Last Updated on July 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a humorous novel about very serious subjects. Discussion leaders should beware that some people may resent having someone discuss the serious side of a novel they treasure for its comedy. Even so, the richness of the book cannot be fully appreciated unless its underlying seriousness is examined. The humor is used for a profound purpose in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, helping to make tolerable individual and social tragedies otherwise almost too painful to examine closely. Remember, Huck is a reporter who tries to honestly tell us what he sees, but he often does not understand the meaning of what he witnesses. Interpreting for yourself what Huck often misunderstands is a good way to guide a discussion through the humor to the themes that give the novel its depth.
The novel can arouse passions in its readers, which could erupt into arguments. The racial issues embodied in the relationship between Huck and Jim can particularly arouse the ire of some readers. One way to get past the misinformed notion that the book is racist is to focus on how the characterization of Jim is developed. Note how his life as a husband and father is revealed from one scene to the next; he becomes a richly rounded figure who wrestles with feelings of guilt over having hit a deaf daughter, who tries to understand a Bible that he cannot read, who grapples with difficult moral questions, and who applies courage and imagination to the problems that beset him. It is a well-calculated device on Twain's part to make Jim a better father to Huck than any white man had ever been. Of all the adults in the novel, who is the most fit to be Huck's role model? It is Jim. As for the word "nigger," which is hard to avoid in any discussion, note how, through the characterization of Jim, the word becomes increasingly dehumanizing; by the time Huck notes that no one was killed in a shipboard explosion, "only a nigger," the word and the dehumanizing attitude of a corrupt society that it conveys has become shameful, and one cannot help but note that Huck degrades himself with the remark, that he is a lesser man for having used it as he did.
Other discussion group members may object to the novel's antisocial themes. In order to do what is right — what is Christian in the context of the story — one must break the law. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn portrays defiance of the law as sometimes necessary if one is to be a good person. Time and again, Huck reproaches himself for violating laws and for helping lawbreakers. After all, as he notes, Jim's owner had never done him any harm, so why should he steal her property? Some adults want the book to be kept out of the hands of children because of these disturbing ideas about morality versus the law. For those who equate moral behavior with law-abiding behavior, the novel can be very troubling. A good discussion could be evolved out of people's worries about an antisocial message corrupting readers (of any age). A discussion might begin with the question of whether The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can actually inspire antisocial behavior. What sort of antisocial behavior would it inspire? Might, as Twain seems to imply, certain kinds of antisocial behavior actually be constructive? Is America in fact a nation always wrestling with it's conscience, always aware that injustice needs to be defied, as when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference defied the laws of racial segregation? One can read the novel several times, and each time find something new, something missed in previous readings. Because of this, discussions can be many hours long without fully plumbing the depths of its characters, themes, symbolism, and language.
1. Throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a variety of lies are told. Which seem to be useful and which harmful. Why?
2. How do the King and the Duke take advantage of society? Contrast them with Huck and Jim.
3. Death is everywhere in the book, from Huck's make-believe murder of himself, to his father's corpse in the floating house, the feud, Emmeline Grangerford's art, and the Wilks funeral. Does this make the book morbid? How does Huck handle his fear and understanding of death? 4. Huck tells a series of lies about his family. What do these reveal? How does he seek a sense of belonging?
5. At first Jim seems to be a simple character. What are some ways in which the author develops him?
6. How does Jim serve as a father-figure to Huck? Contrast him with Pap Finn.
7. Pap Finn thinks only about himself, and at the beginning of the book Huck seems self-interested too. How is Huck brought to consider others?
8. The Grangerfords are "civilized" but engage in meaningless slaughter. How do Huck's impressions of them convey the author's social criticism?
9. Many critics have found flaws in the novel's ending. Do you believe it undercuts or contributes to the book? Why?
10. Compare the character of Tom Sawyer as he is developed in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with his presentation in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What are some major differences? What accounts for them?
11. Critics have defined the raft as a symbol of freedom. How is its significance developed?
12. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a humorous book. Classify and discuss several different types of humor it employs.
13. View a film, musical, or television version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How does this version compare with the original? What changes have been made? Why?
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