“A sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers a defeat,” these words are the very description of Twain about his book, The Adventures Huckleberry Finn (Doyno, 1991). While the growth of the character’s moral unfolds as he journeys and randomly meets different people and battles with different situations. As an example is his journey down the river where in he goes through a rite of passage from achieving the value of distinguishing a wrong from a right independently.
The story juggles humor, witty vernacular plus a young and uneducated narrator telling about life in the land of Stars and Stripes. Though, many criticize Twain’s novel as unsuitable to some readers, it eventually soared high and was catapulted to the top finding itself in line with the bests in American literature.
After the success of Mark Twain’s children’s book the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Twain created the sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like the first book, the latter pursues a similar roguish type of main character in a one of a kind adventure.
Despite the richness of its themes in book, readers, literary critics and enthusiasts still put in question whether the piece is addressing to a typical American theme with limitless movements and wide possibilities like many novels in Twain’s time. A recurring theme in American literature was the limitless opportunities that one can get by staying in the land of the free. I think that in a way, Twain also challenged that ideal.
Themes and explorations
Narrated by Huckleberry Finn (also called Huck), the story starts with him in the custody of the sisters, Widow Douglas and Miss Watson (Twain 4). The first chapter starts with the themes that concern Twain’s book: the exploration of race, freedom and society. The reader will quickly notice that owning slaves in the town of St. Petersburg is considered a normal part of life.
In the succeeding chapters, Huck tells his tale saying that he fears his father, the alcoholic Pap, will try to get the wealth that he and Tom had found (in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). In realizing this, he transfers the bunch to Judge Thatcher. This illustrates Huck’s intelligence in the age of thirteen.
Soon his unconcerned father kidnaps and locks him in a far-away cabin but he escapes, living stains of pig’s blood as trail to make his father believe that he has been killed. The ploy was so unbelievable that even all of the townsmen believed he had died. Upon escaping, he finds his path to Jackson’s Island where he meets Jim, Miss Watsons’s run-away slave. He shares most of his travels with Jim in this book.
Freedom and society
Disguised as a girl, Huck goes on shore one night and discovers that people believed that it was Jim who killed him. A reward is put on Jim’s head for his capture. Upon discovering this, Huck and Jim goes down the Mississippi River on a raft which is later thumped by a steamboat. Huck decided to help Jim gain his freedom.
What caught my attention is the disparity between living a constricted life on shore and living the liberty rendered by the river. The journey of Huck and Jim has been very symbolic especially in touching social issues like corruption and disapproval of civilization which become breeding grounds for greed and dishonesty—the same reasons for the destruction of innocence and purity and the enslavement of humanity. I think that Twain really illustrated what it was like for unfortunate people during that time.
Huck grew up without a family and I think that it was normal that he showed some surprise towards Jim's deep feelings for his own family. In the book, he expresses his astonishment with the quote, "I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so” (Twain 261).
Race and slavery
I also notice the recurring theme of slavery and freedom which was during that time, a very sensitive issue. In the novel, Twain showed how Jim tried to get away from Huck’s aunt so he will not be sold to another master who lives by the river. What struck me was that, it was very easy for people during that time to sell and replace their slaves like they were mere toys and properties. Jim demonstrated that he was human by getting away and trying to buy his freedom.
One of the most discussed issues in the books was about race. The stand of the book regarding the issue is unclear. Though Huck came to respect Jim as a human being toward the end of the story, Huck is still prejudiced towards black people in general.
Jim was character who came ambiguous and described differently by critics. The character was said to be a thwart for Huck’s exploits, a father figure or a potential homosexual partner. Some would say that the character is a racial typecast. Twain stereotyped Jim within the context of Twain’s time. Jim was illustrated as superstitious; he also talks with the Negro slave dialect (Ellison 422).
This was also one of the reasons why the book was seen as racist in the 1990s up to this day. During the hundredth anniversary of its publication in 1985, The Adventures Huckleberry Finn was published in new editions adding to it some bibliographies and critical appraisals making it more suitable for readers especially for students and literary critics and enthusiasts. But a lot more questions about the book being racial were raised roughly these times. Some public schools even banned the book in their list of required readings. The critics especially of African-American decent constantly challenge the novel’s reputation as an American classic. And the debate goes on even the novel has taken new heights.
I think that though Twain used a negative stereotype in his characterization of Jim, he also shows the audience Jim’s humanity behind the stereotype. I would say Jim was portrayed to expose pretense and prejudice of southern autonomy.
Conscience and moral obligations
On their journey, they meet to two con artists—the King and the Duke (Twain 203). The King and the Duke commit several frauds on people saying that they are from the royalty and sometimes descendants of evangelists or other prominent people. Knowing the death of the wealthy Peter Wilks, the con artists claimed to be his long-lost brothers and would like to get their inheritance. There is a pattern throughout the book since Jim and Huck started their journey. Almost every person they meet is either an unpleasant person or a fake. Most of the people they meet are usually hindrances that delay them in their journey.
