Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – A Critical Analysis
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered one of the first Great American Novels written in the vernacular and characterized by local color regionalism, was first published in February 1585. Although Huck, the hero, is a simple riff-raff with no interest in formal education or the process of civilization at the time, he proves to be far more refined in his attitude toward humanity than the so-called civilized.
That is clear from his concern for Jim, the Negro slave of his former guardian Widow Douglas’ sister Miss Watson. His escape from civilization becomes a struggle to migrate to a free land where he can free his Negro friend from slavery, despite his lack of moral or legal awareness of what he is doing.
They travel miles and miles on a raft along the great Mississippi River in pursuit of this challenging objective, encountering various types of people in the towns they happen to pass through. Twain’s vivid descriptions of Huck’s interactions with the locals give the book a distinctive quality.
The novel stands out as a great satire of the racial prejudice of the time due to the overall message it conveys. The book is well-liked for its humor, but it still faces scrutiny from critics for its representative character as a legitimate examination of slavery in the United States in the 19th century.
The plot of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has six parts:
- Huck’s early day Widow Douglas;
- His imprisonment in Pap’s wooden hut:
- Secret life on Jackson’s Island where he meets Jim;
- His trip on a raft along the Mississippi River with his companion Jim;
- Stay with the Grandgerfords who treat you as a member of their aristocratic family:
- His struggle with the con artist the King and the Duke who fool people in crowds to make money;
- And his life at the Phelpses’ farm together with Tom, where he takes part in an obviously dispensable operation for the rescue of Jim, who has now been already released by his owner Miss Watson.
The interactions Huck has with the various types of people he meets throughout all of these locations are exciting and amusing. The unique thing about all of these circumstances is how loyal Jim has remained to Huck. Due to Jim’s indulgent actions, the plot has a seamless flow. He only exercises control in the final episode, when Tom is shot in the leg, and he does not flee. In that sense, Mark Twain took great care in crafting the plot.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is unique in that Huck narrates the entire book in a dialect that is appropriate to his role as a member of the riff-raff, making it the first great novel to have been written in the USA in a vernacular dialect of English. The self-education the boy underwent by reading the books he gathered from the floating houses, interacting with various people like Colonel Grangerford, and evaluating his interactions with individuals like Colonel Sherburn is still fresh in Mark Twain’s mind.
Additionally, Mark Twain takes care to distinguish between his dialect and Jim’s, as well as between theirs and that of other people like the King and the Duke. The book continues to serve as a showcase for the various dialects that various social classes of the era spoke.
Huck’s reactions to the extreme conditions of civilization emerge from the Following passage he writes on Colonel Grandgerford:
“His hands was long and thin arid every day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit from head to foot made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it; and on Sundays he wore a blue tailcoat with brass buttons on it.” (Original Ch 18)
Here the pain the clothes can make on the eyes with their whiteness suggests the extravagances the wealthy of his own race enjoyed at the expense of their poor counterparts, whose situation is extremely pathetic.
“The houses had little gardens around them, but they didn’t seem to raise hardly anything in them but jimpson weeds, and sunflowers, and ash-piles, and old curled up boots and shoes, and pieces of bottles, and rags, and played-out tinware.” (Original Ch 21)
Thus Huck depicts the landscape he walks across together with the King and the Duke just two days after their meeting. The filthy domestic settings he encounters here draw his attention to the shoddiness of the members of his own race. Ironically, his dissatisfaction with the harsh physical environments he describes in these two passages has an impact on his skepticism about civilization as a process that hypocritically dries up human nature.
There are numerous situational descriptions of this nature to qualify the actual setting where the novel unfolds.
The style is further nourished by the characterizations, thematic thrusts, setting, atmosphere point of view, tone, irony, symbolism, etc. What is typical of twain’s style in his other works is common to this novel too. His innate sense of humor is felt in every line of description.
While conveying his true feelings about the people, and the moral and material veins in which they operate, he achieves humor out of them to cheer up the reader throughout the reading.
The thirteen-year-old child hero of the novel, Huck represents the poorest and the lowest category of the white community of the 19th Century USA. His father is not a man of morals and fortunately, Huck does not follow in his footsteps in building up his character. Because of his father’s negligence, initially, Huck is not used to living in a house and maintaining a routine as a boy from a normal family. Therefore, Widow Douglas, who adopts him as her son, and her sister Miss Watson exert an enormous amount of energy in these exercises to groom Huck as a well-mannered, clean, schooling, and church-going child.
Every day Huck gives them some reason to worry about him. He even abhors the idea of being rich, while having a sound bank account with a capital of 6000 dollars in gold. Yet he cannot find his own way of life as that would lead to the cancellation of his prestigious membership in his friend Tom Sawyer’s robbers’ gang. So he is always in a double mind about what he wants to achieve in life.
