Mark Twain, born Samuel Longhorne Clemens in 1835, was unquestionably one of the finest satirists and authors that America has produced. In 1876 his wit and skill shone in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” a story that became so popular that he quickly began work on a sequel, though it was not completed and published until 1884.
Like “Tom Sawyer,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” tells a young boy’s story in inimitable Mark Twain style. However, it has a more serious edge, with its critical look at the South and especially the institution of slavery.
“Huck Finn” is told in first person by the title character, with liberal use of boyish slang and dialect. Huck sets the stage by reminding his audience how, at the end of “Tom Sawyer” he came into possession of a large sum of money. As a result, Huck has been adopted and “sivilized” by the well-meaning Widow Douglas, until his alcoholic father kidnaps him in an attempt to steal the money. Huck eventually grows tired of his father’s mistreatment, fakes his own murder, and escapes. The story then follows Huck’s journey down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim, the runaway slave of the Widow Douglas’s sister, Miss Watson.
Huck and Jim bond over many adventures in the course of their travels, culminating in their rescue of a pair of men who turn out to be charlatans billing themselves as ”the duke” and “the dauphin.” When the shady business of these two leaves them in dire financial straits, they scheme to collect on the reward being offered for Jim’s capture and sell him to a local farmer.
Huck discovers that Jim is being held at the home of the Phelps family, who by coincidence are Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle. When Tom comes for a visit he agrees to help Huck free Jim, devising an extraordinarily and unnecessarily complicated plan for doing so.
“Huck Finn” is more than a simple adventure story: It is a thinly disguised critique of the hypocrisy of civilization in the South. Throughout the novel, Mark Twain turns upside down the expectations of society. Huck is a poor white boy who glibly tells lies to cover his tracks, and yet he is good-hearted and values honesty in his core. Women like Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas are well-meaning toward some human beings but have much less consideration for their slaves. The duke and the dauphin appear to be respectable white men, but are in reality unprincipled thieves and double-crossers. In Tom we see this concept in caricature. Tom is not bad at heart, but he has an overgrown imagination and enjoys concocting elaborate and ridiculous plans in spite of the pain or inconvenience they cause because that’s “how it’s supposed to be” based on the books he reads.
The relationship between Huck and Jim is another example of these ideas at work. “Sivilized” society has taught Huck that slaves are property, and as a result Huck is guilt-ridden over helping Jim escape. Huck agonizes over his dilemma until his genuine love for Jim overrules the conscience that condemns him for violating the rules of chattel slavery. For his part, Jim is willing to sacrifice his freedom to help Tom at the end of the book. The hypocrisy Huck sees in the higher classes of society is what drives Huck away from more “sivilizing”; as he says, “I been there before.” Though he thinks he’ll be condemned to hell for helping Jim, the reader can see that he is acting more in accordance with true Christianity than many who call themselves Christians.
When evaluating this classic for potentially controversial material, one must take into account the place and time in which it was written and set. What is now considered a highly offensive name for blacks was then a common part of speech and as such is used liberally. For this reason, “Huck Finn” “has been one of the most frequently challenged and banned books in America.” However, aside from this, the (unsympathetic) depiction of the alcoholism of Huck’s father and the matter-of-fact way Huck refers to his own heavy smoking are the only issues that may be of concern to parents.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” surely deserves the popularity it has enjoyed over the last century. It is in a sense a cultural snapshot, a critical look at a particular time and place in our nation’s history, delivered with perceptiveness and wit that could only come from Mark Twain.
Image copyright Penguin Books. Review copy from the reviewer’s personal collection.
Katrina King is a freelance writer and classical musician in Virginia.