Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885): Huck as Revolutionary

In my last post I looked at the adults we meet in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and concluded that with the exception of Jim, they were all odious. One possible conclusion to this is that Mark Twain was infantilizing Jim. As the introduction to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer stated: “The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves,” placing these two groups into a common religious realm. Some of the humor in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn come from the discourses between these two regarding ghosts, superstitions, and vernacular understandings of astronomy. The other side of this coin is that being moral seems to require never growing up (or maybe growing up just enough to reach moral maturity but not too much that the disgusting adult world makes you quickly forget those values).

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It is obvious to see that Huck spends most of the novel in rebellion against civilization. His adventure began with flight from the Widow Douglas and pap. The story ends with his decision to move to Indian country (something he does not do if we believe the sequels). In between he transcends his entire culture by choosing to free Jim. This part of the novel is important to read, if for no other reason than that it contains more moral wisdom than the entire Bible. Huck decided to write a letter to Miss Watson to tell her about Jim’s location. He based this decision solely on what he had been told, especially religious law. “The plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger.” (833) But then he thinks. “I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at least I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened too look around, and see that paper. . . . ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” (834–835)

See, the moral gravity of the choice is such that it places Huck into total rebellion against civilization (“never thought no more about reforming”). This is not new, perhaps, but it takes on a revolutionary character now. Before he rebelled against reform for personal liberty, but at this point he is willing to risk his eternal soul in aid of a friend. Notice that his thoughts dwelled on the solidarity that had been built up between the two.

At this point in the story, Jim has been living in slavery on the Phelps farm. In reality he has already been freed according to Miss Watson’s will. Tom Sawyer, who was visiting the Phelps farm, knows this. Tom Sawyer clings onto Huck’s idea to free Jim and makes it a game. This is a point of great tension between the two. Both are working at freeing Jim, but for one is a revolution and for the other it is a game. Tom Sawyer wants to reenact the great escapes he read about in his books. Huck is searching for the most effective and safe way to free Jim (thinking that he is still enslaved and in great personal risk). Lacking the solidarity with Jim and believing that the stakes are low, Tom cannot take it serious. He constructs all kinds of elaborate mechanisms instead of simply liberating Jim.

Bear in mind, Huck is not entirely pure in this regard. There was a point earlier in the novel where he treated Jim as a plaything. This was when they were separated in the fog. When reunited, Huck pretended that it was just Jim’s dream. Huck is unable to do this anymore. Shared sacrifice and solidarity created the moral necessity and seriousness required of the revolutionary path Huck pursued at the end of the novel. This is something Tom could not see (but perhaps he could have given the right experiences).

I suppose this is leading me to a warning against a too carnivalesque approach to revolution and resistance, but I am not sure a revolution cannot be both fun and serious (although I know that often this cannot be and we must be prepared to act with deadly seriousness). Certainly we should let the play get too much in the way of doing what is needed, especially when the stakes are high. Neither should we allow play make things more difficult. This is what Tom does. “You got to invent all the difficulties. Well, we can’t help it, we got to do the best we can with the materials we’ve got. Anyhow, there’s one thing—there’s more honor in getting him out through a lot of difficulties and dangers, where there warn’t one of them furnished to you by the people who it was their duty to furnish them, and you had to contrive them all out of your own head.” (858) We do not need to wait for the revolution or the barricades. There are plenty of easily achieved (if not riskless) actions we can take now, without all the pomp.

At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Huck chooses to be civilized for the privilege of playing robbers with Tom Sawyer. At the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he is done playing games. But neither is he grown up. He is not Injun Joe, the Duke or the King, or any of the other disgusting adults that populate these stories. Tom could grow up to be the Duke, or even Judge Thatcher, but for Huck there is only the Indian Territory.

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