The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
The following entry provides criticism on Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Long considered Mark Twain's masterwork as well as a classic of American literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was the first important American work to depart from European literary models. It used frontier humor, vernacular speech, and an uneducated young narrator to portray life in America. Although at first the novel was roundly denounced as inappropriate for genteel readers, it eventually found a preeminent place in the canon of American literature. Huckleberry Finn, wrote Ernest Hemingway, is the novel from which “all modern American literature comes. … There has been nothing as good since.”
Plot and Major Characters
Begun as a sequel to Twain's successful children's book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows a similar picaresque form as its predecessor, but has a much more serious intent. Narrated by the title character, the story begins with Huck under the protection of the kindly Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Fearing that his alcoholic father, Pap, will attempt to claim the fortune that he and Tom had found (in Tom Sawyer), Huck transfers the money to Judge Thatcher. Undaunted, Pap kidnaps Huck and imprisons him in a lonely cabin. Huck escapes, leaving a trail of pig's blood to make it appear he has been killed, and he finds his way to Jackson's Island, where he encounters Miss Watson's runaway slave, Jim. One night Huck, disguised as a girl, goes ashore, where he learns that people believe that Jim killed Huck, and that there is a reward for Jim's capture. The two set out on a raft down the Mississippi River but are separated when the raft is struck by a steamboat. Swimming ashore, Huck is taken in by the Grangerford family, who are engaged in a blood feud with the Shepherdsons. In time Huck finds Jim and the two set out on the raft again, eventually offering refuge to two con artists, the Duke, and the King. These two perpetrate various frauds on unsuspecting people, claiming to be descendants of royalty or, at other times, famous actors, evangelists, or temperance lecturers. Learning of the death of the well-to-do Peter Wilks, the Duke and the King descend upon the family, claiming their inheritance as long-lost brothers. Huck helps to foil their plans, and he and Jim attempt to slip away without the Duke and the King, but the rogues catch up with them and the four set out together. When they come ashore in one town, Jim is captured, and Huck is shocked to learn that the King has turned him in for the reward. After a battle with his conscience, Huck decides to help Jim escape. He goes to the Phelps farm where Jim is being held and is mistaken for Tom Sawyer, who is the nephew of the Phelpses. Huck decides to impersonate Tom. When the real Tom arrives, he joins in the deception by posing as his brother, Sid. He concocts an elaborate plan to rescue Jim, during the execution of which Tom is accidentally shot, and Jim is recaptured. From his sickbed, Tom announces that Miss Watson has died, setting Jim free in her will. He got involved the “rescue,” he says, simply for the “adventure of it.” Jim then reveals that Huck's father is dead, that he had found the body in an abandoned boat. Aunt Sally Phelps suggests that she might adopt Huck, but the peripatetic Huck cannot foresee living in “sivilization” and resolves to “light out for the territory.”
Twain once described Huckleberry Finn as a book in which “a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers a defeat,” and the novel traces Huck's moral development as he encounters a seemingly haphazard array of people and situations. During his journey down the river, with its series of encounters, he undergoes a rite of passage from unthinking acceptance of received knowledge and values to an independently achieved understanding of what is right. In his decision to free Jim, Huck overcomes his “conscience,” which, formed by a racist society, tells him this act is wrong, to reach a higher morality. Twain skillfully plays upon the irony of that moment as he describes the conflicts between what Huck has been taught and what he gradually acknowledges to be right. Another dominant theme in the story is the contrast between the constricting life on shore and the freedom offered by the river. Huck and Jim's journey is widely regarded as a symbolic statement on the corruption of society and a condemnation of a “sivilization” which encourages greed and deception, destroys innocence, and enslaves human beings. Whether the novel speaks to a typically “American” theme of unlimited mobility and broader horizons is a question still being asked by readers and literary critics.