However, he becomes mature as an individual on his break away from his father. He finds his own free land on the uninhabited Jackson Island in the Mississippi River. When he meets his friend Jim, the Negro slave of Miss Watson, and learns his story, he becomes concerned about the latter’s dream of becoming a free man and purchasing his family back from the people who keep them as slaves. Without any moral or legal perception of the injustice of slavery, he becomes a martyr for them on the grounds that he desperately wants to prevent the sale of Jim. Since the two of them become life companions they go on facing various situations and everywhere Huck experiences Jim’s loyalty.
Huck’s visit to St. Petersburg in the guise of a girl, the life he leads with Jim resting in a lonely place by day and sailing on the raft by night, the escapades he has with the robbers on a wrecked steamboat, the short period of time he spends with the southern aristocratic family, the Grandgerfords, the conflicting time he spends with the con artists, the King and the Duke, the mock operation he makes with his friend Tom to rescue Jim from his hut in the Phelpses farm are all situations which stand for Huck’s sharp judgement as a rational human being.
His resentment about school education is immaterial when it comes to making decisions in crucial situations where justice is at a stake due to other people’s lack of reasoning ignorance, and gullibility. This is very clear in his treatment of the Wilks sisters in the tricky situation where they are about to be delta penniless. Also, his reaction to Buck’s explanation of a feud, which reveals the futility of the aristocratic practice of maintaining old grudges for generations, suggests his rational thinking.
It is simplied at the end of the novel that he wonders about his money in the bank while looking for a solution to Jim’s problem of purchasing his family That means he is capable of making such generous gesture for his friend. Mark Twain makes Huck energetic, witty, intelligent, tactful, sympathetic, and just in his own right. Without the multifarious life skills, he is endowed with his numerous successes with the people along the Mississippi for ever several months would not have happened.
Mark Twain somehow puts him in the company of Tom Sawyer, his middle-class friend, at the end of the novel, implying that Huck will grow up with Tom, open to undergo the process of civilization however much he dislikes it.
Jim is introduced in the first few chapters as the superstitious victim of the practical jokes carried out by Tom Sawyer’s gang of robbers. Knowing that he is the property of Miss Watson he runs away from her on overhearing that she has a plan to sell him to a slave dealer. He knows he is wrong in front of the law and wonder of the country but he is clear in his conscience.
Jim and Huck meet as two fugitives on Jackson’s island in the River Mississippi: Since then they live together, loyal to each other. Some critics attack Jim as to passive but it is cleat Mark Twain has done justice to his character as there is no alternative way to developing it.
He is a slave at the mercy of the white community, and even Huck, under this circumstance, is a tremendous source of power and influence. So he has to be passive as and when it is required. But he is more like a father to Huck. He cooks for him, repairs the raft, gives a hand in carrying out all odd jobs in their daily life, and waits for him with the raft like a surrogate father whenever Huck goes into a town in search of food or on any other business.
In is an excellent companion to have in one’s life. His submissive behavior disappears in the event when Huck and Tom together force him seek his freedom. He makes a decision to attend on Tom shot in the leg and assists the doctor till he is brought to the Phelpses. Here it is clear that, when a decision is to be taken with a focus on the welfare of his family and friends, he does not behave passively.
Mark Twain makes Jim the only adult among the central characters in the story. He plays his adult role properly without interfering with the juveniles in their adventures. So his presence makes a remarkable difference to the story. He prevents Huck from seeing his father’s dead body in the cabin but reveals his death after everything has fallen in place. Huck would not have the necessity to make such a long trip on the river Mississippi had he got to know of his father’s death at such an early instance in his life.
Also, Jim’s sole aim is to have his freedom and to purchase his family from the people who own them. This quite unawares becomes Huck’s purpose of life as well. That is why they try to head for a land without slavery.
Huck s best friend Tom is a boy of a middle-class family background. Tom has a great influence on Huck from the very beginning of their friendship. Despite Huck reluctance about it, his stay at Widow Douglas’s continues for some time just because of the condition Tom imposes on him that, in order to be a member of his robbers’ gang, it is necessary to be respectable.
He means by respectability an assortment of middle-class practices and qualities: adherence to gentlemanly manners in domestic life, a satisfactory level of literacy, smartness in dress and attire, good behavior in public places such as the church, courteousness towards the adults in the neighborhood, attendance of school, etc.
Tom maintains a certain value system formulated out of these as a camouflage for all his mischievous activities and he recommends them to his friends as a shield against the apathy of the public. Although his tricks are funny they displays a dimension of the cruelty of society. His beliefs are an unfortunate combination of the social realities he has gleaned from reading romance and adventure novels.
