Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” was a very enjoyable read. It was my first early American novel and I could not help feel as though I was being swept along the current of the Mississippi sharing in Huck’s adventures. I was fortunate enough to travel to New Orleans a few years ago on my first trip to the American south. Huck’s narrations while powerful in their own right, were that much more meaningful because of my own experiences. While Twain ironically proclaims that there is no theme in the preface, there is a very strong theme that satirically is inescapable in the way society’s rules can stifle individual freedom of expression and thought.
While at first I found the diction to be very confusing and even frustrating at times, it later seemed almost vital in order to make the narration believable, controversial, shocking, and powerful. One believes the adventures to be true because we can envision these types of discussions taking place in the mid south at that time. The multitude of adventures, told in the first person in a concise and simplistic manner was very appealing. My own province of Newfoundland has a very rich and distinctive culture, with numerous strong dialects, and storytelling is a very big part of that culture.
I like the fact that the novel is controversial, and challenges the mainstream views of society. Many have debated over the years whether Twain’s novel is a masterpiece or subversive trash. It has been argued that it is “rough, coarse, inelegant, and exerts a dangerous influence on the young. ” (Concord, Massachusetts, library committee). However, the reality is this is a part of life whether we like to admit it or not. If one chooses to look beyond the lies, If one chooses to look beyond the lies, bad language and criminal activity what shines through is a strong social messages meant for society as a whole.
Many have questioned whether the persistent use of the word “nigger” makes Huckleberry Finn racist. I think, it has to be put into the context of the entire novel and the underlying theme. The novel portrays the worst society has to offer through the innocent and impressionable eyes of a thirteen year old boy. The book is shocking, the behaviors and attitudes towards a cast society are appalling and shameful, and should be our central focus for debate. While no one today should tolerate the use of the word in a derogatory sense, its use in the novel is vital.
We should be ashamed of racism in any form, and be willing to take about it in a constructive manner so that the world can be more enlightened. Others have stated, and I happen to agree that because we have not managed to eradicate racism from our society, the word is still so hurtful. One would be naive to think that African Americans, as well other sects of society, such as with gays, are not confronted by prejudice today. Perhaps not as overtly, since society does not sanction it as it once did, but it still raises its ugly head from time to time and brings out the darker side of all of us.
It is easy to say that this book, along with similar ones, should be banned. However, that would be too easy. We, as a society, would then not have to face our own ugly past. However, if we do not, as the saying goes, we are bound to repeat it in some form or another. Even in Twain’s time, he knew that the word “nigger” was a racial slur, and to clean up the language would detract from the powerful message that he was trying to send. The fact that the novel is so controversial and confrontational makes it a powerful tool towards social justice.
It has been said that if we sanitize the past we forego the rawness of its pain, but also the force of its lessons. ” Twain painstakingly chose his words carefully, and made every effort to be factual, and if we tamper with the language we will significantly detract from its message. Twain’s words say it much more elegantly than I ever could: “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger – but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I did’nt do him no more tricks, and I would’nt done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.
Huck, part outcast and part rebel, is a realistic character that one can relate to and feel empathy toward. Many have since referred to him as a “rogue hero” since his character matures as he travels along the river. Huck is the type of person who “What you see is what you get”. He is not larger than life and is negatively impacted by his environment. There are many times throughout the novel were you feel sorry for him, since for every step forward he takes there is virtually everyone with the exception of Jim, including his friend Tom Sawyer, forcing him to take two backwards.
He loves nature and does not want to be a part of normal society, since most of so called “normal” society appears unnatural in his own mind. For example, he finds upper class clothing “stifling”, school too restrictive, laws too prohibitive, and the so called “noble and spiritually enlightened” cruel and narrow minded. Huck is extremely adaptable and tolerant. He has the ability to change things under his control and the wisdom to accept those things which although cruel and silly are beyond his abilities.
He has to tolerate living “civilized” with the widow Douglas, adapt to being cruelly victimized by his father in the woods, living life on the raft, and living from rags to riches in the Grangefords. His ability to adapt to cruel and bizarre situations, speaks to the strength of his character and is exemplified in the numerous inner conflicts he struggles with over freeing Jim. His ability to take on new identities (ie: planned his own death and rebirth on the river, posed as a girl and Tom Sawyer) seems to be his internal means to protect himself from the cruelties of society and its ways.
