The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: Two Views

Sean Fitzpatrick: This novel has no motive, no moral, and no plot—at least you won’t catch me attempting to find any lest I be prosecuted, banished, or shot. But even without these traditional literary elements, it is a masterpiece. The one thing I would dare apply to it is a theme, which I hope to propose here without getting hung, stabbed, or ridden on a rail.

Though The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is full of pariahs and rapscallions, it is nevertheless a story about kings.

There never was a human being in the whole catalogue of conjured heroes from Homer to Hemingway quite as kingly as Huckleberry Finn. Huck has a royal poise, a calm, regal demeanor as he presides over his empire of dirt and muddy water. It is not the kingdom, remember, that makes the king—it is the inspired soul. Huck’s soul is perceptive and receptive enough to be a king’s; and at the same time, we see immediately that his soul resonates with our own on a deep, primal level. This is the very thing that reminds us that we—all of us, like Huck—are kings indeed. We are kings with Huckleberry Finn in the most elemental and existential sense for we are all inheritors of the earth, enlivened with a soul touched by heaven. We are all kings, for as Huck points out, “everything belongs to them,” and true it is, as Genesis attests.

This is one of the reasons why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is important for the common reader: it illustrates the kingship of the common man. Huck demonstrates what we all ought to know full well, but are often forgetful of—we are all empowered with the grace to observe, experience, and appreciate the riches of creation; and to reckon them true or false, right or wrong, lawful or unlawful. Such reckonings demand a type of wisdom—which wisdom Huck has if he has nothing else.

Huck Finn covWisdom is perhaps the first characteristic that comes to mind as proper to a king—the wisdom of Sollermun. Huckleberry Finn has a natural intelligence, which is very different from Tom Sawyer’s imagination. That is to say, Huck sees things as they are with a power that goes beyond mere sight—he has vision. As T. S. Eliot says of his fellow Missourian, “He sees the real world; and he does not judge it—he allows it to judge itself.” Did ole King Sollermun do anything less with dat chile dat he ’uz gwyne to chop in two? Is there anyone amongst us today that could be so brave as to allow the world to settle itself?

According to the wisdom of this noble river-rat, there is little distinction between the prince and the pauper. “They just set around. Except maybe when there’s a war; then they go to the war. But other times they just lazy around…” Huck therefore claims the independence of both the loafer and the lord. “Kings is kings, and you got to make allowances.” He is aware of his surroundings like any street urchin but questions the values of his surroundings like any sovereign. He is a straight-faced observer of truth, enthroned on high, impervious to the wiles that seduce or the lies that corrupt. Huckleberry Finn beholds the world as the world, and acts accordingly. Can the same be said of us? Are we worthy successors of our crown who seem bent on remaking the world in our own image? There is nothing about Google, the man-made mind of God, which participates in the knowledge of our kingdom—or His.

King Huckleberry, on the other hand, knows his kingdom intimately, as any king should. He pulses with a love of the land and a worship of the waters. Nowhere else can you find a sunrise described with such admiration and attention as from his clumsy eloquence. Nowhere else can you learn the terror of a river than from one who fearlessly stems its whirling eddies with a corncob pipe between his teeth. He knows the smell of a late hour. He is the babe in the wood, Moses in the bulrush basket, out of whose mouth wisdom and praise are fashioned, and for whom the kingdom of heaven is reserved. All this is to say that Huckleberry Finn, like a good king, is a good steward, fulfilling a universal role of leadership and responsibility over the things God has made. Huck fearlessly and sometimes fiercely debates the natures of things with Jim, like a pair of new-made Adams deliberating on the first principles of existence, tossing ideologies back and forth between them like a ball. These two freely muse on the highest of human occupations and duties with an invincible innocence—occasionally interrupted by the flutter of a passing steamboat’s wheel. As kings ourselves, we ought not to shy away from such mysteries.

Huck’s majestic quality of witnessing the complexities of life and honestly turning them over in his mind bespeaks a type of ownership over them. He is the perfect blend of monarchical impassivity and childlike interest. If there is any element of tragedy (or comedy, for that matter) in this genre-defying tale, it is that the rafting philosopher kings are supremely unconscious of their sceptered sway. They oversee from the impenetrable fortress of youthful exactitude and rule by the laws written on the heart. This unconsciousness is a kingly charm, indeed; though a careless hand on the tiller can foster an unconscionable unconsciousness, which is the downfall of kings. Let us keep our eyes open, and remember that kings fuss with the parlyment as Huck does with a hogshead. ’Nuff said. Both, after all, are of equal importance in their respective eyes and want managing.

