Reading Huck Finn, Chapters 1-16

ImageThe good news is, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is everything I hoped (and expected) it would be.  The bad news is, I’m not feeling terribly academic these days, so I haven’t been able to motivate myself to be really thoughtful about this book.  But it’s my blog, and I get to set my own rules here.  So what you’ll get is certainly less than Mark Twain deserves.

Since I’m breaking this book up into thirds, I’ll tell you this was the hardest third for me to read.  All the rafting and stormy weather got a little hard to follow, and there’s a lot more travel than character interaction in these early chapters.  But once I got past chapter 16, the book really picked up.  I’m almost done and feeling like I’ll be very sad when it’s over.

1)      How do you feel about the character of Huck? What traits does he have that are admirable and not so admirable?  Does he seem like a thirteen-year-old?   

What’s so amazing about Twain is all the life and spirit he brings to his writing, and especially in the character of Huck.  I expected a fairly one-dimensional character, and that’s not at all what you get.  Twain gives him intelligence, creativity, humor and of course Twain’s own critical way of looking at the world.

Huck is less thoughtful in this first part of the book, but it still comes through, especially in his conversations with Jim about things like royalty and superstition.  What you see most strongly with Huck is how clever he is, how much he’s able to think on his feet, and come up with quick solutions.

There’s moral ambivalence to Huck in this part of the story, but then his ideas about morality develop throughout the book.  For example, in this first part he fakes his own death without thinking too much about the impact on people who care about him.  But then, Huck is used to being on his own.  And even though the Widow has been kind to him, she’s also imposed a lifestyle on him that he can’t really live with.  Which leads to my second question…

2)      What positive and negative relationships does Huck have with adults? 

Clearly, this part of the book is about setting up a contrast between the Widow, Pap, and Jim.  The Widow cares for him but also walls him in.  Tom Sawyer may be meant for a life with structure, school and church, but Huck doesn’t seem to be.  I’m not sure if Twain means that it’s better for Huck to live out in the wild like he wants to, as opposed to being “civilized” by school, adults, good clothes, etc.    I guess we’ll see how the rest of the book develops.

Huck is taken from the Widow by his father, Pap, and forced to live in a cabin with him.  At first, Huck finds he prefers this life to that with the Widow.  But Pap’s beatings and neglect become too much and Huck needs to get away.

Huck’s relationship with his father is one of fear and violence.  His father came after him for his money, and Huck knows that.  There’s no emotional bond here at all.  In fact, Huck doesn’t have much of an emotional bond with anyone except maybe his friend Tom.  Which is why his friendship with Jim becomes so interesting.  Which leads to…

3)      How is Huck’s relationship with Jim developing in these chapters? 

I think the most interesting thing at this point is that Huck doesn’t really think of Jim as a human being with feelings, at first.  He’s also very condescending in his attitude towards Jim, because he’s more educated and doesn’t think of Jim as someone with any intelligence.  I also think Huck is kind of used to being on the bottom and Jim is someone he can feel superior to.  But as this part of the book goes on, Huck finds that Jim actually does have feelings.  He has a family he cares about and a need for freedom.  When Huck plays a trick on Jim, and Jim is deeply hurt, he starts to realize that Jim is not only a human being, but a friend.

Twain sets up a comparison here between the morality of the time and morality in general.  Huck believes that helping to free a slave is a sin, and at this time it is.  Legally, he’s stealing from the Widow.  Even feeling compassion for a slave feels sinful and wrong to him.  The “right” thing to do is to turn Jim in.  Yet of course Twain is telling us that true morality is exactly the opposite.  But how is a kid supposed to know what’s right and wrong?  It’s a lot for Huck to wrestle with, and maybe Twain is suggesting that Huck’s lack of “civilization” (in other words, lack of respect for authority) is actually what makes the difference here.

Clearly, there’s a lot more here than my simple analysis.  But this isn’t English class.

4)      How are you feeling about the use of dialect in the book?  Too difficult to understand?  What role does dialect serve?  

The dialect is definitely challenging in this book!  But I really like when authors use dialect, I think it makes the book feel so much more real.  You almost have to read a lot of the lines aloud to get what they’re saying.  Twain notes in his forward that he’s actually using a wide variety of dialects, which makes sense since Jim and Huck don’t talk the same way, and the folks in Missouri probably don’t speak the way folks in Illinois do.

5)      How are the river and land symbolic in this story? 

Clearly, the river represents freedom, but it also seems to come with a lot of danger.  The river is clearly stronger than man, as we see shipwrecks and floating houses, and Jim and Huck get tossed around quite a bit.  But Huck is also most comfortable out in nature, so he has a good respect and appreciation for the dangers of the river.  At one point he talks about how he and Jim are naked most of the time on the river — there’s a comfort level there that doesn’t exist anywhere else.  The river also represents a journey, Jim’s travel towards freedom and Huck’s journey towards – whatever Twain will have him find in the end. Friendship?  Family?  Adulthood? It’s not clear what Huck’s looking for at this point.

Twain also sets up a contrast between the dangers of the river and the dangers on land.  On land there are rattlesnakes but also people – and in this book, most of the people are corrupt, and even if they aren’t, Jim is in a lot more danger on land than in the river.  There’s a lot more of this as the book goes on.

So that’s Huck Finn, the first third.  If you haven’t read this book, I would definitely pick it up!  It’s a challenge, but once I got into it I found it hard to put down.  If you’re reading it, or have read it, what did you think?

  5 comments for “Reading Huck Finn, Chapters 1-16

  1. November 10, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    I actually loved all the stormy weather and floating on the river, as I was reading the book in a very cold London! I found the dialect quite challenging at first, but it did help with the atmosphere of the book once I got used to it.
    Hope you’re enjoying the rest of the book?

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