Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Complete Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

As a kid, I loved Tom Sawyer's imaginative adventures and bucking of authority. He had the nerve to run away and didn't care if he got in trouble. I envied his manipulation of adults and kids. When Tom talks the neighborhood boys into painting the fence for him because it was fun, I remembered wishing I had his smooth talking ways so I could convince my neighbors to help me rake what amounted to 100 bags of leaves - an endless fall chore of mine and my siblings. Not only does Tom psychologically motivate the neighborhood boys into begging him to paint the fence, but he convinces them to barter their most treasured possessions to participate in doing his chore. I lived vicariously through the mischievous Tom who pulled pranks and snuck out his bedroom window at night. He gave me ideas too. I had adventures based on favorite books, made blood oaths, and giggled my way out the bedroom window with my best friend on sleepovers.  Like Tom, we purposefully made our adventures harder to represent the literature. We'd forsake a flashlight for candles, make a raft out of cattails (that sunk), eat clam chowder and Velveeta cheese (think plastic cheese) because that was what we thought pirates ate, chiseled a port hole in a wood door that was our ship, built a tree house out of shingles (what a spectacular fall when that broke), used a Swiss knife to chisel holes out of ice on a hill pretending we were mountain climbers, and more. Reading Mark Twain's books as an adult, I see his serious themes, satire, and  how he is capturing a nostalgia for imaginative childhood play.

The Romantic pastoral emerged in Europe as a reaction to the burgeoning industrial revolution and Twain represents an American counterpart movement. The pastoral genre is a look back on simpler times in an idealized way. Heroes are oftentimes alone, powerless, and alienated from society. Whereas Tom Sawyer is satirical and entertaining and creates an idealized childhood, Huck Finn shows an outcast boy that wants to live within social conventions but can't because he morally struggles with them. Nothing is cut and dry with Twain. His messages are ambiguous and what I like so well about Huck is his internal struggles with his friend, Jim, a black slave and how Huck can't treat him in the way society deems correct. Huck thinks he's sinful and doesn't question societies' ethics or morals, he just recognizes he can't follow them with a clear conscience. He's a fascinating character because he flips back and forth from racist thoughts and prejudices to ones that see Jim as a human being that deserves better. One minute Huck is concerned about Jim, his friend, and later he is telling a white woman that a steamer cylinder blew and no one was hurt. As an afterthought he tells her a black man was killed, assigning slaves to a subhuman status once again. Twain's creation of the character of Jim, the slave, is also ambiguous. On the one hand, Jim gives deep and rich answers to some of Huck's actions or questions, and on the other he is a complete buffoon. This makes me wonder is Jim relegated to a stereotype because he is just protecting himself from whites or is the author reflecting the attitudes of his time? Nothing is clear-cut which makes this such a fascinating read. But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's back up and look at Tom's story first.

Tom is depicted in a series of events in the American West during the 1840s that romanticize small town life on the frontier. Tom gets together with his buddies and plays pranks on them, the school teacher, and acts out books. His guardian is exasperated by his rebellious behavior but loves him all the same. When the school master "whups" him, Tom doesn't feel bad about it nor does he think of the injustice of it. In the face of tyranny, Tom represents freedom and he seems to have this idyllic (pastoral) life and attitude. He bucks social conventions but always goes back to Aunt Polly; thus, never coming across as a complete rebel or delinquent. When Tom acts out his imaginative adventures many come true. When he dreams of being a pirate and finding treasure, it happens in real life. When he fantasizes about his own funeral, it happens. When he has mock-battles and wars, he witnesses a murder. Tom's belief in his swashbuckling tales shape his world and the adults in it are as childish as him often mirroring his actions. When he's in church teasing a pinch-bug that torments a stray dog, his amusement is mimicked by the congregation. The adults are hiding their boredom and going to church as a social convention following peers rather than out of pleasure. While children have to go, the adult church-goers intentions appear hypocritical. When Tom has to recite scriptures for Sabbath School, there is a guest of honor that the adults and children respond by "showing off." This satirical look at adult hypocrisy shows a deeper level than just a child's story about imagination and friendship.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" take a darker turn where Tom Sawyer's imaginative play-acting takes on a cruel aspect and Huck is confronted with the morally corrupt institution of slavery. At the end of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," Huck is living with the Widow Douglas who is good to him  and he is rich from the treasure he and Tom discovered in the caves by their town. When Huck's drunken pap gets wind of the wealth he comes after Huck, kidnapping him and locking him in a cabin. Huck doesn't mind at first but as his father gets more violent he flees the cabin on a raft where he meets up with Jim, a runaway slave that doesn't want to be sold to another family. Jim dreams of being free and reunited with his wife and kids. Huck does not want to be civilized and is running away from the controls of society.

Huck and Jim have adventures on the raft that has become their refuge from society. They meet a wealthy family, the Grangerfords, that is having a feud with another family, the Shepherdsons. When the daughter of one family runs off with the boy from the other family, a brutal shoot-out occurs that shows the senselessness of the family's code of honor that makes Huck sick at heart. Next Huck and Jim get wrapped up with a couple of con men who claim to be a Duke and King. Huck tries to fix the immoral actions of the two in some humorous scenes as they try to swindle others out of money. Twain seems to be ridiculing aristocratic pretensions reflected in certain Americans, as well as, reflecting the carpetbaggers that came from the North to the South during the reconstruction trying to seek monetary gains at the expense of others.

Huck's journey with Jim is a moral quest or crisis of conscience resulting from interactions with others and Jim himself. He starts to see Jim as a human being and not how society views slaves, but interestingly enough, Huck never questions the institution of slavery; instead he always blames his decision to help Jim and not sell him as being a product of him not being civilized and sinful. The last third has Huck abandoning his quest and enlisting Tom Sawyer's help to free Jim. Jim becomes a caricature of a docile and ignorant slave while Huck and Jim let Tom act out his fantasies that are more harmful and less innocent as in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Huck cared about Jim's feelings and vowed to never play tricks on him again while they were on the river, but with Tom he doesn't seem to care anymore letting Tom turn Jim's escape into a game. His development seems to have come full circle with Huck acting childish again. The ending makes it impossible to determine if the novel speaks against racism or merely reflects racist attitudes in society. It is understandable that some view the novel as a satire on racism and others can't reconcile the stereotypical depictions of slaves.

Twain wrote burlesques a popular form of parody that were favorites of working-class theatergoers in the 1840s and it is evident he uses the same technique in the subplot involving the Duke and King and Tom's escape game. Burlesques were a form of satire and Twain pokes fun at a host of people and subjects: religion, African Americans, upper classes, Britain, Native Americans, education, to name a few. While some might find his stereotypes disturbing, others might find them funny and enlightening. There's a good reason his book consistently shows up on banned book lists. It's controversial and it makes for good discussions. If we want to recognize racism, then we have to discuss it.

5 Smileys

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