Huck Finn Essay, Research Paper
The narrator (later identified as Huckleberry Finn) begins Chapter One by stating that the reader may know of him from another book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by “Mr. Mark Twain,” but it “ain’t t no matter” if you have not. According to Huck, Twain mostly told the truth, with some “stretchers” thrown in, though everyone–except Tom’s Aunt Polly, the widow, and maybe Mary–lies once in a while. The other book ended with Tom and Huckleberry finding the gold some robbers had hidden in a cave. They got six thousand dollars apiece, which Judge Thatcher put in trust, so that they each got a dollar a day from interest. The Widow Douglas adopted and tried to “civilise” Huck. But Huck couldn’t stand it so he threw on his old rags and ran away. But he went back when Tom Sawyer told him he could join his new band of robbers if he would return to the Widow “and be respectable.”
The Widow lamented over her failure with Huck, tried to stuff him into cramped clothing, and before every meal had to “grumble” over the food before they could eat it. She tried to teach him about Moses, until Huck found out he was dead and lost interest. Meanwhile, she would not let him smoke; typically, she disapproved of it because she had never tried it, but approved of snuff since she used it herself. Her slim sister who wears glasses, Miss Watson, tried to give him spelling lessons.
Meanwhile, Huck was going stir-crazy, made especially restless by the sisters’ constant reminders to improve his behavior. When Miss Watson told him about the “bad place,” Hell, he burst out that he would like to go there, as a change of scenery. Secretly, Huck really does not see the point in going to “the good place” and resolved then not to bother trying to get there. When Huck asked, Miss Watson told him there was no chance Tom Sawyer would end up in Heaven. Huck was glad “because I wanted him and me to be together.”
One night, after Miss Watson’s prayer session with him and the slaves, Huck goes to bed feeling “so lonesome I wished I was dead.” He gets shivers hearing the sounds of nature through his window. Huck accidentally flicks a spider into a candle, and is frightened by the bad omen. Just after midnight, Huck hears movement below the window, and a “me-yow” sound, that he responds to with another “me-yow.” Climbing out the window onto the shed, Huck finds Tom Sawyer waiting for him.
In a few short dense pages, Twain manages to accomplish a great deal. Most importantly, the two introductory notes and the first chapter establish the author’s use of humor and irony, the character of Huckleberry Finn, the novel’s theme, narration, and the use of dialect. One hateful word the characters use has brought occasional condemnation onto the book and its author. The characters of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson are also established. As well, the author establishes that the reader needs no familiarity with his previous work, Tom Sawyer, to understand Huckleberry Finn, though he fills the reader in on the pertinent information from the previous work.
The brief “Notice” that introduces the book has been reprinted above in its entirety. In humorously highfalutin language, it states that the reader must not seek plot, “moral,” or “motive”– the last two of which likely correspond to the present-day concepts of theme and character development. Of course, what the author really means by this notice is that the book does in fact contain all these things–that it is more than just a children’s, adventure, or humor book. Twain is using irony, saying one thing but meaning the opposite of its literal definition. He is using this irony humorously, covering this declaration of the book’s seriousness in a joke. The joke pokes fun at the seriousness of adult American society, with its rules and officials, especially with the citation to “G.G., Chief of Ordinance.” Twain will use humor and irony throughout the book, most often combining the two. Indeed, humor usually occurs as a result of irony, with the gap between the expected and the actual provoking a startled reaction in the recipient, that, if done right, is humor. But Twain’s humor has the purpose not just of entertainment, but of conveying a serious message, as in the Notice. Twain also uses ironic humor in Chapter One, in recording Huckleberry’s reactions to the Widow Douglas’s attempts at “civilization,” especially religion. When the Widow says grace, Huckleberry views it as unnecessary “grumbling.” He finds the nice clothes she gives him stifling. He thinks Heaven (”the good place”) dull and would prefer to go to Hell (”the bad place”- the word “Hell” would likely be thought impolite in a “civilized” house like the sisters’) if his friend Tom is there.
Huck’s views are all completely naturalistic, free of any of the pretensions toward refinement that mark the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson. Huckleberry is rough, rustic–a truly “uncivilized” boy. He rebels against the restraints of “civilization”–artificial, middle-class society– and its delusions, represented by “cramped” clothing and religion, respectively. Huckleberry’s complete sincerity, which leads to his dislike for hypocritical “civilization,” is his defining quality.
The Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson, meanwhile, are the representatives of the society Huck rejects. They both immerse themselves in the values of “civilization,” feeling righteous by punishing themselves with tight clothing and delaying their meals to say grace, which only appears as “grumbling” to the more sincere Huck. Above all, they adhere to hypocritical and absurd religious values. Miss Watson describes her Heaven as a place where the inhabitants spend their days playing harps and singing; again, Huck more sincerely realizes that this place is dull rather than desirable. But the utter moral emptiness of Miss Watson’s religion is best demonstrated by her prayer meeting with the slaves. Miss Watson dutifully respects the religious custom of evening prayer, yet at the same time sees nothing wrong with “owning” other people. The two sisters’ one redeeming quality is their concern for Huck, which, though it possesses moralistic overtones, includes an element of sincerity, giving them some patience in dealing with the “uncivilized” Huck. Other than this, the sisters’ role is to represent the artificial, empty civilization to which Huck stands in contrast. Thus, they serve as foils to the character of Huckleberry. Their artifice and hypocrisy contrast sharply with Huck’s natural sincerity, and so serve to highlight Huck’s qualities.
Huck’s recognition of the hypocrisies and absurdities of the society represented by the Widow and Miss Watson, and his preference for nature and his own natural impulses, bring out the novel’s theme. Huckleberry Finn is about how society tends to corrupt true morality, freedom, and justice, which exist in nature, and how the individual must follow his or her own conscience. Chapter One establishes the corruption of the society in which Huck lives. That society stifles freedom–in a small sense through its restrictive clothing and manners, and in a larger sense through the institution of slavery–and also morality and justice, with its absurd religion, hypocritical taboos, and, again, the institution of slavery. Quite a few critics have characterized Twain’s deep distrust in society as “pessimistic.” Yet it is important to remember that Twain maintains full confidence in the existence of morality, freedom, justice, and other absolutes. In fact, they transcend society’s most flagrant transgressions of them, awaiting proper recognition by the attuned individual.
Huckleberry is not only the protagonist, but the narrator of the entire book. That is, the book uses first-person narration. The reader only finds out about anything once Huck does (though this does not preclude the possibility of the reader understanding something that Huck does not). This way, the reader also gets Huck’s impressions of the world, which, as explained above, are important to the theme.
In the “Explanatory” note, Twain advises the reader that his characters will all speak in dialects– that is, regional, ethnic, and class variants of English. As Twain notes, there are several different dialects used in Huckleberry Finn. This may make the book somewhat more of a challenge to read, but if the reader sticks with it, the added detail will make the book more involving and believable. The added detail is also part of the book’s realism–that is, its unromantic attempt at an accurate depiction of the world.
In particular, there is one word all the characters use that contributes to the novel’s accurate depiction of the world in which it is set. Yet this word is so hateful that over the years it has brought charges of racism onto the book and its author, and even some attempts to keep the book away from young people. The word is “nigger”. It is first used in Chapter One, as it will be throughout the book, to refer to all African Americans and especially those held as slaves. It is important to remember that the word is used as part of the language of a corrupt, racist society. That society used that word as surely as it held human beings in slavery. Both facts are described in the novel; it is important to remember that the author condemns both.
Huck and Tom tiptoe through the garden. Huck trips on a root as he passes the kitchen. Jim, a “big” slave, hears him from inside. Tom and Huck crouch down, trying to stay still. But Huck is struck by an uncontrollable itch, as always happens when he is in a situation, like when he’s “with the quality,” where it is bad to scratch. Jim says aloud that he will stay put until he discovers the source of the sound, but after several minutes falls asleep. Tom plays a trick on Jim–putting his hat on a tree branch over his head–and takes candles from the kitchen, over Huck’s objections that they will risk getting caught. Later, Jim will say that some witches flew him around the state and put the hat above his head as a calling card. He expands the tale further, becoming a local celebrity among the slaves, who enjoy witch stories. He wears around his neck the five-cent piece Tom left for the candles, calling it a charm from the devil with the power to cure sickness. Jim nearly becomes so stuck-up from his newfound celebrity that he is unfit to be a servant.
Meanwhile, Tom and Huck meet up with a few other boys, and take a boat to a large cave. There, Tom declares his new band of robbers, “Tom Sawyer’s Gang.” All must sign in blood an oath vowing, among other things, to kill the family of any member who reveals the gang’s secrets. The boys think it “a real beautiful oath.” Tom admits he got part of it from books. The boys nearly disqualify Huck, who has no family but a drunken father who can never be found, until Huck offers Miss Watson. Tom says the gang must capture and ransom people, though nobody knows what “ransom” means. Tom assumes it means to kill them. But anyway, it must be done since all the books say so. When one boy cries to go home and threatens to tell the group’s secrets, Tom bribes him with five cents. They agree to meet again someday, just not Sunday, which would be blasphemous. Huckleberry makes it back into bed just before dawn.
