TRANSCENDENTALISM EXPOSED IN HUCK FINN:
WHAT TWAIN DIDN’T TELL US
Modern readers often gain much insight from analyzing works of literature long since written. Posterity can benefit from the primordial lessons instilled in these celebrated classics, and can be influenced by their examples. Certain novels have swayed today’s world more than others – critically acclaimed novelist Ernest Hemingway opined that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, epitomizes the “Great American Novel.” Hemingway stated “All modern American literature comes from Huck Finn… there has been nothing as good since.” This is a bold statement, because it gives Twain, as the author, unprecedented influence over today’s minds. It stands to reason that the themes expressed by Twain in Huck Finn resonate in many modern works. Huck Finn is perhaps one of the most-analyzed works of the last two hundred years, and many of its central themes have already been identified: the mundane ones of anti-slavery, loss of innocence, and coming-of-age. However, there are still some surprising truths to uncover. Twain was an admitted Transcendentalist, a proponent of esoteric ideology that gained popularity in the 19th century. It is likely that Twain was so involved in and affected by Transcendentalism that he, if only subconsciously, attempted to spread the philosophy to the world. Upon close examination, it becomes clear that Twain utilizes his position as a novelist to advocate the ideals of Transcendentalism. Twain uses Huck Finn as a medium for spreading subtle propaganda of Transcendentalism, stressing the inherent goodness of the individual human, emphasizing emotion over logic, and encouraging a deep connection with nature.
Transcendentalism emerged in the 1830s, a New Thought approach to refuting the state of culture and society. Intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau advocated the philosophy, positing that everyone’s goal should be the cultivation of “reason” and liberation from the confines of “understanding.” Mark Twain was inspired by Transcendentalism, and converted to its practice. Obviously, it was in his interest to spread that message to as many people as he could. Twain spent nine years between his first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the publishing of Huck Finn in 1884, developing a plot in which he could slip in references to Transcendentalism. His work is not without fruition: Huck Finn characterizes Transcendentalist ideals deeply, fulfilling Twain’s goal of spreading his own Transcendentalist ideals to the world.
One of the key philosophies of Transcendentalism is the belief in the innate goodness of the individual. Alone, uninfluenced, the human is purest. Twain’s first step in focusing on the individual lies in the narration of the story: Huck Finn is written in the first person, from Huck’s perspective. By not allowing the reader a more omniscient view of the scene, Twain both forces the reader to accept Huck’s thoughts (and through Huck, Twain’s) and makes the first subtle suggestion that a focus on the individual is most important.
Huck is inherently good, but finds himself hampered and corrupted by society constantly throughout the book. Huck acknowledges that he does not consider himself civilized, despite the widow’s many attempts, but does not realize that in that shortcoming lies his greatest strength: he is free from social norms and prejudices, free from the popular acceptance of slavery. In his Transcendentalist paper Self-Reliance, Emerson contends that “society is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Nothing could be more correct. Huck is perfectly capable of making good decisions when he is not tainted by people like Tom or the king and the duke. Those members of society are obstacles that must be overcome, distractions that would better be ignored. Twain makes it obvious that Huck is best when he is isolated on the river, making decisions unmolested. Additionally, whenever Huck comes ashore, he is struck by the stupidity and foolishness of the activities he sees taking place: the ridiculous conflict between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, the idiocy of the townsfolk during the Royal Nonesuch scam, and the naïveté of the family when the king and duke imitate relatives of the deceased. These are examples of the absurdity of society; Huck would be purer leaving it alone. Twain clearly suggests that Huck is a good individual by himself, let to his own devices.
Twain also touches upon the aloofness, or loneliness, of Huck – another aspect to being alone. Huck is introduced almost immediately to the reader as someone who is alone in the world: “I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead” (3). Huck has few real friends, save Tom, or Jim. His father, Pap, is hardly an inspiring figure – indeed, Huck longs to escape from him –and Huck lacks other people to whom he can really connect. Even on the raft with Jim, someone who he at least respects, he confesses to remaining lonely, remarking “… [I] counted the stars and drift logs and rafts that come down… there ain't no better way to put in time when you are lonesome” (39). Huck must celebrate himself for who he is in order to find his place within the universe. Solitude is an important aspect of Transcendentalism, and Twain paints Huck as someone who is indeed by himself, at the deepest level.
Transcendentalist doctrine includes a second feature – a supreme emphasis on emotion. The point of Transcendentalism is to “transcend” the limits of intellect and allow the emotions to create a relation to the universe. Emotions are the innate ability to grasp beauty and truth. Transcendentalists define this characteristic as possessing “reason”. This is considered superior to simple “understanding”, which is the everyday, mundane perception of the world. Transcendentalists believe that one must grasp “reason” to find peace, doing this by letting the emotions run free.
