The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

A more accurate title for this novel might be: The Adventures of the Strangely Wise and Poetical Free Spirit Huckleberry Finn, and the Hapless Runaway Slave Jim, Interrupted by the Heartless Cloudcuckoolander Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was required reading in my 10th-grade English class. I didn’t like it. Years later, now that I’ve re-read it, I still don’t like it, but I have more insight into what makes it a good book as well as what annoys me about it.

See below for the strengths of the book and what annoyed me about it, a plot summary (with SPOILERS), and what stood out as well as when and why I read it.

Strengths of Huckleberry Finn

  • First and foremost, the dramatic irony arising from the unreliable narrator’s first-person storytelling, which encompasses everything from religious skepticism and casual racism to ignorant malapropisms and nigh-unbelievable literal-headedness
  • The beautiful, serene descriptions of travel on a raft down the Mississippi at night
  • A strong moral compass that ensures that characters receive their just desserts
  • Admirable dedication to the portrayal of authentic dialect speech (for example quotations, see below under “What Stood Out” or refer to the text itself)

I don’t like unreliable narrators in general, but Huck is a pretty awesome one. He reminds me of Calvin in the Calvin and Hobbes comics; he’s impossibly wise at the same time that he’s a know-nothing kid. In both cases, the author uses the character to explore deep moral issues.

This New York Times article says Huck is the antecedent of a lot of depictions of independent and rebellious children in fiction, Calvin included. That’s why, the article goes on to say, the novel is often banned. Adults don’t want Huck to be seen as a role model by real children!

What Annoys Me about Huckleberry Finn

Whether one admires a work of fiction and whether one enjoys it are two separate things, the latter being largely dependent on personal taste rather than literary merit.

I don’t identify with Huck. I never was a little boy who didn’t like going to school, going to church, wearing clothes, and following rules. Huck’s rejection of book learning, in particular, would have struck me as distasteful even more when I was in high school than it does now.

The shenanigans of the king and the duke are hard to stomach. That there are such people in fiction only serves to remind me that there really are such people in the real world, which is sad.

It makes me uncomfortable when protagonists lie. I can’t abide the guy played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, who ran all kinds of scams, sometimes using a fake identity complete with costume. Huck is sometimes good at telling lies and sometimes not, and it makes me nervous when he goes out on a limb. I’m torn between hoping he won’t get caught and thinking that he should.

Tom Sawyer wrests the story away from Huck. Sheesh, Tom, you’ve already had your own whole book, haven’t you? Why do you need to go ruining the end of this one?

The “plot” is episodic. Moreover, even before Tom shows up, some episodes barely involve Huck, and the whole thing comes screeching to an abrupt happy ending thanks to a deus ex machina. I prefer plots that have a rising-falling shape to them, that feature the same protagonist throughout, and that end as a result of some action of the protagonist rather than some coincidence or piece of luck.

Here’s the Notice that prefaces the novel:

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

I guess I’m going to be shot.

“Plot” of Huckleberry Finn

Now that I think of it, there is a kind of overarching plot…

Act I: Huck escapes his father

(set-up, catalyst, debate, break into two)
Huck’s good-for-nothing father shows up in town and demands Huck’s money. Huck, who discovered a huge fortune with Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, has been living with a widowed lady who has been trying to civilize him. Huck’s father kidnaps him, but Huck fakes his own death and escapes onto the Mississippi River. The same night, the slave Jim escapes after hearing that the widow had plans to sell him away from his family.

Act II (first half): Huck and Jim team up

(b-story, fun and games)
Huck encounters Jim on an island in the river, and they team up. They capture a raft and loot a floating house containing a dead guy who Jim recognizes as Huck’s father. Huck and Jim manage to loot a crippled steamboat despite the robbers aboard it. Though Huck valiantly tries to send rescuers their way, the robbers ultimately sink with the boat. After Huck cleverly prevents Jim from being taken by bounty hunters, Huck and Jim get separated when a steamboat crashes into their raft. Huck is adopted by the Grangerfords and lives comfortably with them until they are attacked in a gunfight, the continuation of a decades-long feud with their neighbors the Shepherdsons. Huck discovers that Jim has been hiding out nearby, and the two travel on down the river. Huck and Jim rescue two con artists, who call themselves a king and a duke, and agree to travel with them, since it is difficult for a boy and a slave to travel alone together.

