In this lesson, we will continue our exploration of Mark Twain’s most acclaimed work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, through an analysis of plot, characters, and theme.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has had a tremendous impact on the literary and educational communities in this country. In part one of our study of this novel we explored the characters and the ways in which their adventure unfolded down the Mississippi River.
It was the excitement and unpredictability of the plot that kept readers reading, along with that not-so-proper narrator who told it as he saw it.But if we were to discuss the lasting influence this novel has had, it is the ultimate messages of friendship, independence, and an ever-growing desire for personal freedom in the novel that have left an indelible mark on this country. It has also led many to believe that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrates to the reader that rugged individualism is as important an American belief as freedom for all.
While interesting and clearly an effective element in the accurate portrayal of the people and culture of an area, the use of dialect seemed crass to many, and the frank language and inclusion of one particular racial slur led some to conclude that, in fact, the book was racist. It also led to the book being banned from schools, dropped from library shelves, and condemned in communities. Another point some critics make: Twain’s depiction of Jim was too simple and stereotypical, which in and of itself presents a kind of racially charged undertone.
Controversial? Yes. A beloved story? Yes. Selling more copies than any other piece Twain had written, the story of this young swearing and smoking runaway gained immediate notoriety. Some thought it encouraged bad behavior, while others thought it was the first real, honest, and authentic piece of literature produced for the average working-class reader. And others, like Hemingway, felt truly that it was the one book from which all other American works of literature were born.
In a larger sense, this story follows a young boy as he struggles to make sense of the world in which he lives. He witnesses racism firsthand and knows it is wrong and yet deals with the moral dilemma of helping Jim, which he feared would be considered stealing.
On some level, Huck is very aware of the social constraints around him – the general lack of universal acceptance. However, he is also, at times, struck by the fact that he may not be doing the right thing – that he perhaps should turn Jim in. But the thing that holds him back is not so much a thoughtful consideration of law or morality but rather his friendship with Jim, which he knows to be true and honest in his heart.Through this relationship and Twain’s characterization of Jim as a kind and caring family man, the reader gets the sense that it would take the less-judgmental voice of a child to reveal the hypocrisy of a society in which the ownership of other human beings was common and okay. It’s also interesting to note that Huck himself survived a period of enslavement during which his own father was his keeper.
Despite his inability to articulate why directly, Huck knew it wasn’t right.In all sorts of ways, Twain weaves a story that reveals these hypocrisies of this civilized society. Huck’s father gets away with imprisoning, beating, and berating him.
Where was the legal system? Was this all Huck had? Jim finds out that he could be sold and separated forever from his family he loves so dearly – as we can see so clearly, not the right thing to do. Huck witnesses the murder of an innocent boy in a battle involving two feuding families. Quite possibly the saddest encounter for Huck, Buck Grangerford was an innocent victim of the anger and hate driving the barbaric actions of these prominent families.
In terms of the story, Twain really does illustrate what he views as the shaky moral foundation of this time period – and really the way people completely miss the mark and lose their sense of humanity. Huck and Jim, however, are the opposite – accepting of one another despite major differences between them. And in the end, Huck’s aversion to his formal education helps to support the idea that he learned what he needed to through instinct and friendship, honest listening and caring.
To him, their idea of formal schooling would have supported this not-so-accurate concept of civilization anyway.So it’s clear that Huck’s best moments were when he was with a friend traveling through the wilderness, and his worst moments took place inside societal structures and with so-called civilized people. Our plucky hero is so admirable not just because we love rebels, but because we love rebels who are outsiders themselves, fighting for what is right and good.
The Mississippi River
The Mississippi River could be Twain’s third main character in this novel – it’s ever-present, it’s ever-changing, and it’s ever-complicated.
If you consider the Mississippi in terms of symbolic value, you need to remember that it holds both good and bad qualities. First, the water (which in most works of literature, in a basic sense, symbolizes rebirth) does bring our Huck and Jim away from their prisons and towards a planned freedom. Yes, in that respect it’s good. However, in many ways, it is the means by which our characters meet their greatest challenges – the robbers, the steamship, the shenanigans brought by the King and the Duke.As a result, the river really does reflect the complicated time period in the region – the hope for freedom (as they ride the current), the inevitable obstacles (which the river carries), the constant struggle for individuality (on a body of water that keeps on going regardless of Jim and Huck as individuals). Both companion and challenger, the Mississippi River truly drives the plot in Twain’s work. Without it, there would be no story, no complications.
Symbolic of freedom? Yes. Representative of the slow-to-change South? Yes. Many consider the inclusion of the Mississippi as one of Twain’s most clever moves, as it truly does serve as a kind of character, plot structure, and symbolic device all at once.
Mark Twain was considered the greatest writer in the Realism movement in literature. Essentially a break from the lofty writings of the Romantics (think about heightened language and grand themes influenced by imagination, nature, and love), Realism marked a time when writing reflected the experiences of the larger, literate working-class audience. The idea was to present people and regions in a realistic light – Twain was one of the first to weave authenticity into a story.
Twain’s characters speak in the novel with regional dialects – this was a deliberate break from the more formal language in Romantic literature. Listen to this passage:‘I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens – there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right – and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time. .
. .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.
You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft. ‘His narrator does naughty things like swear and smoke – again, topics that weren’t previously included in stories – but that made for some really interested readers who, just maybe, related to his desire for freedom and rejection of formality itself. Huck lived in a world in which being a civilized child included schooling, manners, and religion, although Huck wanted nothing to do with it. All of this brought to the general public a much more palatable kind of writing, as it was truly much more relatable. As a clear example of regionalism, a subset of American Realism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses imagery, language, and relationships to show the reader what life was really like in Missouri and the South at the time.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most popular and controversial books ever written in the United States. While the story was one that was widely read, critics often didn’t know what to think. This type of story, one in which the characters spoke in regional vernacular, was new. As a result of this, the novel and author became a part of a larger literary movement called Regionalism.Most, however, step back and see the book as a tale of an unlikely bond that forms between two societal outcasts – a story in which both main characters are, in different ways, set free at the end. At times a hilarious adventure, the novel is carried by a narrator who reveals, in the simple way that only children can, how things are not right in the world and not fair in the least.
Twain makes a point of making Huck and Jim the actual heroes of the novel, persevering and surviving in a world that was slow to accept them and slow to change.Many believe that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn qualifies as the great American novel because of the great American motifs that arise – individualism, freedom, independence. Ultimately, this is one of those books that was truly a first, having been a part of starting a new literary tradition and bringing readers an unfiltered look at real life and real problems in the antebellum South.
Finishing this lesson should prepare you to:
- Discuss the influence The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has had on American literature as well as why it is sometimes considered controversial
- Analyze the book’s deeper meanings and the symbolism of the Mississippi River