Although I briefly reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my ‘November Reading: Recap’ post, it’s such a beautifully constructed and evocative novel, and definitely merits a closer look. The first time I stumbled across it was in my teen years; I distinctly remember being engrossed with it then, and the outcome was no different the second time around.
Mark Twain’s magnum opus follows Huckleberry Finn, a carefree teenager, and Jim, a runaway slave, down the Mississippi River in search of their own respective notions of ‘freedom’. The pair originally plan to travel to Cairo, Illinois (a free state), but end up as far south as Arkansas. Along the way, they encounter a diverse range of characters, many of which are heavily satirised by Twain. To a certain degree, then, the novel is a comedy of manners set in antebellum America.
For me, Huck Finn is fundamentally a tale of conscience and morality explored through the lens of the youthful protagonist. Throughout the journey, Huck attempts to assimilate his innocent, child-like worldview with society’s warped ethical system. In the end – and to the reader’s delight – he fails. The tension brings to mind Antonio Gramsci’s writings on ideology. The dominant ideology in America’s South at the time was pseudo-Christian and built on the notion of white racial supremacy. Huck, who is continually at odds with the morally bankrupt characters he encounters, represents a counter-hegemonic force vying with the dominant ideological system.
Although Huck eventually triumphs in the closing chapters, it is not an easy ride. Moral dilemmas continually surface.
“Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better”.Huckleberry Finn
Most significantly, Huck worries about his own moral failing in aiding Jim’s quest for emancipation. By law, he ‘belongs’ to Miss Watson, a fervent Christian who adopts Huck. In this way, Twain showcases the friction between Christian ideals and the institution of slavery. Only when Huck vows to “never.. [think]… no more about reforming” (a verb with religious connotations) can he focus on saving his close friend, Jim, from being sold back into bondage.
Near the end of Chapter 15 is one of the most emotive literary passages I’ve read. Having been separated on the water on a foggy day, Huck eventually finds his way back to Jim after a few hours. Rather than celebrate, he teases that Jim has dreamt the whole situation up and that they had actually been together the entire time. The lie is soon spotted and after witnessing the pain he has caused, Huck makes a heartfelt apology. This moment is significant for two reasons. One, from this point race becomes insignificant to Huck and he begins to perceive Jim solely as a human being – with emotions and insecurities, the same as himself. The empathetic apology is also tied to a more all-encompassing moral virtue, the ability to distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Jim: “When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’… En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun’, de tears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo’ foot, I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin’ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is TRASH”
Huck: “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way”.
An honourable mention should go to the Duke and King, two ‘rapscallions’ that join Huck and Jim on the raft, travelling with them down the Mississippi over a period of time. The two con artists work their ‘tricks’ on Southern folk, preying on their feeble-mindedness. They represent the subversion of the American Dream. Men who, rather than work hard and gradually accumulate wealth, favour exploiting others in the hopes of earning a ‘quick buck’.
Rife with memorable characters and vignette-like episodes filled with satire, Huck Finn is both a genuinely funny and socially conscious novel.