The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Critical Analysis

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      The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins with a warning to the reader. The introduction states, "PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot". Despite the 'warning, readers and critics alike have been trying to fathom the depths of the novel and delve into its underlying connotations.

      It is a book that is suited to almost all the ages. A young adolescent reads it for its fun and love of adventure. It is, indeed, interesting to accompany Huck on his journey down the river Mississippi, live on fish and have the freedom of not going to school - of course, all this is enjoyable from a little boy's perspective, without digging into the undertones of the story. To an older and more mature reader, it becomes a more intense book with a heavier underlying implication. He becomes cognizant of the ways of the world and is able to identify himself in his surroundings. An older reader is also able to discern the baseness and malice of human beings and the fact that, at times, humanity can be so vindictive. Nonetheless, he concedes to this characteristic of humankind.

      The novel is considered a sequel to Twain's earlier novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Though it was, initially, banned by the Concord Public Library for various reasons, eventually, it came to be appreciated as Twain's masterpiece. The book is in the quintessential archaic dialect. It makes use of the Missouri Negro dialect; the extremist form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike Country" dialect and other forms of it.

      Besides the use of dialect, which makes its interpretation quite incomprehensible to the modern reader, the book has also been derided tor the use of incorrect grammar and sentence construction. It was regarded as "the veriest trash", "rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people". The members of the Concord Public Library rejected the book as "trash that is not worth shelf room'".

      To a fastidious and purist reader, no doubt, this is some cause of concern. But it should not be forgotten that, by virtue of these colloquialisms, the novel preserves its essence of reality. Characters, especially the uneducated lot, such as Huck Finn, Pap and Jim, cannot be expected to speak flawless English. It would have gone against their very disposition and situation. Instead of trivializing the book on the basis of such accusations, by using raw English, Twain's uses commendable sense of judgment and lends the book an unparalleled aura of versimilitude. This is precisely the reason why Twain says he uses these dialects. In the "Explanatory" note to the novel, the novelist writes, "The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech....I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding".

      Moreover, the use of colloquial language raised the book to unparalleled heights in the history of American Literature. It melted away the firm dividing line between spoken and written literary parlance. By bringing about this dissolution, the book was a pioneer in so far as it broke away from the standards of literary writing as propounded by European Literature. In his 1935 book, The Green Hills of Africa, the great writer, Ernest Hemingway, commended Huckleberry Finn. He wrote "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn... All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since".

      The book has also been singled and criticized for being a racist book. For Twain's critics, the novel is racist on the face of it, and for the most obvious reason: many characters use the word "nigger" throughout. It makes repeated use of the "N" word. The word has been used more than two hundred times throughout the novel. It has been pointed out hat such utilization is offensive, especially to readers who belong to the Afro-American community. It touches the raw nerve of black people. Probably, a cursory reading of the book subscribes to this view. But, a taled and more profound scrutiny of the story brings us face to face with the fact that nothing can be farther from the truth. Twain is, by no means, inclined towards racism. On the other hand, by portraying Jim, the only nigger in the novel, in a positive light, he steers us towards empathy for him. Twain shows that, despite being, ostensibly, the most uncouth and unrefined character in the novel, he has the sort of humanity that evades almost all other characters in the novel. Jim is a primitive person; he has faith in the supernatural and also induces Huck to believe in his beliefs. Yet, when the situation demands, he demonstrates more intelligence, superior moral scruples and a healthier attitude towards fellow human beings, including even those who do not deserve his kindness.

      Moreover, the following quotes from the man' himself are enough to give us a real picture of Twain's thoughts and beliefs about blacks. Twain said, "One of my theories is that the hearts of men are about alike, all over the world, whatever their skin-complexions may be"; "Nearly all black and brown skins are beautiful, but a beautiful white skin is rare".

      Twain's association with and admiration of blacks began as a result of the former's childhood friendship with Uncle Dan'l. He felt deep respect for the nigger in the same way that Huck, sometimes, admires Jim. Twain's views that "There are many humorous things in the world; among them is the white man's notion that he is less savage than all the other savages", aptly sum up his standpoint on this issue. In the light of this argument, it would be apt to state that Twain has, on no account, a tendency towards racism. The great black novelist, Ralph Ellison, also observes how, through Twain's portrayal of Jim, the latter's "dignity and human capacity" becomes apparent in the novel. He writes, "...Jim was not only a slave but a human being (and) a symbol of humanity... and in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil taken for civilization by the town....".

