The Not So Horrifying Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – essay

Introduction to Critical Reading                                                         February 27, 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 the reader acknowledges the narrator’s omniscient point-of-view and awareness beyond that of a fourteen-year-old boy, both the satire and the humor are made evident.

            Leslie Fielder’s exact quote is this:

Yet this thoroughly horrifying book, whose morality is rejection and whose ambience is terror, is a funny book, at last somehow a child’s book after all; and the desperate story it tells is felt as a joyous, an innocent experience. This ambiguity, this deep doubleness of Huckleberry is its essential riddle. How can it be at once so terrible and so comfortable to read?” (Love and Death in the American Novel 285)

            Readers of Fielder’s essay would probably not even bother to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Ambience is terror”; “deep doubleness”, “morality is rejection”. What an awful book Huck Finn must be, they might think. But they would be wrong. To begin with, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a children’s book.  This is clear from reading the narration. A book is not a children’s book because it has a child as main character. To be a children’s book it must be told from that child’s point-of-view. And that child’s point-of-view from that child’s perspective; meaning readers must see the events as a child would. In Huck Finn, Huck is the narrator but he does not always see things as a preteen boy would. Huck has too much awareness knowledge that only comes with age. The narrative voice is Huck’s but the thoughts behind his voice are Mark Twain’s. This difference of perspective isn’t glaring but it does show itself many times.

            First, let’s consider Huck’s skepticism of religious practices. In the first chapter Huck rejects the widow’s lecture on Moses and the Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses was no kin to the widow and he was dead anyhow, so how could he be of use to anybody, Huck wonders. Many (if not most) children dislike going to church. They resent being forced to put on nice clothes and sit indoors when they could be playing. It is no surprise Huck feels this way but it is surprising at the articulate manner in which expresses his thoughts. He speaks like he has had a long experience dealing with the religion pushers and knows firsthand their hypocrisy.

            Then there are the instances of Huck knowing things that a boy wouldn’t know. In chapter three, Huck relates the time he had heard his father to be dead. Huck knew the body floating in the river couldn’t have been his father because it was floating face up. “I know mighty well a drowned man don’t float on his back, but on his face. So I knowed then that this was a woman dressed in man’s clothes” (24). Huck is implying the body is a woman’s and it is her breasts causing her to floating face up. At his age Huck would be noticing breast on women. But to consider them as floatation devices is a comparison generally saved for manhood. And how would Huck know you couldn’t tell authentic royalty from fake royalty? Huck doesn’t bother to tell Jim the duke and king is frauds. Pre-civil war Missouri wasn’t ruled by a monarchy so Huck would have had no personal experience with the likes of kings and dukes. But a well traveled middle aged man like Mark Twain would be able to say “you couldn’t tell them from the real ones anyhow.”

            Fielder’s problem is in not recognizing Twain’s satire and how Twain mixes it with Huck’s narration. When Huck wants to eavesdrop on the king and duke he hides in the closet and not under the bed because “it’s natural to hide under the bed when you are up to anything private” (189). Huck is referring people diving under the bed whenever their lover’s spouse comes home. Another instance is supper time with the Wilk’s daughters. While serving supper the ladies beg for compliments “the way women always do” (184). Children are more concerned about having to eat tough chicken and bad biscuits than the humbug talky-talk” at the supper table. Of course, some children mature fast and are observant, but on too many occasions Huck is shown with wisdom beyond his fourteen years.

            Satire does not shield a work from being horrible. In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut satirized war and its effect on the people involved. By the time Dresden is firebombed, killing hundred’s of thousands of civilians, Vonnegut has Americans angry and sympathetic for the Germans, even though Germany was our enemy. Huck Finn doesn’t have the same emotional impact. Twain plays his satire light. Though the satire is thick, this is still a road trip book with Huckleberry Finn as our guide. The ambience is humor and adventure, not horror.  To illustrate this point examine the chapter’s buck spends with the Grangerfords. Huck makes friends with a boy his age named Buck. Buck is killed in a familial dispute with a neighboring clan. This could be horrible if we didn’t know that Buck was a fictional character. It is a little sad, thanks to great writing by Twain, but no where near as horrifying as reading about the people of Dresden, Germany being burned alive in their own homes. It’s horrifying because those were real people dying, whereas Buck is a fictional character created to make a point.

