Mark Twain Realism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Samuel Clemens Longhorne, better known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain, is known to be a realist writer - one who, in his novels, has exhibited a strong abhorrence for sentimentality and Romanticism. An icon of American Literature, while Mark Twain has been lauded for his realistic portrayal of life, along with all its sordidness and reality, he has also been disparaged for his questioning of society's accepted ideals and beliefs.

      The verisimilitude in Twain's writings is believed to stem from his proclivity towards iconoclasm and misanthropy. In 1920, the famous American critic, Van Wyck Brooks observed that "to those who are interested in American life and letters there has been no question of greater significance, during the last few years, than the pessimism of Mark Twain... his oft-expressed belief that man is the meanest of the animals and life a tragic mistake." The misfortunes, regarding family and finances, that he faced during his lifetime seem to have formed the basis for his pessimistic cynicism and the unpleasant portrayal of mankind.

      Defining "Realism" as a true picturing of everyday life, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is Twain's attempt to chronicle the factual picture of life in the Post Civil War America. Twain goes on to describe the social, religious and political scenario of his times. The novel tells us about the conflict between civilization and the crudity of "natural" life. Huck Finn, a fourteen-year old adolescent, is a crude and boorish lad - one who loves his carefree life of abandon. He is adopted by a Widow Douglas. She takes pains to ameliorate his social status by educating him and teaching him manners and the code of conduct that befits a gentleman. However, Huck decides that such refined manners and gentlemanly behavior are not for him. He detests the restrictions imposed upon him by the expectations of the genteel lot and chooses to embrace his erstwhile way of life.

      One of the most acclaimed representations of Twain's realism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the novelist's sincere attempt to portray the thought processes of people of his times. Despite the fact that slavery had been abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the mindset of people was yet to change. They had lived in an environment that condoned the malicious treatment meted out to the blacks. The latter were considered incapable of basic human instincts like emotions and love. Huck decides to help a nigger, Jim, move towards his freedom. Like everyone around him, the young boy has also been brought up with the belief that slavery is the 'right' and 'acceptable' thing. During the course of his odyssey, he goes through an arduous time, trying to justify his actions to himself. In his heart of hearts, he knows that, in helping Jim, he is taking the right step. But his teachings and social conditioning dont let hum get over his guilty conscience. At every step, he is shaken by the his voice of conscience that makes him conscious of his socially unethical deed. In depicting the mental dilemma that drives Huck to learn to take his own decisions, Twain presents elements of psychological realism that forms the basis of his realistic mode of writing. Huck, like us, has learnt to satisfy his inner self by breaking away from the constricting and cramping codes of social demeanor. Whether it is his resolution to help the Wilks sisters or his decision to help Jim move towards freedom, Huck has gathered enough moral courage to find his own path and derive self satisfaction.

      The world of the day, seen through the eyes of the young lad, Huck Finn, is a faithful portrayal of Twain's times where the latter tries to invalidate the so called social norms and the duplicity of "civilized, society".

      The gloom, despair and pessimism of the times also come to light through the portrayal of Huck's personal circumstances. Huck is an inhabitant of the town of St. Petersburg: a young child, neglected by society and abused by a worthless father who remains drunk almost round the clock. Far from serving as a role-model for his son, the father beats him up mercilessly. In a drunken stupor, he evern tries to kill his son.

      In general, Mark Twain tends to depict the common folk, "the damned human race", with derision. The novelist comes quite close to viewing mankind as, by and large, bad and human nature as utterly hideous. His writings were in sharp contrast to the Romantics view of humankind as essentially good and kind. Some critics have attributed Twain's misanthropy and cynicism to personal circumstances and the ill-fortune, regarding family and finances, which he encountered right from a very early age. Twain lost his father when he was barely 12 years old. This loss entailed him to abandon his studies and look for employment, as a printer, to support his family. He also suffered failure in business, which left him with a load of debt. But Van Wyck Brooks avers that Twain faced no more than a reasonable share of troubles and misfortunes during his lifetime. But generally, he is believed to be a man of a cheerful disposition; he had been blessed with a buoyant personality and did not suffer from anything akin to clinical depression. Brooks ascribes Twain's pessimism and misanthropy to the fact that he was a frustrated artist who, despite his sweat to reach the pinnacle of literary ingenuity, ended up as a mere humorist and storyteller.

      Whatever may be the reasons behind Twain's unhappy and disconsolate portrayal of human beings, the fact still remains that he viewed human race as essentially vindictive and spiteful. In his portrayal of the King and the Duke, he leaves no stone unturned to present humanity in its most insensitive and thoughtless form. The two men are icons of crassness. They lack any sense of humanity and do not cringe at the prospect of swindling people. They are base enough to plot against the innocent nieces of the deceased Peter Wilks and don't display the slightest emotion. They exhibit the most lowly demeanor by duping the "fatherless and motherless" girls, the "poor sweet lambs".

      Through the portrayal of the Duke and the King, Twain offers us no hope of expecting goodness and nicety from human beings. He portrays them the way they were in the America of yesteryears and the way they are now - corrupt, uncaring and thick-skinned.

