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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Huckleberry Finn

Monday, October 25, 2010

I've been rereading Huckleberry Finn for the second time in recent years, prior to teaching it in a couple of weeks. It's been hard to pin down precisely what I love about the novel, and why despite sometimes being labelled as a children's book, it merits and rewards multiple rereadings.

Huckleberry Finn, as depicted in the 1884 edition
Certainly, the depiction of the Mississippi is masterful, as the river becomes itself a kind of benevolent character, providing Huck and Jim with food and escape routes in moments of need, and guiding them towards mutual respect for each other - overcoming their racial differences in the process. There are memorable characters, who set up contrasts with each other so as to picture the rich variety of frontier life: against the purely malicious Pa, there are the bungling murderers on the wreck; against Huck's dressing-up as a girl or as Tom Sawyer is the absurd self-dramatisation of the Dauphin and the King; for Tom's gang of outlaws who wield sticks for guns there are the feuding Jackson clan who seem genuinely beyond the formal law. Then there are the dialects, quirks and vernacular language allocated to each individual; Twain styled himself in the Dickensian model of the dramatic novelist, giving lectures and performances of his works, and there is a definite stage quality to the novel, a book for the ear as much as for the mind. Jim's vernacular is different to Huck's, which in turn contrasts with the dialect forms used by different characters on their journey south. All of these aspects are remarkable, and suffice to overcome the novel's obvious flaws, such as its ridiculously coincidental plotting.

Yet what I really like about the novel, what makes it such a pleasure to read, is the contradictory position it puts me in as a reader, forcing me to confront it in two different minds: as the reader who wants to judge Huck's actions with moralising objectivity, and as a more sympathetic reader who sees and hears Huck's experiences from his own eyes and in his own voice, looking out onto an unfavourable world. From the latter perspective, Huck is not the irredeemable delinquent he might superficially appear to be.

The novel opens in a famously self-reflexive way that draws a line between Tom Sawyer, "made by Mr. Mark Twain" who "told the truth, mainly," and Huckleberry Finn as an authentic account narrated by Huck himself. The difference between mythologised fictions of the American frontier, and its actuality, continues to be marked through the first couple of chapters. Having noted this book as a sequel, a correspondingly poignant gap starts to widen between Tom Sawyer, who seems to continue this novel in the vein of the earlier one, leading his gang in harmless games derived from stories, and Huck who, although the same age as Tom, is henceforth thrust into a genuinely violent and frightening frontier world rather than one of literary fantasy.

This divergence between both characters and their eponymous novels also separates the actual reader from their implied double, the reader who experiences Huckleberry Finn's adventures through the first person point of view, from the reader who might be expected to respond to Huckleberry Finn as a novelist's didactic portrait of an unruly juvenile.

The latter, looking objectively at Huck's behaviour, might be expected to judge him unfavourably. From this point of view - a perspective we might expect to be shared by Miss Watson or Judge Thacker as respectable authorities - Huck is irreligious and immoral: this is a boy who runs away from their pastoral care; who fakes his own murder then hides as good-hearted townsfolk search for him; a boy who aids and abets an escaped slave and suspected criminal; who dupes ladies, steals, exploits, lies and cheats. The actual reader, on the other hand, knows Huck intimately through his own point of view as he encounters a world that is largely against him. Seen from this perspective, Huck is merely forced to act on his instincts, adapting his way out of difficulties created by adults, and thus evolving as a complex individual who is simply trying to make the best of a bad world.

By setting up a contrast between one possible, objective reader, who might look in down on Huck from some moral high ground, and the actual reader who knows Huck subjectively, Twain creates in Huck a mirror for our own expectations and desires. We may be as educated and respectable as the judge or the widow, but is there not some small part of us which secretly relishes Huck's rejection of middle-class comfort for the wild capriciousness of life in the frontier? Once we come to know and live through Huck Finn, rather than to judge him by our prior assumptions, what is he but the embodiment of American ideals, the opportunist, the self-made man? And is there not something strangely Puritan in the way in which fate seems to reward these characteristics, which might look bad in another context, with money and security by the end of the novel?

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Posted by Alistair at 4:25 pm


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