So, you want to read a nice adventure story about a restless pre-adolescent and his companion? Then this is not the novel for you. You want to read about a scandalous adventure exposing you to lying, drunkenness, prostitution, violence, racism, blasphemy and the distortion of high society? Then you have found the right book.
The story of Huckleberry Finn is, in its simplest form, the tale of a 12 year old boy who fakes his own death, runs away from town and travels down the river on a raft with his companion, Jim. On this journey, they are intercepted by a number of interesting and depraved people; however they finally find their happy ending after a confusing and unnecessary dispute at the Phelp’s farm (coincidentally Huck’s best friend’s family).
The difficulty of Huckleberry Finn does not lie in understanding the storyline; it lies predominately in the racial aspect of the novel. Jim is a black slave and evidently in the novel, society does not deem it worthy for him to be a ‘friend’ to Huck. It is often the case that Huck must lie about Jim’s background and social position to avoid both characters falling victim to this discrimination. One instance in the novel depicts men from a steamboat wishing to search the raft for slaves, quick-thinking Huck however, proclaims that his father is on board with the contagious disease smallpox and so the men abandon their plan. Instances that leave Jim fearing for his freedom are not rare and far between in the novel. Mark Twain does not allow the reader to forget the risky expedition that he is embarking upon. This uneasy racism is at the forefront of the readers mind for the majority of the novel.
This prejudice that the contemporary readership would be so accustomed to, aids the growth of the most psychologically interesting character in the novel – Huck himself. He is a young pre-teenage boy who sees no value or worth in table manners, education or religion. As a narrator however, he is plainly honest and highly rational. He is sympathetic, genuine and caring and shows his loyalty to Jim repeatedly regardless of the consequences. Huck’s morality is far above many other characters in the novel. Yes, he is a thief and a very accomplished liar however these sins are trivial in comparison to what is going on around him.
It seems Twain purposely wrote Huck as the centre of morality in the novel and every other character is judged in comparison to him. Furthermore, rather controversially, it seems the people Huck meets that are more advanced on the social scale than him, have a much lower sense of morality than him. In other words, the most refined people in the novel are in actual fact, the most violent. Take the Grangerfords family for example. They are one of the most powerful families in the area, yet they engage in an irrational and outlandish feud with another family in which there had been many victims. Climbing further up the social ladder, the ‘King’ and the ‘Duke’ scam an abundance of money out of small villages and towns. This is obviously a social statement from Twain, arguably about slave-owners and their morality. It seems the point Twain is trying to declare is that the equation of social hierarchy and morality is deluded in the novel definitely, but also in real life.
The one criticism I have of this novel, which does not detract from my love of it, is the voice with which Twain provides Jim with. Written in the vernacular and focusing heavily on the race dispute it is evident that Twain feels that black people deserve a voice. Yet, my question is, if Twain is trying to expose the psychology of black people to white Americans, then why does he still take away the voice of the black people? Jim says very little throughout the novel and is also portrayed in a submissive and quiet role. Granted, this allows the audience to sympathise with him however, I would like to have seen Jim not as a pawn in somebodies game but with a glimmer of confidence and power about him.
Overall, it is obvious why this is one of the most canonical novels in American literature. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and regardless of whether you want to interpret the social statements or not, it is easily accessible to everyone. If you are more of an audiobook listener or struggling with the vernacular accent, I would also recommend the Loudlit.org podcast which has a brilliant narrator and makes it a very enjoyable listen.