      In chapter 21, Twain introduces us to people of a "lazy town". Inhabited by sluggish people, who derive pleasure from petty pastimes like dog fights, the town is another realistic expose of the period. It is here that Huck witnesses the gory sight of the murder of an irritating yet harmless drunkard, Boggs, by Col. Sherburn, "a proud-looking man about fifty-five and he was a heap the best dressed man in that town, too. Following this, a mob of people collects outside the Colonel's house, threatening to "lynch" him. He assails them scornfully and calls them "cowards", "half" men.

"The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that's what an army is - a mob; they don't fight with courage that's born in them, but with courage that's borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any man at the head of it is beneath pitifulness. Now the thing for you to do is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole. If any real lynching's going to be done it will be done in the dark, Southern fashions and when they come they'll bring their masks, and fetch a man along".

      He boos them away. Col. Sherburn's speech probably echoes Iwan notion of "the brave man". And, indeed, the townsfolk are cowards, not real men". They lack the grit to stand up against this ridicule. Their idea of bravery is to set a stray-dog's tail to fire and derive pleasure other such pursuits. Twain mocks at the mob mentality, not just or times but also of all ages.

      Twain's disapproval of the 19th century Romanticism adds another dimension to the Realism upheld by him. The novelist's contempt of Romanticism further steers him towards realism.

      19th century romantic writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and sir Walter Scott wrote with the flamboyance that was characteristic of them. Twain detested their ornate descriptions and flashy parlance. His style was more realistic and diction more colloquial.

      The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century drastically changed the outlook of the multitude of people affected by it. The advent of new machinery equipped people with a new source of earning their livelihood. No longer did they have to bank upon archaic methods of farming to provide for their families. This meant that people no longer had the time or persistence to revel in the tardiness of flowery, romantic literature. Realist literature was something that contemporary people could relate to more closely. It helped them associate it with their own struggle.

      If realism is the attempt to portray characters and situations with truth and sincerity, even at the expense of plot and story, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a commendable effort. In the novel, Twain uses various local dialects the Missouri negro dialect; the extremist form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County", dialect. These various dialects add a definite sense ot realism to Twain's narration. By their use, he steers clear of thie pitfall of letting readers suppose that all the characters are trying to speak the same language. It is true that the use of dialects poses comprehension problems for modern readers. Nevertheless, Twain does not compromise on the element of reality. He makes Jim speak the way all niggers did. He adheres to realism even at the cost of language and a well-constructed plot.

      According to Twain, Romanticism made one move away from and lose touch with reality; the belief that romantic imagination is one of the "perversions" which must be "unmasked". Various literary scholars have observed that "Twain's literary opinions have been tied to realism because they seem to be based on an ingrained hostility toward romantic literature..."

      Twain shows his contempt for such romanticism and the magnificence arising out of it when he talks of Emmeline, the dead daughter of the rangerfords (Chapter 17). Various scholars have commented, "Twain's literary opinions have been tied to realism because they seem to be based on an ingrained hostility toward Romantic Literature". The novelist's rejection of Emmeline Grangerford, who'd rather weep than live her life, presents the rationalist that he was. In this chapter, Twain possibly exploits the 'Emmeline Grangerford' episode to voice his disapproval of such a sentimental literature. Her bleak pictures and weepy obituaries are cliches of nineteenth century sensibility - lending an aura of gentility that Twain rejects.

      Between Tom and Huck, the former is an icon of romanticism while the latter is more practical and sensible. Despite the fact that Tom has led a quintessential middle-class upbringing and possesses all that a lad from a respectable family should, Mark Twain does not hold back his disapproval of him. By presenting him as a young boy obsessed with romantic novels and exalted ideals of heroism, Twain predicts how such notions can lead to dangerous situations. Of course, as readers we do understand Tom's obsession with such childhood fantasies. Nevertheless, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that he leads himself, and everybody else associated with him, near disaster. His stubbornness to adhere to the "right way" of doing things, his insistence on carrying out the rescue operation in a "stylish" but outlandishly elaborate manner, makes everything a deadly serious business and complicates the matter no end. He even goes as far as to write "nonnamous" letters to his family and set further hurdles. Eventually, he gets shot in the leg and is in a bad shape but his romantic inclination doesn't fade.

      Twain paints an unflattering portrait of Tom and his imagination. If Tom were an adult, Twain would probably call him a deceptive and misleading personality. On the other hand, the novelist's preference for realism and candor makes him approve of Huck. The latter is more grounded in reality. Despite not having had the advantage of formal education, he has reached a level of maturity that is hard to see in boys of his age. His "naturalness" and agile mind helps him get out of the mess that he happens to get into. He possesses world-wisdom and can concoct stories to extricate himself, and Jim, from trouble. His natural education lends him a sensibility that is unparalleled as far as his friend, Tom, is concerned. It was as if the harsh realities of his situation have driven Huck to mature and grow up faster. He doesn't have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. The way he convincingly fakes his own murder, paying attention to the intricate nuances, is indeed commendable. So what if the entire game lacks Tom's "style". "Style" is something that Twain seems to be least concerned with. He seems to prefer an "uneducated man" like Huck to a "half-educated" one like Tom.

      All in all, it wouldn't be an overstatement to say that, through the portrayal of Huck Finn, Mark Twain pronounces his endorsement or realism over Romanticism.

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