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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

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Huckleberry Finn: An Overview

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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 could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say a single word?" (p.75). After the King and the Duke sell Jim to the Reverend Phelps, Huck's feelings of guilt about Jim surface again. He writes a letter to Miss Watson, apprising her of the whereabouts of her property, and recalls, "I felt so good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life" (p.179). But Huck doesn't send this message, and by doing so, he defies his conscience and, by his own lights, consigns himself to damnation, replying to his inner voice, "'All right then I'll go to hell'---and tore it (the letter) up" (p.180). Huck shoves his guilt feelings aside, and resolves to "steal" Jim out of slavery, but he is still convinced that this is a shameful course.

Although he does not acknowledge it as such, it is Huck's development of a higher standard than that of contemporary mores that enables him to partially overcome the dictates of his conscience and act the part of a "nigger-stealer." After tricking Jim into believing that he died in their raft's crash with a steamboat, Huck experiences unexpected remorse. Seeing his companion alive, Jim is characteristically heartened, but he then expresses his resentment at feeling grief while "all you wuz thinkin 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie" (p.73). Huck apologizes to Jim, humbling himself to a nigger, because he empathizes with his victim and puts himself in Jim's position. Gradually, Huck embraces the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. The most explicit expression of this moral yardstick comes from Mary Jane Wilks, a young woman whom Huck openly admires for having "sand." When Huck is caught in a blatant lie, Mary Jane chastises his interrogator by demanding "How would you like to be treated so?" (p.147). This remark clearly leaves a powerful impression on Huck, for he immediately decides to double-cross the King and the Duke by re-stealing the gold that they have robbed from Mary Jane and her sister.

Huck's movement toward an ethical code is complicated by the superstitious gullibility of the adults around him. He is himself a trickster in a world of ready-made victims, fools with whom he cannot identity lest he be labeled a fool as well. Jim recognizes that "dese kings o' ourns is regular rapscallions; dat's jist what dey is; dey's reglar rapscallions," but Huck sees nothing amiss here because "all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out" (p.129). Watching the King and Duke "work" small-town crowds, Huck is more offended by the credulity of the dupes than by the duplicity of the con artists. As the mountebanks pull the wool over the family and neighbors of the late Peter Wilks, it is the responses of the victims, their slavish willingness to believe, that Huck finds disconcerting, declaring that, "it was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race" (p.137).

Twain furnishes Huck with ample cause to be ashamed of the human race, for many of the good adults whom he encounters in his adventures are hypocrites. While Miss Watson extols the virtues of honesty, her promises to Jim that she would never "sell him South" are evidently broken. The Reverend Phelps appears to be a good-hearted and kindly soul, yet he purchases Jim with an eye toward receiving a reward from the slave's rightful owner. Although Twain's Mississippi society is filled with such hypocrisy, it is in the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons that the fundamental falseness of social interaction is most acutely presented. Taken in by the Grangerfords, Huck is duly impressed by their wealth and respectability. But he learns from Buck Grangerford that no one can recall "why the family is at war with the Shepherdsons." Huck becomes part of the Grangerford clan, and recollects, "Next Sunday we all went to church. . . . The men took their guns, so did Buck and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdson's done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching---all about brotherly love, an such-like tiresomeness. . . ."(p.93). The "admirable" figures in Huck's world overtly endorse Christian principles yet hatred, greed, and fear often drive their actions. Even Huck's idol, Tom Sawyer, puts Jim through humiliating experiences for the ostensible end of "rescuing" him, knowing all the time that Jim is already a free man.

Whether slavery and race relations should be seen as an explicit theme of novel, they are at the heart of a running critic controversy about the book and its author's intentions. Many modern readers have objected to Twain's portrayal of Jim, who can be seen as superstitious, ignorant, and servile "Uncle Tom" Negro. At the same time, Jim is one novel's most appealing adult characters in the book, a gentle and loyal individual, who does not hate, cheat or trick anyone, who fears and evades violence but never commits any. There are also intimations that Jim is wiser than he lets on to be, that he is able to con Huck into helping him. When the two meet on Jackson's Island, Jim explains that he was forced to abscond from Miss Watson because he had learned of her plans to "sell" him South. But he then adds, "she picks on me all de time, en treats me pooty rough." (p.38). This statement is tailor-made to appeal to Huck's sensibility, for he too feels constantly "pecked" by Miss Watson.