When Huckleberry Finn was first published in the United States in 1885, critical response was mixed, and a few libraries banned the book for its perceived offenses to propriety. Such controversies, however, did not affect the book's popularity, and it has remained the best selling of all of Twain's works. After Twain's death his works gradually became elevated as national treasures, but following World War I commentators such as William Faulkner and Van Wyck Brooks cast doubt on the greatness of Huckleberry Finn. Hemingway's comments on the novel, along with the centenary of Twain's birth in 1935 and favorable comments by Lionel Trilling and T. S. Eliot in the late 1940s and early 1950s, revived the book's reputation. Later critics gave it nearly universal acclaim, praising its artistry and its evocation of important American themes. A recurrent critical concern was the role of Jim, who was variously called only a foil for Huck's exploits, a possible homosexual partner, or a father figure. Others critiqued Jim's role as a racial stereotype, while Twain defenders said he was used to expose the hypocrisy and bigotry of southern separatism. During the 1950s a number of critics such as Bernard DeVoto and Leo Marx raised objections to the abruptness of the book's ending, but by the 1960s Twain was again being lauded by such scholars as Walter Blair and Henry Nash Smith. The hundredth anniversary of the American publication of the novel in 1985 sparked new editions, bibliographies, and critical appraisals. Around this time, more and more questions were being raised about the racial slurs in Huckleberry Finn, and a number of public schools sought to ban the book from their required reading lists. In addition, African American critics and others continued to challenge the book's reputation as a classic of American literature. That controversy goes on, even as criticism of the novel has taken new directions. Since the 1990s some scholars have continued to do close textual readings, and others have emphasized the novel as a cultural product. The question of literary canonization has been addressed by critics such as Jonathan Arac and Elaine and Harry Mensch. Other commentators, including Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua, have noted the importance of the confluence of white and Black cultures in the story. Several new editions, especially the annotated edition published in 2001 by the Mark Twain Foundation, have encouraged further scholarship. Critical interest in Huckleberry Finn, then, shows no signs of waning, and debates over its stature and reputation, and the issues the novel raises, appear certain to continue.
It is impossible to read Huck Finn intelligently without understanding that Mark Twain's consciousness and awareness is larger than that of any of the characters in the novel, including Huck. Indeed, part of what makes the book so effective is the fact that Huck is too innocent and ignorant to understand what's wrong with his society and what's right about his own transgressive behavior. Twain, on the other hand, knows the score. One must be skeptical about most of what Huck says in order to hear what Twain is saying. In a 1991 interview, Ralph Ellison suggested that critics who condemn Twain for the portrait of Jim that we get in the book forget that "one also has to look at the teller of the tale, and realize that you are getting a black man, an adult, seen through the condescending eyes -- partially -- of a young white boy." Are you saying, I asked Ellison, "that those critics are making the same old mistake of confusing the narrator with the author? That they're saying that Twain saw him that way rather than that Huck did?" "Yes," was Ellison's answer.
Clemens as a child accepted without question, as Huck did, the idea that slaves were property; neither wanted to be called a "low-down Abolitionist" if he could possibly help it. Between the time of that Hannibal childhood and adolescence, however, and the years in which Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, Twain's consciousness changed. By 1885, when the book was published, Samuel Clemens held views that were very different from those he ascribed to Huck. It might be helpful at this point to chart for your students the growth of the author's developing moral awareness on the subject of race and racism -- starting with some of his writings on the persecution of the Chinese in San Francisco (such as Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy), then moving through his marriage into an abolitionist family, the 1869 anti-lynching editorial that he published in The Buffalo Express entitled Only a Nigger, and his exposure to figures like Frederick Douglass and his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon.
By the time he wrote Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens had come to believe not only that slavery was a horrendous wrong, but that white Americans owed black Americans some form of "reparations" for it. One graphic way to demonstrate this fact to your students is to share with them the letter Twain wrote to the Dean of the Yale Law School in 1885, in which he explained why he wanted to pay the expenses of Warner McGuinn, one of the first black law students at Yale. "We have ground the manhood out of them," Twain wrote Dean Wayland on Christmas Eve, 1885, "and the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it."
