Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Huckleberry Finn: An American Classic

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Huckleberry Finn An American Classic

Take yourself back to a time when slavery ran rampant through America, blacks were whipped and sold off the block, and it was a lifetime instead of just a short flight to ‘head out west’ such were the times in the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Through the adventures and mishaps of Huck Finn, Twain paints a picture of his idea of the perfect American. With each of Huck’s escapades, Twain illustrates an important value or lesson that Huck (and hopefully the reader) eventually figures out. His main point in the book, however, is to illustrate the faults almost permanently ingrained in society as a whole. These faults become evident in the differences he provides between the mainland and the raft. Twain makes a special point to illustrate the values of freedom, honesty with one’s self, and greed through these differences.

With every hour Huck spends on the Mississippi, he begins to value more and more the freedom that he has acquired by running away from society. He continually tells us about his hatred of “sivilized” society- from home to school and back again. In the book, Twain demonstrates the two different kinds of imprisonment a person can experience. He provides us first with examples of physical imprisonment through Huck’s conflict with his father, who locks him up in a cabin for a matter of weeks. Second, and most important, he portrays his ideas about psychological imprisonment. While staying with Ms. Watson, Huck’s chief complaints are that he doesn’t like going to school or wearing nice clothes. What this really shows is not necessarily psychological imprisonment, but rather social imprisonment that society itself inadvertently places limits and rules upon people. Huck cannot function as most people can in society he is not adroit, nor well kempt, nor did he want to be. After considering several “accepted” practices of society, such as religion, Huck decides to discard them in favor of his own beliefs. This demonstrates the limit to which certain values are engrained in society. Most people in the 1800’s (at least those closest to Huck in “sivilization”) accepted the idea that there was a god, and that praying and attending church was just something that you did. Huck, always one to think for himself, disagreed. To summarize this position, Huck’s psychological imprisonment was due to qualities and ideas in which society has permanently entrenched itself. He does not free himself from this bond until he finally accepts himself for who he is, instead of who society wants him to be. By running away from St. Petersburg and remaining on the river, Huck distances himself from the rest of the world, therefore setting himself free from all mental and physical incarceration. When he is on the river, we see that he is not only true to himself and what he believes, but also acts freely of himself without any influence from society a “pure” human being. This is also symbolized in the chapters where Huck and Jim navigate the river completely naked. The river itself represents freedom because it physically separates Huck from all the things that Twain considers bad, symbolically representing what happens when the blinds of society are removed.

Twain further separates the differences between the river and the mainland in the way Huck conducts himself every time he meets someone or goes ashore. Whether simply to conceal his true identity, protect himself and Jim, or some other reason that only he knows, Huck almost always lies. Honesty in general becomes a very big issue in this book, building higher the psychological wall between the river and mainland. When Huck is on the raft, he is very honest with himself and Jim, diverting Jim with his opinions and history. Yet, every time Huck goes ashore, he dresses in women’s clothing and/or makes up a story about where he’s come from and where he’s going. This primarily illustrates the extent to which Huck trusts society. It makes him feel obliged to lie. If the world were to find out who he really is a loving, caring, compassionate boy, albeit a poor one, it would no doubt shun him as scum, simply because (in spite of his positive traits) he does not look clean, nor is he well educated. A major turning point in the novel is when Huck, contemplating whether to send a note to Ms. Watson about where Jim is, finally gives up trying to please society “I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself ‘All right then, I’ll go to hell’- and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.” (10) Society judges people and forces them to think inside the ‘societal box’ a smattering of people who only acquiesce to prevent their own reprimand by friends, family, and the rest of the community. Twain shows us that only through honesty can one find one’s self.

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Yet the most important contrast Twain shows us is in the events involving that which has been portrayed as mankind’s greatest weakness greed. When one compares the river and mainland in this respect, the river looks like heaven and the mainland a cesspool of all that is evil. It seems that every time Huck leaves the raft, he runs into trouble involving human weakness (and even times when he doesn’t). There are countless examples in the book where greed for money and the satisfaction of one’s self outweigh morality and individuality. This greed is most evident in the actions of Tom Sawyer and the King and Duke. Tom would always act out of the desire to please himself. The entire incident at his aunt’s house trying to free Jim was simply his idea of a game for fun. Tom’s desire to please himself is further exemplified when he tries to rectify his actions against Jim with money “…and Tom give Jim forty dollars for being prisoner for us so patient, and doing it up so good, and Jim was pleased most to death…” (8) Tom thinks that he can buy off Jim’s conscience with money, that is to say that it’s not what one thinks that matters, but rather how much money they have. The King and Duke constantly hatch plans to cheat people for their own benefit. In one instance, at a revival meeting, the King lies outright to hundreds of people.

“Well, the first I knowed the king got a-going, and you could hear him over everybody; and next he went a-charging up onto the platform, and the preacher he begged him to speak to the people, and he done it. He told them he was a pirate-been ap irate for thirty years out in the Indian Ocean-and he and his crew was thinned out considerable late spring in a fight, and he was home now to take out some fresh men, and thanks to goodness he’d been robbed last night and put ashore off of a steamboat without a cent, and he was glad of it; it was the belessedest thing that ever happened to him, because he was a changed man now, and happy for the first time in his life; and, poor as he was, he was going to start right off and work his way back to the Indian Ocean, and put in the rest of his life trying to turn the pirated into the true path; for he could do it better than anybody else, being acquainted with all there anyway, and every time he convinced a pirate he would say to him, ‘Don’t you thank me, don’t you give me no credit; it all belongs to them dear people in Pokeville camp meeting, natural brothers and benefactors of the race, and that dear preacher there, the truest friend a pirate ever had.” (1)

They seem to not recognize any moral problems associated with bettering themselves at the expense of others. Twain shows us what comes of putting one’s greed before the respect of others when the Duke and King are finally tarred and feathered (about which Huck feels guilty, although he doesn’t even know why, proving that his separation from society on the river has made him a more pure, moral, and responsible human being).

Twains emphasis on the values of freedom, honesty, and greed really do exemplify the perfect American. Twain tries to tell us that if every person could be just like Huck Finn- compassionate, loving, and caring- then the world would be a much better place. Through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain makes a strong statement about human nature. He attempts to explain the extent to which the morals and fibers of society have been eroded and how much being true to one’s self is important. Twain tries to compel us to take a deep look at ourselves and what we represent, and try to better ourselves such that we can be more accepting, loving human beings, just like Huck Finn.

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