Huck Finn

Huckleberry Finn #

by Samuel Longhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain (mark- two fathoms)

Mark Twain is one of America’s 19th century most quoted writers. His laconic, sardonic wit sums up most of what Bruce Michelson calls

“the power of art to affirm life even as it denies all of the illusions that constitute life”.

Art attempts to represent reality through illusion - metaphor - analogy or - myth.

Fiction as brilliant lies that tell eternal truths.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; …was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. - Huck’s introduction.

Twain uses the voice of a barely articulate 13 year old mid American boy to give us his immature impressions who tells lies to survive and get to the truth.

Alfred Kazin demonstrates Twain’s power to portray “life as a farce without ceasing to be horror”.

Ernest Hemingway claimed that “all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn”.

Issues, Concerns, Themes, Values

Themes: #

I. The follwing themes can be traced through the book showing Mark Twain’s purpose and how he accomplishes it.

  1. Huck’s search for freedom from restrictions.

  2. An attack on religion, piety, hypocrisy, — questions of conscience, good and evil.

  3. Nature of the hierarchical. class society; satire of aristocracy — kingship. As in much great literature, Twain inverts the pyramid so that the lowest characters display the highest morality while the pretentious higher orders are depicted with a total lack of principle or rectitude. As Mandy Rice famously posited: “my life has been a gradual descent into respectability”.

  4. Indictment of Chattel slavery and an assertion that blacks are dignified people in some ways more human than whites. Jim shows more compassion and integrity than most.

  5. Criticism of the corruption of civilisation — the sham of human nature.

  6. Huck’s maturation and initiation into the harsh realities of life.

  7. Denunciation of contemporary society’s prevalence of cruelty and ‘violence’ - “man’s inhumanity to man”.

  8. The river: as unifying, as a god, as a symbol of the unconscious, of rebirth.

  9. Huck Finn and the American dream. How does the novel reflect aspects of the dream? What elements of the nightmare exist.

  10. Huck’s resistance to the conforming influence of society — the individual against the mass, (reliance on ‘authority’)

  11. A quest for stability and family.

Motifs #

(recurring ideas or situations, repetition and variation of themes) Motifs unify the episodic plot and provide clues to the composer’s underlying concerns in creating meaning through patterns of design.

For each of the following find other instances of these motifs and discuss the significance of each motif.

  1. Kingship. Solomon, Books on Royalty, King and Duke

  2. Tricks on Jim, hat, snake, fog, Jim’s escape from Phelps

  3. Moral decisions, Jackson Island, Cairo, after Jim is sold, stealing food,

  4. Snakes. Jim’s warning, bitten by one, Tom in cell, dripping from the rafters.

  5. Rogues. Packard and Bill, Duke and King.

  6. Overhearing conversations. Packard and Bill, Jim and Miss Watson, Play of King and Duke,

  7. Crowds. Searching for Huck, Lynch mob, camp meeting, around the coffin

  8. Excessive greed. Royal Nonsuch, Wilks episode, Feathers, Impostors, Phelps farm.

  9. Desertion, Bill and Packard, impostors at Wilks funeral

  10. Disgust for humanity. Grangerford/Shepherdson killings, schemes of King and Duke, tarring and feathering of King and Duke, sale of slaves.

  11. False identities (new masks or facades) Huck as girl, Huck as Tom..

  12. Malapropisms. Disease – deceased, Duke of Bilgewater (Bridgewater) Orgies – obsequies, Dauphin – Dolphins.

  13. Misquotation of classics (reliance on ‘authority’) Hamlet’s soliloquy, Tom and Huck on Royalty.

  14. Humour. Understatement – “no scarcity of snakes”, French speakers, burlesque, - performances of King and Duke.

  15. False sentimentality. Judge of Pap, Camp meeting of pirates, impostors at funeral, Mawkish poetry of Emmeline Grangerford,

  16. Romanticism. Tom Sawyer on royalty, the far-fetched escape plan.

  17. Gullibility. Jim on many stories, victims of the King and Duke, Harny and Sophie.

Jim is a captive of his fears and superstition while Tom is captive to the codes and “rules” of his romantic novels, but Huck eventually rids himself of the constraints of “sivilisation”.

The King and the Duke are used as devices of humourous satire as the more bizarre and brazen they are and the sillier the sentimentality – the greater the gullibility of the masses.

  1. Satire and irony Pap on government, on church, on negroes. Huck’s evaluations are not that the responder should necessarily accept. Jim is travelling south for freedom? (See Irony in Huck Finn)

  2. Hoaxes. (deception) Huck’s fake death, Royal Nonsuch, Wilks incident, deception at Phelps, The escape plan; both to the Phelps and to the responder.

  3. Stretchers”. They all have an element of unconscious truth to them; usually involving his father’s death which ironically turns out to be true. They are generally told to assist Jim in his escape.

Techniques: #


This is a picaresque (Sp. Anti-hero/rogue of low birth living by cunning or wits) tale shaped and ordered from the amorphous raw material of the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Twain has re-enacted autobiographical episodes from his youth into significant patterns, using a first person participating narrator with the limited uneducated vocabulary of a fourteen year old vagabond.

