Second – let me say up front that I know I’m not giving Mark Twain his due. Published in 1885, Huckleberry Finn is noteworthy for its innovative use of dialect, its portrait of the American South, and most importantly its criticism of slavery and racism. This is a powerful book and I meant to write a really detailed three-part review, with discussion questions and everything. But then work and classes and holidays and in-law visits and gift-buying happened. And now it’s been a little while since I even read the book.
So my three-part review didn’t happen. Still, this book did feel like it had three parts even if Twain didn’t label it that way. The first part involved Huck’s escape from his father, joining up with Jim, and heading out on a raft (see my review here). The second part is the journey, where Huck and Jim encounter different families and towns. And the third part takes place at the Phelps farm, where Huck has to masquerade as Tom Sawyer for a while.
Of these “parts”, I enjoyed the middle of the book the most, because it’s here where Huck and Jim’s relationship develops and where Huck begins to question the morality of slavery. It’s also in this part that you really see Twain’s humor and satire. I had a hard time putting the book down. Even though it’s kind of a random sequence of events, it really grabbed my attention and I was constantly impressed by Twain’s cleverness in word usage and contrasts. For example, Huck is supposed to be this uneducated, “uncivilized” kid, except he’s brilliant at times, in the way he’s so good at improvising and storytelling. Twain also contrasts Huck’s moral compass with society’s at large. At times Huck seems like he doesn’t care whether something is right or wrong, in that he doesn’t mind stealing things or running away, but at the same time he always cares about people and has a real sense of who is good and who isn’t.
As for the story, in Chapter 17, Huck meets this family, the Sheperdsons, who seem nearly perfect, except for one thing. They are involved in a feud with another family, which doesn’t seem so bad until the daughter runs away with the son of the other family. Just when you think Twain is being humorous, Huck sees everyone start killing each other. The violence is sudden and more shocking because it’s so unexpected. Huck has seen a lot of violence in his short life, but two families killing each other for no good reason feels especially tragic.
Then, he meets the Duke and the King, and this seems to be Twain at his most clever. First, the Duke and the King get into this terrific argument about which of them is more impressive.
He said we ought to bow when we spoke to him, and say “Your Grace,” or “My Lord” or “Your Lordship” – and he wouldn’t mind it if we called him plain “Bridgewater”, which, he said, was a title anyway, and not a name; and one of us ought to wait on him at dinner, and do any little thing for him he wanted done.
… But the old man got pretty silent by and by – didn’t have much to say, and didn’t look pretty comfortable over all that petting that was going on around that duke. … Looky here, Bilgewater,” he says. “I’m nation sorry for you, but you aint the only person that’s had troubles like that.” … “Hold! What do you mean?” “Bilgewater, kin I trust you?” says the old man, still sort of sobbing. “To the bitter death!” He took the old man by the hand and squeezed it, and says, “That secret of your being: speak!” “Bilgewater, I am the late Dauphin!”
You bet you, Jim and me stared this time. Then the duke says: “You are what?” “Yes, my friend, it is too true – your eyes is lookin at this very moment on the pore disappeared Dauphin, Looy the Seventeen, son of Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antonette.”
There’s another brilliant scene where a man challenges a lynch mob and wins, just by force of argument.
“The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that’s what an army is, a mob; they don’t fight with courage that’s born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any MAN at the head of it is BENEATH pitifulness. Now the thing for YOU to do is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole. If any real lynching’s going to be done it will be done in the dark, Southern fashion, and when they come they’ll bring their masks, and fetch a MAN along. Now LEAVE – and take your half-a-man with you” – tossing his gun up across his left arm and cocking it when he says this.
But again, it seems like Twain is keeping things pretty light, but he doesn’t. The Duke and King go on this series of scams up and down the river, forcing Huck and Jim to participate. At first, these are scams on people who mostly deserve to be parted from their money. But the scams grow in intensity, until a decent family is going to be robbed of money they need, because they showed kindness to Huck. It’s at that point that Huck reaches a real moral dilemma and grows as a character.
I had trouble with the third part, mainly because Tom Sawyer’s role in this story is so maddening. I know Twain is being clever here, and I enjoyed all of the references to “prisoner” stories. Having read Count of Monte Cristo last year, it was fun to read about the mythology of prisoners spending years in dark cellars, scratching words into rocks with their own blood, conversing with rats, etc. But all this time, Jim is a prisoner and his life and freedom are on the line — and seeing Huck and Tom take that so lightly made me crazy.
Yes, it all comes out okay, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Is that what Twain intended? I know Huck looks up to Tom as more clever, but I kept waiting for him to put his foot down with all the prisoner nonsense, and he disappointed me. I suppose we’re meant to see to what lengths Huck would go to free Jim (including wearing his aunt’s dress) but it still bothered me, especially since they all nearly get killed in the process.
Still, as a portrayal of life in the South in the 1800’s, this book was very powerful, and I can see why Huck is such an iconic character. I really appreciated with how much he struggled with the societal “morality” of turning in runaway slaves, when that conflicted with his inner sense of right and wrong. It’s a hard thing to go against everything you’ve been taught, and yet he does. He starts out seeing Jim as less than human and comes to realize he’s a friend.
Like most works of classic literature, I’d be much better off studying this in a class so I could really appreciate all the symbolism and use of language. Still, since I won’t be taking lit classes any time soon, it’s better than not reading them at all. I’m so glad I finally got to this one.