And Huckleberry’s eyes do not lie. He knows fraud when he sees it. A large part of his odyssey down the Mississippi involves two down-on-their-luck charlatans who brazenly pose themselves to the savvy youth as a king and a duke. Their thin pantomime is intended to overwhelm the victims of their freeloading; but Huck makes up his mind very quickly that they are low-down humbugs, and keeps it to himself. He is too dispassionate to interfere with such depredations—and too desirous to keep the peace in his domain. It is only when their scams go so far as to make a body ashamed of the human race that Huck interferes, invisibly meting our justice, and casts the riches they intended to steal beyond their grasp.

There is only so much hogwash that can be tolerated by the universe.

Samuel L. Clemens’ pen name is derived from a nautical cry: “By the mark twain!” signaled the depth of two fathoms—the shallowest depth that a steamboat could safely pilot in. Desiring to remain true to Twain’s strategy to navigate in waters just deep enough, I close this meditation on a book that is like a mighty, muddy river before I plumb depths beyond my sounding rope. I leave you with the question whether we as a people have strayed too far from the river. Have we lost the steward’s connection, and consequent affection, for this world that has been placed in our care? Have we betrayed our kingdom, our kingship, our King?

Jim and Huck examine the same question thus, with typical blunt honesty:

“Dey ain’ no kings here, is dey, Huck?”


In the turning of these pages, we may turn the tide.



Mitchell Kalpakgian: Huck Finn, boy eternal, does not like living in the home of Widow Douglas because she is always “pecking” at him and attempting to “sivilize” him, that is, imposing rules and regulations (“Don’t put your feet up there, Huckleberry,”  “Don’t scrunch up like that,” “Set up straight”) . With uncomfortable new clothes to wear, “dismal regular” ways to govern his daily life, and bells to order his day, Huck finds domestic life with the Widow and her sister Miss Watson oppressive and unnatural: “I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead.” Huck’s drunken father Pap also provides no real home for a boy. In an isolated cabin in the woods Pap locks Huck inside and poses a threat with his rifle. Huck does not even enjoy Tom Sawyer’s gang of robbers that pretends a Sunday school picnic is an adventure on the high seas: “all that stuff was only one of Tom Sawyer’s lies.” Searching for a home, Huck finally finds the good life on a raft with Jim floating down the Mississippi River as he leads the runaway slave to freedom in the North: “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t.”

Jim’s life on the raft, however, does not bring him the perfect happiness or true peace that the serenity of the river on a clear night with the stars shining intimates. The evils Huck leaves behind on land—slavery, bigotry, avarice, hypocrisy, ignorance, and sentimentality—he encounters again on the water and in the small towns on the Mississippi. Even the brief interlude of pure enjoyment on the raft in the company of the best of friends (“We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened”) is spoiled when two “rapscallions” come on board escaping from the law and treat Huck and Jim as their personal servants.  These notorious confidence men, the Duke and the Dauphin, bring the contagion of evil on land to the world of the river as they dupe, cheat, lie, and exploit the gullibility of the fools they rob with their pose as Shakespearean actors, uncles from England, preachers, and magicians peddling patent medicines and fortune telling.

mark-twainAlthough it appears that Huck is escaping from civilization and abandoning society in the name of personal freedom and for the sake of Jim’s liberty, Huck is always immersed in reality of the human condition and in touch with the nature of things. Evil is legion.While it appears that Huck is running from the evil that Pap poses when he demands Huck’s inheritance to spend on liquor, Huck only leaves the avarice of his father to encounter the greed of the Duke and the Dauphin. While it seems that Huck and Jim are leaving the land of slavery for the freedom of the Northern states, slave hunters abound on the Mississippi River to earn the reward for capturing a runaway slave. Although Huck parts from the danger that Pap’s violence poses, he encounters murderers and gamblers on the river that think nothing of killing a man or letting him drown on a sinking steamboat. Huck’s life on the raft, then, is not merely an escape from rules or respectability but an education into the heart of reality, into a world that always threatens to rob a person of his innocence and integrity.  Despite the sordid evils that Huck encounters in his adventures, he never lets the sordidness and cruelty of evil distort his God-given, natural sense of right and wrong written on his heart and conscience. Twain’s American hero is one who lives in the world but not of it.

