The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Conventional Novel

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      "What makes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a controversial and banned book"; "What makes it important and popular in today's world" "Should it be banned for young school children", are pertinent issues that readers tackle, during a reading of the novel. Ever since the publication of the book in the year 1885, this issue has been one of prime importance. Critics have argued a great deal about whether or book should be banned but a unanimous opinion is yet to be arrived at. An endeavour to tackle this question involves not only knowledge of the storyline but also a sensitivity to discern the underlying themes in the novel as well as the socio-cultural times during which Mark Twain wrote.


      (a) The Use Of The "N" Word: The word, "nigger" has been used more than 200 times in the novel. This has been a serious bone of contention. Critics have argued that the use of the word exhibits Mark Twain's racist stance. In actuality, the use of this word is not directed at offending any particular race or ethnic group. Through the use of this word, Twain simply gives us an authentic and credible portrayal of the society of the times. In pre-Civil War America, as Historian James Horton has pointed out, "Slavery was no side show in American history - it was the main event." He remarks, "The value of slaves was greater than the dollar value of all America's banks, all of America's railroads, all of America's manufacturing put together". It was a time when slavery was the "acceptable" and the "right" thing. Treating (or ill treating) blacks as personal property, or like cattle that could be sold in the open market - this was the verity during those times. When it came to the slaves, there was no question of equality or human rights. Any attempts to suppress these facts would amount to deceit. We'd rather face facts and let them surface instead of concealing them.

      (b) Faulty Grammar And Unrefined English: Twain uses various local dialects:- the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect. The novel makes use of certain words and sentence structures that may De disgusting to a purist and fastidious reader. While Tom's speech and is choice of words is logical, refined and grammaticalily correct; it has a suggestion of education, whereas, that of Pap and Huck is full of grammatical slip-ups and Malapropisms. But Huck and Pap are, after all, "ornery" people with "ornery" speech. Jim's speech is even more unintelligible.

Doan' hurt me - don't! I hain't ever done no harm to a ghos'. I alwuz liked dead people, en done allI could for em. You go en git in de river agin, whah you blongs, en doan do nuffn to Ole Jim, at 'uz awluz yo' fren.... Whats de use er makin up de camp fire to cook strawbries en sich truck? But you got a gun, hain't you? Den we kin git sumfn better den strawbries.

O, it's de dad-blame' witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey's awluz atit, sah, en dey do mos' kill me, dey skyers me so. Please to don't tell nobody bout it, sah, er ole mars Silas hell scole me; kase he say dey ain' no witches. I jus' wish to goodness he was heah now den what would he say! I jis bet he couldn fine no way to git aroun' it dis time. But it's awluz jis' so: people dat's sot, stays sot; dey won't look into noth'n en fine it out fr deyselves, en when you fine it out en tell um 'bout it, dey doan b'lieve you.

      The use of heavy dialect is another leading rationale behind the controversy that the book has faced. The book has been castigated as one that makes use of unintelligible and incorrect language, thereby having a unbecoming impact on young and impressionable minds, guiding them towards flawed, jumbled and erroneous grammar.

      According to the "New York Times", on March 19 1885, the Concord Library Committee thought that Huck, Finn was unsuitable for their shelves and perceived it as "trashy and vicious". In March 1885, the newspaper, Boston Daily Advertiser, stated that "in papers from one end of the country to the other the statement is published and commented upon that the public library committee of Concord has marked Huckleberry Finn' as unworthy of a place on its shelves".

      The book was judges as being "absolutely immoral in its tone" and members of the Library committee had numerous incisive comments to make all of which point towards the "unworthiness" of the book. Some said that it was "couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect and that "all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions". Another member reviewed it as "flippant" and "trash of the veriest sort". They unanimously felt that "it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating" and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library "of a town which boasts the only 'summer school of philosophy' in the universe.

      But it cannot be refuted that these different dialects add a distinct sense of verisimilitude to Twain's narration. By their use, he steers clear of the danger of letting readers suppose that all the characters are trying to speak the same language. Huck cannot speak Queen's English and no amount of editing could have corrected the syntax and grammar used by Twain. No doubt the novel makes use of certain words and sentence structures that may be disgusting to a purist reader. Nevertheless, the vernacular that Twain employed in his writings definitely adds a touch of verisimilitude and regional, local color. It cannot be returned that Mark Twain could not have taken the risk of making his characters use refined language and flamboyant vocabulary in their conversations. How would he, then, explain the innocence and inexperience of Huck, the illiteracy and crudeness of Jim and the unsophistication of Pap. The use of the dialect is, indeed, a painstaking effort to add a hint of realism; efforts that are based on Twain's familiarity with this kind of language, as a result of his stay on Uncle John Quarles farm in Florida.

      (c) Controversy Over Huck And Jim's Friendship: This controversy arises due to the plain and simple fact that Jim is a black slave while Huck belongs to the superior "white" class. In view of the above, certain extremist attitudes cannot put up with their friendship. Let's not forget that their friendship should not be vilified as Jim, certainly, has a positive effect on Huck. It is owing to Jim's physical and spiritual presence that Huck reaches the zenith of his moral progression. Had Jim not been there to guide the boy, emotionally and morally, Huck would have grown up to be nothing better than one of the other "white" characters in the novel who look down upon fellow human beings merely on the basis of skin colour and social eminence. Though, in the beginning of the novel, Huck too does not hold Jim in very high esteem, his perceptions transform, by and by. Nowhere in the novel do we get an impression that Huck scorns Jim for what he is. On the other hand, Huck, too, accepts him as one of us, esp. when, in chapter 40, he comments, "I knowed he was white inside".