In the end, Twain sets Jim free from the shackles of slavery through the device of Miss Watson's will, but Jim's wife and children remain in servitude, and Jim himself is still a "nigger" even in the eyes of those who have sympathized with his plight. Whether Twain himself was a racist cannot be determined from the text. Plainly Pap's form of racism is targeted for parody, an ignorant white man resenting the very idea of a "free nigger" being able to read and write. Aunt Sally's relief at learning form Huck that only a "nigger" had been killed in the steamboat crash is also qualified by a tone of ironic humor. But Huck himself appears to take Jim as an exception to the rule that black people are inherently inferior to whites. He recognizes that Jim "cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n" (p.131), but he still considers it a shame that the "respectable" Tom Sawyer "stooped" to the business of helping to rescue Jim. Plainly, Twain's purpose in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was not to present his opinion about broad social issues that continued to confound people in his day, but to entertain them with an amusing, picaresque tale that touches upon timeless subjects such as freedom as seen through the eyes of a highly particularized character.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: History of Controversy

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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 education, people speak differently from one another. Many critics read Huckleberry Finn as a lesson in the way that identity is formed by social realities. They focus on the fact that Twain uses language to show that access to culture and education defines character. Depending on how you read it, the spoken language can either make characters more believable, complex, and therefore dignified, or it can make them seem merely uneducated, caricatured, and "backward."

Twain's attempt to capture the sounds of vernacular (local) speech is part of the novel's realism, part of its documentary quality. And yet, the novel also has elements of romance, which is the very opposite of realism. For instance, Twain relies on unbelievable coincidences in his plot, like the fact that the Phelpses just happens to be Tom Sawyer's relatives, and he just happens to be arriving on the same day that Huck comes to the farm. Twain manages to merge elements of these two kinds of writing by using a third literary tradition to structure his novel. This literary tradition is called the picaresque—the comedy of the road, the traveling adventure; only here, instead of on a road, the journey takes place on a river. The episodes along the river suggest that the Mississippi winds through a semi-wild frontier. Twain makes the American landscape a site of endless adventures. The river, symbolizing both the power of nature and the inevitable passing of time, is what keeps the raft, and the story, moving. This picaresque framework, although it is usually associated with romance, makes the novel's realistic, documentary moments possible. As Huck and Jim move down the Mississippi, they encounter a diverse swath of American society. Huck gives firsthand descriptions of feuding families, a camp-meeting religious revival, a lynch mob, and other complex social phenomena. Twain connects the picaresque structure, which leaves room for endless variation and adventures, with the endless variation of America's inhabitants. As in his earlier novel, Life on the Mississippi, Twain draws on his own childhood experience and his knowledge as a river man to give the book its convincing details. Samuel Clemens even took his pseudonym, "Mark Twain," from his life on the river.

If Huckleberry Finn is the authentically American adventure story, it also explores one of America's most lasting problems: racism. Many critics have questioned Twain's portrayal of "the nigger Jim." Twain's consistent use of the word "nigger" is itself troubling to readers today. It is important to notice that Twain uses a great deal of irony in general, and that what Huck thinks is not the same thing that Twain thinks. There are two main questions here: does Twain simply use stereotypes? And if he does, does he do so in order to make those stereotypes seem true, or to show them as false and oversimplified? On the one hand, Jim's humanity makes him the novel's most appealing character. Jim fills a gap in Huck's life: he is the father that Pap is not; he teaches Huck about the world and how it works, and about friendship. But on the other hand, parts of Jim's character belong to a traditional stereotype of the "happy darky"—an imaginary portrayal of the slave as simple, childlike, and contented. Although Jim runs away, he does not strike the reader as overtly "rebellious" or dangerous. Jim never seems to suspect Huck's crisis of conscience about whether or not he should be helping a slave to escape. And, instead of being angry with Tom Sawyer for the trick he plays at the end of the novel, Jim is simply happy to take his forty dollars.

