Essay, Research Paper
All great literary works contain an intricate weave of events which drive the plot, and allow the author to share his own view of life’s events with the reader. The masterful author Mark Twain was no exception to this rule. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, possibly his greatest masterpiece, Twain takes a story of a boy who is all alone in the world, and transforms a series of events that could each pass as short stories. However, in a masterful move, Twain placed a string of social conflicts into each element of the story, permitting the plot to flow, keeping the reader breathtakingly involved in the story. Should a more blunt statement be preferred, social conflict drives the plot of the novel and allows Twain to give his own insight into Mississippi River Valley life and society. In fact, the social conflicts in the novel are what make it interesting to the reader.
The social element of the uttermost importance to the entire novel is that of Huck’s dysfunctional family situation. The poor boy has no mother, and his father is a drunkard who comes to town upon occasion. This so-called father usually resorts to beating Huck, and is extremely vocal about his opinions, while under the influence of alcohol. Soon after the start of the story, pap, as Huck calls him, takes Huck to a log cabin in the woods, where he beats and abuses the boy. This abuse, and the setting up for the beginning of the majority of the adventures in the book can best be summed up in the quote:
“But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick’ry, and I couldn’t stand it. I was all over welts. He to too going away so much, too, and locking me in. Once he locked me in and was gone three days. It was dreadful lonesome. I judged he had got drowned and I wasn’t ever going to get out any more. I was scared. I made up my mind I would fix up some way to leave there.” (Twain 34)
The quote demonstrates the conflict between Huck and his father that convinces Huck of his need to run away. A new section of the novel begins with the end of Huck’s life with his father.
As the story opens, Huck has been placed in a home with the Widow Douglas by the courts. Shortly thereafter, the widow’s sister, Miss Watson, comes to live with her. It is Miss Watson, who in conjunction with Pap, is used to move the setting of the story and set the events of the rest of the novel in motion. Miss Watson owns a slave, Jim, who will later be a key figure in the novel. The problem presented to the author in this case, is how to remove Jim from the confines of slavery and allow him to journey the river with Huck. So, Twain creates a situation in which Miss Watson is going to sell Jim down south for a large amount of money, contrary to a promise she has made to him stating that she will not separate him from his family. Jim overhears her conversation with the slave trader and flees to avoid being separated from his family. Miss Watson s greed in wanting to sell Jim south provides an excellent reason for a slave to flee, meet up with Huck in hiding, and provide a central pillar to the novel (Marx 9-10).
Not only is Miss Watson a tool used to move the plot of the novel along, she is also used to demonstrate the values of the Mississippi River Valley society at the time of Twain. The very first way in which she characterizes the river valley, is that she believes in slavery demonstrated in her ownership of Jim. Even though at the time of Twain, slavery had been ended by the Civil War, most people felt that blacks were not equals to whites, and in fact should still be in slavery. Then by breaking her promise to Jim to not sell him, she demonstrates the common belief that black people do not deserve the same moral respect as white people do. This simple action of Miss Watson reneging on her promise to a black man shows that Miss Watson is the enemy, she exhibits all of the traits of the river valley society (Marx 10). This is the society which condemns Huck for his roguish upbringing and behavior, and Jim for being a runaway slave and a black man. Huck and Jim therefore cannot exist in this society, and so must flee from it, taking to the river, and creating the medium for a long and detailed novel filled with an intertwining plot, and many social conflicts that move this plot along.
The very setting of the novel in this valley society creates the automatic conflict mentioned above between Huck and Jim, and the valley society. This society passes condemnation on a rough and unmannered boy and a black man for no other reason than his race. However, from Twain s point of view, To belong to the Mississippi Valley Society is to be unable to speak the truth, to use one form or another of fantasy language which justifies the greatest cruelties and injustices slavery, economic exploitation, and the arrogant self-righteousness and psychological cruelties practiced, in Twain’s views in the name of Protestant Christianity. (Miller 28) The quote’s significance is that those not outcast from society have been conditioned to accept the views of society without being allowed to speak out against what they perceive as wrong. Rather when they are young, adults use fantasies to justify and explain the injustices suffered by few at the oppressing hands of an unforgiving society. Then by the time they are older, either they have become conformed to the society which they once perceived as wrong and unjust, or they have become outcasts and an unheard voice. The voice that the outcasts of society would like to express is represented in the social order on the raft where Huck and Jim live as equals, no-one commands, and there is no slave or master. Here one can truly see that “The theme is heightened by the juxtaposition of sharp images of contrasting social orders: the microcosmic community Huck and Jim establish aboard the raft, and the actual society which exists along the Mississippi banks” (Fetterley 446). In contrast, in society of that time period, it would be intolerable for a white boy to live on equal status with a black man and hypocrisy for him to help a runaway slave, let alone live with one. As Marx points out, The raft represents inner feelings, and society represents the expected (Marx 17). This is a society that tells the ultimate lie , they lie to themselves (Cox 353). This lie to themselves is the belief that they are cultured and white, so are therefore superior to all other types of people.
The rejection of Huck by society coupled with the fact that “he has never had status, and the money he acquired in Tom Sawyer is never real to him” (Cox 356), gives him a feeling of isolation from the rest of the “respectable” people. Therefore, in Huck’s mind, he cannot turn to them for help, but must escape from his abusive father on his own. This feeling of withdrawal leads him to Jackson Island, away from habitation, away from the social conflict that drove him, and right into the next chapter of the novel. It is there Huck meets Jim, another outcast from society one who has never known status, thus creating a common bond between the two. Huck s distaste for loneliness over long periods of time–as demonstrated in his comments about how alone it was in the cabin–gives him the desire to travel with Jim, and help him get to freedom.
