|Title||Adventures of Huckleberry Finn|
Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910). With his novels The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain became one of the best-known American authors.
Huckleberry Finn starts with a rather severe warning:
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.
By order of the author
I usually don’t look for motive or moral in a novel – I leave that to professional critics – but I will have to take care to avoid looking for a plot.
There is no lack of praise for Mark Twain or Huckleberry Finn: William Faulkner called Twain “the father of American literature”, Huckleberry Finn is often referred to as “the great American novel”, and apparently Ernest Hemingway said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. It’s the best book we’ve had.”
WARNING: The rest of this article contains spoilers.
The book is a novel about Huckleberry Finn, a boy who ran away from an abusive father, and Jim, a runaway slave. They find each other on Jackson Island, and island in the Mississippi, and together they float down the Mississippi on a raft, at first towards Cairo (Illinois) from where they can take a steamship north into the free states, but when they find out they must have missed Cairo they continue their journey without a clear goal.
During their journey Huck and Jim become close friends. Huck has to choose between his friendship for Jim and his conscience – he equals helping a slave to escape with stealing property from the slave owner which would condemn Huck to hell. When Jim talks about buying his wife and buying or stealing his children in the future Huck is close to betraying Jim:
Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.
I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him. My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever, until at last I says to it, “Let up on me—it ain’t too late yet—I’ll paddle ashore at the first light and tell.”
Huck’s feelings of friendship win every time, however, and eventually Huck chooses permanently for Jim: “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”.
Just when I start to be convinced that Huckleberry Finn is indeed a true masterpiece and the great American novel, the journey on the raft ends, Huck meets the Phelps family – relatives of Tom Sawyer – and Tom Sawyer himself, and a disappointing last quarter of the novel follow. Apparently I’m not the only one to be disappointed by the last part of the book – Hemingway stated:
If you read it, you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.
The novel, with its constant undertones of racism and slavery, is a clear commentary on 19th century southern mores and society. Even the religion condones slavery (if you help a slave escape you will end up in hell). Twain’s southern society is religious, racist and lawless (e.g. the Grangerford-Shepherdson blood feud, the tar-and-feathering of the duke and the dauphin, or the killing by and attempted lynching of Colonel Sherburn), a society where any white criminal is far superior to a “nigger”.
Part of the southern reading challenge is to describe a sense of place in the southern novels we read. The place in this book is the Mississippi river – a place where Huck and Jim are essentially themselves, a place of freedom. When they go ashore they have to hide or pretend to be someone else, while floating down the river they are free (though their freedom is lessened somewhat when they are joined by the dauphin and the duke, two con artists). The river is a retreat from the dangers of the south, the place they flee to when they have trouble on the land. But the river also takes them deeper into the south, towards more danger and eventually the capturing of Jim.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was read as part of the Southern reading challenge 2007.