Ask your students: why does a writer who holds these views create a narrator who is too innocent and ignorant to challenge the topsy-turvy moral universe that surrounds him? "All right, then, I'll go to Hell," Huck says when he decides not to return Jim to slavery. Samuel Clemens might be convinced that slavery itself and its legacy are filled with shame, but Huck is convinced that his reward for defying the moral norms of his society will be eternal damnation.
Something new happened in Huck Finn that had never happened in American literature before. It was a book, as many critics have observed, that served as a Declaration of Independence from the genteel English novel tradition. Huckleberry Finn allowed a different kind of writing to happen: a clean, crisp, no-nonsense, earthy vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented immediacy and energy; it was a book that talked. Huck's voice, combined with Twain's satiric genius, changed the shape of fiction in America, and African-American voices had a great deal to do with making it what it was. Expose your students to the work of some of Twain's African-American contemporaries, such as Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Those voices can greatly enrich students' understanding of both the issues Huckleberry Finn raises and the vernacular style in which it raises them.
If W.E.B. Du Bois was right that the problem of the twentieth century is the color line, one would never know it from the average secondary-school syllabus, which often avoids issues of race almost completely. Like a Trojan horse, however, Huck Finn can slip into the American literature classroom as a "classic," only to engulf students in heated debates about prejudice and racism, conformity, autonomy, authority, slavery and freedom. It is a book that puts on the table the very questions the culture so often tries to bury, a book that opens out into the complex history that shaped it -- the history of the ante-bellum era in which the story is set, and the history of the post-war period in which the book was written -- and it requires us to address that history as well. Much of that history is painful. Indeed, it is to avoid confronting the raw pain of that history that black parents sometimes mobilize to ban the novel. Brushing history aside, however, is no solution to the larger challenge of dealing with its legacy. Neither is placing the task of dealing with it on one book.
We continue to live, as a nation, in the shadow of racism while being simultaneously committed, on paper, to principles of equality. As Ralph Ellison observed in our interview, it is this irony at the core of the American experience that Mark Twain forces us to confront head-on.
History as it is taught in the history classroom is often denatured and dry. You can keep your distance from it if you choose. Slaveholding was evil. Injustice was the law of the land. History books teach that. But they don't require you to look the perpetrators of that evil in the eye and find yourself looking at a kind, gentle, good-hearted Aunt Sally. They don't make you understand that it was not the villains who made the system work, but the ordinary folks, the good folks, the folks, who did nothing more than fail to question the set of circumstances that surrounded them, who failed to judge that evil as evil and who deluded themselves into thinking they were doing good, earning safe passage for themselves into heaven.
When accomplished fiction writers expose the all-too-human betrayals that well-meaning human beings perpetrate in the name of business-as-usual, they disrupt the ordered rationalizations that insulate the heart from pain. Novelists, like surgeons, cut straight to the heart. But unlike surgeons, they don't sew up the wound. They leave it open to heal or fester, depending on the septic level of the reader's own environment.
Irony, history, and racism all painfully intertwine in our past and present, and they all come together in Huck Finn. Because racism is endemic to our society, a book like Huck Finn, which brings the problem to the surface, can explode like a hand grenade in a literature classroom accustomed to the likes of Macbeth or Great Expectations -- works which exist at a safe remove from the lunchroom or the playground. If we lived in a world in which racism had been eliminated generations before, teaching Huck Finn would be a piece of cake. Unfortunately that's not the world we live in. The difficulties we have teaching this book reflect the difficulties we continue to confront in our classrooms and our nation. As educators, it is incumbent upon us to teach our students to decode irony, to understand history, and to be repulsed by racism and bigotry wherever they find it. But this is the task of a lifetime. It's unfair to force one novel to bear the burden -- alone -- of addressing these issues and solving these problems. But Huck Finn -- and you -- can make a difference.
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