An Analysis of

Huckleberry Finn
‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ is more than just the light-hearted adventure story of a white boy and black slave as they journey down the Mississipi River. If one penetrates this picaresque surface, one can see that the story also contains a strong if subtle commentary on the society of the time, for which Huck – in his words and actions, and through the characters he meets and becomes mixed up with – serves as a medium. Throughout the text, we see Huck struggle with these sort of people – one can clump them under the general banner of ‘sivilization’ – as his own, natural conscience counters their views and values. Thus, more than being just a picaresque novel a la Tom Sawyer, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ presents us with a maturing boy singlehandedly dealing with and ultimately overcoming the hypocritical and corrupt influences of human society. One of Twain’s primary indictments in the text is false good-doing, as exemplified in Passage One by Miss Watson and the Widow. For one thing, good-doing is often hypocritical. The Widow does not allow Huck to smoke, though Huck tells us that “she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.” However, it is Miss Watson in particular who epitomises the negatives of good-doing. Though only having moved in, she immediately takes responsibility for Huck’s learning and behaviour. He complains, “She worked me middling hard for about an hour, then the widow made her ease up.” This highlights the difference between Miss Watson and the Widow – the Widow, though also a good-doing hindrance at times, does not

impose ‘sivilization’ onto Huck the way Miss Watson does. Whereas the former is still sympathetic, the latter is too ruthless to deserve sympathy; in trying to reform Huck into a model middle-class boy, she is a great and constant pain to him: “Miss Watson she kept pecking at me, and it got tiresome and lonesome.” Miss Watson’s good-doing is also selfish in a way, as she regards it as her ticket to Heaven. When Huck says he wishes he was at the bad place, she tells him “it was wicked to say what I said; said she wouldn’t say it for the whole world; she was going to live so as to go to the good place.” It is as if her life of proper behaviour and good-doing is simply an assurance for the right afterlife. Furthermore, her moralizing preaching also runs against Huck’s practical character. He sees the bad place as simply something different, and therefore exciting and good - “All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular.” Later he says “I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it. But I never said so, because it would only make trouble, and wouldn’t do no good.” Miss Watson can’t understand Huck’s innocent, down-to-earth way of viewing her ridiculous ‘good place – bad place’ system. For an adventurous child such as him, her description of the good place sounds dreadful: “I didn’t think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said no by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.” This shows another of Huck’s values, the value he places on friendship above all else. As we have just seen, he is happy to go to the bad place so long as his friend Tom Sawyer is there. A far more powerful and serious example is in Passage 2, when – having to decide between dobbing in Jim and going to hell – Huck thinks for a minute and then says to himself, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”, and tears up his letter to Miss Watson. He does not realize that, in both instances, he is actually doing the right thing by opting to go to the bad place. In the first instance, he is showing us his spirit of life and adventure, and his eagerness to be with his friend. In the second instance, he is showing us that he values Jim’s freedom more than he does his own in the afterlife. It is a reflection of his kind and innocent spirit. In both instances, the good places actually represent negatives of sivilization – good-doing in the first, and racism in the second. By rejecting them, Huck is rejecting sivilization, as he does throughout the entire novel.

We see Huck’s socially-implanted conscience at work at the beginning of Passage 2. Huck, afraid of the consequences for his ‘sins’, decides to pray, “but the words wouldn’t come”. He believes this is because he is “playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all.” This ‘sin’, of course, is that he knows of a black slave’s escape but has failed to dob him in. Of course, in choosing Jim’s freedom over his chance of going to Heaven, Huck is showing the strength and purity of his goodness. It is a victory of genuine humanity over the corrupted moral code, created and maintained by ‘sivilization’, which it is replaced by in most human beings over time. Huck’s good, sympathetic humanity is also evident in Passage 3, where his former companions – the degenerate duke and king – are tarred and feathered by a mob after a performance of the Royal Nonesuch. Huck says “it made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world.” He goes home feeling “kind of ornery, and humble, and to blame, somehow – though I hadn’t done nothing.” He is capable of feeling sympathy for the duke and the king despite witnessing their degeneracy on multiple occasions, and being a victim of their lies and selfishness himself. Indeed, he even goes beyond sympathy to feeling guilty, simply because he did not warn the conmen about the mob’s plan in time. The final paragraph of Passage 3 is particularly interesting: “that’s always the way; it don’t make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person’s conscience ain’t got no sense, and just goes for him anyway…It takes up more room than all the rest of a person’s insides, and yet ain’t no good, nohow.” Huck complains of this because his conscience is at ends with the views and values of ‘sivilization’. Because of the confusion and mixed feelings his conscience’s fight with the socially-implanted socially-created moral code creates, he regards it as a pain, though in reality it saves him from ever committing any real wrong-doing. Were it not for his own true conscience, he would have – among other things – sent that letter to Miss Watson in Passage 2, believing himself justified in doing so despite sending a good man, who has done a great deal for him and loved him, back into slavery. The fact is, though he considers himself a sinner because he failed the social moral code, he is in fact the complete opposite – in listening to

his innately good heart, he has not fallen to the corruption that the rest of his society has. While the novel is structurally picaresque, this internal struggle in Huck between his genuine goodness and his socially-implanted moral code adds a hint of psychology to the novel. Numerous times we are given insights into Huck’s thoughts and feelings, and often Twain uses these to imply a certain attitude towards something. For example, after writing the letter to Miss Watson about Jim, Huck says “I felt good and all washed clean of sin”. Of course, this feeling is fake, because in fact Huck was not sinning at all by allowing Jim to keep his freedom. But through this Twain is able to show that religion – of which ‘sin’ is a major concept – is artificial, serving only to prop up the similarly artifical views and values of society. He indicts religion many other times in the novel through Huck – for example, when the Widow refuses to let Huck smoke, Huck complains “Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it.” There is also the intense depression Huck experiences at the end of Passage 1, which is of no direct consequence to the picaresque unfolding of events. He talks of death and ghosts and a spider burning up in a candle, working himself up into a state of great depression and fear. This seems to be the terrible impact excessive ‘sivilizing’ has on Huck – after the Widow’s and Miss Watson’s endless “pecking”, he feels wasted and empty and bad. It is the same feeling he has after witnessing the duke and the king’s punishment at the hands of the mob; he feels “kind of ornery, and humble, and to blame, somehow”. Though physically tough and mentally smart, he has a very sensitive nature – among other things, he hates being oppressed by ‘sivilization’, and hates to see others suffer – even if they are unpleasant conmen. ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, though a wonderful and idyllic adventure story, is a lot more than just that. It is a brilliant piece of satire, criticizing – usually in comic disguise, but sometimes openly and emotionally – the society which Huck is surrounded by on his journey down the river. Whether it be do-gooding, religion or racism, Twain does not hesitate to expose the faults within human society, and places his hero – Huckleberry Finn – at odds with this mighty, degenerate force he calls ‘sivilization’. His hero is not a

great warrior, but a clever, rebellious boy, a boy who refuses to accept the ideals that sivilization – for example in the form of Miss Watson – tries to impose on him. The story is more than just a series of fun and exciting adventures – it shows us the development of a good-hearted child growing up amid a callous, hypocritical and immoral society, absorbing much of it but, in the end, always staying true to his own innate goodness.

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