Life on Mississippi River: in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been regarded as a great Picaresque American satire. The principal element of the picaresque genre that the novelist has incorporated in the narration is the episodic nature of the novel. It is a series of occurrences that link up together to form the larger idea. These incidents take place onshore as well as on the river Mississippi.

      There has been extensive debate about life on shore vis - a - viz that on the river. While life on the river is an epitome of peace and tranquility, that onshore is the exact opposite. Just like in real life, happiness doesn't last forever, the bliss experienced by Huck and Jim, on the raft, does not carry on ceaselessly. There are intermittent instances of ugliness and disquiet.


      Besides being treacherous and unsafe, life on the shore is infested with people who are hardly ever in their right mind. Their insanity crops up from the fact that they are either going around carrying guns or remaining under the influence of alcohol or are intoxicated with their ravenous desire for money. The moment they touch the shore, they recommence their association with society and, needless to say, it is not a - very desirable connection. They are surrounded by danger. At the end of chapter 16, when a big steamboat is about to collide with their rat, they dive into the water. On coming out of the water, Huck discovers that Jim is missing. Suddenly, on coming to shore, he is surrounded by danger and spitefulness in the form of dogs.

      The first instance of violence that we are introduced to is the robbers' gang headed by Tom Sawyer. The prospect of violence, which ultimately never takes place, is also evident from the oath that each member of the gang is supposed to sign. "Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood..". Every boy who is a member of the band, and never tells any of the secrets or else he must get his family member killed; he "mustn't eat and he mustn't sleep till he had killed them and hacked across in their breasts, which was the sign of the band......" Or he "he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off of the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang...".

      Pap's violence on Huck is no less brutal and distasteful. Though Huck resents a life in Widow Douglas' house, life with Pap is worse than this. Huck is almost near death in Chapter 6. "....he laughed such a screechy laugh, and roared and cussed, and kept on chasing me up. Once when I turned short and dodged under his arm he made a grab and got me by the jacket between my shoulders, and I thought I was gone...."


      In Chapter 12, beckoned by his inherent fondness for adventure, against Jim's wishes, Huck decides to go closer and take a look at a wrecked steamboat. After exploring it for some time, just as they are about to leave Huck overhears two robbers talking about killing a third one, lest he betrays them. They overhear their comrade pleading with them to leave him and promise not to betray them. At last, they decide against shooting him. One of the men, Packard, says,

"But I don't want him killed, and I've got my reasons for it... Shooting's good, but there are quieter ways if the thing's got to be done. But what I say is this: it ain't good sense to go court's around after a halter if you can get at what you're up to in some way that's just as good and at the same time don't bring you into no risks. Ain't that so?" ... He'll be drownded, and won't have anybody to blame for it but his self. I reckon that's a considerable sight better 'n killin' of him. I'm unfavorable to killin' a man as long as you can git around it; it ain't good sense, it ain't good morals. Ain't I right?"

      They talk of "good morals" and decide against killing their cohort. Their decision is not because they respect the tenets of religiosity, but because they don't want to bear the responsibility of sin on their head.


      The arrival of the two frauds signals a major interruption in the peaceful life that Huck and Jim have on the raft. They are symbolic of the society that Huck so detests.

      Together, the swindlers are part of various masquerades. In order to deceive people, they try their hands at a myriad of professions including that of a reformed pirate, fortune-telling, and "doctoring". In a small town in Arkansas, they present a show of Shakespeare's plays, Richard III and Romeo and Juliet and the "Royal Nonesuch". After two successful attempts at duping people, they run away on the third night as they anticipate trouble.

      The Wilks episode, which begins in Chapter 24, is one in which thee exhibit their worst selves. Posing as the English brothers of the deceased old man, they make sickeningly syrupy speeches and exhibit their emotions in the most melodramatic way. Not satisfied with the plunder of six thousand dollars that the deceased had kept for his real family members, the two "rapscallions" also sell the estate and slaves.

      Later, they sell Jim off to the people of the Phelps' farm, for a paltry sum of forty dollars. Through them, we learn how petty human beings can be.


      The two Southern royal families, the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, are involved in a bloody feud. The feud is three decades old and, though the exact reason behind it is not clear to anybody, they are blood-thirsty enemies. Sophia Grangerford elopes with Harney Shepherdson thus triggering off a bloody battle between the two families in which Col. Grangerford and his three sons are killed, along with an equal number of members of the Shepherdson family.

      The family represents the aristocracy and gentility of the South. Through them, Twain mocks at the phony religious fervor of the so-called refined families. They carry guns to church and go through all the "pretty ornery preaching" that is all about "brotherly love". Their endless talk about "faith and good works and free grace and preforeordestination" is indeed ridiculous in the light of their irrational feud with the Shepherdsons.


      In chapter 21, Huck, the "King" and the "Duke" go around exploring the town where "all the streets and lanes were just mud" and the inhabitants of which are "loafers" and an "ornery lot" who use "considerable many cuss-words".

      Suddenly, an old drunkard named Boggs makes his appearance and threatens to kill one Col. Sherburn who is believed to have swindled him. The latter threatens him that, if he doesn't stop hurling abuses before 1 o'clock, he would shoot him. And, sure enough, at the appointed time, Col. Sherburn appears and shoots Boggs.