Nothing hardens Huck’s innocent heart or jades his sensitive conscience. He always recoils at the loathsomeness of evil he encounters and never accommodates himself to it… When he witnesses the Duke and Dauphin pretend they are uncles from England who have come to mourn their brother’s death and act as executors of the will, Huck responds, “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.” When he witnesses the feud of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons as they shoot at each other after attending church services, Huck is shocked to see Buck, a boy his age, the victim of the gunfire: “It made me so sick I almost fell out of the tree. I ain’t agoing to tell all that happened—it would make me sick again if I was to do that.” When Huck watches the frauds posing as uncles grieving over their “brother,” Huck’s reaction to gushing sentimentality is “I never seen anything so disgusting” as he observes “all that soul-butter and hogwash” and “humbuggy talky talk” filled with “tears and flapdoodle.” Huck’s boyish innocence, then, never compromises the meanings of good and evil, and he resists all the customs and laws of the day that blur the distinction between human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, and moral and immoral. As wise as a serpent but as gentle as a dove, Huck is never fooled by all the sham and pretense that surrounds him.

In a culture that legalizes slavery, buys and sells human beings as property or “chattel,” separates slaves from their spouses and children, rewards informants of any news leading to the arrest of runaway slaves, and punishes anyone with knowledge who does not give information, Huck remains pure of heart. Struggling with guilt because he is hiding a slave and not reporting the facts to authorities, Huck assumes that to disobey the law is to be unjust. Because he thinks he is stealing Miss Watson’s slave and violating one of the Ten Commandments, he suffers great guilt: “The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling.” As he kneels to pray for the strength to do the right thing—write to Miss Watson and report the truth about her slave—Huck stops. He cannot violate his conscience and call evil good and good evil. Acknowledging his insincerity, Huck concludes, “You can’t pray a lie.” The conscience is inviolable.

Huck cannot pretend to be moral because he follows the law of the land but betrays his best friend. Forced to make this great existential decision between obeying the law and following his conscience, Huck deliberates between the consequences of going to hell or breaking the heart of a beloved friend: “and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day and in the night-time … and we a-floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing…. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see how glad he was when I came back out of the fog … and do everything he could think of  for me, and how good he always was.” Huck senses that morality transcends social laws, the customs of an age, and the opinions of average people ruled by self-interest and expediency. “All right, then I’ll go to hell,” Huck concludes as rips the letter to Miss Watson and commits himself to integrity, purity of heart, and love of neighbor—all countercultural in a society that elevates respectability above charity, that values money more than human life, and assumes that the opinions of mobs and crowds tower above the grandeur of the truth and the inviolability of conscience.


Sean Fitzpatrick is a native of Ottawa, Canada, and a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, CA. He is the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Scranton, PA. Mitchell Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981) and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985).

  • poetcomic1

    It is the interior monologue of Huck wrestling with his conscience over ‘stealing Jim’ from an old lady who never did him any harm and how he must be thoroughly wicked for doing such a thing…. it changed and touched THIS boy forever. It is indeed ‘the world’ that tells Huck that the ‘proper’ thing to do is betray his best friend. I still get chills, those pages are etched in acid.
    At the heart of the novel is The River. I cannot watch Night of the Hunter or even Apocalypse Now (or Showboat for that matter!) without understanding something about the River, man, nobility of spirit, the ‘fixed’ people on the banks and freedom.

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  • Casey

    I was taught that the genre is Realism and Huck represents utilitarianism. . . .

  • GrahamCombs

    Sean Patrick’s depiction of Huck Finn as a member of a moral monarchy is persuasive only in so far as we are a culture increasingly impatient with and repulsed by morality and its judgements. Recall that the worse thing George Orwell’s critics could think to call him was “a moralist.” I suspect that if they ever make a better movie of this novel, the young actor will have those naturally accusing eyes of a certain kind of child. The novel is not about discrimination in the contemporary meaning but in the Catholic moral sense.

