The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1885
I am feeling anxious. Huckleberry Finn is an intimidating book to write about. It’s a simple story with a complicated maelstrom of moral implications at its heart. Mark Twain forbade contemplation of that moral center by printing the following notice before the text of Huck Finn “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
I guess I’m going to be banished and shot by Mark Twain’s undyingly facetious ghost, because the novel clearly has a plot and one that hinges upon the moral development of the title character. Perhaps Twain is correct in declaring that the book does not have one clear purpose or moral lesson. He did not write it to promote a cause as Anna Sewell did in writing Black Beauty or Harriet Beecher Stowe did with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, Huck Finn is absolutely about morality. Huck continually debates the ethics of his decisions. The tension between Huck’s impulses and what he has learned about right and wrong from his haphazard upbringing drives the humor, the plot and the thematic thrust of the novel. Fundamentally, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about the moral development of a child in a morally corrupt society. Twain asks us to consider the consequences of trying to teach ethics to young people when our way of living is inherently cruel. My mind spins thinking about the potential applications of this question today.
Let’s set that aside for a moment and treat Huck Finn like any other book. Time to get into the good, the bad and the ugly of Mark Twain’s best piece of writing.
- Jim is a stereotype and that flat-out sucks. Forever. There are far too many jokes at the expense of Jim’s intelligence. He is gullible, ignorant and superstitious. I already know that there are no very bright characters in the book and that plenty of the white characters are superstitious too. Do not show up in the comments with that observation. The problem is that Jim is the most superstitious, the least intelligent and the most ignorant character in the book. Also, jokes at the expense of oppressed people have a greater negative effect than jokes at the expense of impowered people. We already know this. Jim does have redeeming qualities. He is the bravest and the kindest character in the novel. But what matters here is that Twain consciously offered the world a book that defied expectations. It depicted “low” language and behavior. It is about a child, but it does not instruct children to behave like conventionally good Victorian lads and lasses. This was all very outside the norm and unexpected. At the same time he chose to offer white people the stereotyped depiction of American slaves that was comfortable and very popular at this time. He could and should have made a different choice and the book is forever tainted. For the love of all good and decent things, do not respond to this paragraph with a comment about considering the historical context or climate. I HAVE CONSIDERED IT. I consider it all the time. Every day for the past ten—approximately—years of my life, I have been considering the historical context of classic literature. It has been considered. It will be further considered. I swear. Don’t come at me with that. Someone always does.
- Firstly, “good” is a weak word for the strengths of this novel. It has elements of absolute greatness. Duh. We all know that already, because it’s on the top of the mystical Great American Novel list.
- Huckleberry Finn is one of the purest, most charming and most honest characters in all of literature. He tries to do what’s right when it’s convenient to him, which is a perfectly accurate depiction of childhood morality. Writing the adventures of a partially civilized child was such a brilliant idea on Twain’s part. Huck’s love of freedom and loathing for Victorian restrictions is relatable and interesting.
- The setting is brilliant. Twain explores the iconic Mississippi river lifestyle that he grew up in. We get to encounter weirder and wilder characters than we see in any previous English-language novel. By the way, reviewers though the novel was crass, low trash because of the misbehavior and rough language depicted. I’m not talking about the n-word. They opposed the swearing and the fact that Huck scratches his itches. Hahahahahaha. How the standards for obscenity have changed.
- Do I need to talk about Twain’s use of dialect? Everyone with any exposure to American literature has heard someone gush about the style of Huckleberry Finn. It’s unique and groundbreaking. You already know.
- Jim’s depiction is troubling, there is no getting around that. But the relationship between Huck and Jim is still heartwarming and effective. This poor urchin flees from his abusive father into the not precisely care, but companionship of a runaway slave and these two lowest members of the Southern social structure find true and unjudging friendship in each other. It’s a beautiful and romantic concept that Twain did not execute perfectly. So, give him credit for trying, if you so wish, or you can despise him for his stereotyped depiction of Jim. There is no right way to feel about this novel. I’m certainly not going to tell you how to react to it. Your reactions are your own and they are valid, unless you’re a terrible person.
- So much biting satire. Twain goes after the hypocrisy of Southern institutions, customs and ideas with incisive humor. I particularly like blows he strikes at:
Southerners (I always leave the first R out of that word and get autocorrected) who oppose enfranchisement. He delivers a tirade against votes for black people from the lips of the vilest character in the book, making him seem like such an idiot for holding this belief.
Hattfield-and-McCoyesque rivalries. This part is mostly satirical, but ultimately moving. His depiction of Huck’s trauma from witnessing pointless loss of life rings true and is very effective.
- You don’t have to take my word for it, Hemmingway had the same thoughts about the ending of Huckleberry Finn. He thought the book was the best novel yet written, but he also wrote that the end “devolves into little more than minstrel-show satire and broad comedy.” Truth. Hemmingway said a lot of unfair, unkind things about a lot of people, but this one is accurate. When Jim is captured and Tom Sawyer puts him through a series of ridiculous trials meant to replicate the experiences of the Count of Monte Cristo among other famous literary captives, the narrative swings hard into frankly worthless territory. This part is hard to read. I am staunchly opposed to corporal punishment, but I wanted to leap into the pages and throttle Tom Sawyer. A man’s life is at stake! This is serious. Stop playing around, you idiot. Yes, there’s a twist; I know. The same invectives can be hurled at Twain, though. He arrives at the critical moment in the text. Huck must finally decide if he will actively help Jim escape—yes, he has been doing that all along, but he found ways to rationalize it—and Twain is occupied with silliness inherited from his lesser word The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It’s a problem.
- The n-word. The word is uncomfortable to read. I didn’t read this book when I was a child, because I was too uncomfortable with this word. I will write more below on whether I think the book is appropriate for school children. However, I think the use of the n-word is not a reason to toss this book aside and never read it. That was the word used at the time. Of course Twain uses it. He is depicting the language and culture of his youth. I’m not suggesting that you should feel comfortable with it. It’s a horrible word with a horrible history. However, I think it is ok to sit in that discomfort for the space of 300 page long novel, if you’re white. That word is part of a history that we wish we could forget, but that we must remember to face the legacy of slavery that persists to this day.
On to the question of whether Huck Finn is appropriate for a school curriculum. I have thought about this a lot and discussed it with educators. Obviously, I don’t think it should be banned, because banning books is harmful and ridiculous. I think that this novel could be an excellent teaching tool in the right hands. Twain was trying to write and anti-racist book and missed the mark by a mile. That’s a great opportunity to get students talking about how to be an ally. However, I think this text could do a lot of harm in the wrong hands. It’s hard to know how a group of students will respond to it. I can understand not wanting your child or your child’s schoolmates exposed to the stereotypes and language contained in the novel. Also, no student of color should be forced to confront the triggering language in this book. Of course, if a student is going to read any book from this time period, non-fiction slave narratives are much more important than Huckleberry Finn. Every single person who spends more than six months in this country should be required to read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Nobody needs to read Huck Finn. It’s optional.
I must return to the moral maelstrom before I’m done. Throughout his time with Jim, Huckleberry struggles to resolve his desire to stay with Jim and his sense that it is wrong to help a slave escape. This tension is the heart of Huck’s character and the heart of the novel. Huck feels that he is mistreating Ms. Watson by not returning Jim to her, “What did that poor old woman ever do to you that you could treat her so mean?” Ms. Watson had been kinder to Huck than anyone else in his life to this point and here he is, depriving her of her chattel. There are other valid interpretations of this ethical quandary, but it seems to me that Twain is skewering the idea that morality could exist in the slave-owning South. Ms. Watson, who tries to instill religion in Huck, represents Southern morality, yet Huck’s sense of obligation to her is what leads him to consider the reprehensible act of returning Jim to bondage. When he decides to reveal Jim’s location he feels “washed clean of sin for the first time” and when his loyalty and affection for Jim triumph and change his mind he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell” and “take up wickedness again.” That is the sense of right in wrong instilled in this child by his morally bankrupt society. That is the level of corruption inherent in slavery. Huckleberry’s position outside the confines of “respectable” Southern society allows him to behave in a way that is truly moral, despite his moral training. Twain demonstrates the hypocrisy of Southern religiosity during this time and the impossibility of teaching morality to a child when your life is founded on cruelty. His depiction of Jim undermines this message, and of course my interpretation is colored by my own beliefs, but that is the weighty moral nugget I see at the center of this book.
Final Thoughts: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a comfortable book, but it does deserve consideration as a Great American Novel. America is not uncomplicated. We don’t deserve an uncomplicated, ethically pure Great Novel. I’m worried that my review may come off as too favorable, given the problems with Huck Finn. Those problems are serious, and no amount of stylistic merit or literary innovation can remove the sin of racism from this book. Nothing balances that out.
There was no chance that Twain, raised in mid-19th century Missouri, was going to write an inoffensive book about that time and place. He did write the only novel about the slave-owning South written by someone who experienced it. Now, I could be wrong about that. Probably some other such novel exists, but I can’t find them. Generally, slavery was too indelicate a subject for Victorian publishers. Twain was only able to find a publisher for Huckleberry Finn after he’d established himself as a literary celebrity. The literary canon is nearly silent when it comes to slavery. This book has value for its uniqueness if for nothing else. At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll close by saying again that of course non-fiction slave narratives are much more valuable and important than this novel. You should read three of those before you read or reread Huck Finn.