How we read Jim influences how we read the novel's primary structural "problem," its ending. One way of thinking about this problem is to ask whether Huckleberry Finn seems to go in a line, or in a circle. On the journey down the river, Huck learns that Jim has real feelings, recognizes his humanity, and vows not to play any more tricks on him. If the novel is a bildungsroman—a narrative about a character coming of age—this is the moment in which Huck learns his most valuable lesson. Huck seems to be traveling onward, in a line of development. But the ending chapters seem to circle us back into the childlike, irresponsible world of boyish adventure that Huck has supposedly left behind. The long and drawn out trick that Tom Sawyer plays on Jim makes the reader doubt if any real development has taken place. Which side of the joke is Huck on? Even though he does not know that Jim has been freed, he lets Tom turn the escape into a game, and seems to feel little, if any, remorse for toying with Jim's fate. He seems to have forgotten what he learned about the importance of Jim's feelings. Finally, even though Jim is technically "free," he is not recognized as a man by the other characters, or by the larger social world he inhabits. Toni Morrison argues that the novel needs Jim's enslavement to make the other characters seem free by contrast. She explains, "freedom has no meaning to Huck or to the text without the specter of enslavement, the anodyne to individualism; the yardstick of absolute power over the life of another; the signed, marked, informing, and mutating presence of a black slave." At the end of the novel, for instance, Huck plans to "light out for the Territory" in search of more adventures. But Jim's wife and children are still slaves. Because of his racial identity in a racist society, Jim always remains more confined than Huck does.

Writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn took Mark Twain several years. He began the project as a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, as another children's book. But as he wrote, it became more complex; it raises questions that make it a challenging book for readers of all ages. To understand the novel's complexity, one has to take its dual historical context into account. Twain locates the action in the past, before the civil war, and before the legal abolition of slavery. But much of the novel speaks to Twain's contemporary audience, who lived during Reconstruction, a time when the South especially was trying to deal with the effects of the Civil War. The "king" and "duke" owe something of their depiction to the post-Civil War stereotype of carpetbaggers (a derogatory stereotype of Northerners come to prey on the defeated South). Jim belongs, at least partially, to a postwar Vaudeville tradition of the "happy darky," played on stage by white men in blackface, who used a parodied version of black dialect. This popular stereotype conveyed a white nostalgia, and enacted an imaginary construction of the slave before Emancipation, before the "disappointments" of Reconstruction. Twain tries to come to terms with this nostalgia, but whether he critiques it, or indulges in it, is up for debate.

During his lifetime, Twain was best known for being a humorist, a user of irony and a writer of satire. In this novel, he uses Huck as a relatively naive narrator to make ironic observations about Southern culture and human nature in general. As usual, Twain finds a likely object of satire in religious fervor, in the cases both of Miss Watson and of the visit the "king" pays to the camp-meeting. But the irony in Huckleberry Finn exists at several levels of narration: sometimes Twain seems to aim his irony at Huck, while other times, Huck himself is an ironic and detached observer. For instance, when the rascally "king" and "duke" come aboard the raft, Huck tells the reader:

It didn't take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn't no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it's the best way; then you don't have no quarrels, and don't get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn't no objections, 'long as it would keep peace in the family, and it warn't no use to tell Jim, so I didn't tell him. If I never learnt nothing else out of Pap, I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way.

This passage ironically undercuts the way we think Huck has been relating to the two frauds; he does not, in fact, "feel right and kind towards" them. In fact, the connections among the foursome on the raft are extremely tenuous. Huck's choice of metaphor compounds the irony: he compares the two men to his father, and decides to think of them as part of his "family," throwing the whole notion of "family" into an ironic light. Huck thinks he can avoid "trouble" by pretending not to know that they are frauds, but trouble is all they bring. Huck's decision to "let them have their own way" is wishful, because he really has no choice. Finally, although Huck seems to condemn them, he recognizes them as liars partially because he is one himself—he tricks people out of money on more than one occasion. This passage explicitly reminds us that Huck can dissemble and pretend, just as Twain does in his writing. As readers of Huckleberry Finn, we are continually challenged to locate the multiple objects of the novel's satire.

Twain's irony complicates the question of race and racism in the world of Huckleberry Finn. What the novel make clear, though, as their journey continually separates and reunites Huck and Jim— white and black—is that their fate is intertwined. Their destinies must be worked out in relation to each other. For Twain, that is the great, and greatly troubled, American adventure.

Source: Pearl James, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. James is a doctoral candidate at Yale University.

