme is that off identity, and even hidden identity. There is the issue of Kinbote being found out the really be the protagonist in his own story, the dethroned King Charles Xavier Vseslav of Zembla. It has been argued that Kinbote’s royal alter-ego is imaginary, and that Kinbote is insane (I’d buy that…). It has also been argued that whether King Charles exists or not, Kinbote is actually the insane Professor V. Botkin, whose delusions everyone at Wordsmith College (including John Shade) generally condescend. There is an entry for Botkin in the index, which only points to a note in the novel that contains and instance where another character points out that Botkin is a kind of anagram for Kinbote. And lastly (although I am sure there are more I am missing), there is the killer who is mostly known as Gradus, but also takes on the name of Jack Grey near the end of the novel.

I suppose another recurring theme would be death. As mentioned before, the poem deals with Shade’s early experiences with death, as well as the death of his daughter. And of course, there is the death of Shade himself, even though he was not the one who was supposed to die.

Pale Fire was written in 1962, two books after Lolita and right after Pnin. Speak, Memory would be written later in 1967.

Other than this somewhat useless nugget of information, I have a hard time coming up with anything for history. If I knew more about Russia in the 1960s I might be able to go on at some length about the time the book was written. But I don’t, so I can’t.

Well look at that…even with my lack of knowledge on this book and ability to extract much more than I could, this entry still ended up being surprisingly long-winded. And I know that my class in the fall will give me even more to work with, hopefully in the area of history since that is where I am seriously lacking. Well, at least I will be prepared for the test.

Next week we will take a break from novels, as I haven’t yet finished another one to take notes on. Actually, I will probably take a break from works on the list for the next three weeks, and focus on a few books I have been reading for fun. Hopefully at the end of the three weeks, I will be ready to discuss Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.