The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn :
U. S. Fiction may be said to have truly arrived with the emergence of Mark Twain (1835-1910), the pseudonym for Samuel Langhorne Clemens. His work symbolised a breaking-away from the hitherto dominant influence of the eastern U.S. and transcendentalist philosophy, and thereby provided the impetus for the further development of American literature.
Twain’s life is demonstrative of the sense of possibility inherent in America. Before he began to write seriously in 1866, he had worked as an apprentice printer, a steamboat pilot, a soldier, a miner, a journalist and a public lecturer. His wide range of occupations provided him with a rich store of experience from which to draw material for his later novels and sketches.
His main themes include attacking the hypocrisy and vice of his day, particularly the greed and selfishness of the post-civil war era, contrasting the innocent American with the corrupt European, often in such a way as to show that the American was not as innocent as he seemed to be. Twain’s growing pessimism in the 1890s led to increasingly harsh attacks on humanity as a whole for what he saw as its inherent depravity.
Twains’s most famous work is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). It is based on his memories of his own childhood and was written at a transitional point, midway between the easy-going humour for which he was famous and the bitter pessimism that shaped his outlook for the rest of his life.
The Adventure Huckleberry Finn is significant for three main things. It is the first book in American literature to take a consistent and believable child’s view in fiction. It is remarkable for its stylistic innovation, especially the accurate and extensive use of Western dialect which had never before been utilised in a work of serious fiction. The novel is significant for its sustained use of Western humour, that is, the collection of jokes, tall tales and “boasts” which characterised the culture of the rapidly-expanding states and territories of the American West.
Twain’s technique combines dialect speech with the use of rustic and uneducated characters, as well as a tendency to select unusual points of view and perspectives in order to bring new insights to the familiar and thereby provide opportunities for satirical comment. The novel is about a young boy called Huck who seeks freedom from the restrictive middle class existence into which he has been recently introduced. He flees and is joined by an escaped slave, and together they float down the Mississippi River, the adventure they undergo providing an often-unflattering portrayal of American frontier life.
At the novel’s beginning Huck is seen chafing against the restrictions of middle class life. His adoptive another tries to enlighten him on the virtues of Christianity, but only confuses him the more. His good friend Tom sawyer also tries to help “sivilize” him, but it is seen that most of his ideas are unrealistic because they are derived from adventure stories. In contrast to these conventional characters, Huck stands out as an individualistic person for whom self-conviction is more important than conformity.
He is kidnapped by his father, a social outcast who wishes to gain control of his son’s money. Huck escapes but does not return to the society of his adoptive parent. His ideal is freedom with dignity, and the rest of the novel is taken up with showing how he achieves this. A pattern of intermittent freedom and captivity emerges, with Huck continually discovering that freedom in society is illusory and that be must return to the river which is symbolic of true freedom in nature.
The novel suggests that the flaws that are inherent in human nature are worsened by social institutions which seem to encourage the manifestation of these flaws in their worst aspects. For example, social norms allow white citizens to regard slaves as non-human and, therefore, subject to ill-treatment. The novel also reveals a parallel between Huck’s quest for dignity and the slave Jim’s quest for freedom.
Huck and Jim are seen to share several similarities. Both are socially marginalised, both are kind, humane and, though superstitious, independent thinkers. Initially, Huck is conscious of his apparent racial superiority and seeks to patronise Jim, but after playing a cruel trick on him, he realises that he has human feelings which are just as inviolate as his own. As Jim develops from a stereotypical slave into a fully-realised character, a major crisis occurs. Huck is compelled to choose between returning Jim to his owner or helping him to escape. When he assesses his situation in conventional social terms, he feels that he is committing a great crime, but despite his anguish, he decides to follow his own instincts and help Jim escape.
This decision is crucial for Huck’s development as a person, because he has finally realised that life is not a game, and that one’s actions are likely to have unforeseen consequences. Unlike Tom for whom life is merely a means to re-enact episodes from adventures stories, Huck’s vision expands and he began to see that even the adults he encounters are like Tom in that they allow their own desires to blind them to reality. This is seen in the feud which is carried on by the Grangerford and the Shepherdson families and is seen as worthwhile activity despite the pointless killing it involves.
The novel’s ending is somewhat controversial. It appears to lose its seriousness as the main characters become stereotypes and the humour degenerates into a farce. Jim is captured by a family that mistakes Huck for Jim. Huck and Jim are unable to rise beyond the status of mere pawns in Tom’s hands, in spite of their superior moral sense. The pointlessness of the charade becomes even clearer when Tom announced that Jim had been freed a long time ago.
Aware that he is to be adopted again, Huck decides to escape to the western territories. This makes the ending essentially pessimistic, for it has been repeatedly demonstrated that society will always impinge on the freedom to be found in nature, and that its vices are self-perpetuating.