Huck's Final Triumph

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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 for long in his enslavement. Though he sees the world through Tom's rose-colored glasses, and though his spontaneous reaction to any situation is usually Tom's, Huck is restive. He is galled by his fetters and tries to break away. The fact is that he cannot live without Tom—or with him. He seeks a modus vivendi [a manner of living] with Tom and his world, but cannot find it. Huck's victory over this forced compromise constitutes one of the great achievements in the book.

Demonstration of Huck's ambivalence begins at the outset of the novel. Huck recounts how in Tom Sawyer he was adopted by Widow Douglas, could not tolerate her "sivilizing" him and therefore ran away to his rags, where he was "free and satisfied." But Tom lured him back with the promise that he could become a member of the band of robbers. "So I went back," Huck states matter-of-factly. The close bond between the two boys is further revealed when Miss Watson tries to get Huck, who is hell-bent, to reform and thus prepare for the other destination; Huck is content with hell when Miss Watson assures him that Tom will be there too: "I wanted him and me to be together."

But no sooner does Huck join the band of robbers than the two boys' incompatibility manifests itself and he begins to drag his feet. After playing robber for a month, Huck resigns. He can no longer pretend that hogs are "ingots" and turnips are "julery." He wants to see the "di'monds," A-rabs, and elephants. For his protests, Tom calls him a "numskull," and "perfect sap-head." Huck's revulsion overcomes him, "I judged that all that stuff was only one of Tom Sawyer's lies. It had all the marks of a Sunday school." Tom the romantic dreamer, the sham adventurer, thus symbolizes everything that frightens Huck: St. Petersburg civilization, religion, romantic literature. From this monster Huck flees.

Yet fly as he will, Huck cannot shake off Tom, who is a ghost that refuses to be laid. When Huck "kills" himself to escape from Pap, he does it on Tom's terms. "I did wish Tom Sawyer was there, I knowed he would take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches ...." Again, on the night of the storm, when Huck is trying to convince Jim to board the wrecked Walter Scott, the force that drives Huck aboard is not the promise of loot—of "seegars" and "solid cash"—but the irresistible urge to imitate Tom. "I can't rest, Jim, till we give her a rummaging. Do you reckon Tom Sawyer would ever go by this thing? Not for pie, he wouldn't ... I wish Tom Sawyer was here."

Later, in Tennessee while the King and Duke play Peter Wilks' brothers, when Huck has adroitly maneuvered Mary Jane away from the house and has satisfactorily lied to the other girls, he congratulates himself, with his inevitable comparison: "I felt very good, I judged I had done it pretty neat—I reckon Tom Sawyer couldn't a done it no neater himself." Still later, in Pikesville, when Huck discovers that the King has turned in Jim for the sum of forty dollars, he decides to write home and have Jim's owner send for him. But he automatically thinks of writing to Tom and having him tell Miss Watson where Jim is. The point is that in Huck's mind St. Petersburg—that world—and Tom are one and the same, inseparable, with Tom the symbol.

With Tom so constantly and completely—and so heavily—on his mind, Huck naturally—and not surprisingly—acquiesces in the deception when Aunt Sally mistakes him for Tom. Huck's first impulse has always been to give in to Tom. Why should he not be flattered to be Tom? Indeed, discovering that he was supposed to be Tom Sawyer "was like being born again," in the sense of being reborn into the world of St. Petersburg and of Tom. "Being Tom Sawyer was easy and comfortable," Huck confesses immediately. Once it is settled that Huck will be Tom and Tom will be Sid, the future looks rosy. Everything will be "easy and comfortable." Huck relaxes completely, suspending his mental processes—becoming again the blind disciple. For example, it is inconceivable that the Huck of the voyage, with his mind alerted for signs of Jim, could see a slave enter an isolated cabin with food—part of it watermelon—and not suspect its purpose. Yet the somnolent Huck does: "Well, it does beat all, that I never thought about a dog not eating watermelon. It shows how a body can see and don't see at the same time."

But in Huck's acquiescence there immediately becomes manifest the old attraction-revulsion tug-of-war he felt m St. Petersburg. And after the initial joy of being Tom has worn off, Huck begins to protest. In the old environment, the last time the boys shared an adventure, it took Huck a month to break away. Now, however, Huck's new nature shows through quickly. When he and Tom are concocting schemes for the release of Jim, Huck gives his plan first, then sits back waiting for the "superior" one; when Tom springs his, Huck reflects ironically: "I see in a minute it was worth fifteen of mine, for style, and would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides "

After this initial resistance, Huck protests each new detail of the plan, as the more mature person realizes the absurdity of Tom's childish pranks. He protests, but he gives in each time. Each protest, in fact, is weaker than its predecessor. In this increasing weakness lies Huck's downfall. His resistance—his maturity—is being abraded. He is coming more and more under the mesmeric influence of Tom. Finally he capitulates completely: "Anyway that suits you suits me," he says when Tom wants him to dress up like a servant-girl to deliver the warning of the release of Jim.