Twain shows Huck using emotional thinking over common logic in several instances during the novel. Huck rationally should have turned Jim in to the authorities, but he does not. Jim represents a severe liability, a fugitive from the state, and Huck should feel no particular affinity to him at the start. But Huck relies on his emotion to guide him, opting to stay with Jim and even helping him attain freedom. Thoreau, a Transcendentalist, argues in Civil Disobedience to refute society’s laws and stand up for beliefs, which is exactly what Huck does by assisting Jim evade the law. Twain echoes Thoreau here, furthering his own message of pro- Transcendentalism. Later, Huck declares “All right, then, I'll GO to hell”, in reference to making the ultimate sacrifice to help Jim (214). Huck logically should have taken the easy way out, but relying on his emotions, he makes a seemingly illogical choice. Soon after, Huck describes his plan of action in an offhand manner: “I went right along, not fixing up any particular plan, but just trusting in Providence to put the right words in my mouth when the time come” (219). Huck is trusting himself, his emotions, to play it right when the time comes, rather than preoccupying himself with devising a “logical” plan to follow. Twain even goes so far as to imply that Huck is transported to a excited, more enlightened state, when he uses his conscience (his moral and emotional thinking process): Huck gets “trembly and feverish”, giving into his emotions, trying to use his “conscience” to make a decision (87). This use of wild and risky emotional thinking over logical advancement is unorthodox, but is a strong belief of Transcendentalists. By incorporating it so heavily into his novel, Twain shows his true colors as a Transcendentalist.
Huck also shows aspects of displaying “reason” rather than “understanding”. Huck struggles with traditional religion, never attending church and feeling that praying is not something he can do. This hints at anti-Catholicism, another Transcendentalist principle. Charles Ellis, in An Essay on Transcendentalism, states, “Man has ideas… [as] the result of direct revelation for God, his immediate inspiration, his presence…”, and Twain is of the same opinion. He does not allow Huck the comforts of traditional religion as society perceives it, forcing Huck to move beyond just “understanding”, and make the leap into “reason”, via a more spiritual approach to connecting with God. As Twain portrays it, Huck has a divine goodness (“reason”) – something more than just routine understanding. Twain includes this in his novel because he hopes readers will open themselves to this Transcendentalist concept, taking inspiration from Huck.
The third trait of Transcendentalism that Twain includes in Huck Finn is the importance of a connection with nature. At the time of writing, the Second Industrial Revolution was occurring in America, and Twain no doubt wanted to voice his concerns on preserving the environment. Twain’s concerns were valid, looking back. Twain takes great steps to include the purity of nature and its cleansing aspects in Huck Finn, making the Mississippi River a pivotal part of the narrative.
Twain shows Huck to be attuned to nature in several scenes. Huck makes astute observations of the temperament of the river, his eyes noticing things like the “streak on the water which you know by the look of [it] that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way” (117). Huck also spends time meditating in the calming climate the river creates: “It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars” (64). In his essay Nature, Emerson says, “If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars,” showing that he and Twain are of the some opinion. Continuing with the implementation of the great Transcendentalist thinkers’ writings, there is a parallel that is impossible to overlook between Thoreau’s historic stint at Walden Pond in Massachusetts and Huck’s experience on the Mississippi River. Both Thoreau and Huck are trapped alone in nature with limited outside contact, in solitude and bettering themselves as individuals – true to key Transcendentalist beliefs. Living on the river is the quintessence of submerging oneself in nature, living with only the smallest of conveniences. Jim’s intimate knowledge of natural herbs and remedies proves to be a viable alternative to the unnatural medical theories of the time, such as phrenology. Twain ties in themes of living life to the fullest, unhampered by society. Only in nature can Huck achieve this, because he is not corrupted by society, as he is in the “land” events. Twain offers this way of life as plausible to the reader, advocating Transcendentalism through it all.
Mark Twain uses his celebrated novel Huck Finn to convey Transcendentalist philosophy, subtly at times, but always present. Twain stresses the inherent goodness of the individual by portraying Huck as someone who is pure on the river, shielded, but who is corrupted by society in the form of Tom and the king and the duke. Knowing that Twain also works to incorporate themes of emotional thinking over logic and “reason” over “understanding” helps explain why Huck acts the way he does at times. Finally, Twain heavily integrates nature – namely, the Mississippi River – into the novel to imply that a connection with environment is essential for livelihood. These beliefs – goodness of the individual, emotion, and nature – are those of the Transcendentalist ideology, and Twain, a Transcendentalist himself, puts these in Huck Finn for a reason. As the author of the Great American Novel – the best novel of all time, in the opinion of Ernest Hemingway – he delicately opens the huge reader base of the modern world to Transcendentalist beliefs. Twain does this so well that the uneducated reader is unaware of it, and he ultimately succeeds in exposing the world to the doctrine.
