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.


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.

Beryl Bainbridge, ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’, Review

Packed into only 192 pages, The Bottle Factory Outing is a real gem of a novel. I actually stumbled across it online a few years ago when I was on the hunt for a short comic novel, and although I started it on a train journey from London to Manchester, I never got round to finishing it. This time, however, I really enjoyed it.

Bainbridge has a darkly comic style of storytelling that, at times, borders on the absurd. Her tone and sentence structure repeatedly lull the reader into a false sense of security: I often found myself reading through a paragraph without realising the potentially darker implications, only for a light bulb to go off in my head some sentences later. This stylistic choice is linked to Bainbridge’s interest in the normalisation of patriarchal culture — the way in which denigrating behaviour and prejudice towards women is ‘swept under the rug’. For, although The Bottle Factory Outing is an inherently funny text, it is also a sustained commentary on gender politics in 1970’s Britain.

The Plot

Set in bleary North London, the novel is primarily concerned with two ‘chalk and cheese’ friends – a typically Bainbridgian trope, so I have read – who share a cramped bedsit and work in an Italian wine factory. Attractive and overweight, Freda is a failed actress with a domineering personality and emotional inclinations; Brenda, a divorcee hailing from a respectable Northern family, is mousy and restrained — the very antithesis of her roommate.

Once relations between the two women have been established, attention turns to the workplace. Freda will stop at nothing to attract Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti, owner of the bottle factory. In contrast, Brenda must continually negotiate the unwelcome sexual advances of Rossi, a married manager, as well as rebutting Patrick, an Irish van driver who is the firm’s only non-Italian employee.

In order to woo Vittorio, Freda organises a work outing to a stately home in Hertfordshire, confident that the pair will come together, spurred on by the romantic setting. However, her quixotic vision soon falls through. We learn that the van booked to transport the workers is a no-show (later finding out that Vittorio has cancelled it), and so begins a dramatic chain of events brimming with tension, comedy and eventually, despair.

The Workplace

In some ways, this is very much a novel of its time, reflecting the skewed sexual politics of the 1970’s, and for modern readers, there is a temptation to trivialise the kind of aggressive sexual behaviour that unfolds in the factory, as if we have all but conquered improper conduct in the workplace. However, with the popularity of the #MeToo movement in recent years, it is self-evident that men imbued with institutional power – dare I say, managers, like Rossi – continue to indulge in misogynistic practices in the workplace. So, this is also a text that enriches current debates about office politics and the mistreatment of women. 

Fractured Relationships

Relationships in The Bottle Factory Outing are plagued by selfish intentions, dissonance and a glaring lack of empathy (especially in the final 20 or so pages of the book), with characters failing throughout to form meaningful connections with their counter-parts. In fact, although Freda and Brenda are ‘friends’, they lack the kind of deep emotional connection we might expect. Theirs is merely a friendship of convenience.

Such fractious and discordant relationships crop up everywhere. Brenda, neglected by her former husband, an alcoholic Yorkshire farmer, decides to leave for London; Rossi is willing to con his fellow countrymen/workers out of their hard-earned money in order to resume his sexual advances towards Brenda, with no regard for his wife; Brenda cannot understand Patrick’s romantic gestures, a man she feels nothing for.

Bainbridge’s suburban London is really a world full of lost individuals. Although the characters interact readily with each other in private and public spheres, they never truly understand one another.

Final Thought

The Bottle Factory Outing is a Booker Prize nominee, and it’s not hard to see why. Graham Greene’s observations sum it up well: “An outrageously funny and horrifying novel”. This will definitely not be my last Bainbridge.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

See also…