Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Up to now I've been posting on books that I recently finished. Well, I think it's time to ramp up the productivity on Reading the Classics, we do have this recession going on. I'll start with a book I know really well so memory won't be an issue. I've read Huck Finn four times since tenth grade and no matter how educated I get, this book is still too complex for me. I don't mean complex in a Ulysses I can only read three pages in an hour way, but in a socio-historical way that always amazes me. 
Authorial voice is critically importing in Huck Finn. Who are we listening to? Is is Twain? He does give us his famous notice before the body of the book: "PERSONS attempting to fin a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot." Reading from a twenty-first century perspective we are probably safe from such punishment, but finding any of the three (motive, moral, plot) remains a tricky issue. The layers are thick and numerous. We have Twain, we have Huck, and we have some really weird border state history to deal with. Huck has been raised in the slave-holding state of Missouri and speaks from a white boy's perspective. He knows how he's supposed to act within the slave structure but something bothers him. His conscience is always getting in the way of doing the socially right thing. When deciding between turning in Jim and continuing on their escape he decides "All right, then, I'll go to hell," and continues on the river. This inversion of what we'd see as the moral thing to do, help someone escape a brutal, exploitative system, makes Huck all the more charming and admirable because he found the truth despite his Missouri upbringing. 
I'm assuming most people have read this one, so I'm going to skip the plot summary in favor of some fun minutia. I've read several times that Twain set the book down for a time after Jim is sold to the Phelp's family. When he picked it back up he rushed the finish with unlikely and hackneyed plot devices. The reintroduction of Tom Sawyer changes the road trip, buddy feel of the book and inserts another dynamic. Tom is not capable of feeling the pangs of conscience that Huck feels. His appearance necessarily means that Jim's situation is no longer to be taken seriously, but only as a game piece in Tom's imaginary adventures. I believe that Huck is better able to feel empathy for Jim because of his pauper class origins. Tom doesn't have that capability. Ultimately Tom and Huck are kids, we need to remember that. Huck matures as he travels down the river, but he's not yet capable of engineering a return to the free states with an escaped slave. Luckily Miss Watson kicked the bucket so Jim is free anyway, but it is interesting to ponder whether Huck would have made another attempt to save his friend if he'd been sent back to bondage.  

Rating 10/10: Could read it every year, if I was alive when it was published I would have said instant classic. 

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