Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ Review


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.

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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. 


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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jordanreads

English Literature graduate from the University of Manchester. Reviewing the texts I've recently been reading.

4 thoughts on “Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ Review”

  1. Thank you for reminding me of and quoting that passage from chapter fifteen, Jordan. It is indeed one of the most moving bits in my own reading as well.

    Also, your words about the “Duke” and “King” are a wonderful observation on an American phenomena that I have often thought about but failed to relate to those characters in Twain’s novel. Embarrassing for me, but sometimes it takes someone from outside one’s society to point out the obvious. Again, thanks.

    I assume you read my tongue-in-cheek post calling for yet another Huck Finn. It’s remarkable how few readers “got” the satire I intended, as is obvious from their comments.

    I recently published a full-length piece (https://www.eclectica.org/v24n4/hubschman_salon.html) on the same subject but extending my thoughts to Twain’s largely unrealized genius, thanks to his commercial imperative, exemplified in the astounding character of Roxie in Pudd’nhead Wilson, a character I find to be as great an achievement as any in literature, though embedded in a work that is a hodgepodge of two novels violently fused together. I concluded: “It’s daunting to think what Twain could have accomplished if he had been free of the constraints of having to earn a living by his craft along with other self-imposed and domestic forces. But let’s be thankful for what he did leave us in the characters of Huck and Roxie, for the big moral themes he took on, and, not least, the gorgeous prose of Life on the Mississippi. Open those books and experience the genius there, however much it hides behind the glare of crowd-pleasing plots and silent-movie slapstick.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment, Thomas. It was enjoyable to read through your thoughts. I’m glad you too experienced the emotive force of that defining passage towards the end of Chapter Fifteen.

    Regarding your post, I did pick up on the satirical overtones! I’ve just read through the full-length piece. It’s interesting how you link the seemingly out-of-place – and frankly, painful – final chapters with Twain’s inability to bring the plot to a commercially viable conclusion. Tom Sawyer’s token appearance really leaves the reader with a sour taste. You also capture Huck’s moral dilemma, as well as the dichotomy between socially-constructed ethics and human conscience, far better than I.

    Like

  3. It’s been a long time since I’ve met anyone who shares my love of Huck & Jim so I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. It goes without saying therefore, that I’m a Mark Twain fan. Your review was excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your words, Mari. I think their relationship is poignant because it transcends so many socially constructed barriers: race, law and age sprind to mind. As you can tell, I’m a big Mark Twain fan, as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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