Warning: As with any kind of analysis/examination of classic literature, this entire post is full of garbage. Be wary.
There’s been a lot of things said about the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn over the years. Ernest Hemingway called it “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Louisa May Alcott, on the other hand, was so struck by its vulgarity that she said that if the author ‘cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them.’ T.S. Eliot called it ‘the only one of Mark Twain’s various books which can be called a masterpiece’.
And yet in modern times – barring the occasional criticism of the book’s use of the n-word -it’s considered a masterpiece of English literature, the first great American novel, a stunning achievement in style and voice, a book grounded in moral force – feel free to insert your own stirring compliments wherever you please. High schools hand it out as assigned reading. Spark Notes provides page upon page on themes, characters, quotes.
So naturally, it sounds like the kind of book that nobody but English teachers would read nowadays – which is a shame, because, like most classic literature, when freed from the cold, vicelike grip of academia Huckleberry Finn is actually an entertaining book. It has its funny moments – Huck dressing up as a girl, the amusing discussion between Jim and Huck about kings and speaking French, Tom and his crew trying to figure out what holding someone for ransom actually means. It has its serious moments – Jim fleeing from slavery, Huck’s moral crisis, a pair of con artists scamming a bunch of orphans out of their inheritance. For most of the novel these are kept in check – there are moments of side-splitting hilarity and of depressing tragedy, of course, but ultimately the story is always treated seriously.
That’s not the same as saying the story itself is always serious. Rather, I mean that the novel, while full of zany and colourful characters, never allows the comedy to undermine the driving tension of the story. The story never loses sight of the fact that Jim is a fugitive from the law, but neither does it overshadow the wackier parts of the tale.
Without the humour, Huckleberry Finn wouldn’t exist, but without the solemnity of Jim’s predicament to lend backbone to the story, the entire novel would dissolve into a series of funny vignettes. Without it, Huckleberry Finn would just be Tom Sawyer all over again.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with Tom Sawyer. It’s a good book, a fun book, and it would be wrong to say there’s nothing serious to it. There’s stolen gold, close shaves with death, and a savage murderer, after all – but there’s something about it that doesn’t quite feel the same. Tom Sawyer is a boys’ own adventure from start-to-finish, about a troublemaker with a heart of gold looking to amuse himself, and so the entire business with Injun Joe comes across less as a serious predicament and more so as just another adventure.
And the reason why, I think, lies in a key difference between the two books. Tom Sawyer is a boys’ own adventure told by a wry, distant narrator; we laugh at Tom tricking the other boys into painting the fence, gape at the audacity of he and Huck turning up to their own funerals, tremble with suspense as the two of them eavesdrop on Injun Joe in the haunted house. Everything is about action – not in the sense of fights or battles, but in the sense that we read just to see what crazy antics Tom will get himself into next chapter.
Huckleberry Finn is a different beast: it’s a coming-of-age story, and herein lies the gap. Tom may be an amusing character – smart and mischievous, with a heart of gold underneath all his troublemaking – but there’s no real sense that he grows or changes throughout the novel. Perhaps he grows a little more sympathetic to poor old Aunt Polly after faking his death, and perhaps his willingness to take Becky Thatcher’s punishment shows a newfound selfishness, but whatever character development Tom undergoes is a subplot, a side dish to the main course of getting lost in caves and finding lost gold and camping out on islands. Huck Finn, on the other hand, places a lot more emphasis not just on its protagonist’s thoughts and feelings (chiefly, through use of a direct first-person perspective instead of an invisible third-person narrator), but also on how he changes and grows throughout the novel.
It would be wrong to overstate just how much of a change that Huck’s adventure triggers in him – he doesn’t end the novel swearing a one-man crusade against slavery, nor does he become some kind of wise, all-knowing wanderer – but unlike Tom, there is a change.
See, on the surface, Tom seems like a rebel. He plays pranks, breaks the rules, and generally does his very best to give his poor aunt a heart attack. But deep down, Tom is just like the rest of society; happy, complacent, self-assured of his place. He may be an orphan, but he has an aunt who looks after him, cousins who care for him, friends who follow him. Tom, for better or for worse, is settled comfortable into society, and thus there’s no real indication that he’s going to change anytime soon.
Huck is different. Huck is an outsider from the start; independent, uneducated, an orphan in all but name. He doesn’t want to be civilised, he doesn’t want to be schooled, and while he doesn’t outright rebel against society, he’s content to live outside it. And I think this is the key reason why Huck changes so much as Tom stays the same.
How does Huck change? Unlike Tom, with his fanciful games of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, Huck, during his journey along the river, sees real injustice in the world around him. Sometimes in society – in the hypocrisy of a Christian country that believes in treating Jim as chattel, or in the foolish, bitter rivalry between two families wrought by rigid Southern codes of honour – and sometimes just in individuals – in the king, eager to scam defenceless girls out of their money, or in the thieves who attacked the steamboat.