Miss Watson tries to explain prayer to Huckleberry in Chapter Three. Huckleberry gives up on it after not getting what he prays for. Miss Watson calls him a fool, and explains prayer bestows spiritual gifts like selflessness to help others. Huck cannot see any advantage in this, except for the others one helps. So he resolves to forget it. Widow Douglas describes a wonderful God, while Miss Watson’s is terrible. Huck concludes there are two Gods. He would like to belong to Widow Douglas’s, if He would take him – unlikely because of Huck’s bad qualities.
Meanwhile, a rumor circulates that Huck’s Pap, who has not been seen in a year, is dead. A corpse was found in the river, thought to be Pap because of its “ragged” appearance, though the face is unrecognizable. At first Huck is relieved. His father had been a drunk who beat him when he was sober, though Huck stayed hidden from him most of the time. Soon, however, Huck doubts his father’s death, and expects to see him again.
After a month in Tom’s gang, Huck quit along with the rest of the boys. There was no point to it, without any robbery or killing, their activities being all pretend. Once, Tom pretended a caravan of Arabs and Spaniards were going to encamp nearby with hundreds of camels and elephants. It turned out to be a Sunday school picnic. Tom explained it really was a caravan of Arabs and Spaniards – only they were enchanted, like in Don Quixote. Huckleberry judged Tom’s stories of genies to be lies, after rubbing old lamps and rings with no result.
These two chapters develop the characters of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The two are, in several respects, foils. But they still have some things in common. Through the character of Tom, Twain also pokes fun at romantic (non-realistic) literature.
Tom insists that all his make-believe adventures be conducted “by the book.” As Tom himself admits in regarding his gang’s oath, he gets many of his ideas from fiction. In particular, Tom tries to emulate the romantic (that is, not realistic) novels that were mostly imported from Europe and achieved enormous popularity in nineteenth-century North America. Tom will be identified with this genre throughout the novel (though he will not appear in most of it). Twain detested this category of literature, an opinion that is developed more fully in the last chapters of Huckleberry Finn. Ironically, the book that Tom explicitly mentions as a model in these chapters is Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Cervantes actually satirized romantic adventure stories in his masterpiece, as Twain does here and elsewhere in Huckleberry Finn.
Tom apparently didn’t get the satire. But with this allusion, Twain may be giving a literary tip of the hat to an earlier satirist and observer of human nature. But beyond simply using Tom’s connection to the romance novels to satirize the genre, Twain also seems to be associating Tom with the “civilization” that the genre represents. Tom further interests himself in contracts, codes of conduct, fancy language, and other made-up ideas. He also seems to embody some of the negative qualities associated with civilization in the novel. Most importantly, Tom is insensitive to others, particularly the slaves. In Chapter Two, Tom actually wants to tie Jim up for the fun of it. He settles for playing a trick on him. Tom’s insensitivity, especially toward slaves, will reach a peak in the book’s final chapters. Tom also seems to possess a tendency in favor of the hypocrisy of “civilized society” that Twain pokes at. For instance, Tom makes his “gang” sign an oath in blood not to divulge the group’s secrets, but when a boy threatens to do this, Tom simply bribes him.
Tom’s above-mentioned character traits contrast sharply with Huckleberry’s corresponding traits. While Tom puts great stock in the literature of civilization, Huck is as skeptical of it as he is of religion. For both literature and religion, Huck refuses to accept much on faith. In Chapter Three, he rejects both genies and prayers once they do not produce the promised results. (Twain is making an irreverent statement on popular religious beliefs by showing Huck’s similar rejection of both prayer and genies.)
Again, since both religion and romantic literature are products of civilization, Huck’s doubt towards them hints at his separation from civilization. Also, where Tom is insensitive to others, Huckleberry is naturally considerate, advising his friend against tying Jim up or playing tricks on him. Tom’s tendency toward hypocrisy also contrasts sharply with Huck’s sincerity, discussed in the critical reading of the last chapter. Thus, the two characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are foils to each other: certain traits of one character serve to highlight the contrasting traits of the other.
Nonetheless, though the important contrasting traits of the two characters make them foils, they still share some traits in common. These shared traits are enough to preserve the friendship between Tom and Huckleberry throughout the novel. Most importantly, the two characters share a kind of “boyishness”– that is, the characteristic embodied in the phrase, “boys will be boys,” and expounded upon in the first novel, Tom Sawyer. In the Preface to that book, the author wrote that he hoped the novel would rekindle its readers’ memories of their own childhood impishness, “of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.” That theme is continued as something of a motif, a topic of interest, in Huckleberry Finn. Both Huck and Tom, in their own ways, delight in the dirty language and pranks that adults shun. On the whole, though, Huck’s separation from the world of adults and their “civilization” is more complete, and more serious. Still, throughout the novel, Huck maintains some admiration for Tom’s romantic adventures, and often wonders what he would do in certain situations. Thus, Huck’s character has some connection to Tom’s less desirable traits.