Cruelty in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Introduction: Ernest Hemingway commended the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by calling it a Masterpiece. He says, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn... it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since".

      Besides his acclamation of the book as a work of genius, he also expressed his disappointment with the denouement of the story. He said that we should stop reading "..where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end". This, according to Hemingway, should have been a more just conclusion of the story because "the rest is just cheating". The ending of the novel has given enough matter for critics to offer analysis on the ending in the novel. It has been criticized severely for the same.


      In chapter 33, when Huck reveals to Tom his plans to free Jim, he says, "There's one more thing - a thing that nobody doesn't know but me. And that is, there's a nigger here that I'm a trying to steal out of slavery and his name is Jim - old Miss Watson's Jim". Tom says:

What! Why Jim is - He stopped and went to studying...

      Now, looking in retrospect, we know why he had "stopped". Initially, Huck is apprehensive that Tom may not agree to "steal" Jim out of slavery. He is pleasantly surprised when the latter promises to help the former in his mission. Now we know why Tom agrees. That's because Jim is already free. In freeing Jim, Tom does not suffer the guilt of freeing a nigger and going against society. He is, unlike Huck, not have any mental dilemma. He is just obsessed with his pursuit of adventure that spurs him to carry out the mission.

      It is in the second-last chapter that we are made cognizant of Jim's free status. After being hurt in Chapter 40, Tom becomes unconscious. When he regains his consciousness, he tells Aunt Sally about the adventure. On learning that the boys had a hand in all that took place, Aunt Sally is confounded that it is these "little rapscallions, that's been making all this trouble, and turned everybody's wits clean inside out and scared us all most to death". She tells Tom that Jim has been recaptured and there is no way he can escape now. On hearing this news, Tom is awfully upset. He reveals that Jim is a free nigger as he has already been set free by Miss Watson in her Will. He says, "They ain't no right to shut him up! Shove! - and don't you lose a minute. Turn him loose! he ain't no slave; he's as free as any crater that walks this earth"! Apparently, Miss Watson had died two months ago and, on her deathbed, had felt remorse for having desired to sell Jim off.

      The revelation reinforces our belief that Tom treats Jim as only slightly better than the members of the slaveholding society. He does not inflict any physical miseries on the nigger. Nevertheless, he looks upon him with no regard for the latter's human feelings. At the end of the day, Jim is, to Tom, nothing more than a mere plaything.


      Swayed by the books of romance and heroic adventure, Tom realizes that a prisoner must have a "tame pet". He, therefore, forces Jim to live with snakes, rats, and other "companions". The fact that Jim is illiterate is no deterrent to his plans. He would still have the former write a journal with his own blood. Being one who could "out superintend any boy", he plays with Jim's frantic need to break free. So he forces him to reach all extremes. It indeed seems cruel that he forces Jim through all this when there was really a more simple way out. But a deeper peek into his character makes us realize that he would have done that to anyone.


      To adult and mature readers, all of Tom's antics seem to be quite frivolous and juvenile. Huck too would probably subscribe to our view regarding Tom's childishness. No doubt, even Huck is a young adolescent. He has also made mistakes like the one in Chapter 15. In their attempt to reach Cairo, during their voyage, they encounter a thick fog. They get separated from each other. After some time, when Huck finds Jim, the latter is sleeping and Huck plans to play a prank on him. When Jim expresses his happiness on seeing Huck, the latter pretends to have been with him all this while. He makes Jim believe that all this was but a nightmare. Recounting his "dream" to Huck, Jim adds his own connotations to the various images that he has seen in his "dream".

      This prank hurts Jim terribly who chastises Huck for being so cruel. "En all you wuz thinkin' 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes "em ashamed". But, by virtue of the fact that he is more matured and emotionally seasoned than Tom, he mellows down even though it takes him a good "fifteen minutes" to do so. "It made me feel so mean I could almost kiss his foot to get him to take it back". Through Huck's apology and sense of remorse, we find evidence of his maturity.

      But, assessing the situation from Tom's point of view, his aim is not to hurt Jim's feelings or make fun of his low social position. He is too innocent for such malice. In his efforts to free Jim, he resorts to all his convoluted plans just for the plain fun and thrill of adventure. That is the be-all and end-all, the sole rationale behind his actions.

      Tom's act of cruelty, in case we may call it that, reduces a serious subject to a hoax. The entire novel, up to this point is a scathing and realistic portrayal of society. Through the various incidents, it offers room for serious topics for discussion the malice of human beings for one another that makes us self-introspect. It discusses the issue of slavery that was the hot subject of the times. The young boy's severe mental dilemma is heart-rending. He has torn apart between his allegiance towards the society that is he is part of and that towards his friend and father figure, the nigger, Jim. The ending reduces the novel to one that is enveloped in the world of juvenile fantasies. Critics view the revelation as an instance of "abbreviated ejaculation", (Covici). Knowing Tom well, we are well-prepared for his "abbreviated ejaculations". We have always known him as a follower of books of romantic adventures and heroic feats. The foolishness of the robber gang and other foolish "ejaculations" prepare us for the deception that is coming at the end of the novel.

      The fact that he resorts to another hoax is not so surprising to us. By now, we know he is an incorrigible romantic. Moreover, he is not so cruel, after all. In Chapter 42, when Aunt Sally reveals that Jim has been recaptured, we notice that Tom is visibly upset. Tom rose square up in bed, with his eye hot, and his nostrils opening and shutting like gills, and sings out to me:

"They hain't no right to shut him up! Shove! - and don't you lose a minute..."


      Tom is, probably, simply responding to requirements of his age. On a more critical note, he is a reminder that cruelties and injustices would always exist. It is up to us to listen to the voice of our conscience and carry on despite them. It is up to us to be untouched by them and maintain our own clean conscience. Similarly, by encountering vice corruption, cruelty, and suffering, Huck learns the art of existence - how to exist in a society, and the world at large, infested with all these vices.

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