Thursday, November 17, 2011

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

For the last several days, I have been working on various drafts of other parts to the Literary Analysis Series.  But I haven't felt good about posting the next one yet, and so my heavy thoughts on existentialism have been sitting at the top of my blog much longer than I intended.  Ultimately, I have decided that although I am not finished with the series and I do still find value in it, I will space it out with literature reviews in between.  After all, this blog is based on the literature itself, and I don't think anyone (myself included) would be eager to read a whole group of posts on analysis all at once.

This brings me to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  I'm not entirely sure why it has taken me so long to write about this one.  I think that there is a part of me that resisted listing it among the "Classics" because I felt it wasn't serious enough.  But the truth about Huck Finn, and the reason it deserves this status, is that it is full of mature and thoughtful themes in the guise of a children's story.  This is not the only piece of literature that does this so well.  I have already discussed To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies, both of which have children as their protagonists and are often considered to be children's stories.  Nevertheless, these stories each contain a great deal of stimulating insight and can provoke thoughtful discussion.  I really enjoy stories that have protagonists with an unusual perspective, and these authors all present intriguing themes by writing from a child's point of view.

In school, I had to read this novel in eighth grade and then again in my senior year of high school.  When my teacher told us we would read this in our 12th grade AP English class, I must admit I was a little skeptical.  However, my experience with the story was remarkably different in the later reading.  Not long ago, I said that Classic literature is remarkable for its ability to make us grow in our appreciation for it in successive readings.  Well, I think there are many subtle messages in Huck Finn that can only be found in repeated study.  In fact, it would be a great shame if people only read the story when they were children and missed out on all the adult content.

I want to back up for a minute and note that Twain published Huck Finn nearly ten years after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  I think this is an important fact to keep in mind because he invested a lot of time in this sequel.  If you read the stories back-to-back, I think you will be able to feel the difference.  First of all, the most obvious difference is that the sequel is written from Huck's first-person perspective and is presented in his vernacular. I absolutely love that Twain wrote the story in this way.  In general, I am fascinated by writers who play with dialect in their writing, for I believe it can be used to make powerful yet subtle statements within the text.  In Twain's usage of it, we readers find the messages of the story on our own rather than having them dictated to us.  For example, Huck memorably decides he'd rather go to hell for protecting Jim than do the "right thing" and turn him in.  There's something sweet and compelling about this thought process that I think would be lost if an omniscient narrator (or an adult character, for that matter) explained it.  It is precisely because he is a child that Huck is able to distance himself from "civilized" adult society, thus revealing the hypocrisy that actually exists within it.

Another significant difference in Huck Finn is that Twain really delves into some mature and controversial themes.  We should keep in mind that he published the novel in 1885 when racism was still quite strong in the States.  Recently, people have sought to remove the racist language Twain includes, and I understand their desire to omit it.  However, the overall message of the story is clearly anti-racist, and the language illustrates the culture Huck lived in and yet overcame.  In addition to race relations, Huck encounters a number of other moral dilemmas he must evaluate through his own judgment and conscience.  These questions about society and morality that surface make this piece of literature amount to far more than a child's adventure story.

The vernacular writing and the child's perspective regarding moral dilemmas were innovative contributions to literature.  The reading is enjoyable and thought-provoking at the same time, and it is accessible to readers on multiple levels.  Thus, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn most certainly deserves to be listed among the great literary Classics, and I hope children and adults alike continue to read this novel for generations to come.


Becky (Page Turners) said...

I definitely agree with you that Huckleberry Finn deserves to be amougst the great classics, certainly more so than Tom Sawyer.

It struck me when reading Tom Sawyer that it was definitely a children's book, but I have to admit that I really didn't see Huck Finn like that. There is so much more content of a serious and thoughtful nature in it, that I am sure a child isn't going to be able to appreciate as much as someone older. Not to say kids can't read it, just that it isn't a childrens book

Andrew Joyce said...

The last time you heard of me and Tom was in that book Sam Clemens wrote telling of when Jim and me flowed down the Mississippi and met up with the King and the Duke. Then Jim got captured and Tom and I had to set him free. Of course, Jim was already a freed man; Tom just neglected to mention that fact during the planning stage.

Well, we were twelve years of age when Sam wrote about that. Now Tom and I are a mite older and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. One thing is that we’re a little bit smarter than we were. We’ve been reading a lot of books and our English has improved a little. But it wasn’t just books. Both Tom and I have traveled many miles, not always together, and travel broadens one’s outlook on life.

We went from being children to men before we knew it. Tom and Becky Thatcher never got married like everyone expected. In the summer of '54, Becky ran off with a drummer. I think he sold women’s corsets, but of that, I am not certain. We haven’t heard from her since. Judge Thatcher and Tom’s Aunt Polly both took sick and died the next year when the Cholera epidemic passed through town. Two years after that, the widow Douglas died; the doctor said it was heart failure.