I have not read this 1880 novel for more than 60 years. Why return to it? Because I wanted to evaluate it from the literary perspective I have today. It is still a masterpiece, of course, but I now realize that the key to the novel lies in its initial words:
“Notice. 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.”
Because, of course, this work is filled with a motive, a moral, and a plot. In fact, these factors reveal the purpose of the novel. Its motive is to contrast the good of following one’s conscience with the usual, and accepted,, behavior of society. Its moral is to reveal the hypocrisy of saying or believing one thing and doing another. And its plot is to entertain us while exposing us to the human contradictions in all of us.
Twain addresses most of these contradictions through the issue of slavery. But he also explores other varieties of human deceit: when Huck disguises himself as a girl, when Huck convinces Jim their separation was just a dream, when a family feud rises between two families whose individuals do not hate each other, when confidence men pretend to be royalty and then swindle their victims, and even when Huck pretends to be Tom. With each scene, Twain is playing with the contradictions between belief and reality, and between subjective morality and objective morality.
Many critics, including Hemingway, have objected to the final scenes with Tom Sawyer. And I did as well more than 60 years ago. But now I see those pages in a different light. I see them as a continuation of the contrast between what men choose to do and what men should do. In this case, Twain is in a way following Cervantes. He has Tom at the final rescue of Jim invoking, as his guidelines in the real world, not the rules of chivalry but the rules of the classic romances of literature. The novel’s conclusion thus continues the false reality theme which powers a major portion of the novel. And so Tom’s own false reality at the end belongs.
Now, I will grant that Twain exaggerates this false pretense of how to save Jim from his prison. If you accept the premise, however, the methods that Tom espouses are appropriate to free Jim. But I would argue that Twain does overdo it when Tom insists that Jim endure the rats, snakes, and spiders of those classic imprisonments.
However, Twain turns the tables on the reader (spoiler alert) when he explains why all of Tom’s exaggerated “rules” of escape were unnecessary. That is, in the real world. But not, still, of course, in Tom’s world.
The major impact of this book comes from its indictment of slavery. Even if its major purpose is an indictment of human hypocrisy. But the latter results in a misreading by those who would ban this book. Because the characters seek to justify their evil deeds, the banners do not see the evil being exposed. Because they do not see the irony Twain is using. (I have long been taught, by the way, and still believe, that all human beings act based on what they think is [for them] good.)
And the perception of evil is compounded by the word “nigger.” Except, that word belongs to this style that is vernacular, as well as to this era and to this region of the country. Actually, I think the word becomes an excuse for what those who would ban this book sense to be a refutation of their standard of morality. Thus, they can ignore that the novel is really a refutation of their own human hypocrisy.
And Twain’s theme begins, indeed, on the very first page of this novel, when Tom tells Huck he is going to form a gang of robbers, and invites Huck to join. Whereupon, his plans do not succeed because, in his secret cave, Tom reveals arbitrary rules for robbing, rules that precisely foreshadow what will later become his rules for rescuing Jim.
Huck also has discussions about Providence and the need to be good, not bad, in this life in order to enter heaven. Which introduces the theme of good and evil that will trouble Huck’s in his adventures along the river—for it will raise doubts about what is actually good and what is actually evil. And then the idea of witchcraft and superstition enters, complicating the issue and one’s own responsibility for one’s actions.
From the start, Twain sets up his treatment of hypocrisy and deceit. It begins with the trick Huck uses when he flees his cruel father. That is, Huck kills a pig and leaves a trail of blood to the river, thus leading people to think his dead body has been swept away. And it is Huck’s belief that Tom would admire this subterfuge.
As Huck’s adventures begin, Twain dramatizes Huck’s desire to flee civilization and its artificial constraints, a desire he repeats in the book’s final line. These adventures begin when Huck encounters the nigger Jim, also in flight because he fears he is going to be sold down-river. Slowly, Twain lets Huck and the reader see the human side of Jim, which makes the “civil” treatment of slaves all the more inhuman.
The amusing chapter in which Huck pretends to be a girl offers another variation on the theme of pretense and reality. Which continues when Huck tells an elaborate lie to get a boatman to go upriver and rescue bad men caught in a shipwreck. And follows in an amusing discussion in which Jim misses the point of the story of Solomon in the Bible, with Huck defending the customary rationale.
Next, Huck and Jim get dramatically separated in a fog, whereupon, when they reunite, Huck tells Jim it was all a dream. Which Jim accepts until reality sets in—that theme again. And when Jim reveals how distraught he was in thinking Huck was lost, then Huck begins to accept the humanity of Jim. Indeed, Huck later tells another lie, this time to save Jim, saying that the man on his raft (Jim) has smallpox in order to drive away men looking for runaway slaves.
Huck and Jim are separated again when a steamboat rams their raft and they dive overboard. Huck is taken in by the middle-class Grangefords, who are dueling with the Shepherdsons—still another example of adhering (as Tom does) to the false protocols of the past.
Finally, Huck and Jim rescue two men who turn out to be confidence men, the duke and the Dauphin (the king). These two decide to create their own misshapen theatrical drama based on the classics, a drama to entice an audience who thinks it is getting the real classics.
In their final deceit, the confidence men pretend to be the brothers of Peter Wilks, a rich man who has just died. But Huck’s conscience is troubled by his collaborating with these men to cheat the Wilks girls of their inheritance. Then the true Wilks heirs show up, and all plans are foiled, both Huck’s and the duke’s and the king’s. Whereupon, the final adventure, of rescuing Jim, begins. And it begins with the lie of Huck pretending to be Tom Sawyer, since Tom’s Aunt Sally expects Tom’s arrival.
I go through these details of lies, mistaken identity, and deceit to suggest how perfectly planned this novel is. That even the artifice of the final rescue of Jim is not actually out of tune with the more serious travels down the river. And, in retrospect, even those adventures were not themselves that serious; they were filled with humor and lies and artifice as well.
Finally, what is remarkable to me is the various duels Huck has with his own conscience. They basically concern his helping the slave Jim escape, but they also involve supporting the confidence men and stealing money to get the girls their true inheritance. Twain has Huck thinking that he has been trained/educated in a certain way—that slavery is valid, that the adult world’s rules should be followed, etc—but that in specific situations he senses that such principles are wrong, that they lead to injustice. So he decides he must be “bad,” even if it means he will not go to heaven, in order to do right by people on earth. And it is this ironic exposure of hypocrisy that troubles many readers.
This reading prompts me to go back one day to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and perhaps to the two subsequent books about Huck. I do not expect them to be great masterpieces, such as this work is, but it might be interesting to read how the story of Huck evolved in Twain’s mind. (March 2014)