The to help Jim make it into a free state, is almost mandated by today’s morals, yet during the period when this was written, that went contrary to popular belief. Through this contrast, Twain aims one of the deepest satirical blows of the novel while further advancing the plot. The law of the time period in which the book was set required anyone who found a runaway slave to return him, yet Huck, who is the “hero” and “good guy” of the novel, has to break the law to help out a friend. Later in the novel, when Jim is unjustly taken to a farm and imprisoned, Huck decides to go steal him back. He considers all of the things he has been told as a child, and finally comes to the conclusion, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (Twain 273). The deeply satirical meaning of this statement to a reader is that this boy is helping out a slave, who has been arrested on a bogus reward bill printed up by a con-artist, yet in his mind, he has to choose hell in order to save a black man.
Possibly one of the greatest driving factors of the entire novel is Huck s generosity and good will towards men. This generosity leads him to do things that would often be thought of as stupid in most cases. One critic in fact states that “the book directly deals with the virtue and depravity of human hearts” (Cox 354). Huck’s actions in many cases are compelled by “a tender feeling for people the goes along with the assumption that men are dangerous and wicked” (Kearns 113). These direct actions demonstrate the virtue of Huck’s heart, such as when he steals a raft from a group of thieves on a sinking river boat, he goes to get help for them as soon as he escapes. Most people would have decided that since the criminals were murderers as well, that there was no need to help them, they deserved to drown. The depravity of the human heart is demonstrated mainly through the duke and the king. These two con-artists repeatedly cheat honest people out of their money, and conspire for only one reason, to help themselves. As Huck progresses down the river, he warns a group of sisters who have just lost their father that the duke and king are going to swindle them. Yet, when Huck learns that the duke and king are to be tarred and feathered, he tries to warn them so that they will not come to any harm. Once he sees them tarred and feathered, Huck simply remarks “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another” (Twain 292). These experiences throughout the novel give Huck the chance to increase interest in the already fascinating plot, by scheming to help all those who are in need. The statement “If Huck did not already have a knowledge of human stupidity and weakness his encounters would have forcibly taught it to him” (Walker 76), can truly be seen throughout the encounters of the novel.
Another key factor to the novel is Huck’s conscience. The conscience which Huck has acquired was derived from the social interactions of his youth. This conscience has mainly come as the result of being the son of the town’s drunk (Shmitz 51). His father was a racist alcoholic who tried in all cases to instill the opposite of what is normally considered positive moral values. At one point in the novel, Huck s father tells him that he will beat him if he continues to go to school. So, Huck continues to go to school, but not because he feels it is the right decision, he simply goes to spite his father. This reasoning is key to the moral and social fabric of the novel. Since Huck appears to fight the views of his father, he is more apt to do things such as help a runaway slave, simply to spite the memory of his father. Yet, the one thing he learned from interaction with his father, was the art of lying. This art is key considering the fact that “Huck’s freedom is purchased through a series of lies” (Hoffman 42). These lies do not demonstrate good moral decision making, yet are based on an inner longing to achieve a goal which is morally sound. So in many cases Huck ignores his conscience which tells him to do what the modern reader would consider wrong, and does in his mind what is wrong, yet in the reader’s eyes is a sound decision. For example, Huck feels terribly guilty for not turning Jim in to the slave traders, yet the reader views this as an excellent decision. However, Huck has no guilt over the fact that he had to lie to keep Jim free. A demonstration of a deformed conscience played out through the interactions of Huck and Jim, and formed by a cold society.
Finally as previously mentioned, the most profound and best remembered social interactions of the novel occur between Huck and Jim, for “it is in Jim, that Huck finds his true father” (Cox 352). It is on Jackson Island that the reader can see a bond form, and a connection established between the two, where Huck comes back to the island once he learns people are coming in search of Jim. He rushes in and says “Git up and hump yourself, Jim! There ain’t a minute to lose, they’re after us!” (Twain 81). This is where Huck first feels a sense of responsibility since everyone thought he was dead, no one was coming after him, yet he used the inclusive word “us”, rather than “you”. Then later in the novel, when Huck plays a trick on Jim that deeply hurts Jim, Twain creates the situation of a white boy, who goes and apologizes to a black man, creating a satirical situation for his time, and a profoundly memorable event to the reader after Huck states that he was never sorry he apologized. In truth, many critics feel that “when Huck apologizes to Jim, it is the beginning of the moral testing and development of Huck’s character” (Miller 24). Bloom then states that on their raft, “Huck and Jim are a family, a community, a community of saints” (Bloom 4). The saintly virtue attributed to them in that quote is based upon how they crack down moral barriers, and “once outside society, allow Huck to express his feelings for Jim as an equal” (Miller 25). The situation of a white boy becoming emotionally attached to a black man in the time period achieves a deep sentimental bond, and accordingly “In order to achieve his point on slavery, Twain had to achieve deep sentimental feeling” (Pearce 360). In closing, Twain used this odd relationship between a white-trash boy, and a runaway slave to create an odd plot which takes many turns, and deeply aims a blow at the post-civil war views on racism during Twain’s own time period.
The deeply profound implications given throughout the novel, and the very plot from which they are derived, all are driven by the social interactions of the story. Whether it is an abused boy fleeing from his father, a slave fleeing from being sold down south, or simply the two outcasts of society living together in harmony as friends, the novel derives all of its force from its social aspects. Without the social aspects of the novel, Twain could have pieced together a collection of short stories about Huckleberry Finn’s life, but he never could have created a masterful Novel that remains on reading lists over one hundred years after he wrote it.