      Also, lets not forget that the action in the book takes place in the South, almost twenty years before the Civil War began. We should steer clear of attempting an analysis of the book from the point of view of the present day world. An awareness of the cultural, social and political scenario of the times will check our misinterpretation of the novel. Twain's times were those when slavery was an accepted reality. This was the acknowledged actuality of the times and society had no qualms about conceding to it. In the light of the above social and political scenario, it would have been improbable if the characters in the novel did not use that word.

      The novel is also considered to be a partly autobiographical novel. Excerpts from Mark Twain's Autobiography reveal that the people geographical locations as well as the social and religious conventions are modeled on the lines of what Twain saw during his lifetime - from childhood to adulthood.

      Twain's maternal Uncle, John Quarles, had a farm in Florida. Twain spent a major part of his childhood there. The Phelps farm in the novel seems to have been based on the description of the Quarles' farm. Uncle Dan'l', a slave in John Quarles' farm seems to be the model for the portrayal of Jim, the runaway slave irt Huckleberry Finn. Twain's familiarity with the length and breadth of he Mississippi river in the novel is on account of his days as a steamboat pilot in the late 1850s. Even the town of St. Petersburg, the town in which Huck lives, when the novel opens, is based on the small town of Hannibal that Twain's family relocated to.

      By telling the story through the young boy, who is also the protagonist of the novel, Twain voices his opinions on a myriad of his favourite subjects. He satirizes various social and religious institutions that he savored right from his childhood. People belonging to the so-called "sivilized" and genteel society have their minds basically entrenched in certain social conventions. Their social conditioning makes it difficult for them to break free from them. Religious people like Widow Douglas and her younger sister, Miss Watson, believe in the concepts of "Heaven" and "Hell" and those of "spiritual gifts"; they believe in being good to others. No doubt, they are kind towards the orphan, Huck Finn. But aren't their niceties towards him as a result of the underlying fact that he belongs to the "white" society? How compassionate and humane are they towards Jim, after all? Is the fact, that Jim is a nigger, enough to deny him all the privileges of a human being? While this society strives to give Huck a decent and respectable life and a surrogate family; they don't flinch at their act of taking Jim away from his family members. This is the concept of goodness and religiosity that Twain satirizes. While they are God-fearing and truly "Christian" people, they see nothing wrong in stripping a fellow human being of his dignity and selling him for a measly sum.

      The two slave traders that Huck encounters in Chapter 16, profess to be extremely worried about the welfare of Huck's father, who is supposed to be suffering from Small pox. Their concern is valid only as long as Huck leaves them alone and they get away by shelling out some money. An Chapter 18, the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons go to church and revel in the beautiful preachings on "brotherly love", but when the time comes to practice, they don't demonstrate an Qunce of this brotherly love or tolerance.

      The theme of entry and escape is one of the major themes in the book. Jim strives to escape from slavery and Huck thirsts for escape from the constricting environment that society has to offer. But the book is not Just about the themes of freedom and escape. It is also about Huck's moral growth. Because of his social conditioning, the boy begins his life believing that slavery is part of life. As the story progresses, he wrestles with his conscience to try and justify his actions. He decides he would rather condemn himself to the "everlasting fire" than be disloyal to his black friend.

      In a recent American survey of banned books, the "American Library Association ranked Huckleberry Finn the fifth most frequently challenged book of the 1990s. Of course, the book has its drawbacks. Mark Twain makes it amply clear that he is making a young, uneducated lad tell the story. In the second page of the book (line 8), Huck says, "The widow... She put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn't do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up. Well, then, the old thing Commenced again..... .". How does an uneducated waif like Huck use the word "commence", instead of "begin" or "start"? This is a valid point of contention against the realism offered by the book. Nevertheless, such minor faults cannot take away the novel's right to be regarded as Twain's masterpiece.

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