Picaresque Fiction as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Originally a contribution of Spanish Literature, this literary genre is believed to have flourished in Europe in the 17th and the 18th centuries. Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews are popular instances of this variety. The modern picaresque tradition began with La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes, published anonymously in Antwerp, a city of Belgium, and Spain in the year 1554. In France, Le Sage's Gil Blas (1715) and, in England, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) are other examples of the Picaresque novel.


      The picaresque technique is a literary one that recounts the exploits of a central character who is, more of an anti-hero. He lives a vagabond life and declares his contempt for the society that he is part of. Here, It is worth mentioning that the principal character is both, a part of society as well as detached from it. He is part of the mainstream society, in so far as he lives in it, physically. He is also detached from society so tar as he underlines all that is incongruous and disagreeable in society.

      Besides a realistic portrayal and disparagement of contemporary society, the structure of a Picaresque novel is episodic. There is no definite link or connection between the various episodes and scenes in the scheme of things. They take place as isolated incidents and have no thread of commonality with the remaining story.


      The Spanish writer, Cervantes Don Quixote is believed to have had the chief influence on Mark Twain during the writing of Huckleberry Finn. In Don Quixote, the hero imagines a small group of merchants to be a large crowd of people whom he must overpower. He commands them to acknowledge the Empress of La Mancha (a lady who is merely a figment of his imagination) as the most beautiful lady on the land. He also imagines windmills to be the flailing arms of giants that he must triumph over. In much the same strain, Tom Sawyer, in chapter 2 of Huckleberry Finn, imagines a group of school children, enjoying a Sunday-school picnic, to be Arab merchants. There is another parallel that of Don Quixote's comrade, Sancho Panza with Huck's subordinate, the nigger Jim.

      In line with what has been discussed above, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn borrows ingredients from this genre of the Picaresque. Twain portrays Huck as the anti-hero, he is "low-born and belongs to the lowest wrung of "white" "sivilized" society. True to the concept of a customary picaresque hero, he makes his revulsion with society quite evident and wishes to live by his own standards. An orphan, he is adopted by Widow Douglas, another element of this "white" society that he distrusts. He hungers after freedom, physical as well as spiritual, from the fetters of what he considers the baseness of human beings of this society. In presenting the character of Don Quixote, a man obsessed with heroic notions of knighthood and chivalry, Twain satirizes the pointlessness of romances of chivalry. In much the same vein, Twain, in the novel under discussion, satirizes the hollowness of "sivilized" society as Huck, and probably Twain, sees it.

      The novel speaks of his adventures, not on the road, as in Joseph Andrews, but on the great river Mississippi, onboard a raft. During his journeys, he meets a myriad of characters and undergoes an array of experiences with them. These incidents are not, in any way, connected to the previous one. The only instance of continuity and unity is the fact that the raft forms the link between the various episodes in the novel. Huck goes to the various towns and villages on shore, gets a taste of his adventures, and, finally, comes back to the raft each time, to be reunited with his friend and companion, Jim. Another cohesive feature in the novel is the moral headway that Huck makes as a result of his experiences and judiciousness.


      The opening lines of the "Notice" of the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are relevant in this context. It says, persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot". There is no traditionally organic plot in the novel. An effort to fathom the plot, for its own sake, would be a waste of time as there is none. Therefore, a more cerebral approach is required in reading and, more importantly, comprehending the story; a superficial reading wouldn't serve the purpose. It is for this reason that the novel, though technically a much more superior work of Art than Tom Sawyer, does not appeal to the mental faculties of the juvenile reader.

      The journey of Huck and Jim, down the river Mississippi, forms the bulk of the novel. It is the theme of escape and freedom that drives these two characters to undertake this journey. What connection does this "journey" have with the wrecked "Walter Scott" in Chapter 12? - Precisely, nothing. Huck feels guilty for having had a hand though unintentionally, in the drowning of the robbers and tries to help them. In chapter 13, Huck says,"...l begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix. I say to myself, there ain't no telling but I might come to be a murderer myself yet, and then how would I like it"? But once the episode is done with, he doesn't give it a second thought. All that he feels is "...ruther comfortable on accounts of taking all this trouble for that gang, for not many would a done it...

      Huck and Jim's interaction with the Duke and the Dauphin are independent of any other episode in the novel. Besides revealing the malice and hypocrisy of human beings, it doesn't serve any purpose in so far as unity or coherence of plot is concerned. Similarly, the killing of Boggs or the murder of Buck is not connected in any way to this main theme of freedom. When Buck is killed, there is not much that follows around. Except for a few minutes of mourning over his dead friend, Huck goes on with his life, in a quest for his most sought-after goal. There are no more strings attached - no mention of any family member grieving over the great loss. Nor do we find any link between the Grangerford - Shepherdson' episode and any other major occurrence in the novel.

      An inclusion or, for that matter, deletion of any of these events will not have any bearing on the crux of the novel. The sole purpose is to draw attention to the quality of life in this so-called refined society. An erasure of any of these incidents would, if at all, be detrimental to this purpose of satire.


      The only uniformity, which is striking in the novel, is the novelist's perceptions and censure of the society that we live in. These episodes merely serve to underscore the novelist, Mark Twain's resentment of the behavior and conduct of inhabitants of society. He condemns existing times of his day in so far as it condones prejudice and supports slavery. He also criticizes society for its gullibility as is seen in Chapter 20. The gathering at the camp meeting gets taken in by the declarations of the "King" that he is a reformed pirate from the Indian Ocean. They get Swindled of eighty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents in the act. The various other scams of the two con-men lead us to become aware of this unwariness of the masses. Last, but not least, the novelist chastises society for its mob mentality; for being fundamentally cowards. This is evident from the "Boggs-Col. Sherburn' episode of Chapter 21. Misplaced notions of "family honor" are criticized via the 'Grangerford-Shepherdson episode.


      It would, therefore, not be an exaggeration to say, in the words of Paine, that "...certainly it (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) is more convincing, more human, than (other) tales (of the same genre)". Robert Louis Stevenson commended the book saying, "It is a book I have read tour times, and am quite ready to begin again tomorrow."

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