    Dr. Kalpakgian makes an interesting comment about the universal and eternal quality of moral or natural law. Good as far as he goes.

    Ralph Ellison speculated — wildly imagined actually — that Huck and Jim were lovers because the fugitive slave called the boy “hon.” Obviously the novelist wasn’t a southerner. I’m sixty but even when I was a boy “hon” was term of endearment bestowed on boys and girls alike by family and strangers not only in the South but in the transplant blue-collar suburbs of Detroit. It has nothing to do with etiquette of sex. Mr. Ellison could not have been more wrong.

    After seeing so many bad films of the book, it finally occurred to me why Hollywood will never make a good one. Huck and Jim bond within the southern culture of the switch. They have both been physically abused beyond decency or pity. Justice Clarence Thomas writes of it in his memoirs. He’s more forgiving than I am but then his grandfather may have known no other methods of raising boys. And there was love in his house. The switch is something by the way that transcends race in the South. The book is not about race.

    Those intimate with the welt-raising practice can develop in one or two ways. The most obvious is to become abusive themselves. The other is to remain hopeful and open to decency and to acquire at a young age an “overdeveloped” sense of right and wrong and of fairness. And to step back from the precipice. This is the hardest path and so less common. Huck and Jim have somehow managed not to turn into monsters. Which is what they would be in a contemporary novel if my years New York publishing were any indication. Their friendship and flight could not be more natural or rare.

    The novel isn’t about slavery. It is about the near-maddening endurance of evil. Those schoolmarms — male and female — who have attempted to ban HUCKLEBERRY FINN in the past are themselves too much a part of their times and customs.

    Yet in the end, I understand why Huck and Jim remain Southerners. Justice Thomas talks about a life-long sense of living outside his “comfort zone” because he is a Southerner who spent most of his life outside of the South. I understand him. Only a Southerner would I suspect.

    In elementary school I read the novel every summer. And I was always impatient with the Tom Sawyer parts. Oh I read TOM SAWYER too but like their author, I understood that one book was a boys’ story and the other wasn’t. Or was only for certain boys.

    Graham Combs/Royal Oak, MI

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  • Stella

    I think Dr Kalpakgian is giving Huck too much credit when he writes, ‘He always recoils at the loathsomeness of evil he encounters and never accommodates himself to it….’ Mr Patrick – when his prose is intelligible – seems to have drifted away on a raft of rhetoric, far, far from the facts of the novel.

    In assessing Huck’s morality we can’t pick and choose among examples: we have to look at the whole story, from beginning to end, and ask why he risks himself to help some people, but doesn’t care a bit about anyone else’s trouble? Because if you look at each and every ‘moral’ situation, you’ll won’t see a consistent pattern, nor will you see a clear line of moral development in Huck. In fact, if you carefully analyze Huck’s moral reactions to ‘evil’ you will see three patterns:

    1. Tolerance for the sake of not having to trouble himself or Jim. Note his decision to keep ‘peace in the family’ when he realizes how low-down and dangerous the King and Duke are. Note as well that when he realizes that the King plans for himself and the Duke to impersonate Peter Wilks’s brothers, Huck says, ‘Of course, I knew what he was up to’ but he does not do anything to thwart their plan. He goes right along with it, up to a certain point (see below). What is this except ‘accommodating’ himself to evil? He says about the King and Duke that he learned from dealing with his Pap that the best way to deal with such low-down scoundrels is to let them have their way. And that’s exactly what he does in several instances (see point 2).

    2. Indifference. He makes no moral judgement when the townsfolk are cheated of 86 dollars by the king pretending to be a temperance preacher; he makes no moral judgement nor does he try to help the townsfolk who are being cheated by the ‘King’s Cameleopard’ perfomance; he makes no moral judgement nor does he attempt to help out, nor does he turn away in disgust or voice contempt or shame for anyone’s behavior when Boggs is shot down in cold blood. He only says that his daughter looked ‘pale and scared,’ but he jostled to the front for a view of Boggs dying and ran right along with the crowd when someone demanded that Sherburn be lynched.