Ellis, Charles. An Essay on Transcendentalism. Web.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Web.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self-Reliance. Web.
Hemingway, Ernest. Green Hills of Africa. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. Web.
Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. Web.
DECEIVING AND BELIEVING:
A LOOK AT LYING IN THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
Everyone lies. Some people try to justify this immoral action by claiming that they are using their lies for good, instead of evil. It is often hard to know at what point a lie becomes an irrevocable, cruel action as opposed to a convenient alternate explanation. Huck Finn, the main character and narrator in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, also wrestles with this dilemma. Growing up in the South in the midst of slavery, Huck feels forced to be dishonest about his identity many times in order to protect Jim, a runaway slave Huck has grown close to (appositive). Although Huck deceives almost everyone in the novel, his lies had different results depending on the senario. Twain uses Huck’s interactions with a woman in St Petersburg, Aunt Sally, and Jim throughout in order to suggest that when lying is necessary, it does not always have negative consequences, whereas pointless lies often bring awful repercussions.
To begin with, when Huck attempts to deceive a woman in St. Petersburg, albeit unsuccessfully, he gets the results he wants because the lie is vital to his agenda. Huck goes into town pretending to be a girl with the objective of trying to find out information about what the townspeople have heard about Jim’s alleged escape and Huck’s alleged death. Huck needs to maintain a low-profile because society thinks he is dead. When the woman says “’ tell me your secret, and trust me. I’ll keep it; and what’s more, I’ll help you’” (60), Huck makes up a new story because he has since learned that people are out looking for Jim, and she too wants to capture Jim. This information allows Huck to warn Jim about the townspeople and enables them to evade capture. Although Huck deceives the woman multiple times, the lies are harmless and essential to Huck’s well being, so they deliver the results Huck hopes to acquire.
Secondly, Huck successfully lies to Aunt Sally in order to remain inconspicuous, enabling Huck to succeed in his quest to free Jim from Aunt Sally’s farm. While trying to free Jim, Huck accidentally ends up staying with Tom Sawyer’s aunt Aunt Sally and impersonating Tom Sawyer. At one point Huck is unsure of how Tom would respond to a question Aunt Sally asks and Huck narrates, “So I says to myself, here’s another place where I got to resk the truth. I opened my mouth to begin; but [AuntSally] grabbed me and hustled me in behind the bed” (222). Huck intends to confess his true identity in order to escape a sticky situation yet that does not serve Twain’s true agenda. Twain proves time and time again that sometimes lying is necessary to achieve honorable deeds such as breaking Jim out of bondage. By having Aunt Sally stop Huck from revealing the truth about his identity, Twain ensures that Huck can continue his lie and stay under the radar. Huck’s lie remains a secret until after Jim has already been broken out of jail, and at that time the lie has already served its purpose.
On the other hand, Huck intentionally deceives Jim for mere entertainment purposes and ends up with the negative effect of feeling guilty for hurting his new friend. At the start of the novel, before Huck intimately knows Jim, he allows Tom, his best friend, to play a trick on Jim. Huck continues Tom’s mean-spirited antics by placing a rattlesnake on Jim’s bed as well as tricking Jim about whether or not the raft separated. Once Jim gives Huck a piece of his mind, Huck recalls, “I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that [mean trick] if I’d ‘a’ knowed it would make him feel that way” (86). Huck initially lies and plays tricks on Jim, to have a little fun at Jim’s expense. Huck never considers that his actions will actually affect Jim, thinking always of Jim as just another n***** (participial). Once Huck realizes that his mean tricks make Jim feel upset, he feels so guilty that he volunteers not to have any more fun at Jim’s expense. Lying about whether the raft is separated or not is unessential to preserving Jim’s safety and hence leads to a negative effect.
Another instance when Huck is dishonest for unjust reasons and receives a penalty occurs when he goes along with Tom’s plan to write anonymous letters to Aunt Sally’s family detailing false information about the night Jim is supposed to escape. The letters are completely useless for the task at hand, yet Huck gets peer pressured into helping distribute them when Tom says, “’if we don’t give them notice there won’t be nobody nor nothing to interfere with us,” (267). Tom openly admits that writing these letters with the sole purpose of adding suspicion to Jim’s escape sets up more trouble for Huck and Jim. These letters lead Aunt Sally to invite over armed men who end up shooting Tom, seriously worrying Huck and indirectly getting Jim recaptured, as he flees the premises. Clearly Huck does not need to participate in this trickery, so it is consistent with Twain’s tone towards lying that Tom gets shot as a result of the letter scam.