Throughout the remainder of the evasion, Huck protests not at all. During the actual escape he apparently enjoys himself. It is action, of course, instead of romantic theorizing, and therefore appeals to the pragmatic Huck. But—far more significantly—Huck's new self is being subsumed under Tom's. (© So fast has been the activity since Tom's arrival that Huck has not had a chance to be alone and to reflect, and it is only when he has searched his soul through active thinking that his true self emerges. Now, caught up in activity, he is becoming the old Huck again, so completely under the influence of Tom that he is ready to "slide out" with Tom and Jim and "go for howling adventures amongst the Injuns, over in the Territory, for a couple of weeks or two."

At this point Huck is faced with the greatest crisis of his life. Once before he was confronted with a mighty decision, when he had to choose between being respectable and returning Jim to Miss Watson, and being himself, listening to the voice of his heart, not returning Jim—and going to hell. He chose the latter course, but only after great soul-searching, in solitude and silence: "I ... set there thinking—thinking ... And went on thinking. And got to thinking ...." In this even greater crisis if the new boy is to prevail over the old, clearly he needs time to think and think. Luckily time is provided.

Source: Ray B. Browne, "Huck's Final Triumph," in Ball State Teacher's College Forum, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter, 1965, pp. 3-12.

The Role of Jim in Huckleberry Finn

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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 Huckleberry Finn a depth of tenderness and moral strength that could not otherwise have been fully and convincingly revealed to the reader. For Mark Twain's gift for characterization was, as Professor [Edward] Wagenknecht has observed [in his Mark Twain: The Man and His Work (1935)], a very great "ability to evoke character, as distinct from constructing it."

It is Jim's openness, his unashamed dignity, that makes Huck's struggle with and conquest of his pride, that is, his ashamed dignity, deeply moving and fully significant. We have seen earlier in the book touches of gentleness in Huck, we have seen that he does not mean to hurt the feelings of the Widow Douglas, and later we are to see him grieving that he has deceived and brought sorrow to Aunt Sally. But it is this incident [when Huck lies to Jim] which, above all others, shows his concern about "hurting others" in its full meaning, as a deep and affectionate respect for human dignity. We have seen and are to see this concern carried far beyond respect for the visible and admirable dignity of Jim, the Widow Douglas, Mary Jane Wilks, and Aunt Sally, to include respect for the besmirched if not invisible dignity of the Duke and Dauphin as, tarred and feathered, they are ridden out of town astride a rail (Ch. XXXIII). And there is Huck's attempt to secure rescue for the stranded murderers: "I begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix I says to myself, there ain't no telling but I might come to be a murderer myself yet, and then how would I like it?" Professor Wagenknecht comments: "What a triumph of Christian humility! What a triumph of understanding and imagination' It is Mark Twain's version of the generally misquoted and misattributed utterance of old John Bradford, on seeing some criminals on the way to execution. 'But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.'"

Jim is a gentle and loyal person; he is not vengeful, he does not hate, he cannot cheat or trick another. He fears and evades violence, but he does not commit violence—as do so many of the characters in this book, whether as individuals or with the clan or mob. His most memorable speeches are characterized by an open honesty and a deep capacity for unselfish love. We recall the wounded love for Huck that brought about Jim's angry speech quoted above, and the love for his little deaf daughter in that other powerfully dramatic, though brief, narration (Ch. XXIII). In a world peopled by Pap Finn, the Duke and the Dauphin, lynchers, feuders, and murderers, Huck is almost constantly on the defensive. It is when he is alone with Jim in the secure little world of the raft drifting down the Mississippi that Huck hears a voice of love that makes sense in a world of hatred, and can reply from his own heart with his apology and with his famous moral victory "All right, then, I'll go to hell." Mr. Branch has pointed out in considerable detail the significance of the Widow Douglas, but she was not a comrade to Huck. Huck was ill at ease with her, and they sometimes simply could not understand each other's thoughts and feelings. With Jim, this barrier of age, position, sex, and background does not exist. It is in response to the open tenderness in Jim that there is the opportunity and the necessity for the tender side of the "realistic" Huck Finn to be spontaneously and convincingly revealed to the reader. Mr Branch pays tribute to the integrity that lies back of and gives strength to this tenderness in Jim: of those people in Huck's world who live consistently from the heart. "Jim, of course, is foremost in selflessness and magnanimity. Because he is incapable of deceit, his innocence, whether comic or pathetic, is haloed with grandeur. His search for freedom is carried forth in humility and sanctified by elemental justice." When Jim's dignity is violated without remorse, it is by the amoral Tom, not the moral Huck, and this will be discussed later in this paper.