            The final point I’d like to make is too reinforce Huck Finn’s satirical nature through the use of the word nigger and also the white character attitudes towards the black characters. The way black people are referred to suggests a superior attitude among white people that exists to this day. For instance, Huck’s dad is the lowest from of poor trash. He doesn’t have a job, he’s a drunk with filthy manners, he doesn’t bath, he steals to support himself and he’s cruel to everyone around him. Yet he’s indignant when an educated well-dressed mulatto won’t yield the sidewalk to him. Even Huck has this attitude to some degree. If Jim were to be returned to Miss Watson he’d be picked on because “…everybody naturally hates an ungrateful nigger” (221). Huck is saying Jim should be happy to have a home at all, even if it is in slavery.    This word get’s used many times throughout Huck Finn, in fact too much. It get’s used so much that it becomes distracting. In Huck Finn, Twain attempted to capture the dialect of the people who lived along the Mississippi River. Twain is telling the readers to stop using the word, it is used too much.

            If The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about anything at all it is the inherent attitude of its white characters. They feel they are superior to black people, even the free educated black people. Huck Finn is Twain’s way of pointing out this attitude and to tell people it is wrong to have it. At Aunt Polly’s Huck meets a slave woman with her daughter peeking from around her mother’s side “the way they always do” (229). Aren’t some white children hesitant or curious around strangers? It is the habit of white condescendingly fawning over black babies Twain is commenting on.

            In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain has artfully combined a road trip story and a coming of age story with as much satire as could be placed into one book. Huck doesn’t learn much by the end of the story but that’s ok, Twain has gotten his point across many times. Leslie Fielder believes the book to be horrifying and terrible. But I believe he is taking the book too literally when Mark Twain himself warned readers against that.

Here’s a link to Fielder’s essay ‘Come Back to the Raft Ag’in Huck Honey,’ which I believe is the essay I’m referencing.

Come-Back-to-the-Raft-Agin-Huck-Honey-Fiedler.pdf (midcoastseniorcollege.org)

Graded version with professor’s notes

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 the reader acknowledges the narrator’s omniscient point-of-view and awareness beyond that of a fourteen-year-old boy (?), both the satire and the humor are made evident.

            Leslie Fielder’s exact quote is this:

Yet this thoroughly horrifying book, whose morality is rejection and whose ambience is terror, is a funny book, at last somehow a child’s book after all; and the desperate story it tells is felt as a joyous, an innocent experience. This ambiguity, this deep doubleness of Huckleberry is its essential riddle. How can it be at once so terrible and so comfortable to read?” (Love and Death in the American Novel 285)

            Readers of Fielder’s book  would probably not even bother to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (most of his readers would have probably already read it though)“Ambience is terror”; “deep doubleness”, “morality is rejection”. What an awful book Huck Finn must be, they might think. But they would be wrong. To begin with, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a children’s book.  This is clear from reading the narration. A book is not a children’s book because it has a child as main character. To be a children’s book, it must be told from that child’s point-of-view. And that child’s point-of-view from that child’s perspective; meaning readers must see the events as a child would. In Huck Finn, Huck is the narrator, but he does not always see things as a preteen boy would. Huck has too much awareness, knowledge that only comes with age. The narrative voice is Huck’s, but the thoughts behind his voice are Mark Twain’s. This difference of perspective isn’t glaring, but it does show itself many times.

            First, let’s consider Huck’s skepticism of religious practices. In the first chapter, Huck rejects the widow’s lecture on Moses and the Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses was no kin to the widow, and he was dead anyhow, so how could he be of use to anybody, Huck wonders. Many (if not most) children dislike going to church. They resent being forced to put on nice clothes and sit indoors when they could be playing. It is no surprise Huck feels this way, but it is surprising at the articulate manner in which expresses his thoughts. He speaks like he has had a long experience dealing with the religion pushers and knows firsthand their hypocrisy.