      (d) Inappropriate For Children: Critics have also argued about the inappropriateness of the novel for children. Their view is that the hero of the novel, Huck Finn, should be a boy whom young and impressionable minds should emulate. On the contrary, Huck is a vagabond who doesn't like to go to school, spends his time in useless pursuits, dressed in rags. He often runs away from home. "...when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied..... Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me.. (chapter 1). He is pretty disrespectful towards the widow's sister, Miss Watson and doesn't pay much attention to them when they try to teach him good manners and about religion and the significance of being good.

      Conventional and traditional viewpoints do not subscribe to such behaviour. No doubt, it is misleading for pliable young minds to make them recognize this kind of life as an ideal one and one that is caretree and glamorous. But let's not get carried away by the outward unpleasant and damaging message that Huck is trying to convey. This is only a realistic portrayal of how a poor orphan would behave, under such circumstances. Huck is, after all, practically alone in the whole wide world. He doesn't have a soul to call his own; nor does he have the emotional or physical security of a conventional family. On the contrary, his father is the meanest of creatures in his life. How, then, could one expect Huck to conduct himself?

      Nevertheless, as we get to understand his psyche better, we realize that, instead of being a corrupting influence on children, Huck has a powerful and robust message for them. He is one who, despite having no privileges and opportunities, makes the best of what he has, on his own steam. He doesn't have the security of a family like Tom or other boys of his age. Nor does he have any guiding light in his life who would make sure that Huck treads the right path. All that he has is the guardianship of Widow Douglas who, though reasonably kind towards him, is hardly a positive influence. Despite all her niceties and religiosity, it cannot be refuted that there is an iota of hypocrisy in her as well.

      Notwithstanding these odds in life, Huck reaches a moral development that eludes the educated and literate Tom. He succeeds in his search for identity and is able to arrive at his own paradigm of "right" and "wrong". His yardstick for judging people is independent or what society believes in. Moreover, he puts others to shame by showing empathy for fellow human beings - not just Jim but also the Wilks girls, the two frauds (when they are being "tarred and feathered" in chapter 33) as well as the robbers on board the Walter Scott. How many children, his age, can boast of such maturity, compassion and principles? Isn't Huck, therefore, a role model for them, rather than being somebody having a corrupting impact?

      Even the brutal murder of Boggs by Col. Sherburn or the death of Buck and the other members of the Southern royal families are realities of life. So is the fact that people are not always what they appear to be (the swindlers who dupe people). The earlier children gain cognizance of these hard facts, the better it is for them.


      The novel is not merely about racism, slavery, ethnicities or concepts of "right" or "wrong" as propounded by society. It is about a more profound message that a discerning reader can comprehend; it is about (Huck's) search for identity; it explores the moral progression and maturity of a young fourteen-year old adolescent. All these elements of the novel are not contentious; they are a part and parcel of real life. A young boy's passage into maturity and manhood, his original perceptions of and emotional attachment with a fellow human being who gives hima lot of love and affection - all these are aspects of life, as we see and experience it.

      The book also educates us on a myriad of aspects and teaches us some important life-lessons. It shows that blacks can be as sensitive and compassionate as blacks; they can, perhaps, be more so. Their feelings and emotions, towards their loved ones, can be as profound and sincere as those of "whites" for theirs.

      The second factor that the book draws our attention to is the fact that the world is full of "frauds", "humbugs" and "hypocrites". People are not always what they appear to be, on the surface. A befitting instance of this is the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons and, more importantly, the "King" and the "Duke".


      Through a satirical portrayal of the society of the times, Mark Twain castigates not just the 19th century American society or that of the town of Arkansas, but that of all times. In chapter 22, Col. Sherburn gives us a severe speech on the (false) notion of human bravery. He says,

"'re brave enough to tar and feather poor friendless cast-out women that come along here, did that make you think you had grit enough to lay your hands on a man?.. I know the average all around. The average man's a coward....Your newspapers call you a brave people so much that you think you are braver than any other people - whereas youre just as brave, and no braver.. The average man don't ike trouble and danger. You don't like trouble and danger. But if only half a man like Buck Harkness, there shouts Lynch him! lynch him!' you're afraid to back down - afraid you'll be found out to be what you are - cowards - and so you raise a yell, and hang yourselves on to that half-a-man's coat-tail, and come raging up here, swearing what big things you're going to do.."

      Such a revelation almost makes us wriggle with shame as the attack is directed towards humanity in is entirety.

      By ridiculing external polish of the so-called aristocratic Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, Twain busts the myth of refinement and social consciousness of people. The hollowness of people's religious beliefs and inclination comes to the fore when, in chapter 20, the "King", the "Duke" and Huck come to a large congregation of people. They have gathered under some sheds but, instead of having their heart and soul in the preaching that's going on, they are more engrossed in flirting and displays of melodrama. "Some of the old women was knitting, and some of the young folks was courting on the sly".

      Despite an outward stance of equality, we are still inundated with the abyss of racism as well as concepts of caste, creed and colour. This is true of all societies and nationalities in the world.

      Such revelations serve as an eye-opener for us, too. How often we too perceive ourselves as religious, brave and righteous. As a result of Twain's uncompromising and stern remarks, we are steered towards self-introspection. Like an efficient puppeteer, Mark Twain uses his characters not just to entertain but also reveal certain hard facts that formed a part of the world - then and now. The fact that critics have spent so many decades discussing the book, trying to fathom the profundities of its underlying connotations speaks volumes about the relevance and popularity of the book.

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