      Society on the shore can be vicious with one's fellow human beings. People can be malicious, not only towards animals but also innocent human beings. Boggs' murder, even though he is acknowledged as "the best most natured old fool in Arkansaw hurt nobody, drunk nor sober", is heartrending. On his death, far from empathizing with the daughter, the people are more interested in having "fun", a chance to "have a look". It is outright pathetic to witness humanity in its most ignoble form.


      Life on the raft symbolizes, for both Huck and Jim, the ideal society that they crave. Huck hankers after spiritual freedom; he wishes to flee from the constricting influence of society, its standards and conventions as well as the "dismal regular and decent the widow", "the victuals" before dinner, and Miss Watson who is always "a-bothering about Moses". More importantly, he longs to free himself from the brutality and rough treatment meted out to him by his father, Pap. Huck craves for a life where he, dressed in his "old rags and my sugar-hogshead again", can be himself. He loathes the stiff clothes of civilized society and their stiffer mannerisms.

      Just as Huck pines for his kind of freedom, Jim hankers after his freedom, in the literal sense, from society. He covets a free life, with the love and security of his family around him. Miss Watson, his mistress wishes to sell him off to slave traders and, on gaining acquaintance of this fact, Jim runs away. Jim believes that the river is-tenants of access to his much sought-after freedom.

      The society on the raft is free of all the perils and threats that Huck and Jim are terrified of. It signals a life that proves to be a haven for both of them. Many a time, Huck is perceived as reveling in the tranquility afforded by the river. "Jim, this is a nice...I wouldn't want to be nowhere else but here. Pass me along another hunk of fish and some hot corn-bread" (chapter 9). This sentiment is reinforced when, after Buck Grangerford's death, Huck flees from the house of the royal family, he says, "I was power glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there wasn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft doesn't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft" (chapter 18). It helps them "freshen up and cool off".


      In addition to being perfidious and perilous, life on the shore is characterized by noise, racket, and an interrogative mood. As soon as Huck and Jim come in contact with society, they are bombarded by a deluge of questions. From the questions of Mrs. Judith Loftus in chapter 11, to those of Aunt Sally, at the end of the novel, there are questions galore throughout shore life. Even the "King" and the "Duke inundate Huck with questions about whether Jim is a runaway slave. They "asked us considerable many questions; wanted to know what we covered up the raft that way for, and laid by in the day-time instead of running was Jim a runaway nigger"?

      The probing mood persists even in Huck's interaction with the younger characters in the novel. Huck tells us, in chapter 17, when he meets Buck Grangerford, the latter "asked me what my name was.

      Then, there is the noise of Col. Sherburn's derisive speech on the worth of mankind. Raucously, he chastises them for being "cowards" and "half-men". He reprimands them for lacking the power of individual reasoning and prudent judgment and doing everything as a knee-jerk reaction. He calls them spineless because they "don't like trouble and danger".

      In contrast to this, life on the raft "slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. It is only while sailing on the raft that the two boys have the spirit to look around and drink in the beauty of nature. Huck says, ...Not a sound anywhere - perfectly still-just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a - cluttering, maybe......the first thing to see, looking over the water, was a kind of dull line... that was the woods on the t'other side; you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and wasn't black anymore, but gray: you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away-trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks - rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and" (chapter 19).


      No doubt life on the raft is tranquil but it is not so always. It is when the elements of the shore invade the raft, it becomes as unsafe as the shore is. The community on the raft is, sometimes, sullied with the intrusion of people such as the Duke and Dauphin. This leads to a sort of bonding but the bonding is insufficient; the genuine camaraderie is missing. People are forced to be nice to each other because, as Huck points out, "for what you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards the others". Even after Huck realizes that they do not belong to any royalty, he decides to keep quiet. "..these liars warn't no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said anything, never let on; kept it to myself; it's the best way; then you don't have any quarrels, and don't get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn't no objections, long as it would keep peace in the family". So, it is purely for practical reasons that he decides to keep shut. His world wisdom has taught him "that the best way to get along with his (Pap) kind of people is to let them have their way."

      Even the ostensible solidarity between the "King" and the "Duke" is a matter of convenience. In chapter 30, after everybody is out of the Wilks' home, the two frauds start blaming each other for having swindled the money. Both accuse each other of having messed up the entire game of deception. The "Duke" starts to throttle the King and, out of a sense of panic, the latter owns up. The two of them start drinking and are thick friends again. They hug each other and go off to sleep, snoring in each other's arms. They become the best of friends and "powerful mellow". It is evident that they are using each other for their ulterior motive.

      Though it is a community, it is a fragile one; it is one that, unlike that of Huck and Jim, can't stand the test of time and tribulations. The kinship is not enough to make the relationship last; the treachery of the elements of society makes sure that the relationship doesn't last.

      Even in the town, where Huck lives at the beginning of the novel, there is no constancy in community life. It is full of people like the violent Pap and hypocrites like Miss Watson. There is nothing - from the perspective of physical or emotional constancy - that helps people tide over problems.

University Questions also can be Answered:

What is the symbolic importance of the setting of the novel? (Added one).
Discuss how life on the river Mississippi stands in contrast to that on the shore?

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