The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is an immensely realistic novel, revealing how a child’s morals and actions clash with those of the society around him. Twain shows realism in almost every aspect of his writing; the description of the setting, that of the characters, and even the way characters speak. Twain also satirizes many of the foundations of that society. Showing the hypocrisy of people involved in education, religion, and romanticism through absurd, yet very real examples. Most importantly, Twain shows the way Huckleberry’s moral beliefs form amidst a time of uncertainty in his life.
Realism is a literary style in which the author describes people, their actions, their emotions and surroundings as close to the reality as possible. The characters are not perfectly good or completely evil; they exhibit strengths and weaknesses, just as real people. The characters often commit crimes or do immoral things, and are not always just good or just evil. In a realistic novel, aspects of the time period or location are also taken into consideration. Characters dress in clothes that befit them, and speak with local dialects. Most importantly, characters are not sugar coated or exaggerated. The characters do things as they would normally do them, and are not worse or better then their real life counterparts.
Using his experiences as a steamboat engineer, Mark Twain creates a realistic novel through meticulous detail in the descriptions of the setting, diction, and characters. The setting is described with much detail and imagery, so as to make it as close as possible to the actual surroundings. Twain uses a page just to describe the sunrise over the river.
The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line – that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away-trading-scows, and such things; and long black streaks-rafts … and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up.(117)
This complex and almost photographic description of a simple dawn is an example of Twain’s painstaking attempt to stay as close to reality as possible, placing him into the genre of realism.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also displays realistic qualities in the way characters and their speech is written. Twain explains this in a preface: “In this book a number of dialects are used … The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech”(EXPLANATORY). The dialects are not only realistic in grammar and word choice, but in the characters that display them. Characters who are less educated, such as Jim the slave, speak using slang, shortened words, or improper grammar; “Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn’ hear sumf’n. Well, I know what I’s gwyne to do: I’s gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it ag’in”(5). Characters who are more educated, such as Miss Watson, speak properly and do not use colloquial terms. The diction in general matches that of the south with such popular expressions as “dog my cats” and “by and by”. The use of proper diction that fits the characters, time period, and location is another way in which The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn becomes a realistic novel.
In unmasking the identities of characters, Twain satirizes the falseness and hypocrisy of certain educators, religious leaders, and romantics. Twain shows how the characters act in front of others, and then reveals their true emotions and mannerisms. 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 crooks. At first, the two pass themselves off as royalty, but even Huckleberry realizes that they are simply conmen. “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.”(125) Claiming to also be a celebrated actor, the Duke recite 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 like 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
To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane. (136)
In this way, Twain satirizes those who act educated and well-bred, but actually know very little.
Twain also satirizes religion, and the way people seem to be pious when in public, 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” (109). 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 Montecristo, 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 Negro’s 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. Huckleberry first revolts against the popularly held belief that school and education is not important. Although he starts of cutting school, he eventually begins to attend regularly, and even receives an award for good studies. Eventually Huckleberry runs away due to the mistreatment that he receives from his father and encounters other characters whose morals are tolerated by society. When Huckleberry meets up with the Duke and the Dauphin, he also begins rebelling against the “dog eat dog” mentality of only caring for oneself. Ultimately, when the Duke and the Dauphin try to scam two sisters by posing as relatives collecting money from a will, Huckleberry goes as far as revealing to one of the girls where the money is hidden and how she can get it, even though he could have easily taken it and left. Huckleberry does this because, unlike the Duke and the Dauphin, Huckleberry does not feel that stealing is acceptable, even if one can get away with it. Huckleberry’s most profound action is the rebellion against the belief that Negroes are inferior. He grows fond of Jim, and changes from thinking of him as a stereotypical uneducated Negro, to a real human being who is caring and compassionate. Huckleberry stops playing tricks on Jim, and treats him with more respect. Most importantly, when Huckleberry feels that he must return Jim, he eventually decides against it, even though he thinks that he is defying God: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”(214). Through this, Huckleberry shows that he is willing to defy God to do what he feels is right. Huckleberry transforms from a delinquent, hoping to be like Tom Sawyer, who is the epitome of the thinking of the time, to a boy who can think for himself, and understands what is right and what is wrong, even if it might bring him pain.
Through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain tries to show the wrongdoings of society at the time and the ignorance and hypocrisy of the people. He does this through painstaking realism and almost factual description. Twain tries to show the wrongness in slavery and the view that slaves are simply mindless farm animals which is accepted by society. Twain tries to convey this from the point of view of a relatively innocent child, who has not been conditioned by society, and has had time to make his own opinions about life. Twain uses realism to show that this is not a fairy tale land, from one of Tom Sawyer’s books, but that these are real people and real sentiments. Twain also uses realism to convey the fact that Jim is not an extraordinary or special salve, but that he is just like any other slave. By giving a real slave compassion and emotions, Twain shows slaves are just like any other people. Twain communicates a powerful and controversial message through what, at first, seems like a simple children’s adventure book.