During the course of the novel, Twain suggests that dishonesty is sometimes a key component in success when done for genuine reasons. When Huck lies on Jim’s behalf, undoubtedly a selfless act, to the woman in St. Petersburg and Aunt Sally, his lies help him achieve the objective he uses the lie for. On the contrary, when Huck cruelly tricks Jim and unwisely deceives Aunt Sally, he feels horrible and does not attain pleasure as he hopes. Lying may be necessary, but it exposes some ugly truths about human beings. It displays people’s natural hunger for attention, their hearts always desiring to be in control (absolute). As Thomas Pribeck argues in his essay “Huckleberry Finn: His Masquerade and His Lessons for Lying”, “it is easier to play the social game than any other make-believe role, easier to tell people what they want to hear, easier to let others invent one’s role for one than to invent it oneself”(73). Humans are far more likely to believe a lie if they play some role in it, exposing once again how expedient humans can sometimes be.
Pribek, Thomas . "Huckleberry Finn: His Masquerade and His Lessons for Lying." American Literary Realism 19.3 (1987): 68-79. Print.
Huckleberry Finn: The Ultimate Coming-of-Age Novel
Children grow up. It is inevitable. And when they grow up, they pass through this stage known as adolescence. This past month’s National Geographic’s cover article was about this tricky stage and the science of the brain that is behind the teenage behaviors adults sometimes consider ridiculous. The studies this article sites have found new evidence about the teenage brain. As it turns out, the brain is not fully developed until a person is in their mid-twenties; until that time, the brain is more elastic, and less able to predict long term consequences. This is what causes some of the risk taking and “stupid” behavior of adolescents. It is also a completely necessary phase for the human species because it is the phase that allows adolescents to move away from their parents, and, through that, to evolve. Long before this science came into the light, or was even thought of as science, Mark Twain wrote a book about an adolescent boy in the process of growing up who displays many of the characteristics that have always been associated with teenagers, but could not be explained until recently: Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn is a classic coming of age story, and Mark Twain uses Huck’s familial adventures on land and his changing relationship with Jim on the raft to showcase the key feature of adolescence: learning through taking risks. This essay will examine the key life lessons Huck learns in his time spent on land, particularly in familial settings, with the widow, pap, the Grangerfords, and the Wilks, and how all the lessons Huck learns go into his decision to go to hell near the end of the novel.
The widow and Pap together teach Huck the importance of freedom and the importance of an individual’s wants and desires. By the end of the first page of the novel, the reader already knows that Huck does not like staying with the Widow Douglas. Huck explains how the widow took him in, and how “when [he] couldn’t stand it no longer [he] lit out” (1). He really isn’t staying with the widow because he wants to, only because other people want him to be there. This isn’t a complete imprisonment by any means, but Huck is deprived of his freedom and really doesn’t want to be there. The widow also makes him do things that he doesn’t necessarily want to do. He is made to learn bible stories, which Huck feels is useless because “[he] don’t take no stock in dead people” (2), and also to go to school, which Huck isn’t particularly enamored of either because “[he] don’t take no stoke in mathematics” (15) either. Huck really doesn’t want to do either of these things, but he does it because the widow is keeping him in a psychological imprisonment. Tom also contributes to this mental imprisonment through Huck’s participation in his gang. Tom requires all gang members to have family members so that if the gang members betray the gang their family members can be killed. So Huck is then bound to Miss. Watson until the gang dispersed, because “every boy must have a family or somebody to kill, or else it wouldn’t be fair and square for the others” (8). Huck cannot leave the Widow and Miss. Watson. Staying with them despite what he would prefer, he loses some of his freedom, beginning to teach him the importance of making his own decisions. Pap completes this process. When Huck stays with Pap he is no longer a psychological prisoner, but physically a prisoner as well. Pap keeps Huck under lock and key, completely depriving him of his rights, and fully teaching Huck how necessary freedom is. Pap goes so far as to “lock the door and keep the key under his pillow” (23) at night time so as to prevent Huck from running away. The widow and Pap together teach Huck the necessity of personal freedom.
Huck’s decision not to turn Jim in is strongly influenced by his experience losing some of his own freedom to the widow and Pap. He knows, at least subconsciously, that Jim is yearning for the same freedom that Huck had been denied for so long. Although he says that he doesn’t turn Jim in because “[he] said he wouldn’t, and [he’ll] stick to it” (43), it is clear he is influenced by more than that. Huck’s turmoil in the later sections of the novel clearly point to the fact that Huck believes he is doing something very wrong in helping Jim, and yet he does it anyway, with apparently very little thought or consideration on the matter. Huck at this point is still searching for freedom and can fully identify with Jim’s search for the same thing. Huck’s scruples about helping Jim only appear later in the novel when Huck’s virtual imprisonment at the hands of the widow and Pap has begun to fade in his memory. Huck is therefore clearly strongly influenced by his own experiences, displaying the key testing and learning from experience feature of adolescence.