            Then there are the instances of Huck knowing things that a boy wouldn’t know. In chapter three, Huck relates the time he had heard his father to be dead. Huck knew the body floating in the river couldn’t have been his father because it was floating face up. “I know mighty well a drowned man don’t float on his back, but on his face. So I knowed then that this was a woman dressed in man’s clothes” (24). Huck is implying the body is a woman’s, and it is her breasts causing her to floating face up. At his age, Huck would be noticing breasts on women. But to consider them as floatation devices is a comparison generally saved for manhood. (really?  I’m thinking about all those “Pam Anderson would never drown” jokes) And how would Huck know you couldn’t tell authentic royalty from fake royalty? Huck doesn’t bother to tell Jim the duke and king is frauds. Pre-civil war Missouri wasn’t ruled by a monarchy, so Huck would have had no personal experience with the likes of kings and dukes. But a well-traveled, middle-aged man like Mark Twain would be able to say “you couldn’t tell them from the real ones anyhow.”

            Fielder’s problem is in not recognizing Twain’s satire and how Twain mixes it with Huck’s narration. When Huck wants to eavesdrop on the king and duke he hides in the closet and not under the bed because “it’s natural to hide under the bed when you are up to anything private” (189). Huck is referring people diving under the bed whenever their lover’s spouse comes home. Another instance is supper time with the Wilk’s daughters. While serving supper, the ladies beg for compliments “the way women always do” (184). Children are more concerned about having to eat tough chicken and bad biscuits than the humbug talky-talk” at the supper table. Of course, some children mature fast and are observant, but on too many occasions Huck is shown with wisdom beyond his fourteen years.

            Satire does not shield a work from being horrible. In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut satirized war and its effect on the people involved. By the time Dresden is firebombed, killing hundred’s of thousands of civilians, Vonnegut has Americans angry and sympathetic for the Germans, even though Germany was our enemy. Huck Finn doesn’t have the same emotional impact. Twain plays his satire light. Though the satire is thick, this is still a road trip book with Huckleberry Finn as our guide. The ambience is humor and adventure, not horror.  To illustrate this point examine the chapter’s Huck spends with the Grangerfords. Huck makes friends with a boy his age named Buck. Buck is killed in a familial dispute with a neighboring clan. This could be horrible if we didn’t know that Buck was a fictional character. It is a little sad, thanks to great writing by Twain, but no where near as horrifying as reading about the people of Dresden, Germany being burned alive in their own homes. It’s horrifying because those were real people dying, whereas Buck is a fictional character created to make a point.

            The final point I’d like to make is to reinforce Huck Finn’s satirical nature through the use of the word nigger and also the white character attitudes towards the black characters. The way black people are referred to suggests a superior attitude among white people that exists to this day. For instance, Huck’s dad is the lowest from of poor trash. He doesn’t have a job, he’s a drunk with filthy manners, he doesn’t bathe, he steals to support himself, and he’s cruel to everyone around him. Yet he’s indignant when an educated well-dressed mulatto won’t yield the sidewalk to him. Even Huck has this attitude to some degree. If Jim were to be returned to Miss Watson he’d be picked on because “…everybody naturally hates an ungrateful nigger” (221). Huck is saying Jim should be happy to have a home at all, even if it is in slavery. This word gets used many times throughout Huck Finn, in fact too much. It gets used so much that it becomes distracting. In Huck Finn, Twain attempted to capture the dialect of the people who lived along the Mississippi River. Twain is telling the readers to stop using the word, it is used too much.

            If The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about anything at all it is the inherent attitude of its white characters. They feel they are superior to black people, even the free educated black people. Huck Finn is Twain’s way of pointing out this attitude and to tell people it is wrong to have it. At Aunt Polly’s Huck meets a slave woman with her daughter peeking from around her mother’s side “the way they always do” (229). Aren’t some white children hesitant or curious around strangers? It is the habit of white condescendingly fawning over black babies Twain is commenting on.

            In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain has artfully combined a road trip story and a coming of age story with as much satire as could be placed into one book. Huck doesn’t learn much by the end of the story but that’s ok, Twain has gotten his point across many times. Leslie Fielder believes the book to be horrifying and terrible. But I believe he is taking the book too literally when Mark Twain himself warned readers against that.

You have a nice expansion here.  I’m not sure that the claim that Fiedler doesn’t recognize the satire works, though.  I think he’s going for something about the darkness of Twain’s satire.  There are a few other points I’m not all that sure about, but good work overall.

B+

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