What Makes Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn So Great?
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Mark Twain’s watershed novel has been one of the most controversial and disputed pieces of literature ever since its publication in 1884. Describing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ernest Hemingway once said:
"American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
Many, however, would vehemently disagree with that statement. While readers from one camp call it "the Great American Novel," others – including writer Louisa May Alcott – condemn its supposed lack of artistry, the use of vulgar language, and even claim it’s racist. To this day, it’s frequently banned in a number of schools in the US on the grounds that it corrupts youth.
In this post, we want to explore the motives of the supportive camp. After all, those who love this novel can’t get enough of it. Why? Here’s a brief summary followed by a list of the most appealing traits of the book.
For those who are not familiar with this famous novel, it’s the sequel to the simpler and more child-friendly The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In the first book, the protagonist is Tom, who lives in the fictitious town of St. Petersburg (inspired by the real city of Hannibal, Missouri) on the Mississippi river in the 1830s.
Tom is an imaginative kid, who leads a regular life, goes to the local school and lives with his younger brother Sid and his cousin Mary under the vigilant and protective eyes of Aunt Polly, his dead mother’s sister. Although Tom and Huck (short for Huckleberry) are best friends, the latter, as the son of the abusive town’s drunk, lives a completely deregulated life, playing and roaming the streets of St. Petersburg in total freedom. He is obviously the envy of all the other kids in the region. At the end of the book, after taking part in a number of adventures throughout the narrative, Tom and Huck get rich, having discovered a great amount of money stolen and hidden in a cave by a gang of robbers. The well-to-do and religious Widow Douglas, one of the town’s luminaries, becomes then Huck’s guardian, with the job of "sivilizing" him.
At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we learn that 13-year-old Huck cannot stand the civilized life he’s living at Widow Douglas’s house. He finds the clothes uncomfortable, the table manners constrictive, and the school lessons boring. Moreover, he doesn’t understand or agree with all the religious moralism inflicted on him by the authoritarian widow’s sister, Miss Watson. At this point, he gets kidnapped by his father, who wants to get his hands on the kid’s money. Huck is forced to live with him in a shack across the river.
Huck realizes he has no choice: he must either submit to living with his abusive father or go back to the horrors of the so-called civilized life under the righteous wing of Widow Douglas. So he decides to fake his own murder and run away. As he tries to escape, Huck bumps into Miss Watson’s black slave Jim, who is also running away, having heard that his mistress is planning to sell him. They get a raft and start floating down the Mississippi river on their way to freedom. Wherever that may be. The novel is the story of that journey.
One of the most enchanting aspects of the novel is Twain’s powerful use of metaphors and symbols. The motif of man in close contact with water – be it sea or river – and its associated subconscious meanings is common in Western literature (take Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, and Life of Pi, for example). The monstrous big Mississippi River in Twain’s novel is also said to stand for a pagan God, both good and evil, leading and interfering with the minute lives that dare to float on its waters; the many storms in the novel seem to be prophetic, signalling approaching turmoil and difficulties. Life on the raft sums up the benefits and downsides of freedom (wild, unconfined and dangerous), in contrast to the oppressive civilized life Huck got to know for a while.
The Innovative Language:
With The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for the first time North American literature breaks away from the limitations of formal and pompous language. The story is told by Huck in his own particular vernacular, which replicates oral language. Ungrammatical sentences and misspellings highlight the expressive force and energy of regional dialects. In the introduction to the novel, Mark Twain explains his linguistic choices:
"In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech."
Despite its deep themes (the distorted values of civilization, the hypocrisy of the official religion, inequality, and freedom), the novel pulses with satire. Among the hilarious passages, we’d pinpoint: the description of local superstitions (the bad luck that touching a rattlesnake’s skin can bring about, for example); Jim’s fear of spirits in the fog and of witches in the woods; Huck’s inability to pretend he’s a girl in an encounter with a newcomer to the town; Huck and Jim’s endless discussions about the French language, the wisdom of King Solomon, and the lifestyle of kings.
The Beauty of Descriptive Passages:
The book does not want for poetic strength, as it describes life on a raft, dawn on the river, or a big storm in progress:
"Pretty soon it darkened up and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest—FST! it was as bright as glory and you'd have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about, away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before."
The protagonist is a very likable character: good-hearted, loyal and sensitive. Most readers can identify with his rebellion against the constraints of civilization and the moral dilemma he goes through as he’s helping set Jim free. After all, the events narrated in the story take place long before the American Civil War and the official abolition, in a time when the act of helping to free a slave was illegal and against the established social and moral order. This is how Twain verbalizes the main point of the story:
"A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat".
However one feels towards The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after reading it, rest assured that it is very unlikely they will remain INDIFFERENT to the experience.