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 provides to him, recalling that "it was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books or study" (p.21). Yet Huck soon finds himself the object of his drunken Pap's hickory switch, and escapes from the arbitrary punishments of the cabin by faking his own murder. On Jackson Island, he is once again free but his alliance with Jim forces him to take flight anew, entering into the "world elsewhere" of rafting along the river. Nevertheless, this form of freedom brings him (and Jim) into contact with charlatans, and the need to escape from the clutches of the King and the Duke. At the novel's end, Huck still seeks comfort in an illusory freedom that may lie somewhere that he has never been. Fearing that Tom's Aunt Sally will try to "sivilize" him, he vows "to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest" (p.263). In contrast to Jim, who conceives freedom in positive terms, feeling "trembly and feverish" as they approach they approach the free northern state of Illinois, Huck sees freedom in terms of the absence of external compulsion.
Even if Huck were able to achieve a state of comfortable liberty, he finds himself liable to another type of constraint, one that makes him even more uncomfortable than external coercion, the pangs of his own conscience. While he and Tom scheme to arrange Jim's escape from Phelps farm, Huck proclaims, "it don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway. If I had a yaller dog that didn't know no more than a person's conscience does, I would poison him" (p.194) Despite his surface amorality, Twain's misfit lad periodically experiences twinges of guilt. He easily surmounts his sense of guilt while watching friends search for his corpse in the wake of his "murder." And he is able to rationalize the borrowing of farmer's crops, when Jim suggests that they should only steal a few items, allowing him to declare that "we warn't feeling just right, before that, but it was all comfortable now" (p.58).
The enduring source of Huck's internal discomfort stems from being "conscience" that by shielding Jim, he is committing an offense against the slave's owner, Miss Watson. At a relatively early juncture in his adventures, Huck's conscience accuses him with the thought, "What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you...
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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 she was ashamed she was ever going to sell him . . . and she set him free in her will.” “Then what on earth did you want to set him free for, seeing he was already free?” “Sal, that is a question, I must say; and just like women! Why, I wanted the adventure of it. . . ."(FN3)
Although the essentially humorous tone and colorful setting are not lost for a moment, Twain does manage to introduce into this passage a very disturbing element. The injustice that characterizes Jim’s fate through the course of the novel is inescapable. Huck frequently reflects upon the morality that demands Jim’s return to his owner. The fact that the slave could have made good his escape, that he is, in point of fact, a free man, is of no consequence...
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