Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is perhaps one of the most controversial, if not the most controversial, novel of American literature. Narrated from the very unreliable, very skewed first-person point-of-view of young Huckleberry Finn, it is the story of Huck and Jim, an escaped slave, as they float down the Mississippi River into the deep, dark heart of the Antebellum South.
Before his adventures, Huck spent his days playing with the romantic-minded Tom Sawyer and under the tutelage of a widow and her sister Miss Watson, both of whom try to teach Huck manners and try to quell his “uncivilized” behavior. However, his alcoholic father Pap comes back and takes his son back to his cabin, where he is forced to stay for a couple days before escaping. During his escape, Huck meets Jim and the two set out on the river on a raft.
Huck first has qualms with himself about letting Jim onto the raft. Jim is, after all, a slave, and Huck’s been strictly told that slaves aren’t exactly the same as humans. What’s more, Jim is the slave of Miss Watson– someone who, despite her strict disciplinarian care, genuinely cares about Huck’s well-being– and thus, helping Jim escape is, for Huck, morally wrong (though we can clearly see that this is the very opposite of that). As Huck grows closer to Jim, however, he is forced to question the status quo that he has been taught. Huck and Jim aim for the Ohio River, where they can then begin to travel north and, for Jim (and Huck as well), towards freedom.
Eventually, however, they miss their destination, and continue to float down the Mississippi, where they are separated multiple times. Later, they pick up two con artists, on the run. The con artists take over the raft and begin to treat Jim badly, exploiting his status and shaming him– while Huck watches helplessly.
After a series of mishaps, Huck finally escapes from the con artists, only to find that they have sold Jim to a nearby farmer. Longing for his friend, Huck finally pushes free of his social barriers and resolves to free Jim once and for all. He heads to the farm to look for him, but finds that the man and woman living there are actually his friend Tom Sawyer’s uncle and aunt. Coincidentally, Tom comes for a visit, and even offers to help Huck, which seems like a marvelous idea at first– until Tom begins to scheme ridiculous, humiliating plans for freeing Jim that fit with his storybook fantasies of a daring escapade. And despite his learning on his adventures on the raft with Jim, Huck goes along with it all.
What makes this book so bad, so sad, so terribly, terribly marvelous is the ending. Tom’s aunt and uncle find Tom hurt and Huck stumbling for help. Huck finally tells them of their little attempts at an “adventure,” and how they’d managed to plot under the adults’ noses, but receives a startling surprise himself: that Jim is actually free– Miss Watson had declared it in her will. Tom knew it all along, but had apparently decided not tell Huck and that this actually gave him the chance to try out his delightful, embarrassing plots on someone. Jim becomes nothing more than a plaything for the boys.
A picaresque, the novel is supposed to “depict the adventures of a roguish hero/heroine of low class society who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.” While most of this fits into the content of ‘Huck Finn, there is one key component missing– the hero. We can see that, in the end, it is not Huck who is the hero. In fact, is there even a hero in the novel? Are all novels supposed to have a hero? Why didn’t Twain have Huck grow? Why didn’t Twain have Huck save Jim? Why did Huck succumb to society’s racist views again?
These are questions that literary critics have debated over for decades, and still continue to debate. The ending of ‘Huck Finn is unexpected and depressing, and there are views over why Twain wrote it that way. Some think that he simply failed to convey a message he was trying to write in ‘Huck Finn, while others (and I am inclined to think so as well) believe that this outrageous ending was, in fact, his aim. Read critically, ‘Huck Finn is a satire. It is not a racist novel, for all its filtered narration and derogatory language. In fact, Twain depicts Huck’s racist thoughts as simply ridiculous– as if anyone would even dare to think that any human is below the rest! Yet, this was the reality back in the Antebellum South (believe it or not, in parts of the United States, and the world as well, it still is the reality). People did indeed believe, quite strongly and adamantly (yes, it even lead to a war), that African Americans were simply not as human as the rest of us.
If you haven’t picked up ‘Huck Finn yet, it’s about time to! Mark Twain’s satirical novel criticizing society and its many problems is a must-read, and, despite its less-than-appealing, grammatically-wrong, vernacular English language, it stands alongside other classic novels like The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird as an iconic component of American literature. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of being with Huck and Jim on their raft, on the run from society’s grasping arms. It is definitely not the innocent, just-a-boy-having-fun book that people first perceive it to be (Huck’s adventures are more than just pure mischief), but at the same time is it not the serious, racist novel that others think it is.
Satire is sometimes hard to read; it takes skill and finesse to craft a novel that depicts such a dark and delicate topic through the lightness and joviality of a humorous boy’s adventure. Mark Twain’s talent is not to be ignored or chastised; it is to be appreciated, and considered. Anyone who reads ‘Huck Finn will surely enjoy floating along the Mississippi, listening to Jim’s stories and applauding Huck’s wit.
Twain lambastes the racist views of the Antebellum South, commenting how absurd, even comical those ideas are– and, unfortunately, reminding us that these views are still present in our society today. We must think about how we are treating others. Unlike Huck Finn, we are to be heroes.
But don’t worry, Twain reassures us. It’s okay– you won’t go to hell for treating people nicely.