    3. Being willing to risk himself and his own safety in order to help someone else. BUT, Huck only does this in REACTION to good he has already received. When he protects Jim from slave-hunters, it is because he previously played two practical jokes on Jim: one that harmed him physically – the ‘dead snake’ trick – and one that hurt his feelings and dignity – the time he convinced Jim they were not really separated in the fog and Jim only dreamed it. He felt guilty enough to apologize to Jim after the second trick and resolved he’d never play a trick on him again. For this reason, when he’s about to report Jim to slave-hunters, he stops because Jim calls him his ‘best’ and ‘only’ friend, and he can’t turn Jim in because he has said he wouldn’t play another trick on Jim.

    Huck is willing to risk his own safety and seek to help Buck during the feud only because – as he says when he covers Buck’s face after Buck is killed – ‘he was mighty good to’ Huck. Buck – like Jim – welcomed and was kind to Huck FIRST, and in response Huck is ‘good back’.

    If someone does not reach out to Huck in disinterested kindness FIRST, Huck doesn’t care what happens to them. And it has to be disinterested kindness. He asks himself how he could ‘steal a poor old woman’s nigger who hadn’t done me any harm’ and the slippery syntax is deliberate and revealing: neither the poor old woman nor the nigger had done him any harm. But which had shown him disinterested kindness? Only Jim; not Miss Watson. So when Huck consults his heart, he is ready to do the right thing until he ‘goes on thinking’ of all the good Jim did for him, and then he couldn’t find anything ‘of the other kind’ to turn him against Jim. He will ‘go to hell for Jim’ because he has received disinterested kindness from Jim and nothing else. He believes that people who have been good to another person should be rewarded. This is why he is disgusted with the King and Duke selling Jim into slavery for ‘forty dirty dollars’ – because of all the good that he and Jim had done for them, how could they have the heart to play such a trick on him?

    Huck knew that the King and Duke were going to cheat the Wilks girls, but he did nothing to stop them; he played right along with no moral judgement at all. It’s only when the girls apologize to him after Joanna calls Huck a liar – when they stress that he’s a guest in their home and should be treated well – that Huck decides he can’t let them be cheated and he does something about it.

    Huck has no ‘pro-active’ or ‘absolute’ morality. In his own words, he says that he will feel bad if he does what is right (turn Jim in) and feel bad if he does what is wrong (protect Jim out of a feeling of affection), since ‘the wages is the same’ – he’ll feel bad no matter what he does. So he will ‘do what is handiest at the time’. In other words: situational ethics. Whatever is easiest or least troubling – practically or to his conscience is what he will do.

    It is true that Huck’s heart is touched by some people – Jim, the Wilks girls, Buck – but only in reaction to their first overtures of kindness to him, not because of any absolute moral law.

    Proof of this is his unchanging attitude toward black people. At no point does Huck ever come out against the evil of slavery, for example. At no point in the novel does he consider blacks to be as good as or as human as white people. At no point does he generalize his willingness to set Jim free even as far as Jim’s own wife and children. (Here Huck reflects Twain, who said in his autobiography that he ‘welcomed the black face’ and had a ‘liking for certain of their good qualities’, but who never declared himself an abolitionist and simply resigned from fighting on either side in the Civil War, after only two weeks in the field.) Huck can describe the sale of the Wilks family slaves as pitiful, but escapes any moral judgement or action (as Twain escaped the issue of taking as stand on slavery) by comforting himself that the sale would not be valid and they wouldn’t be really sold. Huck can say on the Phelps Plantation – when he goes to rescue Jim – that he was delayed because of a steamboat explosion in which ‘nobody was hurt – killed a nigger.’

    To posit that Huck has some kind of clear moral view, he’d have to have the same vision of everybody in Jim’s position, and clearly he does not. He’d have to be willing to help anyone who was afflicted by injustice – not just people who were ‘mighty good to him’ first. Huck is exactly like the scriptural pagan, who greets and loves his own, while caring nothing for someone who is a stranger to him.

    If Huck had any kind of concrete moral system, he’d be able to see that if Jim is human, his desire to be free is human and he’d be able to extend that to Jim’s wife and children and thence to all black people. Huck takes Jim’s desire to be free as a flaw in his good friend’s character. If anything, his moral attitude is, ‘My friend, right or wrong.’ The highest compliment he can give Jim is that Jim is ‘white inside’.