The Grangerfords teach Huck the destructiveness of feuds, and the importance of healing schisms between groups of people, in order to avoid the catastrophe that occurs to the Grangerfords. Huck learns both what a feud is, and how destructive it can be, through Buck, and this is really what makes the lesson sink in. Buck is Huck’s own age, and is in many ways very similar to Huck. They both have the same desire for adventure, which Buck displays particularly clearly when Huck first comes and he says “Well, nobody come after me, and it ain’t right. I’m always kept down; I don’t get no show” (97). Buck just wants to be able to get in on the excitement. Because Huck recognizes this, and he and Buck become friends, the lesson is particularly effective due to the fact that the consequences of the feud play out on Buck. Huck sees first hand, in the death of a friend, just how destructive feuds in general can be. Huck even tells the reader how much of an impact this has on him when he says “it made me so sick I most fell out of the tree” (114). This is a truly traumatic moment for Huck, and one that teaches him, more effectively than anything else could, just how destructive feuds are. But Huck also sees another way to deal with feuds. Miss. Sophia Grangerford falls in love with a Shepherdson, and bridges the gap created by the feud. Through this Huck sees that individual people can overcome well-ingrained feuds and societal separations. Although this is not readily applicable to Huck’s continual treatment of Jim on the raft immediately after leaving the Grangerfords, his new life lesson being much too subtle for immediate application, it clearly comes up in his thoughts when deciding whether or not to go to hell later in the novel.
Huck’s experience with the Wilks family teaches him the importance of strong relationships, which must be backed by honesty and trust in order to be supported. Huck really likes Mary Jane and her sisters, more than he has liked anybody else he has met in his travels so far. He wants to be more friendly with Mary Jane, but finds it impossible, due to the fact that he is hiding this enormous secret from her. He finally cracks, and tells her everything he knows about the King and the Duke and their scheme there, which greatly improves their relationship even though, as Huck says, “I hain’t ever seen her since she walked out that door, no, I hain’t ever seen her since” (191). However, Huck follows this statement up with a testament to the strength of their relationship: “but I reckon I’ve thought of her a many and a many a million times” (191), showing just how much of a lasting relationship can form when it is built on honesty and trust, not lies and suspicion. Huck shows that he has learned this lesson and learned it well when he stands up to tell the villagers that the King and the Duke are the correct uncles, and the crowd can see straight through his lies, as evidenced by the man who says “I reckon you ain’t used to lying…you do it pretty awkward” (199). This is ironic because Huck lies all the time, and has never had a problem with it until now. The strength of his relationship with Mary Jane, which is completely based on honesty, prevents him from continuing to lie well. Huck truly learns the value and the necessity of relationships based around honesty. Huck learns another very important lesson while staying with the Wilks; he learns the emotional attachments that slave owners can have for their slaves. Mary Jane cries when she learns that her slaves are going to be sold, both for her own loss, and because their families are being separated. This is one of the first times Huck has seen anybody besides himself be concerned about a black person’s emotions or family life, and it allows him to be even more compassionate with Jim, knowing that he is not the only one who bridges the race gap by showing affection for a person of the other race. Huck’s lessons which he learns with the Wilks family also come into play when he makes his decision to go to hell.
Huck applies all of these major life lessons he learns from the three families he encounters over the course of the novel to his decision to go to hell and help rescue Jim at the climactic point of the novel. The first lesson he learns is also the first lesson he applies. He doesn’t want to go back to the life he had before he met Jim, and he recognizes that if Jim has to be enslaved, then it should be around people he knows and loves. Huck specifically mentions this when he thinks to himself “it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’s got to be a slave” (211). Huck also shows what he learned from Mary Jane’s attitude towards her own slaves here: they have families and their own feelings, and they shouldn’t be separated from each other. He also spends a large amount of time contemplating the relationship which he and Jim have cultivated over the last few weeks. Huck now understands, through his time spent with the Wilks, that relationships are built on trust, a trust which he would be completely betraying by turning Jim in. He seems especially to realize this when thinking about how Jim “said [he] was the best friend old Jim had in the world, and the only one he’s got now” (214). After his experiences with the King and the Duke with the Wilks, Huck cannot betray Jim’s trust. Throughout the entire section in which Huck is deciding whether or not to turn Jim in, there is the knowledge of the feud between whites and blacks, and Huck, even with all these other lessons learned, may not have been able to go through with it, had he not understood that feuds, as demonstrated by Miss. Sophia, are breakable. Huck decides to take that first step, and bridge the gap. Something he may not have ever had the courage to do if somebody else had not shown that it could be done. Huck grows up in this novel, and goes from acting like a kid at the beginning, to acting like an adult by the time he makes his decision to go to hell. All of which is directed by his teenaged brain, which makes adolescence such a tricky, yet utterly necessary, phase in the lifecycle of the human.
