The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Huckleberry Finn (1884)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written by Mark Twain and was published in 1884 in the United Kingdom and in 1885 in the United States. Twain (1835-1910) was one of America’s leading authors and humorists.
A sort-of sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn begins where Tom Sawyer left off: dealing with the money that Tom and Huck had found in a robber’s cave. Huck is taken home by the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson, who both try to reform him. Huck gradually becomes at ease with this, but the arrival of his monstrous father Pap disrupts Huck’s life and drags him away in to the woods, keeping Huck a prisoner. Eventually Huck fakes his own murder and escapes from Pap, taking to an island on the Mississippi River. On the island he discovers Jim, Miss Watson’s slave, who ran away because he overheard Miss Watson planning to sell him. Huck promises not to report Jim, and the two take to the river on a raft that they found.
A rambling life of adventure follows, with Huck and Jim sometimes being separated but always eventually reuniting. Huck becomes embroiled in the Grangerford- Shepherdson feud, staying with the Grangerfords and helping one of the Grangerford daughters elope with a Shepherdson son. (Unfortunately Huck’s host and host’s son die in the ambuscade that follows the elopement.) Huck and Jim meet the “Duke” and the “King,” a pair of con men who swindle their way down the river. Eventually the King sells Jim for the reward money, leading Huck to agonize over whether to be a good Christian, civilized boy, and return Jim to his slave master, or to help Jim escape and (Huck thinks) go to Hell. Huck decides to go to Hell and to help Jim escape.
Huck finds out where Jim is being held and goes there to rescue him, only to find out that it is the farm of Tom Sawyer’s uncle and aunt who mistake Huck for Tom. Tom happens along, and joins in the foolery, pretending to be cousin Sid Sawyer. Tom agrees to help Huck free Jim, but wants to make the escape more complicated and romantic. Eventually they do help him escape, but in the ensuing chaos (Tom’s scheme backfires) Tom is shot in the leg. Jim is recaptured, but Tom reveals that he has been keeping secret that Miss Watson died, giving Jim freedom in her will. Tom recovers, Jim reveals that Huck’s father is dead, and Huck decides to light out for the frontier because Tom’s Aunt Sally is going to try to adopt him and civilize him.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel that most students will have read (or at least skimmed) in high school. Approached years later, as either college students or adults, readers will find it a much different and more difficult book than they remember.
Historically, of course, Huckleberry Finn has been viewed as one of the landmark works of American fiction. After an initially rough reception, with none other than Louisa May Alcott (Little Women) leading the charge to have it banned from her local library, Huckleberry Finn has won over both readers and critics, with no less than Ernest Hemingway writing that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway is giving way to hyperbole, but one of his points is the inarguably true statement that Twain took vernacular American English and made poetry and literature with it in Huckleberry Finn, and that Twain, being the first to do so, liberated all following American writers to use properly American voices and properly American idioms to write literature in, rather than in imitation of English writers.
Huckleberry Finn is also perhaps the finest American attempt at the picaresque novel. Twain, in Huckleberry Finn, does an excellent job (despite the close focus on Huck’s point of view) of establishing other characters’ characters and voices. The dialects in which Twain tells the story are initially distracting and even bothersome, but the reader quickly becomes used to the dialects and eventually they become invisible to the reader. And there are enough lyrical passages and subtle characterization to satisfy those interested in High Art, and enough hairs- breadth escapes and picaresque adventures and low humor to satisfy those interested in entertainment and diversion. Twain has excellent control of his material and has created a compulsively readable novel.
And yet, and yet…. Huckleberry Finn is a deeply uncomfortable novel to read, in a number of respects. Foremost among them is the complex question of whether or not Huckleberry Finn is a racist novel—a question that quickly leads into tangled territory, indeed. Proponents of the yes- it-is-racist argument point to the novel’s casual use of the word “nigger” and to the sometimes caricatured and stereotypical characterization of Jim and the other African Americans. Those who disagree with the argument point to the multivalent nature of Jim’s characterization, of how he is often three- dimensional and a father figure to Huck without being a stereotype, of how the use of stereotypes is often undercut by the text itself. I tend to come down on the side of not- racist, but the fact that there the is- racist argument has substantial ammunition for their argument is (or should be) troubling to the modern reader.
More broadly, Huckleberry Finn is an uncomfortable novel to read, as Toni Morrison cogently notes, because of the authorial choices Twain made. Important moments are told rather than shown—Huck’s apology to Jim, for one. Scenes end abruptly, with none of the denouement readers expect, much less the lagniappe readers hope for. Characterization must be interpreted as much from elisions or allusions as from action and narration. There are what Morrison calls “entrances, crevices, gaps, seductive invitations flashing the possibility of meaning. Unarticulated eddies that encourage diving into the novel’s undertow— the real place where writer captures reader.”1
Huckleberry Finn is an uncomfortable novel to read because of its darkness. The novel is not death- obsessed, but death is a dreadful constant for Huck, from the threats of Pap to the death of Buck Grangerford. Emotional and physical violence, too, is ever- present in Huck’s world, again starting with Pap and extending throughout the novel, notably including the atrocious joke Tom Sawyer plays upon Jim at the end of the novel and the implicit physical violence to be enacted against Jim as a runaway slave, and Huck can very easily be seen as an abused child learning to adapt to his abused status by lying, misbehaving, and ultimately running away.
Huckleberry Finn is an uncomfortable novel to read because its themes— death and rebirth, freedom and bondage, the search for a father, the individual versus society, the flaws of “civilization” and its contrast with the purity of the frontier—are reified in harsh contrasts, with each opposing theme becoming unpleasant realities for Huck. Even his discovery of a father figure in Jim comes with troubling undercurrents: can Jim, a black slave, truly be a father to Huck, who holds the ultimate power of life and death over Jim?
And Huckleberry Finn is an uncomfortable novel to read because of its ending. Picaresque novels’ endings are of course usually unsatisfying—one doesn’t want the journey to end or the picaro/picara to have a happily- everafter— but Twain complicated the issue by choosing such an abrupt and even disappointing ending for Huck and Jim’s story. Set aside the vicious “joke” Tom plays on Jim, and set aside the penultimate happy ending for Jim that Hemingway called “cheating.” Is Huck’s setting out for the frontier Twain’s way of having Huck refuse the responsibilities of adulthood, and prolonging his adolescence— or is it Twain’s own refusal to impose adulthood on the ever- adolescent Huck? Is Twain making a statement about the preferability of clean, uncivilized life compared to the hypocritical, straight- laced civilization of Aunt Sally? Is Huck’s flight from Jim an indication of Huck’s inability to reconcile his relationship with Jim and the adventures they’ve had together with the strictures a racist society places on relationships between whites and blacks? Is Twain indulging in juvenile escapism with Huck’s flight in a novel that confronts Huck and the reader with numerous harsh realities? Questions about the ending abound, with no resolution in sight.
As children and teenagers readers undoubtedly focus on the surface elements of the novel and find it satisfactohry on that level. But as adults readers will find Huckleberry Finn a strange, uncomfortable reading experience, and all the more rewarding because of it.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Oxford University Press, 1996).
For Further Research
McCrum, Robert. “The 100 Best Novels: No. 23—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.” http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/24/100bestnovelshuckleberryfinntwain.
Morrison, Toni. “This Amazing, Troubling Book.” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Oxford University Press, 1996).
1 Qtd in Peter Messent, New Readings of the American Novel. London: Macmillain, 1990, 236-237.