    Mr Patrick and Mr Kalpakgian seem to be describing Huck – a twelve-year-old child, for heaven’s sake – with scant or no regard for the fact that Huck speaks as Mark Twain’s alter-ego throughout the novel; the only time Huck’s voice stops being that of Mark Twain is when Mark Twain really comes through in Colonel Sherburn’s speech. When Sherburn (‘sure to burn’) describes himself has having grown up in the South and lived in the North and knowing that the average man’s a coward – that’s Twain talking about himself. When it came to the issue of slavery, and of black people as PEOPLE as fully human as white people, Twain was a moral coward who simply avoided the issue. Read his account of the Goshoots in Roughing It – the deep-seated racism he had toward American Indians, and compare it in all his works to his gentle, virtuous black characters: never a good Indian; never a negative black person.

    Twain’s dyed-in-the-wool racism toward ‘people of color’ found a politically correct and socially acceptable outlet in his vitriol toward Indians and his negative portrayals of them in his fiction. His guilt over doing nothing for the kind, gentle, friendly black slaves he knew – while at the same time never accepting them as being as human as whites – got transmuted into always writing ‘nice’ black characters who are never quite as completely human as people who are ‘white outside’ (don’t pay so much attention to Jim’s superior logic in the argument about men speaking French while neglecting Jim’s stupid superstition and his foolish insistence at the end of the novel that once he’s free, he’s rich, because he’s worth $800: Jim starts and ends the novel just another foolish, superstitious negro).

    We can’t read Huck Finn’s character without reading Mark Twain’s character, and Twain was a moral coward, wracked with guilt and shame over his own failings and ultimately over his own survival (when better people – his brother Henry, his wife, his children, his best friend – had died while he lived on). Twain was no king; no man of inviolable conscience. Like Huck Twain was morally pre-adolescent (Twain’s wife called him ‘Youth’ and his most indelible characters are around the same age Twain was when his father died and Twain’s interior life became deeply shadowed). Huck sees things literally (including the hypocrisy of other people) because he’s ignorant, unsubtle and inexperienced (the comedy of his description of the Grangerford’s house depends on Huck being awed by it’s high-class trappings and the readers laughing at the same trappings). In short, Huck is a KID and sees things as a kid.

    Huck also has the soft heart of a child – it’s his soft heart, not his moral sense or his lofty ‘kingship’ that drives Huck’s actions time after time in the novel.

    In the closing chapters of the novel, when the King and the Duke are going to be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail (a punishment that could lead to death by exposure), he wants to go and tell them, warn them of the danger. He doesn’t think that they are evil and should be punished; nor does he give any reason for wanting to see them escape justice. He does say – when he sees them tarred and feathered and carried out of town on a rail – that people can be awfully cruel to each other. But he has remarkably forgotten how deeply disgusted he was at the King and Duke’s ingratitude in selling Jim into slavery for 40 dollars, after all Jim had done for them. This is not someone making a great existential decision between obeying the law and following the law of his conscience. This is a kid with a kid’s soft heart, not wanting to see someone hurt, even if the person is wicked, even if the person has committed many evils; even if the person needs the discipline of punishment to help him change his ways.

    Both of these writers are describing a Huckleberry Finn I’ve never seen and can’t recognize after twenty years of teaching the novel in college.

    • STF


      Just because the Huckleberry Finn in these articles is not a Huckleberry Finn you recognize, that does not mean it isn’t Huckleberry Finn. It may simply mean that Huck’s character is richer than you may have thought.

      One of the marks of a great novel and a great protagonist is a chameleon quality in both appeal and approach.

      It is true that these reviews are not exactly detail-oriented, but that is intentional. There is only so much that can be attempted in a few words. Only generalizations can be created when painting with a broad brush. The more essential details are left for new readers to discover, discern, and delight in. What these reviews attempt to portray are the symbols that lie on the surface of depths.

      Acquaintances grow stronger and deepen over time, as your incisive commentary of Huckleberry Finn attests. Every friendship, however, begins with an introduction that can never do justice to the parties. If Huckleberry Finn could be captured in an article, he would not be worthy of an article.

      Thank you for sharing your analyses.

