I was struck by the Notice “By Order of the Author” preceding this story:
Persons attempting to find 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 in it will be shot.
So, of course this alerted me to the fact that this book has a motive and a moral and made me wonder what techniques or narrative mode Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) used. How should I interpret the story and what is its meaning? To some extent it obvious; it is a book of social and political criticism – criticism of the poor state of race and class relations in America as Twain saw them in the 1880s. I love his allusions to Shakespeare, the Bible, Dumas and Cervantes. I even got used to his use of African-Amercian and regional speech, and the many dialects of the local people in towns along the Mississippi.
The hero and narrator is Huckleberry Finn, a teenage boy who matures as the story progresses. At the start he is a boy who lies and steals almost without thought; he smokes, his grammar is appalling and he has no respect for authority. By faking his own death he escapes from his alcoholic father who mistreated and used him and joins forces with Jim, the runaway slave. When the book was first published and later too, many people found it offensive in its use of the word ‘nigger’ but this emphasises the nature of the slave society in which Jim and Huck had to survive. At first it troubles Huck that he is helping Jim to run away because it is a criminal offence, but by the end of the book his attitude has changed and he sees Jim as just as much a human being as he is himself. His courage and resilience are remarkable, although at times he does get depressed.
There is so much in this book, so many “adventures” and characters that Huck encounters. Jim and Huck sail down the Mississippi on a raft and their relationship develops. There are several illuminating episodes in which Jim is shown to be an intelligent and perceptive man acting as a father figure for Huck. It seems they are on their way to freedom when they miss landing at Cairo, Illinois where Jim will be free and then the raft is rammed by steam boat. Jim and Huck are separated. Huck then meets the Grangerford family and finds himself in the midst of a family feud with the Shepherdson family. Sickened by the killings and mutilation Huck flees and finds Jim again.
More adventures follow and further down the river they meet a pair of con men – the Duke and the King – who force Huck to help them in a series of schemes. Eventually Jim is captured and taken to the Phelps farm. Huck finds his way there and the last part of the book is to my mind quite exasperating (and long) as with the surprise appearance of Tom Sawyer he and Huck devise the most elaborate and complicated plans to free Jim. Tom, with all his confidence and charm, comes over as a most arrogant and manipulative character and the Phelps family seemed to me to be naive and unobservant not to notice what the two boys were doing. But then Tom was influenced by the books he’d read about prisoners such as the Count of Monte Cristo, the Man in the Iron Mask and Casanova and he was swept along by ideas of what he considered to be the right way of doing things (it made me want to read those books too).
Twain’s alternating use of description and dialogue provides a realistic basis for the story. I like Huck’s description of the river at dawn:
Not a sound, anywheres – perfectly still – just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering maybe. The first thing to see was a kind of dull line – that was the woods on t’other side – you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then the paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and it warn’t black any more, but gray; … and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river …
So it’s not just an adventure book, it’s peopled by convincing and colourful characters and although full of action it also provides a scathing commentary on racism and prejudice. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur‘s Court, which I read many years ago is also a critical commentary on the social and political scene. Now I would also like to read his books The Pauper and the Prince and The innocents Abroad, as well as a biography.
The Celebrate the Author Challenge is designed to “celebrate” authors’ birthdays. Each month the idea is to read a book by an author whose birthday falls within that month. For various reasons I’ve missed reading books by authors with birthdays in last few months but this month is the anniversary of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ birthday – he was born on 30 November 1835.