He is “street smart”, in that he has the ability to analyze people, such as the Duke and King, the murderers on the “Walter Scott”, as well as Tom, and accept them for who they are, and in fact, shows empathy for them when most others would not. What is perhaps most appealing and ironic, is the way in which he is so hard on himself. Even when he decides at the end to follow his own heart, he is convinced that he is a bad human being for not conforming to society. He concedes that it’s fate and nothing he can do can change it.
Huck’s lying is quite interesting. In own sense, it is a defense mechanism to shield him against the cruelties and social injustices which are beyond the control of a young thirteen year old boy. What is interesting is that he is a better liar when he personally feels it is the right thing to do to protect someone such as Jim. His stories used to save Jim are truly ingenious, for example, telling the slave traders on the river that Jim, supposedly his father, had a communicable disease known as smallpox.
However, when he does not feel passionate about the justification for the lie, he dose so poorly. Examples include times he is asked to substantiate the Duke and King’s schemes, where people easily see through his lies. Huck’s manners, while sometimes raw, are not unnatural given the circumstances of his upbringing. Unfortunately, it does not lend him to being easily assimilated into so called “high society”. For instance, his simplistic language, tattered clothing, and unsophisticated ways, do not compare to the elaborate and romanticized ways of people like Tom Sawyer.
He even sees himself as a rogue and swindler who can’t be helped. Huck seems a little confused about religion and wants no real part of it. Which is not surprising since most of the characters in the novel who are so called “pius and in high moral standing” are quite fine to accept social injustices such as slavery. Miss Watson tries to instruct Huck, in prayer, however, he sees no use in praying nor does he see any indication that it works. Huck takes these stories or fables literally, and when he tests them in practice he becomes disillusioned.
Huck sees Miss Watson’s concept of heaven as being a “boring and restrictive” place not exciting enough for him. It is ironic that “church going” people can force their slaves to be Christian, which goes against the sanctity of God’s greatest teachings involving, freedom of choice, and doing unto others as you would want them to do unto you. Unfortunately, the Bible can be interpreted such a way as to somehow legitimize social injustices. Just as today, in Canada, a moral debate is raging over whether gay people can marry.
People use the Bible selectively to make their cause but choose to turn a “blind eye” to what the Bible is saying philosophically about how we should live. Throughout the course of Huck’s adventures he has to face the moral dilemma of deciding whether it is right to help Jim or turn him according to the law. In the beginning, his reason for assisting Jim is not well defined but is probably more out of the need for companionship that anything else. Time spent on the river, permits Huck to see admirable human qualities in Jim which place them both on equal footing.
However, the real world keeps confronting Huck with the moral dilemma of having to choose between his friend’s freedom and doing what society expects of him, that is, turn in the runaway slave. At the end the climax reaches the determining point, in Chapter 31, Huck says: “It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, I’ll go to hell” -and tore it up. ” This is truly a turning point.
We may be quick to think that, so what, he did the right thing. However, putting ourselves in the shoes of a thirteen year old boy in the mid south in the 1800’s, shows Huck’s strong will in that he risks his own life for the sake of another who he was bred to believe was less than human. Throughout the book, Huck is constantly battling internally between what is right and wrong; and up to this point he has always questioned his decisions. In many of these decisions; however, even when he makes the morally appropriate choice, he condemns himself for going against societal expectations.
Huck’s honesty and sense of moral conscience seems to soften the impact of the brutal cruelties that occur in southern society. I know in my own life, there are many examples growing up whereby I wish I had Huck’s moral fortitude to stand up for what I believed in. Twain departs from most novelists of his time who tended to romanticize life and put people on a pedestal, almost larger than life. In Huckleberry Finn, almost every character exhibits flaws of some sort, and the worst side of humanity is satirized such as: greed, prejudice, cruelty, murder, gullibility, cowardice, and the sense of “mob rule”.
For example, Miss Watson, a church going woman, sinks to selling Jim for $800 and splitting up his family. This is a woman who believes family and church is the cornerstone of life. The noble Grangefords and Shepherdsons church pew seats are not even cold when they are butchering each other over a feud generations old that no one can even remember. Again, there is reference to blindly accepting societal rules that smack in the face of hypocrisy. Jim and Huck seem to be the only characters not tainted by the worst that society has to offer, perhaps in part because they feel disenfranchised from society at the start.
Therefore, they are less susceptible to its influences and less prone to its corruption. Just as animals can be classically conditioned, people can be too if the urge and need to belong to something bigger, is stronger than their own moral conscience. Huck and Jim are no bogged down in antiquated rules and codes of honor, and are therefore free to use commonsense and reasoning to rule their actions. Tom and Huck share a number of similarities as well as differences that become more noticeable as time goes onward. Huck is much more dynamic and complex.