    • Mitchell Kalpakgian

      The novel transcends the issue of slavery although this evil forms the background of the novel. It is reductive to confine the reading of this classic to the topics that are du jour these days in academia: minorities, race, gender, class. This classic is about a greater subject–how to maintain one’s innocence and integrity in a corrupt world where convention supplants nature and “the average man” on many levels is party to the evil of slavery: owning, selling, buying, and hunting slaves. Huck does not participate in this sordid business but instead befriends, protects, hides, and rescues Jim even at his own peril. Huck is not lik e”the average man” Colonel Sherburn intimidates with his gu but heroic and noble.

  • Stella

    Dr Kalpakgian: “Despite the sordid evils that Huck encounters in his adventures, he never lets the sordidness and cruelty of evil distort his God-given, natural sense of right and wrong written on his heart and conscience.”

    This statement is simply not true. Twain was influenced by the writings of WEH Lecky on morality. Huck is divided between Lecky’s ‘utilitarian’ and ‘intuitive’ moralities. Utilitarian morality refers to the idea that our morals are simply shaped by what society teaches us: what is moral in one society (slavery) may be immoral in another. Intuitive morality refers to the notion that people naturally know the difference between right and wrong, and usually choose the right.

    Throughout the novel, Huck never, not once, questions the morality he has absorbed from southern, slave-holding society: that helping a slave escape is immoral; it breaks the law of both man and God; that one will go to hell for doing it. At the crisis of the novel – when Jim has been sold back into slavery and is being held on the Phelps plantation – Huck has to choose between what he knows is true, good, right and just – society’s laws about slaves eing the rightful property of their owners – and what his heart feels – that Jim is his friend, and he can’t hurt his friend’s feelings or break a promise to him.

    Huck feels ‘all clean and washed free of sin’ the moment he decides to write a letter to Miss Watson and reveal Jim’s whereabouts. He writes the letter and knows he has done the right thing. He thinks about how good it is that he did the right thing. And then he ‘goes on thinking’ and that’s when he consults his heart (Lecky’s intuitive morality comes into play) and he thinks of all the good times he had with Jim, how good Jim was to him (standing Huck’s watch on top of his own) and the time Jim called him his best friend and his only friend. And then Huck looks at the letter and knows he has to choose, once and for all (for in Twain’s version of Christianity, once saved was always saved, and once damned was always damned). He knows that if he chooses to free Jim from slavery, he’ll go to hell. And he chooses to go to hell – he tears up the letter.

    Further, he resolves to go ‘the whole hog’ for wickedness, since if he’s in so far, he might as well go completely over to wickedness. Significantly, he says if – IF – he can think of anything more wicked than freeing a slave, he would do that, too. It’s very clear that he is by NO MEANS clear about what is truly right. (Twain is being ironic here – did these readers miss that?)

    Further, we have to ask if Huck really does set Jim free. And the honest answer is that he does not – on two scores.

    First, he becomes morally apathetic, completely passive about setting Jim free when Tom Sawyer comes on the scene. Huck has a very simple plan (which he does not tell us) for setting Jim free (it probably involves simply pulling out the staple from the soft, rotten wood on the shed). But he allows Tom to over-rule his simple scheme because Tom’s scheme has more style; Tom would not listen to any alternatives, and Tom’s scheme might ‘get them all killed.’ He allows Tom to keep Jim in prison – in considerable distress and discomfort, as time goes on – just to play a game. This is hardly compassion for a friend.

    In the end, though they get Jim out of the shed where he’d been locked up, it’s not Huck who sets him free. Setting a slave free is not something Twain could have brought himself to do in real life, so it’s no wonder he can’t have Huck do it. Twain has Jim’s owner set Jim free in her will (one of the several times in the book when a parent/adult/authority figure has to die for another person to be enriched somehow). Huck did not, in fact, steal a slave out of slavery; neither did Tom turn out to be – as Huck was shocked to think he could be – a ‘nigger-stealer.’ Tom knew all along that Jim had already been set free when Miss Watson died.

    But we have to ask what Jim’s state is when he’s actually ‘free.’ He’s in the deep South, where slavery is worst – as Huck once asked, ‘Would a runaway nigger run SOUTH?’ Jim had run away in the first place because he overheard Miss Watson saying she could get $800 dollars from a man who would sell him down the river. Jim is living his worst fear: he’s ‘down the river’, very far from his family, and even further from the free states he was making for when he first ran away.