Act II (second half): The king and the duke wear out their welcome

(midpoint, bad guys close in, all is lost, dark night of the soul, break into three)
The con artists aren’t so easy to travel with: Huck’s conscience is pained by their scams, and Jim is mournful because he dreams of being reunited with his wife and children; the stakes for him are not mere money. After the failure of their most ambitious scam ever, Huck thinks he’s rid of the king and the duke, but they resurface. Sensing the end of their fantastic run of luck, the duke and the king sell Jim. Horrified at this betrayal, Huck resolves to rescue him.

Act III: Tom Sawyer barges in

(finale, conclusion)
At the farm where Jim is being kept, Huck is mistaken for Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer subsequently arrives and pretends to be his own elder brother, Sid. Learning of Jim’s captivity, Tom hatches and puts into motion a rescue plan that culminates in his (Tom’s) being shot in the leg. Delighted with this outcome, Tom reveals that Jim’s owner, the widow, has died and freed him in her will. Huck and Tom’s true identities are revealed, and Huck sets off west to avoid being civilized against his will. The king and duke are tarred and feathered.

What Stood Out in Huckleberry Finn

Jim learns that people in other countries don’t necessarily speak English:

“Why, Huck, doan’ de French people talk de same way we does?”
No, Jim; you couldn’t understand a word they said—not a single word.”
“Well, now, I be ding-busted!  How do dat come?”
“I don’t know; but it’s so.  I got some of their jabber out of a book. S’pose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy—what would you think?”
“I wouldn’ think nuff’n; I’d take en bust him over de head—dat is, if he warn’t white.  I wouldn’t ’low no nigger to call me dat.”
“Shucks, it ain’t calling you anything.  It’s only saying, do you know how to talk French?”
“Well, den, why couldn’t he say it?”
“Why, he is a-saying it.  That’s a Frenchman’s way of saying it.”
“Well, it’s a blame ridicklous way, en I doan’ want to hear no mo’ ’bout it.  Dey ain’ no sense in it.”

Huck learns not to make light of Jim’s feelings when Jim says,

“When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, en I didn’ k’yer no’ mo’ what become er me en de raf’.  En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun’, de tears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo’ foot, I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin’ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie.  Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.”

Timon and Pumbaa Huck and Jim discuss the heavenly bodies:

We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.  Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.  Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done.

Twain gives us a painful reminder of an unenlightened time:

“We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

The beginning of the end, in which Tom convinces Huck that Jim’s escape must follow storybook conventions.

“My plan is this,” I says. “We can easy find out if it’s Jim in there. Then get up my canoe to-morrow night, and fetch my raft over from the island. Then the first dark night that comes steal the key out of the old man’s britches after he goes to bed, and shove off down the river on the raft with Jim, hiding day-times and running nights, the way me and Jim used to do before. Wouldn’t that plan work?”
“Work? Why, cert’nly it would work, like rats afighting. But it’s too blame’ simple; there ain’t nothing to it. What’s the good of a plan that ain’t no more trouble than that?”

What I Remembered from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I only remembered the end, which involves a needlessly elaborate scheme to free Jim. Every bit of it struck me as idiotic. I specifically remembered the way the bed leg was laboriously sawed and made to look whole, even though there was no need to cut it at all. I remembered a rope baked into a pie, even though Jim’s hut was on the ground and not in a castle tower. While Huck makes Jim enact the role of a fictional prisoner, Jim’s real-life freedom hangs in the balance. It wasn’t so much tense as exasperating.

Huckleberry Finn Links for Further Study

Mark Twain Links for Further Study

When and why I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for November 2018. Previously, I read it in high school (10th grade).

Genre: fiction (American literature)
Date started / date finished:  02-Nov-18 to 04-Nov-18
Length: 352
Originally published in: 1884/1885
Amazon link: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn