Little could Mark Twain have visualized in 1876 when he began a sequel to capitalize on the success of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would come to be regarded as his masterpiece and one of the most significant works in the American novel tradition. His greatest contribution to the tradition occurred when, with an unerring instinct for American regional dialects, he elected to tell the story in Huck’s own words. The skill with which Mark Twain elevates the dialect of an illiterate village boy to the highest levels of poetry established the spoken American idiom as a literary language and earned for Mark Twain the reputation, proclaimed for him by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and many others, as the father of the modern American novel.
Mark Twain maintains an almost perfect fidelity to Huck’s point of view in order to dramatize the conflict between Huck’s innate innocence and natural goodness and the dictates of a corrupt society. As Huck’s story, the novel centers around such major themes as death and rebirth, freedom and bondage, the search for a father, the individual versus society, and the all-pervasive theme of brotherhood. Huck’s character reflects a stage in Mark Twain’s own development when he still believed human beings to be innately good though increasingly corrupted by social influences that replaced their intuitive sense of right and wrong. This theme is explicitly dramatized through Huck’s conflict with his conscience over whether or not to turn Jim in as a runaway slave. Huck, on the one hand, accepts without question what he has been taught about slavery by church and society. In his own mind, as surely as in that of his Southern contemporaries, aiding an escaped slave was both legally and morally wrong. Thus Huck’s battle with his conscience is a real trauma for him, and his decision to “go to Hell” rather than give Jim up is made with a certainty that such a fate awaits him for breaking this law of society. Mark Twain compellingly establishes the irony that Huck’s “sin” against the social establishment affirms the best that is possible in the individual.
Among the many forms of bondage that permeate the novel—including the widow’s attempt to “civilize” Huck, the “code of honor” that causes Sherburn to murder Boggs, and the law of vendetta that rules the lives of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons—slavery provides Mark Twain his...
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