    Once Jim is technically free, Huck abandons him. The ending of the novel is notoriously flawed. Only a few paragraphs before the end, Tom suggests that they all three – Huck, Jim and himself – go to the territories to have ‘howling adventures among the Indians.’ This would be a good ending for Twain, because it would allow him to write another sequel to the novel. But Huck argues that he can’t go for adventures in the Territory, since he’s got no money ‘to buy and outfit.’ Tom tells him the judge still has his money. Huck counters that surely his father has been back since Tom left home, got the money, and drank it up. But Jim solemnly assures him that his father is dead: his money is waiting for him back in St. Petersburg.

    So we have this situation:

    1. Huck wants to go for adventures, but has no money for the outfit.

    2. His money is back home, with Judge Thatcher.

    3. Jim wants to go to the free states, work, save money and buy his family out of slaver.

    4. Proof that he is free is back in St Petersburg, with whoever settled Miss Watson’s estate – mostly likely, Judge Thatcher.

    The thing for Huck to do is tell Jim, ‘Let’s go back home and get my money for an outfit, and your freedom paper, so you can go to the free states and work and save and get your family free.’

    But within a few paragraphs Huck tells us, ‘Aunt Sally wanted to adopt me and civilize me, and I couldn’t stand that. I’ve been there before.’ So he will ‘light out for the territory ahead of the rest.’ But how? He has no money for the outfit.

    And what will happen to Jim? Jim is in the same position as slaves who were set free by the Emancipation Proclamation: legally free, but homeless, jobless, often separated permanently from blood relatives. Jim is also surrounded by white people who are at least uncaring, and only a few pages ago were hostile enough to lynch him. Tom has finished having fun with him.

    What will happen to Jim when Huck runs away from society – being civilized – and abandons him to the whites who recently were ready to lynch him, who have paid 40 dollars for him; who won’t get any reward from his owner; who have fed him and taken trouble of him? Might they not wish to get a little profit from Jim by selling him off or simply enslaving him themselves? What is to stop them? More importantly, WHO is to stop them, since his ‘best’ and ‘only’ friend has vowed to ‘light out for the territory AHEAD OF THE REST’ – including Jim?

    I see no ‘God-given natural sense of right and wrong written on Huck’s heart and conscience’ in the resolution of this novel. I see Twain’s moral cowardice written into the actions of his ‘hero.’ Twain resigned his commission and walked away from the Civil War after two weeks in battle. The same year, his brother Orion was appointed secretary to the governor of the territory of Nevada, and Sam and Orion Clemens both ‘lit out for the territory’ in the overland stage-coach (see ‘Roughing It’). Twain spent the entire period of the Civil War outside the United States of America. When he returned to that country, he went to the north and remained in the north for many years (pay attention to Sherburn’s speech! Twain is describing himself!).

    Twain never used his ‘God-given, natural sense of right and wrong written on his heart and conscience’ to take an unpopular stand on the issue of slavery or rights for black people. And he couldn’t make Huck Finn do it, either. If Huck never really took a stand against society – if he could say near the end of the novel, after determining to set Jim free that ‘no one was hurt; killed a nigger’ – then clearly he never questioned society’s treatment of blacks, their slavery and degradation at the hands of whites.

    There is simply no evidence in the novel for Dr Kalpakgian’s assertion that ‘In a culture that legalizes slavery, buys and sells human beings as property or “chattel,” separates slaves from their spouses and children, rewards informants of any news leading to the arrest of runaway slaves, and punishes anyone with knowledge who does not give information, Huck remains pure of heart.’

    “Pure of heart’ is not accurate, since in fact, far from helping Jim reach his cherished goal of freedom (being in a free state), self-determination (working and saving to set his family free) and dignity (being able to be husband and father to his family, rather than mere ‘chattel’), Huck abandons Jim. Jim is separated from his spouse and beloved children and abandoned in the deep South where slavery is legal and he is in real danger of being bought or sold as chattel (Pap Finn remarked early in the novel that a free black man who was a professor of languages in the north could not be sold as a slave until he’d been in the state for six months; whether that is historical fact or whether it was the rule in Arkansas, it does not bode well for Jim’s undocumented ‘freedom’ being respected).

    Huck is not ‘pure in heart.’ He’s not ‘impure in heart’ either. He’s just like Twain: he likes Jim, but is ultimately oblivious to his real humanity, and careless of his fate.

  • The title of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has no “The” in it.