Last Reviewed on May 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1025
Despite staying on the Phelps plantation, Huck and Tom have not yet seen Jim. However, Tom notices food being taken into a hut and surmises that this is where Jim is being held. Huck suggests that they should steal the key one night, release Jim, and then continue along the river together on the raft. Tom objects that this plan is “as mild as goose-milk.” He devises something far more difficult, intricate, and stylish, which begins with digging a tunnel, which will take about a week, instead of merely using the key. Tom and Huck ascertain that it is indeed Jim who is being held in the hut and commence their complicated plan to rescue him.
Tom is dissatisfied that, even with the refinements he has introduced, their plan is too simple. There is no watchman to be drugged, nor even a guard dog. The escape would also be more romantic if the hut had a moat, and Tom suggests digging one. He also wants to saw Jim’s leg off to release him, rather than simply lifting up the leg of the bed to which he is chained.
Tom continues to suggest refinements to the plan, all of which he has read about in books, and pouring scorn on Huck’s preference for simplicity. Even digging a tunnel with picks and shovels will not do. They have to use knives. At every turn, Tom wishes the situation were more difficult than it actually is and invents unnecessary complications.
At night, Tom and Huck start to dig their tunnel. They abandon the knives when their hands are covered in blisters and they have little to show for their effort. Tom compromises by using picks and shovels but calling them knives. They manage to dig their way into the hut, where Jim is delighted to see them and wants to get away immediately. Tom, however, insists on sticking to at least some of the formal elements of his plan and postpones their departure.
Tom’s elaborate plan continues to cause trouble, as Silas and Sally Phelps begin to notice that various items of cutlery and bed linen are missing. They have no idea what is happening, as the items Tom chooses and the uses to which he wants to put them are so obscure. They take particular trouble over the construction of a “witch pie,” a rope to assist Jim in his escape, to be smuggled in to him baked in a pie. They obtain enough rope for forty pies and eventually manage to encase some of it in dough inside a large brass warming pan. Jim duly receives the pie and hides the rope in his mattress.
Tom insists that Jim cannot leave without writing messages, and even inscribing a coat of arms, on the wall of the hut. The arrangements for this involve a great deal of fuss and bother over technical details of heraldry and are further hampered by Jim’s illiteracy, and Tom’s insistence that the inscriptions must be made in rock, whereas the walls of the hut are wood. They use a grindstone which they find at the mill. Tom then complains that the hut has no wildlife in it and wants to stock the place with spiders, rats, and rattlesnakes, which Jim would much sooner be without. At this point, even the good-natured Jim is beginning to point out that Tom’s requirements for romantic imprisonment involve a great deal of trouble. Tom retorts that Jim has a golden opportunity to “make a name for himself” as a prisoner, which is entirely wasted on him, whereupon Jim apologizes.
It is easy to see why many readers have found these chapters to be the least satisfactory in the book. Ernest Hemingway, who heaped praise on the book as a whole, saying that “All modern American literature comes from Huck Finn,” added the caveat that one should stop reading when Jim is imprisoned on the Phelps plantation, after which the book degenerates into broad and unamusing comedy.
The comedy of this section is not particularly vulgar, a fault often found with the book as a whole and which led it to be banned by several libraries on publication. One problem is that it requires one fairly mild joke to stretch out over five chapters. Few readers are likely to share Huck and Jim’s tolerance for Tom’s elaborate plan, and the simple point that the scheme is intentionally much more difficult than it needs to be is made over and over again in such a variety of ways that a much better joke would become stale with such heavy-handed treatment.
Beyond this, however, is more fundamental cause for uneasiness. Tom has clearly not changed since he was playing at being the captain of a band of robbers, complete with secret meetings and oaths written in blood, at the beginning of the book. Huck, and even the other boys, tired of these games quickly. Now that Tom brings this childish attitude back into the novel, it is far more inappropriate than it was at the beginning. Tom is literally playing with Jim’s life, and it appears that both Huck and Jim are too completely in his thrall to point out how selfish and puerile he is being.
At various points in the narrative, Huck refers respectfully to Tom, saying that Tom would know exactly what to do or that he would undoubtedly face the situation at hand with style and bravado. When he actually arrives on the scene, however, Tom approaches a situation that is genuinely dangerous for Jim (though not for Tom or Huck) with a selfish attitude which emphasizes that, while Jim is an adult and Huck has grown up over the course of the narrative, Tom is still a child. After his insufferable behavior, the reader may well be expecting Huck or even Jim to stand up to him in chapter 38, when the complications he introduces into the plan reach a crescendo of absurdity. This reasonable expectation makes Jim’s apology and capitulation at the end of the chapter even more galling.
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