His constant emphasis on style in doing things is inspired by what he believes rather than what he perceives about life. Huck contrasts with him in the sense that, although he does not develop friction with his friend Tom, he questions about the painful applications of style on simple tasks.
If Huck been like Tom perhaps life would have been more difficult for Jim. Rather than fun and adventure, Huck appreciates life and living. Despite his knowledge of Miss Watson’s death and her last will which Jim is released, he goes into a cumbersome but unnecessary project to rescue him. That gives pain not only to Jim, but also to his loving Aunty Sally and Uncle Silas.
His zeal for adventure and unconscious witness make him popular among the other characters in the novel but what appears through his behavior is the nature of an authoritarian self-centered white man in the society of his time causing tension to everybody around him.
Widow Douglas and Miss Watson
Huck is brought up by Widow Douglas and her son, and her sister Miss Watson acts his educator and mentor. The are two wealthy sisters who lives together in a large house in St.Petersburg. While Widow Douglas is patient and kind to Huck, Miss Watson maintains a stern and dominant attitude towards him. Mark Twain characterizes Miss Watson as the most prominent representative of the hypocritical religious and ethical values he criticizes in the novel, especially through her idea to sell her slave Jim, while trying to pour down the Presbyterian values through Huck’s throat. In fact in each act Huck commits in a manner against societal expectation, he is worried about disappointing Widow Douglas but not Miss Watson.
Huck’s father, the town drunk is an incorrigible character in the novel. He represents the lowest category of the underclass of the time with disgusting, ghost-like white skin and tattered clothes. He expresses his hatred against literacy and his jealousy of the wel-to-do through his constant harassment of Huck. Mark Twain represents the breakdown of family structure in the white society of the time through his sadistic attitude towards his only son Huck.
The Duke and the King
These two are a pair of con artist Huck and Jim rescue while being chased out of a river town. The older man, who appears to be about seventy, claims to be the “dauphin” the son of King Louis XVI and heir to the French throne. The youngest man, who is about thirty, claims to be the usurped Duke of Bridgewater. Their false identities become obvious to Huck in no time but he and Jim find no way of escaping from them. Huck as a thirteen-year-old child and Jim as a runaway slave are dead helpless before them. The Duke and the King play out the people they meet while traveling down the river on the raft.
But ultimately, they pay for their wickedness by trying to rob the Wilks girls and by selling Jim as a runaway slave. Even Huck finds it painful to stand the torture they undergo at their final destination.
He is an honest man to hold the position of the local judge of St.Petersberg. He shares responsibility for Huck with Widow Douglas and acts as the financial advisor to Huck and Tom in safeguarding the money they found in a robbers’ cave. It is under his guidance the money is deposited in a bank and the two boys are allowed to enjoy a daily interest of one dollar. Huck has more faith in judge Thatcher than Pap. The day after he encounters Pap, Huck wisely signs his fortune over to the Judge. Setting an example to society he does not honor the note Huck writes and signs but comforts Huck saying that he has no more right to the money. The money remains safe awaiting the day Huck returns to St.Petersburg and claims it, thanks to Judge Thatcher.
Huck’s experience with the Southern aristocratic family, the Grangerfords, is an example of the presence of the ancient European feudal practices in the USA of the time. After a formal interrogation, they take Huck into their house, on the occasion a steamboat hits his raft, separating him from Jim. Though they are kindhearted people, they are locked in a long-standing feud with another local family. The Shepherdsons. Huck witnesses both love and hatred between the members of the two families. While Sophia Grangerford and Hurtle Sheperdson elope as lovers the rest of the family members kill each other in a brutal gun battle. Twain uses two families to engage in some rocking humor referring to their attendance of the Sunday mass at the church with guns in hand and to mock the habit of romanticizing the “mind-forged manacles” of family honor. The pathetic feeling Huck develops at the carnage of the dead Grahngerfords and Shepherdsons represents the sensibility of the common people against feudal values.
The Wilks family
The reader is informed of the Wilks family in New Orleans through one Tim Collins who tells all about them to the two con artists, the King and the Duke, on his short trip with them to a steamboat jetty. Accordingly, Peter Wilks is dead and to be buried the following day, and his two brothers Harry and William are supposed to come from England any time to claim their part of the dead man’s estate. His last will is not attested by a lawyer but is lying hidden in a secret place in the house, and his wish is to share his financial assets between his three orphan nieces and his two brothers. The two con artists, having arrived in the town,
Sasindu Jayasri is an Engineering student from Sri Lanka and he studies mechanical engineering at the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Moratuwa. He is passionate about writing and giving inspiration to the world. Follow him in LinkedIn for updates and you can contact him directly.