Bruce Seaton
Prof. Cotsell
American Lit to W.W.II

The Voice of a Nation: Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain’s influential and controversial novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn unites strikingly naturalistic depictions of American Life with satiric and often humorous allusions to preceding works in order to turn a nominally child-oriented, episodic tale into an assertion of the fallacy of The American Dream. Through Huck’s dialect and the informal diction of the novel’s first person narrative, Twain is able to repeatedly trick his reader (especially his American readers) into laughing at the strange mix of naiveté and galling trickery present in Huck before slamming the truth in the reader’s face: Huck is Us. The reader is reminded throughout the story that this backwards, uneducated, shameless narrator speaks to the reader as he does to nearly every character in the book--as an equal. Only when confronted with the subjects and ideas that form the bases of Religion and Romanticism does Huck become really condescending.

This conversational tone traps the reader into a view of the world sympathetic to Huck’s own, which becomes an indictment of the Romantic and European view of the world popular in Twain’s day. Huck’s world is simple, immediate, and observable. He makes no conscious use of metaphor, either in descriptions of his surroundings or of his own emotions, and has no pretensions about the world. Things simply are what they are, and Huck describes things as he sincerely sees them. Huck also has no illusions about his station in life, no desire for more, no drive to achieve The American Dream, which he would consider to be no more than its title--a dream, and therefore meaningless in any useful way.

The trap is sprung not by Huck, but by Twain. Huck is not conscious that his description of hearing a “twig snap” in chapter one of the story is an allusion to James Fenimore Cooper’s romantic Leatherstocking tales, which Twain openly detested. Nor is Huck aware that the dead steamboat “Tom Sawyer would never go by,” on the river bears the name the Walter Scott, the name of another Romantic novelist. Sawyer, who represents the empty fantasy of Romantic literature and the Romantic ideal, is similarly oblivious to the fact that the heroic tale of Don Quixote, with which he is briefly infatuated, is itself a satire of the Romantic tale, and Tom misses the point of the story in favor of chasing windmills of his own.

Tom’s role as a fantasy-enclosed child is crucial to Twain’s thoughts on the failure of America to actually abolish slavery, and on the subsequent death of the American Dream. Tom portrays the mistaken belief of Americans in the nineteenth-century (and still today) that all Americans are equal. The Lie of the Emancipation Proclamation is shown in Tom’s plan to free Jim--an already freed slave--at the conclusion of the novel. In a far more violent manner, through the goodhearted and natural voice of Huck, Twain also assaults the reader with the unconscious hatred, villainy and wickedness of a word so often repeated, a word Huck ignorantly uses to describe his closest compatriot, having no appreciation of its incredible weight--

the word NIGGER.

Since the book’s release, this word has been a point of argument against its publication, making it one of the first books to be banned by white people in deference to what we now call “Political Correctness”--a defense used today by people who want to avoid discussing an important subject in order to maintain the status quo.

Despite his impatience with Biblical stories--he “don’t take no stock in dead people”--and with Tom’s romantic lies tales about genies and A-rabs, Huck is superstitious. He is constantly surrounded by omens--dead spiders and snakes, overturned salt-cellars and hairy arms. The difference between fantasy and omen for Huck is that all of these signs of luck, good and bad, are things that surround him, immediate pieces of Huck’s environment. Romantic notions of things passed have no bearing on Huck’s life, so he discards them in favor of common things that influence his life and, to him at least, truly matter.

Religion is no less a fantasy, and is at least as destructive, since it encourages its followers to ignore their natural impulses and act upon their fears rather than their passions. Furthermore, it is the most religious characters of the story, the slave-owning Widow Douglas, Miss Watson, and the foolishly vendetta-obsessed Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, who are the most hypocritical, the most morally derelict characters in the story. Anything that encourages such practices strikes Huck as nonsense at best and insanity at worst, and is quickly dismissed.

By combining a casual, conversational tone of narration with a complex series of allusions to preceding literature, the Bible, and actual superstitions and goings-on of the time, Twain asserts that America has abandoned reality in favor of its own hypocritically romantic myth, and has become morally bankrupt. He forces readers to acknowledge the sympathies they feel for one flawed character after another, to realize that the American fallacy is the illusion of equality and unity. By subtlety building a relationship between the reader and a narrator who is a self-proclaimed liar, Twain shows that the reader is no better- that each of Us is also a self-deluded fool, blindly and lazily headed south.

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