He is the protagonist who through his adventures gains a greater understanding of himself, his environment, and society at large. Tom is first portrayed as the epitome of society, almost larger than life as first seen through Huck’s eyes. No doubt he does have a number of noble qualities, such as being an elegant spokesman and natural leader. Over time, we realize that while he is representative of white upper society, many of his qualities are not desirable thereby supporting the overall theme that we must look beyond the surface to find the truth.
Huck takes a simple approach to life, doing what comes natural through reasoning and common sense. Tom, on the other hand, can’t accept simple, and spends so much time concerned with presentation that he looses the meaning of what it is he is trying to do. His obsession with the ridiculous schemes he reads about in popular novels stagnates his own creativity and freedom of thought. Perhaps, Twain is illustrating that even the best of us can be corrupted, if we are too caught up in the positives society brings, tempting us to overlook the negative.
While Huck desperately tries to escape from so called “sivilized” society, Tom serves to bring Huck back to the real world. Each time Tom appears Huck seems to loose a small part of himself, and reverts back to accept society’s values simply because to do otherwise seems too overwhelming. Huck helps Jim because he feels natural and right whereas Tom sees it as some grand source of amusement at Jim’s expense. Perhaps because his own life has no real meaning and he must romanticize about something more elaborate. Tom is unable to operate outside of the paradigm of the characters in the novels that in itself is tragic.
Huck’s strong ties to nature makes the river almost seem “god-like”, it is endless and unreliant and unaffected by mankind. Societies have come and gone but the river has lasted the test of time. The journey down the river also represents Huck’s journey towards self-realization. Huck’s travels prepare him for his transformation to manhood and his place in society. One of the issues I did not like about the novel I have decided to leave until the end. I felt cheated by the ending of the novel. I felt as though the narrator had built up the reader for a happy ending, where Jim would be reunited with his family and Huck somehow vindicated.
Unfortunately, perhaps we are too accustomed to these types of happy endings, as in the movies or romance novels. But as I began to research others viewpoints on the novel, as well as familiarize myself with the real events of the time, I came to realize that the novel only mimicked real life. There was no happy ending for African American people, one form of slavery was abolished but many other less transparent forms took its place. The struggle was and perhaps is by no means over. Therefore, while I felt let down by the author, at first, maybe that in itself is a lesson.
The question of what the role an individual should play in society is a complex one. Twain chose to be unusually pessimistic about society to teach a valuable lesson. Individuals cannot exist in a vacuum, society plays a valuable role in shaping individuals, either in a good or bad way. We are communal beings who need guidelines and rules to govern behavior for the most part. However, while the sense of belonging to a community offers powerful rewards, we must be true to our own concepts of right and wrong and not be willing to turn a blind eye to injustice of any kind.
Society has come along with through the efforts of courageous people. People such as Martin Luther king, and other Human Rights Activists, were willing to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of mankind because while remaining true to their convictions. While not everyone may face life-altering decisions as Huck, we all have been faced with moral dilemmas in which we stood back and did nothing to protect another. Whether it occurred on the playground when faced with a bully, or at work to advance over another. I believe that we all need to make a concerted effort to be true to ourselves.
This type of compassionate and enlightened attitude must be driven from strong family values, moving outward to others in our community and throughout the world. Incidents such as the tsunami have shown the world can come together in an hour of need. However, like human nature often is, there are those who will try and take advantage of others misfortunes in schemes such as misappropriating relief funds. In my community, for the most part, I do not feel that communities are stifling individuals. However, there are some instances where this is so, such as preventing gay marriages, or not recognizing pay equity.
There still exists the attitude of the “all boys club” in certain workplaces. Historically, in my province of Newfoundland, the protestant people did not interact with Catholics, and atrocities occurred in the name of religion. I have a sister who is mentally handicapped, and as a child my own community and friends were very cruel towards her acting in stereotypical arrogant fashion. I still regret today, the numerous occasions in which I didn’t have the moral fortitude to stand up to them, but instead felt that there was something wrong with my family and I.
I am embarrassed by the number of times I felt pity or ashamed, just as Huck did when he was not at fault. Over the years, I have seen big changes in the way mentally handicapped people are treated, and integration into the regular school system has played a key role in doing so. Society does have an important role to play in laying down guidelines to universally protect people as a whole. However, it must do so while trying to strike a balance between protecting individual rights and freedoms. This is a continuously evolving process and we must be vigilant to ensure that this balance is achieved.