The meanings of the novel emerge indirectly or implicitly via the vicarious personal involvement or identification and empathy of us the responders. Through our relationship with Huck we see what he sees and share his experiences in a vivid way. We trust his observations, even though we question his conclusions.

At no time does Twain intrude into the narrative to preach, moralise or philosophise, so we are limited to Huck’s observations, experiences, vocabulary and analysis – yet as mature responders we begin to suspect his lack of judgement and understanding and our conclusions may go beyond his innocence and gormlessness. Huck becomes a mask (persona) behind which Twain can hide as he ridicules, satirises or derides the folly and foibles of American “sivilisation”.

The authenticity of the experiences is established by verisimilitude devices; the first person narrator, the use of the vernacular and realistic idiomatic speech patterns of a variety of dialects characterising ordinary rural speakers, the plausibility of most of the action and the creation of a gallery of characters equalling those exposed in The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer’s 14^(th) Century England.

Picaresque Novel #

A CHRONICLE, usually autobiographical, presenting the life story of a rascal of low degree engaged in menial tasks and making his living more through his wits than his industry. Episodic in nature, the picaresque novel is, in the usual sense of the term, structureless. It presents little more than a series of thrilling incidents impossible to conceive as happening in one life. The picaro, or central figure, through the nature of his various pranks and predicaments and by virtue of his associations with people of varying degree, affords the author an opportunity for SATIRE on the social classes. Romantic in the sense of being a story of adventure, the picaresque novel nevertheless is strongly marked by realistic methods in its faithfulness to petty detail, its utter frankness of expression, and its drawing of incidents from low life.

There are, perhaps, seven chief qualities distinguishing the picaresque novel.

(1) It chronicles a part or the whole of the life of a rogue. It is likely to be done in the first person—as AUTOBIOGRAPHY—but this is by no means essential.

(2) The chief figure is drawn from a low social level and is of “loose” character, according to conventional standards. The occupation of this central figure, should he tolerate employment at all, is menial in nature.

(3) The NOVEL presents little PLOT. Rather is it a series of EPISODES only slightly connected.

(4) There is little character interest. Progress and development of character do not take place. The central figure starts as a picaro and ends as a picaro, manifesting the same aptitudes and qualities throughout. When change occurs, as it some times does, it is external change brought about by the man’s falling heir to a fortune or by his marrying a rich widow. Internal character development is not a quality of the picaresque novel.

(5) The method is realistic. While the story may be romantic in itself, it is presented with a plainness of language, a freedom in vocabulary, and a vividness of detail such as the realist only is permitted.

(6) SATIRE is a prominent element. Thrown with people from every class and often from different parts of the world, the picaro serves them intimately in one lowly capacity or another and learns all their foibles and frailties. The picaresque novel may in this way be made to satirize both social casts and national or racial peculiarities.

(7) The hero of the picaresque novel usually stops just short of being an actual criminal. The line between crime and petty rascality is a hazy one, but somehow the picaro always manages to draw it. Carefree, unmoral perhaps, he avoids actual crime and turns from one peccadillo to disappear down the dust of the road in search of another.

(Excerpted from A Handbook to Literature, Holman The Odyssey Press )

Irony in Huck Finn #

Huck blames himself for:

a) not fitting in and conforming to society – while we the responder place the guilt squarely with hypocritical and corrupt society.

b) complicity in freeing Jim and decides to “go to hell” – go against his conscience, while we applaud his decision as the correct moral and ethical choice.

c) The Grangerfords and Shepherdsons keep their guns handy in Church as they listen to some “pretty ornery preaching all about brotherly love and such tiresomeness” and then emerge to go out and savagely murder each other.

d) The feuds in Romeo and Juliet and the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons stem from long forgotten origins or causes and are both re-ignited by romantic love.

e) Widow Douglas takes snuff yet hypocritically denies Huck his pipe.

f) Huck’s escape from Pap and Jim’s elaborate release from prison were both unnecessary, as Pap had died and Jim had been freed in Miss Watson’s Will.

g) Once he passed Cairo, by travelling south, Jim is travelling deeper into Slave territory rather than freedom.

h) The prevailing and pervading irony of the novel is that we the responder see through and beyond what Huck observes and frequently see that Huck’s interpretation of reality is just the reverse.

i) Huck admires Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry, yet we see it for what it is; drivel – doggerel.

j) Huck looks up to Tom’s Knowledge about “authority” - how things should be done in Romantic chivalric and honourable ways, but we see through this as being tawdry romanticism, faded sentimentalism and false chivalric codes of honour, thoroughly discredited in the Grangerford Shepherdson disputes.

k) Though the novel is written in the 1870’s, after the Civil War (1860 – 63), it depicts the society of the 1840’s; America about 20 years before the Civil War emancipates the slaves.

Novels are notoriously difficult to end; to bed down or to exit in a satisfying manner for everyone. Do we want a neat tidy ending with all the loose knots tied, or an ambiguous one where we have to imagine our own solutions. Happy endings can be unrealistic, while tragic ones can leave an audience utterly dissatisfied.

Mark Twain had worked a long time on this novel and the first two thirds of the book is brilliant, but the last one third he reverts to the banality of his earlier book, Tom Sawyer.