This evidence clearly proves that Mark Twain meant this book as a coming of age story, a novel which highlights the key stage of adolescence, and, as Jane Smiley argues, not an antislavery novel at all. However, Smiley also argues that Huckleberry Finn contains no merit as a novel at all. She says she “closed the cover stunned…that this is a great novel, that this is even a serious novel” (1). Smiley is writing from a singularly anti-slavery view of the novel, and not looking at Huck as an emergent adult who is learning his true place in the world. Incidentally Huckleberry Finn shares many characteristics with another American classic: The Catcher in the Rye, a novel which has often been considered the greatest coming of age book ever written. It pales beside Huckleberry Finn however, as Holden Caulfield does not have the experience of learning new things and applying them that is so key to adolescence like Huck does. Huckleberry Finn is truly the greatest coming of age book ever written.
Two more points (not actually a part of my essay, just wanted to put these out there):
“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted”. We are all going explicitly against Twain’s wishes by analyzing and writing essays about this book in the first place, so I don’t (personally, outside of academia) think that Twain really had any explicit purpose in writing this novel besides personal amusement and/or financial gain.
I know my conclusion is pretty weak. It brings up two (TWO!) new points, that I feel are absolutely necessary to mention, but I can’t figure out how to work into the body of the essay without doubling the length of the essay. Sorry about that. I just wanted to let you know that I was not putting them in there without complete consideration.
The Impact of Society on Jim in Huckleberry Finn
As Forrest Robinson writes in his essay “The Characterization of Jim in Huckleberry Finn”, “Jim does seem to change, from a plausible complete man to a two-dimensional racial stereotype”. Although many blame Twain for this deterioration of Jim, claiming that it is laziness in the writing, he actually appears to use this supposed flaw in the novel to strengthen his point. Jim’s loss of character can be seen as a loss of confidence. All of his development happens when he is on the river and safe from any judgment from people. Huck is able to gain Jim’s trust and could see Jim’s development first hand, but when Jim separates from Huck, all of his human characteristics leave with Huck. When Tom Sawyer rejoins Huck and Jim at the end of the novel, he takes charge, pushing Huck into the background. Jim, noticing Huck’s loss of a voice, also withdraws and lets Tom dictate what happens. Although Jim is a free man, the loss of his humanity during the time he is separated from Huck is crucial to fully represent the impact society has on Jim.
First, Jim is able to think for himself and become independent when he is on the river and away from society. While he is on the river, Jim is free of the judgment of others, which enables him to develop a character. When he is alone with Huck on the river, he feels comfortable enough to open up to Huck. The only time Jim is “human” is during the times when he speaks his thoughts. On the raft, Huck wakes up to find Jim crying, and when Huck finally talks to Jim, Jim says, “what make me fell so bad dis time”(155). Although the rest of the passage overshadows these first words, it subtly reveals that this is not the first time Jim has talked to Huck, but rather it is a common event. Jim’s freedom on the river has given him the confidence to express himself to Huck whenever there is a need. To the reader, this is the pivotal moment when Jim finally has feelings not related to Huck, which separate Jim from the other slaves and makes him “human”. Not only does he gain the confidence to express himself, but he also begins to assert power for himself. When he scolds Huck by calling him trash after that cruel joke Huck played on Jim, Huck “[humbles himself] to [Jim] a nigger”(87), Jim not only has the confidence to scold him, but he was also “human” enough to convince Huck to ask him for forgiveness despite his color. This equality on the river is what Jim needs to start to become independent and to start asserting himself. The river, an oasis from a racist society, is where Jim can be a person and not just a nigger.