In the chapters where Jim and Huck arrive at the plantation, Huck has a tough battle with his conscience. Jim captured was recognized as a runaway slave and was sold at Phelps farm. Later, Huck finally chooses to help Jim get away to free him. Huck goes there and is mistaken to be Tom Sawyer, nephew of the Phelpses. This gives him the idea of imitating Tom.
Soon the real Tom turns up but he helps Huck on this deception by acting as his brother Sid. Huck devises an intricate plan to free Jim. On this day though, the real Tom gets shot accidentally and Jim is held captive once more.
Throughout Jim and Huck’s journey, the moral and societal importance of Huck’s moral crisis is illustrated. Throughout the book, he was in a dilemma on whether he should give back Jim to Miss Watson. In the perspective of Southern white society during that time, Huck has stolen an $800 property. $800 was the price the slave trader has offered Miss Watson for Jim.
Throughout the book, it showed how Huck kept his word to help free Jim. Though he was in a moral crisis throughout and was doubting whether to give back Jim to Miss Watson or not, he still did not do it in the end. And that was the most important thing. It showed that Huck has been treating Jim as a man.
This realization combined with Huck’s guilt, keeps him from returning Jim. Huck realized that he would have felt worse if he returned Jim. He even mentioned that he can “go to hell” for not returning him (Twain 361). This is a big step for somebody who grew up in a society where slaves are an ordinary matter – where slaves are just property. Realizing that by doing the “wrong” thing by not returning Jim, he is doing the right thing. This is actually a development in Huck’s character. He listened to his conscience rather than the dictates of the society.
Though Huck did show some character development as the story progresses, it seemed that all of that became dust when Tom arrived. Huck did not see rescuing Jim as a moral obligation anymore. It turned into a game; it was turned into another adventure.
Many criticize Huck’s fickleness throughout the book. Several critics like Leo Marx also mentions that Tom actually hinders Huck’s growth. In his opinion, Huck even “regresses” in his growth when Tom is around (Karim, 2010). In my opinion however, I do think that his fickleness comes with his age (he is only thirteen during this time) and it will change as he grows older. I think that if he spends more time away from Tom, he might learn to think for himself. He would learn better morally without Tom influencing him.
In the book, I do think that Huck also demonstrated compassion that many kids in his age would not be able to demonstrate during his time. For instance, in Huck’s resolution to help free Jim, he overrules his “conscience” by telling himself that it was the right thing to do. Twain cunningly engages the irony of this part as he vividly plays with the conflict between what the main character grows up to believe and what he acknowledges to be right – it is the question to give Jim back to his master or to help him gain his freedom.
Another kind of fickleness that Twain’s characters portray is with Tom Sawyer himself. On Tom’s sickbed, he proclaims that Miss Watson is already dead and had said she is would like to free Jim in her will. He just rode on the rescue thing because he thinks it was a great adventure (Twain 494). Even when a man’s life is in danger, he still did not divulge the truth. Tom could have died but he was happy to do so for a great adventure.
When Tom divulges the news of Jim’s freedom, Jim also tells Huck that his father is already dead by telling him that he has found his father’s body in an old boat. That it was the boy he saw before they started their journey. This just shows Jim’s sensitivity toward Huck’s feelings, thinking that he feels something for his father. Hearing the news however, Huck just shrugged the news off. It actually escapes me how Huck can just shrug off the death of your own father. It may be that he did give Huck a hard time but in the end, he is still his father.
Sally Phelps extends her willingness to adopt Huck but the adventurous boy cannot see himself living in civilization. He decides to “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” (Twain 496).
Many critics and readers objected the ending of the novel for being abrupt. Even Leo Marx comments, "I believe that the ending of Huckleberry Finn makes so many readers uneasy because they rightly sense that it jeopardizes the significance of the entire novel" (Karim, 2010). For Marx, Huck does not show any progress in the ending. Huck always fell for Tom’s plans and shenanigans. Throughout the novel, Huck always becomes a sidekick for Tom where they plan killing and stealing for fun and adventure (Twain 15).
Upon publication in 1885, The Adventures Huckleberry Finn gathered mix responses from critics. It was even banned in some libraries for its offenses to propriety (Powell, 2000). Though, these controversies did not even affect the popularity of the book as it becomes one of the all time best sellers and has stayed to be the best selling of all of Twain’s books.
Doyno, Victor. Writing Huck Finn: Mark Twain's Creative Process. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 1991. Print.
Ellison, Ralph. "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke." Bradley, Sculley. An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism. New York: Norton, 1977. 420-437. Print.
Karim, Numan. "Ending of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Response to Criticism." 10 April 2010. Yahoo Voices. 7 September 2012
Powell, Alvin. "Fight over Huck Finn continues: Ed School professor wages battle for Twain classic." The Harvard University Gazette 28 September 2000. Print.
Prestridge, Samuel. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." n.d. Gainesville State College. 7 October 2012
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Melborune: Debenu, 1885. Web.