Jim's personality is strongly influenced by his faith in superstition, especially evil omens. His first serious appearance in the novel, after his brief appearance as the butt of Tom's prank, is to cast a rather ominous prediction for Huck by means of this ox hair-ball. The reader has been prepared before this for a serious attitude on the part of the characters towards superstition, when, in the first chapter, Huck is terrified to realize that he has accidentally killed a spider. Even the simile with which he describes the atmosphere takes on Hie morbid touch of his fear: "I set down again, a-shaking all over, and got out my pipe for a smoke; for the house was all as still as death now, and so the widow wouldn't know." After Jim has completed his splendidly ambiguous prophecy with the disheartening sentence: "You wants to keep 'way firm de water as much as you kin, en don't run no resk, 'kase it's down in de bills dat you's gwyne to git hung," this chapter concludes with a one-line paragraph: "When I lit my candle and went up to my room that night there sat pap—his own self" Thus enters for the first time a genuinely evil force into the novel, in the form of the malicious and dangerous town drunkard. Later, the wreck of the raft, which leads to the Grangerford feud episode, is also preceded by an evil omen: Huck carelessly handles a snake-skin. (On this is also blamed—accurately—Jim's rattlesnake bite and—inaccurately— the near disaster on the Walter Scott.) As a final instance of the direct role of superstition in the plot, there is the fact that the rescue episode would have been foiled at the start if the great superstitious fear of Uncle Silas had not made communication with the prisoner Jim not only possible but relatively easy.

Jim is, as Mr Branch observes, Huck's mentor in this dark and shifting realm. But he is more than an instructor in fear, as Mr. Branch might seem to suggest; he is here again the voice of love and conciliation in an erratically malicious and quarrelsome world, although a voice touched with fear in this realm as with grief in the human realm. Jim's only rebellion in the human realm was born of love, not hate: he planned (though futilely) to free his wife and children, to steal them away from their "rightful owners." Huck and Jim are essentially not rebels: they seek to escape, not to fight. They ask only to be left alone. This is true in the human realm, and it is true as they try to ward off "bad luck" with charms and magic formulas.

We need not smile with condescension on this superstitious response to unseen malevolence. This "mythical, fatalistic level" is merely more picturesque in Huck's world than in our present world. It would be hypocritical of us to laugh at Jim and Huck's belief in the concrete existence of evil as Evil Powers, merely because the present unwritten code observes a different form. We no longer put in our time with dead cats and salt shakers in order to save ourselves from harm. Instead, we modern realists construct fierce, nationalistic mythologies peopled with spotless heroes and mustachioed villains, the roles remaining the same, but the cast changing every twenty years. So we who have humbled ourselves before one huge fear, who accept the supremacy of Evil or Violence, and struggle to clothe ourselves most adequately in his livery, hoping that our stockpile of A-Bombs will prove the highest in the end, laugh in relieved contempt at the multitude of little fears we no longer share. Still, even this side of a graceful admission of a common weakness, the reader who reads this novel responsively is eventually saturated by the awe and humility of these people (I mean especially Huck and Jim) towards what they do not understand but feel to exist above and beyond their limited power. The reader is aware of the more-than-human struggle that tinges the novel throughout, through all the petty and tragic human struggles. And that more-than-human struggle is most often made vivid through the words and actions and personality of Jim.

Source: Frances V. Brownell, "The Role of Jim in Huckleberry Finn," in Boston Studies in English, Vol. 1, 1955, pp. 74-83.

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Critical Overview


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain