9 Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Ms. Shreya Chakrabarty

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Mark Twain (pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens) (1835-1910), was an American writer, born in Florida, Missouri, of a Virginian family, and brought up in Hannibal, Missouri. After his father’s death in 1847 he was apprenticed to a printer, and wrote for his brother’s newspaper; from 1857 to 1861 he was a pilot on the Mississippi, and from 1862 worked as a newspaper correspondent for various Nevada and Californian magazines, adopting the pseudonym ‘Mark Twain’. Under this name he published his first successful story, ‘Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog’, in 1865 in the New York Saturday Press. This comic version of an old folk tale became the title story of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867), which established him as a leading humorist, a reputation consolidated by The Innocents Abroad (1869), an account of a voyage through the Mediterranean. Roughing It (1872), an account of his adventures as miner and journalist in Nevada, appeared in the year of his first English lecture tour; England provided the background for his democratic historical fantasy The Prince and the Pauper (1882), in which Edward VI as a boy changes places with Tom Canty, a beggar, and for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), a disturbing and not wholly amiable fantasy that satirizes both past and present. Meanwhile appeared his most famous works, both deeply rooted in his own childhood, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which paint an unforgettable picture of Mississippi frontier life, and combine picaresque adventure with challenging satire and great technical innovative power. Life on the Mississippi (1883), an autobiographical account of his life as a river pilot, contains a notable attack on the influence of Sir Walter Scott, whose romanticism did ‘measureless harm’ to progressive ideas and progressive works, creating, Twain alleges, the myth of the southern gentleman that did much to precipitate the Civil War. In the last two decades of his life Clemens was beset with financial anxieties and dissipated time and money on chimerical business enterprises, trying to recoup by lecture tours (in 1895-6 he toured  New Zealand, Australia, India, and South Africa) and by writing potboilers; his pessimism and bitterness were increased by the death of his wife in 1904, of two of his three daughters, and by other family troubles. In these last years, however, he wrote some memorable works, including The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (1900), a fable about the venality of a smug small town, and The Mysterious Stranger (published posthumously in 1916, in a much-edited version), an extraordinary tale set in 16th century Austria, in which Satan appears as a morally indifferent but life enhancing visitor, to reveal the hypocrisies and stupidities of the village of Eseldorf. He dictated his autobiography during his last years to his secretary A. B. Paine, and various versions of it have appeared.




The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published 1884 as a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and generally accepted as Twain’s masterpiece and one of the great works of American fiction. Huck Finn, the narrator, recounts his adventures after being taken away from the Widow Douglas’s by his drunken and brutal father. He escapes from his father, faking his own death, and joins up with a runaway slave, Jim, and together they make their way down the Mississippi on a raft. The picaresque device of a journey serves to introduce a number of events and a variety of characters: Huck becomes a witness of the feud between the Grangerford and Shepherdson families; he and Jim are joined by two villainous confidence men, the ‘Duke’ and the ‘Dauphin’, who sell Jim into captivity again, but at the end of the book Tom reappears in time to help Huck to rescue him in a characteristically romantic and quixotic manner (unnecessarily, as it turns out, for Jim had earlier and unknowingly been given his freedom).


Perennially popular as an adventure story, the novel is also a profound moral commentary on the nature of the ‘American experience’ and the institution of slavery, and a vital contribution to the myth of the frontier, told with a freshness and verity that shocked some of its readers, and has given rise to many theses on the subject of ‘Southern Humour’. Twain’s use of the innocent narrator to present oblique moral judgement is masterly, and his use of the vernacular extremely sensitive; he claimed in a preface to have used ‘the Missouri Negro dialect; the most extreme form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; and four modified varieties of this last’, and the flexibility and power of his narrative is in no way impeded by this adherence to realistic speech.




The major theme of the novel is compassion coming in the wake of cruelties practiced by people in the novel. The theme is stated by Huck himself in Chapter 33 when he says: “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.” Another theme parallel to the theme of compassion is the conflict between romance and realism. This is developed through the contrast between Huck and Tom. Tom is romantic and Huck is realistic. According to Richard P.Adams, the main theme of the novel is (Huck’s) “growth of a boy into manhood, and his final acceptance of adult moral responsibilities.” According to Douglas Grant, the central theme of the novel is Jim‘s freedom from slavery. But Douglas Grant’s thesis is rejected by Alexander J. Butryam who says that Jim’s freedom from slavery is not the central theme. Jim is not the hero and it is Huck who is the hero of the novel. He finds the cultured way of life and civilization irksome. It is to escape the ‘civilizing’ efforts of Widow Douglas and the cruelties of his father that he gets away in a raft on the Mississippi river. The central theme of the novel, therefore, is his flight, and hence a passive flight from the baneful influence of the civilization. At the close of the novel, he says that he would not like to be civilized by Aunt Sally, and prefers to go to the raft again along with Jim. Thus, Huck’s escape from the civilized society, the Grangfords and Aunt Sally and Widow Douglas, forms the central theme of the novel. The boy-hero has fought the cramping inertia of conventional life and morality to become a complete man, and with the love and company of Jim, he develops in him a sense of humanism and evolving responsibility.



The Picaresque form came from Spain. The picaresque novels were satires on idealistic characters, virtues and the romantic notion of chivalry. They highlighted the ugly and the absurd in society, were anti-romantic and realistic. They have episodic incidents and no organic plot. The lack of coherent plot structure is discernable in all the picaresque novels. The hero is presented as an observer of the society, undertaking a journey which is often the externalized representation of the internal quest for identity.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a number of traits of the picaresque tradition. Huck, the orphan, belongs to the lowest class and hates refinement, religion and culture. He is accompanied by his trusted lieutenant Jim, a slave. Both Jim and Huck have to run away from society – one to escape slavery, the other the corrupting influence of civilization. Huck is liar, a thief, forges lies and aided by his fertile brain practices deceptions in the novel. He is indeed a true picaro. The novel has no organic unity of the plot and has many incidents loosely pinned together. The central consciousness of the narrator through which different aspects of life have been seen, is the linking factor. Huckleberry Finn is like Italian novella in its realistic spirit and can also be treated as a comic epic in prose. It blends together laughter and villainy with the element of epic, the great moving force, the River. Here, as in other picaresque novels, the purpose of the novelist is not merely to amuse the reader with rough comedy, but to expose the corruption of society through the suffering of two individuals, and to improve by example. Lionel Trilling noted that the distinctiveness of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a novel is that though it has adopted the picaresque form, there is a remarkable unity of form. According to him, “The form of the book is based on the simplest of all novel-form, the so called picaresque novel, or novel of the road, which strings its incidents on the line of the hero’s travels”.



The view that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an allegory was put forward by Lauriate Lane. According to Lane, “allegory may be defined simply as the representation of one thing in the form of another.” A second definition, more germane to literature, is that allegory is a process by which the spiritual is embodied in the physical. Pointing out the similarity and contrast between Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lane has remarked: “ the main difference between the allegorical novel as we know it today and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is that the latter tends to turn into a novel, in most modern instances we have a novel that tends to turn into an allegory.”


In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the soul is in an enchanted boat. Of all forms of physical progression, that of drifting down-stream in a boat, is the most passive. The mind under such conditions is lulled, as Huck’s is into the illusion that it has lost all contact with reality and is drifting bodilessly through a world of sleep and dreams. The nakedness of Huck and Jim when they are alone on the raft becomes a symbol of how they have shaken off the excrescences of the real world – their clothes, and have come as close as possible to the world of the spirit. His journey is not an escape from the real world; it is an escape from slavery to freedom. The river Mississippi, like the Ganges and the Nile, stands for a distinct culture. To quote Trilling, “ the river represents a deity, a force and moral idea, and Huck is a real devotee of that god.” He is aware of the supernatural and the divine powers of the river. He praises the charms of the river, the peace pervading round it. In his journey through the river he comes back disgusted with the real world of misery, and eulogises the beauty and glory of the river, its power and its inscrutable mystery.



Like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also deals with Mark Twain’s experiences of his own boyhood. The American life in the South, the feudal aristocracy, the brutal deaths and murders, the cheating by the Duke and Dauphin, the social position of the slaves, and the blind faith of this class in superstitions are some of the truthful and graphic pictures of life painted by Mark Twain in this novel. Maurice Le Breton finds Huckleberry Finn a panorama of American life in all its variety. Landscapes, men, women, cheats and swindlers, customs and beliefs, manners and physical features of the inhabitants, environs and moral codes are all brought out in this picaresque fiction. The cruelty of the masters towards their slaves, the objectification of the slaves as well as the pathos of the Negro life is brilliantly captured in this text.


Twain’s use of the local dialect is a perfect instrument to capture the realism in the novel. According to Twain’s own note in the Introduction of the novel, to have given Huck, Jim or Pap a polished language would be disastrous to the faithful reproduction of the experience. He chiefly uses the dialect of the Frontier. To quote G.C.Ballamy, Twain’s “stylistic excellence arises from simplicity, long rhythms, idiomatic phrases, colloquial ease,…Mark Twain’s artistic conscience is reflected in his intense care for the exact word and in his ability, usually to give an effect of perfect naturalness and self-consciousness…”



The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows a first person narrative carried on by the protagonist Huck. This lends to the book the flavor of an autobiography where Huck narrates of his social and individual self. Abstinence from comments makes the story serious and convincing. It is through the first person narration that Mark Twain could conveniently depict the most sordid realities of the contemporary social life. What could have been unacceptable to the people as the comments of an adult writer becomes easily palatable through the mouth of a sensitive boy. Another effectual narrative technique is the attempt to capture the Southern speech pattern. Mark Twain had been familiar with the linguistic pattern of the Southern dialect. This colloquial nature of the language of southern people is represented by Twain metonymically. Through the metonymic representation of language Mark Twain also exposed prejudices and faults of those people habituated to speak the southern bent of language.


The narrative technique of structural circularity has been employed by Twain in this novel. This technique ensures the beginning and the ending of the novel to be similar. The novel begins with the journey. Even in the end the protagonist’s desire for journey is not fulfilled. Thus the opening and the end of the novel correspond. A journey and the quest for another, marks the beginning and the ending of the novel. Hence the novel is circular in terms of its structure.


Two other narrative techniques were also used in the novel – the blending of adventure narrative with the narrative of realism. The demand of adventure narrative entails the smooth progression of the narrative action. But this swift progression of is hauled back by the fundamental necessity as dictated by the narrative of realism. That is why Mark Twain leaves Jim alone on Island for many days and allows a protagonist as little as Huck to visit town and befriend robbers. The last thematically momentous technique employed in the novel can be considered to be the technique of use of symbolism. By using the river as a symbol of spontaneity, freedom and timeless haven free from the time-bound world, Mark Twain reinforced his fundamental thematic apprehension that human society is superficially and ostensibly glorious but is saturated with obscurity, dread, foreboding and torturous malevolence.

 7.   USE OF SATIRE       


In unveiling the true identities of characters, Twain satirizes the falsity and hypocrisy of certain educators, religious leaders, and romantics. Twain presents the characters in both public and private to capture the true essence of their hypocrisy. The Duke and the Dauphin, for example, are two characters whom Huckleberry meets while traveling with Jim. The two act sophisticated and well read, but are actually common felons. At first, the two pass themselves off as royalty, but even Huckleberry realizes that they are simply criminals: “It didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn’t no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds.” Claiming also to be a celebrated actor, the Duke recites and teaches the Dauphin excerpts from Shakespeare, whom he speaks of as “The historic muse is the darling. Have you ever trod the boards, Royalty?” Although at first the Duke seems to be an educated gentleman, when he actually acts out Shakespearean plays it is evident that he knows very little; mixing scenes and lines from completely different plays. His recital of Hamlet’s soliloquy contains lines from Macbeth, and perverts the actual lines from Shakespeare. Thus, here Twain satirizes the pseudo-intellectuals through this satirization. Twain also satirizes religion and the hypocrisies related to it – the way people seem to be outwardly pious but completely disregard religious values when they are not beneficial to them. The Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, two rivaling families whom Huckleberry stays with briefly, are an example of this type of  religious hypocrisy. When the two families go to church, “the men took their guns along, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdsons done the same”. Even when in church, the two families still do not trust each other. More importantly, after agreeing that the sermon on brotherly love was a good one, the two families go out and continue fighting each other. Again, the families attend to church and act devoted, but do not actually apply what they have learned to their own life.


The most evident and humorous of Twain’s satires is that of Tom Sawyer and romanticism. Tom Sawyer enjoys such romantic books as The Count of Monte Cristo, and makes all of his plans based on what he feels will be the most romantic, and oftentimes the least logical path. When rescuing Jim, Tom devises a complicated plan that is so difficult to accomplish that even he eventually gives up on certain parts, and just  pretends  that  he  is  doing  them.  Even  more  outlandish  is  the  fact  that  Jim eventually gets out of the prison to go and help Tom make the preparations for his escape. Instead of escaping quickly and painlessly, Jim must wait for weeks and finally run away under fire from the locals.


Just as certain people exhibited false or hypocritical traits, the society also displayed selfish and egotistical. People felt that it was normal to hurt or even kill another person if that was beneficial. Slaves and Negros faced even more conflict;  considered inferior   to   whites,   they   were   often   mistreated   and   regarded   with  suspicion.


 Huckleberry holds many of these morals to be correct, and often strives to uphold them, even when he really knows that he shouldn’t. Originally, Huckleberry feels that Jim is inferior because he is a slave and describes him as such. He and Tom play tricks on him and abuse his superstitious beliefs. Huckleberry, for instance, places a snakeskin in Jim’s bed, because he knows that Jim does not like it. Huckleberry also feels that Jim should be returned and does not deserve to be free. He even goes as far as writing a letter to Miss Watson that explains where Jim is being held. Huckleberry also feels that conning people is normal and expected. He allows the Duke and the Dauphin to put on fake plays and charity events in several cities, and does not feel that it is wrong for them to steal. Although Huckleberry upholds these morals at first, because they have been taught to him throughout his life, eventually he realizes that this type of behavior is not right. Ultimately, Huckleberry’s character changes, and he denounces the morals of society, and does what he himself feels is morally correct.


Through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain attempts to disclose the contemporary social vices and the ignorance and hypocrisy of the people. He attempts this through assiduous realism and near accurate descriptions. Twain strives to reveal the injustice in slavery and the sordidness in the contemporary outlook that slaves are basically gratuitous farm animals. Twain tries to convey his critique of the contemporary society from the perspective of a relatively innocent child, who has not yet been inured by society, and has had time to form his subjective opinions about life. Twain uses realism to show that his setting is not that of a romantic dreamy land from one of Tom Sawyer’s romantic texts, but that these are real people with real situations to deal with. Twain also employs realism to convey the fact that Jim is not anyway extraordinary or special but that he is just like any other common slave. By imparting compassion and emotions to a real slave, Twain shows slaves are human beings just like any other human. Twain conveys a commanding and divisive message through a text which apparently seems to be a simple children’s adventure book and ultimately proves to be a record against human notoriety.

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