Another point that Robinson makes is that Jim relies on Huck because Huck “is the living proof that Jim is not a murderer [, …] and gives [Jim] eyes and ears, information, an alibi, and some small leverage when the inevitable disaster strikes”(Robinson). Robinson then claims that the “subsequent occasions when Jim welcomes Huck back to the raft, this desperate need, and the sense of breathless relief, provid[ing] the warmth in what usually passes for unmingled outbursts of affection” (Robinson) are because of the relief the Jim feels on Huck’s return. Without Huck as his alibi, Jim not only has to retreat back to the safety of his “ignorance” but also has to sacrifice his humanity to do it. While the duke and king are doing the inheritance scam, the duke paints Jim up like an “A-rab” to keep him from being taken away. After Huck escapes, he runs to the raft and encounters Jim who “when [Huck] glimpsed him in the lightning [his] heart shot up in [his] mouth […] but Jim fished [him] up and was going to hug [him] and bless [him]”(204). Because he does not have Huck as his protector, Jim has to suffer the indecency of being painted as an “A-rab” to the point where even Huck, who has lived with him on the raft, cannot recognize him. The symbolism used by Twain shows that without Huck, Jim cannot be himself. Jim also loses his power when Huck is not around. Without his “owner”, Jim has no power and he is at the mercy of any white person. When Huck learns that the king had sold Jim, he consults the duke. Begging and pleading the duke to tell him where “the only nigger [he] had in the world”(216) is, he uses his status as Jim’s “owner” to demand information to get back his slave that was rightfully his. Despite the fact that he viewed Jim as his equal, he knew that without him, Jim would just be categorized as a runaway slave and either be sold to another family or returned to Jim’s previous owner. Huck artfully uses this social norm to construct an alibi for Jim. Huck is Jim’s only protection in society, and, without him, Jim has no power. Thus, Jim is so happy and thankful when Huck returns to him.
When Huck gets the whereabouts of Jim from the duke, he heads to the Phelp’s house to retrieve “his slave”. There he encounters Tom Sawyer, who immediately takes charge, usurping all the power from Huck. As a result of Huck being neutered, Jim once again succumbs to society’s norms and loses his voice. When Huck and Tom first start brainstorming ideas they differ in their goals, Huck wanting to free Jim quickly and efficiently, and Tom wanting to do it with style. When Huck defers to Tom’s plan, thinking that Tom’s plan “was worth fifteen of mine for style” he reverts from the confident and independent person he became to his previous persona, mindlessly following Tom and the ideas he takes from books like at St. Petersburg. Since Jim has come to put his trust in Huck, the trust he has for Huck transfers to Tom without any questions asked. Even when Tom fills his shed with snakes, spiders, and rats and Jim starts to protest, Tom just rebuts by saying that any prisoner has to have all of these things. After Tom argues that Jim can use music to tame the animals, Jim gives in saying “I’ll do it ef I got to”(262) trusting that Tom’s plan is going to eventually save him. Yet, Jim also expresses his displeasure in what he needs to do. During this entire charade, Huck does not utter a single word. Even though Huck has had a bad experience with Jim and snakes, he still refuses to stand up to protect not only Jim’s comfort, but also his safety. Because of Jim’s status, without Huck’s voice defending him, Tom walks all over Jim and makes him do whatever he wants. When Jim starts to make a fuss about what they are putting him through, Tom says he “most lost all patience with him; and said he was just loadened down with more gaudier chances than a prisoner ever had in the world to make a name for himself”(262). Thus, Tom Sawyer reveals that he really just concerned about being famous. However, because Huck does not understand Tom’s true motives, and even if Jim does, Jim is powerless to argue and all he can do is apologize. Tom brings the social norms and fantasies from books that ruin the trust and equality that Huck and Jim worked so hard to establish on the river.
Jim’s loss of character and obvious reliance on Huck does not diminish the meaning of the novel but, instead, adds to the central theme of the deterioration of character in society. The river, which represents a respite from society, is where Jim develops a personality. During Jim and Huck’s time apart on land, Jim losses all the power and dignity he has managed to collect on the river because of the norms of society. Finally when Tom controls Huck at the end of the novel, Jim also is forced into the background and has to follow what Tom says. Although Jim is an extreme case, society influences us all in similar ways.
It is impossible to read Huck Finn intelligently without understanding that Mark Twain's consciousness and awareness is larger than that of any of the characters in the novel, including Huck. Indeed, part of what makes the book so effective is the fact that Huck is too innocent and ignorant to understand what's wrong with his society and what's right about his own transgressive behavior. Twain, on the other hand, knows the score. One must be skeptical about most of what Huck says in order to hear what Twain is saying. In a 1991 interview, Ralph Ellison suggested that critics who condemn Twain for the portrait of Jim that we get in the book forget that "one also has to look at the teller of the tale, and realize that you are getting a black man, an adult, seen through the condescending eyes -- partially -- of a young white boy." Are you saying, I asked Ellison, "that those critics are making the same old mistake of confusing the narrator with the author? That they're saying that Twain saw him that way rather than that Huck did?" "Yes," was Ellison's answer.