And by seeing a little more of the world as it really is, Huck comes to realise that there are higher values than human law, that the right thing to do is not always what others tell you, that society is not always right. The world of Tom Sawyer may be one of stern, unimaginative adults, but it is fundamentally a good one; the threat to peace, to goodness comes not from some dark hypocrisy festering within society but from Injun Joe, a frightening, foreign outsider. The world of Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, is one where evil comes not always from beyond, but often from society itself.
Let’s not exaggerate here; Huckleberry Finn isn’t some anarchist handbook, calling for the destruction of a corrupt, venal civilization. Nor does it end with Huck becoming a crusader against injustice, rallying against slavery, crying for revolution, joining the Underground Revolution. From a modern perspective, there are certainly problems with elevating a book with a single key black character by a white, male author into the Great American Racism Novel, as some people do (a mistake also often made with To Kill A Mockingbird, which is an even worse fit for the title) – and so it would be a terrible mistake to over-emphasise Huck as some sort of brave opponent of slavery, a champion for equal rights, because he really isn’t.
But it would be just as wrong to say that Huck doesn’t change at all, because he does.
Huckleberry Finn is all about how Huck’s understanding of the world around him develops – how he learns something about human nature and society that no school would ever teach him – and so it’s a real shame that for the final few chapters of the novel, pretty much all of this goes out the window, because Tom’s arrival sends Huckleberry Finn spinning off helplessly into a ditch to be replaced by The Further Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
After an entire book built around Huck and Jim’s run from the law – narrow escapes and close brushes – good old Tom Sawyer comes along and transforms everything into a game. Jim’s freedom is no longer a matter of life or death, but something to play around with, a new and novel toy with which to play cowboys and Indians.
This is bad from a thematic point of view – but moreover, it’s bad even from a dramatic point of view. Stories need tension, a force that drives the story. It needs stakes, it needs a task of sorts that must be accomplished, whether it be an external threat or inner turmoil. For the bulk of Huckleberry Finn, that tension has been two-fold: both the struggle to bring Jim to freedom and Huck’s dilemma over whether or not he’s doing the right thing. Just before Tom’s arrival hijacks the book, Huck finally resolves the second tension, deciding that he’s going to help his friend, ‘the right thing’ be damned. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!”
And so you’d expect the final few chapters to be a climax for Huck’s character – where he sticks to his convictions and tries his very best to save Jim; where he lets nothing, not man or creature, threats of heaven or hell, get in his way. When Tom turns up and suggests they turn this into a game – dig tunnels underneath Jim’s tent, cooking up ‘witch pies’, dressing up as servant girls – you might even expect a chance for Huck to finally shine.
He’s spent so long in Tom’s shadow, after all, going along with whatever crazy schemes he cooks up – but now (as far as Huck knows) Jim’s very freedom hangs in the balance. Huck has seen more of the world than Tom, he knows it’s not just a place for fun and games, he knows that Jim isn’t just a plaything. This is his chance to stick to his conviction. This is his chance to stand up to Tom. This is his chance to show just how much he’s changed.
Tom may fancy himself a troublemaker, but he’s ultimately no different to the rest of Southern society; he may mean no harm to Jim, and he may treat him as a full human being, but Jim is still an object to him – an adventure, a playmate, perhaps even a toy. Tom knows that Jim’s already been given his freedom, and instead of sharing this wonderful news, he leaves Jim and Huck to suffer for the sake of a game. He doesn’t mean any malice by it, but neither do many of the slave-owners. There could’ve been so much made of this…
And instead… it looks like Mark Twain didn’t know what to write and decided he’d be better off padding it out with the Further Adventures of Tom Sawyer – as T.S. Eliot states ‘In Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain wrote a much greater book than he could have known he was writing.’ Had he consciously tried to write a book of such magnitude, Twain would no doubt have failed; at the same time, with this lack of self-awareness there was little to stop Twain from slipping back into Tom Sawyer’s world, losing both tension and meaning.
It’s disappointing, because as it currently stands, the ending seems like an enormous missed opportunity… Opportunity for tension: to expand on the tension of Jim’s flight from slavery, to create tension between Huck, who has allowed compassion and love for another human being to take precedence over cold, ruthless law, and Tom, who remains blind and innocent. We probably can’t blame Twain for this – telling authors how they should’ve written their novels, particularly one as famous as this, is an exercise in hubris.
But still, it’s a shame… And I’m not alone in thinking that the ending could’ve been so much better. Let’s give the last word to Ernest Hemingway, who will hopefully lend a touch of literary class to what has essentially been me whining for 2000 words:
“If you must read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.”
– Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa
(Final note: When I first wrote this, I was quite proud of myself for coming up with these ideas. Then while writing the 2nd draft I came across T.S. Eliot’s introduction to the novel, which basically says the exact same thing but with much more insight, depth, and clarity. Which is only to be expected, seeing as he was a great and famous poet and I’m… not. But anyway, if you like the book you should read the introduction, which can be found here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-introduction-to-huckleberry-finn-annotated)