Essays and Criticism
Huckleberry Finn: An Overview
Told in the voice of its first-person narrator, the central themes of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn necessarily reflect the values, interests and concerns of an affable but unruly adolescent who is, by his own account, a petty thief, an inveterate idler, and a liar to boot. In Huck's vernacular vocabulary, the key evaluative word is "comfortable." At any given point in his story, Huck appraises his situation by the degree to which he feels comfortable. As Twain manipulates it, "comfortable" is a multivalent term. On the one hand, Huck clearly wants to be free of external restraint, of work, and of punishment for his misdeeds. Capture and rescue serve as a recurrent pattern within the novel's plot. At the same time, Huck wants to be rid of the pangs of his own conscience, particularly the ironic guilt that he experiences as he becomes increasingly involved in helping the runaway slave Jim attain freedom. Ultimately, Twain's unlikely hero moves toward the adoption of a standard that enables him to resolve his misgivings on this count, embracing a variation of the Golden Rule. In the course of his narrative, Huck develops the capacity to place himself in the shoes of other people. This is, however, an imperfect solution because many of the people whom he encounters along the Mississippi are con artists, gullible victims, or outright hypocrites.
The connection between being comfortable and being free from established authority is established at the outset of Twain's book as Huck finds himself rankling under the care of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. Although he appreciates his foster parents desire to raise him as a conventionally "good" boy, he is uncomfortable with their program to "sivilize" him. Huck attaches value to education, religion, and middle-class manners, but he resists the confinements of school and church, of wearing respectable clothes and being reminded to sit up straight at the dinner table. In response to the continuous "ecking of his benevolent, self-appointed parents, Huck seeks refuge in Tom Sawyer's gang of robbers. But he quickly becomes bored with the imaginary freedom that being part of the gang offers to him.
When his Pap arrives in St. Petersburg and essentially kidnaps his son, Huck finds himself free of all these "sivilizing" restraints. Despite his captivity at the hands of a cruel task-master, he initially takes to the freedom that Pap's position outside of society...
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Beyond the Popular Humorist: The Complexity of Mark Twain
The popularity of the literary work of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, “ Mark Twain,” is a clearly known fact in the history of American letters. Creator of two of the best loved heroes of this nation’s literature, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the man from Hannibal, Missouri, nevertheless, might very well be described as a challenge to those who would determine the bases for popular acceptance on the American literary scene.
Perhaps one of the more common interpretations given this matter is found in the following comment by Hamlin Garland: “The people can never be educated to love the past. . . . Students may be taught to believe they believe, the masses of American readers want the modern comment. They want the past colored to suit their ideas of life. . . . There is small prophecy in it, after all. We have but to examine the ground closely . . . we have but to examine closely the most naive and local of our novels, and the coming literature will be foreshadowed there.” (FN1)
Certainly the appeal of Twain as a local colorist is beyond denial; the attraction of regional material, with its consoling view of life and the charm of its novelty, is totally understandable. However, such an explanation of the power of Mark Twain over generations of readers is, indeed, simplistic in the extreme. There is a texture in the literary material of Mark Twain which, of necessity, invalidates easy resolutions. Initially, the warm and spirited humanity of the writer issues from his pages; “The boys dressed themselves, and went off grieving that there were no outlaws any more, and wondering what modern civilization could claim to have done to compensate for their loss. They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.” (FN2) However, later in his career, the writer treated similar situations in such a manner as to bring out discordant values. The subject of Jim’s freedom, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a case in point:
“Him?” says Aunt Sally; “the runaway nigger: They’ve got him back, safe and sound, and he’s in that cabin again, on bread and water, and loaded down with chains, till he’s claimed or sold!” “They hain’t no right to shut him up . . . he’s as free as any cretur that walks this earth! . . . Old Miss Watson died two months ago, and...
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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: History of Controversy
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been a source of controversy since its publication in 1884. It was banned from many public libraries on its first appearance for being "trash." Although today it is widely regarded as a—if not the—classic American novel, it still poses problems for its readers. Huckleberry Finn has long been identified as expressing something essentially American: in the words of Bernard De Voto, "the novel derives from the folk and embodies their mode of thought more purely and more completely than any other ever written." In some ways, the debate about the Americanness of Huckleberry Finn reveals the larger struggle to define American identity. Those who first condemned the novel as being "trash" objected to it on grounds of both literary merit and racial, social, and economic class: they rejected its portrayal of a slave and an uneducated, poor boy as the most typical kind of American citizens. The opposite point of view, which celebrates the novel as an expression of the "folk," asserts its subject is the quintessential, or typical, American story characters without social advantages trying to "make good."
Twain creates the impression of American folk culture through his use of dialect and phonetic spelling, which mimics speech, rather than writing. As he points out in his opening notice to the reader, different characters use different dialects; in this world, where not everyone receives the same kind of...
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Huck's Final Triumph
Throughout the book Huck's attitude toward the life around him is remarkably ambivalent. Though he clearly is rebelling against respectability and civilization, he rebels because they make him uncomfortable and ill at ease. He fights them by running away. When he can no longer abide the "pecking" of the Widow and Miss Watson, and the privations they force upon him, he flees, but only to the rags and sugar-hogshead of the other side of town. He does not need to go farther. In fact, he must stay within commuting distance of respectable folk. And he quickly and easily returns when a lure is held up to him. The agent who entices Huck back from rags to respectability is, of course, Tom Sawyer. Tom at this time clearly symbolizes Huck's ideal.
Tom seems to be a rebel. He battles the world around him. He attacks the status quo, and seemingly threatens to overturn it. Yet his battles are all shams. If he ever overthrew his paper dragons, his crusading spirit would collapse. He lives happily in his society. After the lark of playing battler, he always joyously returns to the safety and security of Aunt Polly. This clash of danger and safety appeals to Huck, and it is epitomized in the person of Tom. Huck will therefore make any sacrifice for his hero, even to giving up the comfort and freedom he so immensely enjoys. Tom has saturated and captivated Huck's consciousness. Near or far he is the older boy's evil genius.
But Huck is not satisfied or happy...
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The Role of Jim in Huckleberry Finn
At the beginning of the second chapter of Huckleberry Finn, we meet one of the most important characters in the novel. "Miss Watson's big nigger, named Jim, was setting in the kitchen door. . . ." Jim is to play a role second only to that of Huck in this novel, but the reader is seldom conscious at any one point of the extent of Jim's importance. Even in Jim's biggest scenes, we more often than not come away thinking of Huck rather than Jim. The main point I wish to make in this paper is that Jim is not merely a noble cause or an ignoble foil, in either of which cases he would be more particularly important for the action episodes of the book than he in fact is; he is rather what one might call a moral catalyst, and thereby of central importance in the portrayal and illumination of the character of Huckleberry Finn. True, the action depends upon the presence of the runaway slave, and from this status evolves the double search for freedom which Professor [Edgar Marquess] Branch defines [in his The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain (1950)] as the explicit theme of the book: "Huck's story of his struggle to win freedom for himself and Jim." His role as the runaway slave may certainly be argued as showing Jim's indirect importance to the varied action in the book, but it is my thesis that Jim's primary function is to further the characterization of Huckleberry Finn: by his presence, his personality, his actions, his words, to call forth from...
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