Clemens as a child accepted without question, as Huck did, the idea that slaves were property; neither wanted to be called a "low-down Abolitionist" if he could possibly help it. Between the time of that Hannibal childhood and adolescence, however, and the years in which Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, Twain's consciousness changed. By 1885, when the book was published, Samuel Clemens held views that were very different from those he ascribed to Huck. It might be helpful at this point to chart for your students the growth of the author's developing moral awareness on the subject of race and racism -- starting with some of his writings on the persecution of the Chinese in San Francisco (such as Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy), then moving through his marriage into an abolitionist family, the 1869 anti-lynching editorial that he published in The Buffalo Express entitled Only a Nigger, and his exposure to figures like Frederick Douglass and his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon.
By the time he wrote Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens had come to believe not only that slavery was a horrendous wrong, but that white Americans owed black Americans some form of "reparations" for it. One graphic way to demonstrate this fact to your students is to share with them the letter Twain wrote to the Dean of the Yale Law School in 1885, in which he explained why he wanted to pay the expenses of Warner McGuinn, one of the first black law students at Yale. "We have ground the manhood out of them," Twain wrote Dean Wayland on Christmas Eve, 1885, "and the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it."
Ask your students: why does a writer who holds these views create a narrator who is too innocent and ignorant to challenge the topsy-turvy moral universe that surrounds him? "All right, then, I'll go to Hell," Huck says when he decides not to return Jim to slavery. Samuel Clemens might be convinced that slavery itself and its legacy are filled with shame, but Huck is convinced that his reward for defying the moral norms of his society will be eternal damnation.
Something new happened in Huck Finn that had never happened in American literature before. It was a book, as many critics have observed, that served as a Declaration of Independence from the genteel English novel tradition. Huckleberry Finn allowed a different kind of writing to happen: a clean, crisp, no-nonsense, earthy vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented immediacy and energy; it was a book that talked. Huck's voice, combined with Twain's satiric genius, changed the shape of fiction in America, and African-American voices had a great deal to do with making it what it was. Expose your students to the work of some of Twain's African-American contemporaries, such as Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Those voices can greatly enrich students' understanding of both the issues Huckleberry Finn raises and the vernacular style in which it raises them.
If W.E.B. Du Bois was right that the problem of the twentieth century is the color line, one would never know it from the average secondary-school syllabus, which often avoids issues of race almost completely. Like a Trojan horse, however, Huck Finn can slip into the American literature classroom as a "classic," only to engulf students in heated debates about prejudice and racism, conformity, autonomy, authority, slavery and freedom. It is a book that puts on the table the very questions the culture so often tries to bury, a book that opens out into the complex history that shaped it -- the history of the ante-bellum era in which the story is set, and the history of the post-war period in which the book was written -- and it requires us to address that history as well. Much of that history is painful. Indeed, it is to avoid confronting the raw pain of that history that black parents sometimes mobilize to ban the novel. Brushing history aside, however, is no solution to the larger challenge of dealing with its legacy. Neither is placing the task of dealing with it on one book.
We continue to live, as a nation, in the shadow of racism while being simultaneously committed, on paper, to principles of equality. As Ralph Ellison observed in our interview, it is this irony at the core of the American experience that Mark Twain forces us to confront head-on.
History as it is taught in the history classroom is often denatured and dry. You can keep your distance from it if you choose. Slaveholding was evil. Injustice was the law of the land. History books teach that. But they don't require you to look the perpetrators of that evil in the eye and find yourself looking at a kind, gentle, good-hearted Aunt Sally. They don't make you understand that it was not the villains who made the system work, but the ordinary folks, the good folks, the folks, who did nothing more than fail to question the set of circumstances that surrounded them, who failed to judge that evil as evil and who deluded themselves into thinking they were doing good, earning safe passage for themselves into heaven.
When accomplished fiction writers expose the all-too-human betrayals that well-meaning human beings perpetrate in the name of business-as-usual, they disrupt the ordered rationalizations that insulate the heart from pain. Novelists, like surgeons, cut straight to the heart. But unlike surgeons, they don't sew up the wound. They leave it open to heal or fester, depending on the septic level of the reader's own environment.
Irony, history, and racism all painfully intertwine in our past and present, and they all come together in Huck Finn. Because racism is endemic to our society, a book like Huck Finn, which brings the problem to the surface, can explode like a hand grenade in a literature classroom accustomed to the likes of Macbeth or Great Expectations -- works which exist at a safe remove from the lunchroom or the playground. If we lived in a world in which racism had been eliminated generations before, teaching Huck Finn would be a piece of cake. Unfortunately that's not the world we live in. The difficulties we have teaching this book reflect the difficulties we continue to confront in our classrooms and our nation. As educators, it is incumbent upon us to teach our students to decode irony, to understand history, and to be repulsed by racism and bigotry wherever they find it. But this is the task of a lifetime. It's unfair to force one novel to bear the burden -- alone -- of addressing these issues and solving these problems. But Huck Finn -- and you -- can make a difference.
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