Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. New York: Signet Classic-Penguin, 1959. Print.
After Huckleberry Finn fakes his own death to escape from his abusive, alcoholic father, Pap, he forms an unlikely partnership with Jim, a runaway slave of one of Huck’s former caretakers, Miss Watson. Huck is initially conflicted between the legality and morality of helping Jim, but eventually, he decides that it is the right thing to do and ends up considering Jim to be a friend. The two of them encounter robbers, slave hunters, blood feuders and other unsavory types as they travel down the Mississippi River on a log raft with the intended destination of the Ohio River, leading to the free states. They miss their target and end up entangled in a con of the “Duke” and the “Dauphin,” who ultimately betray them and turn Jim in. In a strange coincidence, the family holding Jim turns out to be that of Huck’s old friend, Tom Sawyer, who eventually reveals that Jim had been freed in Miss Watson’s will two months ago. Huck also receives some peace-of-mind that he is finally safe at the end when Jim admits that he saw Pap’s corpse earlier on their journey.
The story takes place in the early nineteenth century (before the Civil War), along the Mississippi River, between Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Arkansas.
Point of View:
1st person (Huck)
The novel explores race-relations, moral dilemmas and friendships. Twain also engages in social criticism of the hypocrisy of what was considered “civilized”.
Though often banned for its “vulgarity” or “racist language,” the longevity of Twain’s novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and its continued inclusion in the literary curriculum of American public schools points to its value and universality. We get a telling glimpse into the race-relations and dialect of this period of history, as well as an exploration of a boy’s moral development and maturation. Huck’s decision to do the right thing is a declaration of compassion and affirmation of humanity beyond race differences.
This novel has been criticized for its stereotyped portrayal of the black slave in Jim, as superstitious and ignorant, but Twain’s development of Jim also reflects a good-hearted and moral character. Twain did not present a sugarcoated, romanticized or politically correct version of pre-Civil War America. Instead, we get an honest look at the injustices and insensitivities of the era, which is generally agreed to be historically accurate. Though the African-American experience has changed since then, this period has greatly affected the cultural roots of the minority group.
Traditionally, this book is used at the high school-level (though sometimes earlier), but it is not easy to teach or study, due to the understanding of the historical context it requires. Twain’s social criticisms are easily lost on the contemporary reader, who probably has not experienced similar conditions. Additionally, the rendering of the spoken dialects into written form poses an extra challenge for weaker readers who depend on predictable spelling and language structures. However, the story itself has elements of the adventure and coming-of-age tales that can be popular with younger audiences too, as evidenced by the transformation of this novel into several popular films over the years.
I originally enjoyed this book when I was first exposed to it as a high school student, largely because my teacher’s passion for it—and that he read large portions of it aloud. In my re-reading of it for this course, I found myself mouthing the dialogues to myself to help my understanding, as well as reminiscing over some of the activities we did with the book. It is timeless, yet complex, and has elements that pervade our common culture. I am glad to have had the experience of studying it several times, but I’m not sure how I would feel about recommending this book outside of traditional English class-canon, like to a reluctant reader, for example. In those cases, I suspect that the “return on investment” may not be worth the struggle, when similar themes and skills could be developed elsewhere.