Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Huckleberry Finn

I just finished reading, for the first time, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for my American Literature survey class. The discussions in class mostly center around Huck's moral development throughout the novel and whether it really is any development at all. After all, his first "decision" with regard to whether he will turn Jim in or not is that he will do whatever is most convenient for him at the time> moral relativism; and the second time he resolves, after he tries to muster up the courage to "be good" and turn him in, that he will go to hell instead, explaining to himself that he was brought up wicked and if he was going to hell he might as well go the whole way and help Jim to freedom. Obviously, it's problematic that Huck views his decision to help Jim to freedom as something evil, something for which he will, in the end, receive eternal damnation, in his mind. Some classmates posited that this is as much anyone can ask from Huck given his being a boy and from that time period; ie he is psychologically and morally unable to see his actions as truly noble amidst a society so strongly stating the opposite, so we should be happy and proud that he has resolved to see Jim as the good man Huck discovered him to be even if he thinks he'll go to hell for it. On the other hand, you could argue that Huck only ever sees him as a "good nigger," and he maintains, however unconscious, the notion that he is some how above Jim, able to cast judgment on him (even if it's good), and that really his whole choosing hell is in fact just the most convenient thing for him to do (after all, he himself can't go back home, as everyone there thinks him dead).

Ultimately, I think Mark Twain leaves it really ambiguous, because really, there's truth to both sides. Twain crafted this story in such a way, I think, to point out how we can always see what we want to see, and will see what we want to see; thereby catching us in the same crime of so many of the characters we meet along the river, and of the society he is describing on the whole.

Does anyone else have any insights? Other points? Completely different angles or issues?


  1. Maura -

    I haven't read this in a while. I think what was interesting to me, as I recall it, is how Jim becomes a kind of father figure to Huck. Anyway, I don't know if that is completely off topic, or if that in any way contributes to the angle you are working with.


    P.S. My American Lit teacher says there are two types of American readers: the ones who like Huck Finn and the ones who like Moby Dick. And they can't get along. I think that is pretty pessimistic, but I would say that I am a Moby Dick fan, if I had to choose.

  2. Maura,

    First of all, can I just express the shock and awe that you are 21 years old and an English major in America, and are just now reading Huck Finn?!?! I thought this was required canon. Well, maybe it's a Midwest thing...

    Anyway, I think Huck Finn is the perfect example of learning whether or not to trust the narrator. Huck obviously exaggerates a lot and probably flat out lies. But since he's just a kid, maybe it's easier to see through the lies, and in some ways perhaps he's more honest. I also had to write a paper about gender identity in Huck Finn. (He dresses up like a girl, but how does he become a man, etc.) I actually kind of hated it, but I guess it could be an interesting take on it.....