This appears to be a short paper, or response, to the Leslie Fielder article referenced in the other Huck Finn essay I posted, ‘The Not So Horrifying Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’ I assume this essay was written first as it is shorter.
Intro to Critical Reading
Short Paper #3 February 20, 2006
The Not-So “Horrifying” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
I don’t believe, as Leslie Fielder does, that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a “horrifying” book. It is, quite plainly, and quite obviously, a satire. Huck Finn, the fictional character, is an outlet for Mark Twain, the non-fictional writer, to comment on various political and social issues of the mid-nineteenth century. I disagree with Fielder’s statement: it is my position that once one acknowledges the narrator’s omniscient point-of-view and awareness beyond that of a fourteen year old boy, that the satire and humor of the book is made evident.
Fictional characters dying, whether they are the protagonist or ancillary characters, is not horrifying in and of themselves. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim are never placed in any serious danger. They get into “scrapes” but the tone of the book does not allow us to fear for them. Near the beginning we know that Huck will escape from his father’s cabin: It’s too near the beginning of the book for any permanent harm to come to Huck. (And besides it’s called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, not, The Book About a Boy Who Spent His Entire Life Locked in a Cabin). We also know that later when Jim is captured, he will escape and eventually become free. At this point the light satirical tone of Huck Finn has us anticipating how Jim will be freed, not if he will be freed.
A story of a boy locked in a cabin with a crazy and abusive father would be horrifying. It would be horrifying because readers can imagine what that would be like. Take one punishment received as a child and extrapolate it. But in Huck Finn this episode is one of many Huck will experience and come through no worse for wear. Had Huck sold Jim for the reward money, and had him returned to slavery, that would be horrifying. It would be horrifying because we have gotten to know and like Jim and care for his well being. It would probably be even more horrifying because such an act would be completely against Huck’s character. Our disappointment in Huck and sadness for Jim would be the root of our horror.
A few scenes do, however, suggest a level of horror. One is the episode featuring Huck’s new friend Buck. Buck is killed in a dispute between his family and a neighboring family. Buck is a boy who is about Huck’s age. He could even be Huck but are we horrified when Huck finds his body floating in the river? Or are we sad? A young boy has just been killed. In fact every male in the family is killed, leaving a woman and daughter alone. That is horrible in many ways, but not here. We remember this is satire told in episodic fashion. Twain is using these fictional characters to make a point. They are not real people, or even written to be real people within a fictional work. We feel sad but we move on to the next episode in Huck’s story.
Later we become angry when the conmen pretend to be brothers of a recently deceased man and plan to steal the inheritance from the man’s three daughters. Basic human emotion kicks in and we are shocked, just like Huck, that these men would try such a dirty trick. But once again the tone of the book reminds us that somehow the conmen will be thwarted and all will be ok for the three daughters.
For The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be a truly horrifying book the bad behavior of the antagonists would not always be stopped. Occasionally the bad guys would have to win.
There was one scene that had the potential to be horrifying even within Huck Finn’s satirical context. This is the scene when Huck and Jim discover a house floating down the river with a dead body inside. Jim looks at the body and quickly covers it before Huck sees it. At that point we believe Jim is covering the corpse because that is something no preteen boy should have to see. Later, at the end of their adventure, Jim tells Huck that the body was that of his father. Huck was worried his father would have taken his money thinking Huck was dead. Upon hearing his father was that dead man Huck has no reaction. This was the one episode that potentially could horrify both the readers of Huck Finn and even Huck himself. But because it is told in flashback style the potential is lost.