As promised, I'm following up my reflections about Tom Sawyer with fresh ones about Huckleberry Finn. I knew it's generally regarded to be the superior book and looked forward to putting it to the test.
Whoa, I can see why this is regarded as one of the best anti-racial American classics ever written. What an unforgettable epiphany.
This book immediately differs from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry Finn tells his story first person, which gives it an intimate touch that suits the soul-searching tussles awaiting him. Reading every line in Huck's unique vernacular really unites us with this boy. His keen intellect is hampered in expression by his lack of education, yet he still finds an eloquent way.
At the conclusion of his friend Tom's story, we left our hero chafing under his own generous reward, which seems to him more like a stroke of misfortune. The Widow Douglas, grateful that young Huck saved her from the evil plans of Injun Joe, has resolved to adopt and 'sivilise' him. But her strict and nitpicky sister, Miss Watson, moves in and hijacks Operation Reform. It's all too much cultural overload for poor Huck. What's more, his sole source of respect in the eyes of other boys, his freedom, has been snatched away.
Meanwhile, Huck contends with a dangerous obstacle that privileged boys like Tom wouldn't dream of; his drunken, abusive father. Mr Finn's redeeming qualities have been drowned in grog, if they ever existed to start with. Instead of feeling grateful and amazed that his son has been offered an opportunity for education, accommodation and stability with no strings attached, he burns with bitter resentment and makes it his goal to pull the plug on it. 'Pap' Finn is, perhaps, one of literature's biggest losers. And he really wants to get his grubby hands on Huck's proceeds of the treasure that was shared between him and Tom.
Feeling like the meat in an incredibly explosive sandwich, it's no wonder poor Huck decides his only recourse is to fake his own death and run away. Bumping into Miss Watson's escaped slave, Jim, on Jackson's Island, is a happy accident. The pair of driven fugitives decide to team up and travel via the Mississippi River up north where Jim will be free and Huck will be unknown.
Along the way, our boy realises that he bears an inbuilt moral code. Early on he professes never to see any personal benefit to the widow's concept of praying for the spiritual gifts, since all the generosity and thoughtfulness will flow to others rather than himself. So he stops praying. Yet whenever it comes to the crunch, Huck chooses empathy and compassion as his pilot light every time. This puts him in some gnarly ethical dilemmas, especially regarding his responsibility to Jim.
A lifetime of social conditioning has convinced Huck that his sensitive and humane conscience is, in fact, immoral! He thinks that by following his compassionate instinct to help Jim escape, he's bringing down heavenly retribution on his own head. He even contemplates turning Jim in as the 'right' thing to do.
Shocking as it is for me to read how a boy can consider for one moment the corrupt lie that some human beings have the right to own others, in Huckleberry Finn's own mind he's committing grand larceny. Huck is projecting onto God the slave-owning mentality of the southern states before emancipation, which is all he's ever known. It's a huge hurdle for one lonely, poorly-educated 13-year-old to question the philosophy and theology that has always hummed around him.
To him, it seems more logical to judge himself as corrupt and wicked for wanting to help, than to transfer that label to his formative social structure, including the stream of pastors, teachers, care-takers and Sunday school superintendents who have poked their noses into his life. It takes a rare individual to do as Huckleberry Finn does, and stick to his own sound moral compass, even when he believes it may be leading him off course and straight to hell.
'Alright then, I'll go to hell,' may be the most profound line in the book. It's pure genius of Mark Twain, to have his southern boy-hero come to embrace a staunch abolitionist way of thinking off his own bat.
This fascinating introspection is embedded in high adventure and run-ins with several other colourful characters. Jim himself has as many superstitious taboos as the biblical Pharisees had crazy laws, but runs rings around Huck's own father when it comes to a providing a loving presence in the boy's life. The antics of the 'Duke' and the 'King'; a pair of shameless conmen who latch onto our two travel companions, puts Huck's peace loving nature at odds with his need to take action. And although she's featured in just one chapter, I love the wisdom of Mrs Judith Loftus, the lady who calls Huck's bluff when he thinks he's assumed an excellent disguise.
Finally, I can't sign off without griping about the Tom Sawyer factor. Whenever Tom steps into the picture, he's incredibly bossy and obnoxious. This kid's delusions of grandeur surely dwarf Mount Everest. He insists on acting out his fantasies, knowing full well his acquiescent friend Huck will eventually cave in to his outrageous demands.
I was finally willing to overlook how Tom played on Aunt Polly's grief in the last book so he could walk in on his own funeral, but now he's gone too far. Tom is up to another heartless stunt for his own glory, with absolutely no scruples for the feelings of the anxious people he is stringing along. I don't know about other readers, but it frustrates me to see Jim humble himself to kowtow to such bizarre and childish behavior, and to see the quick-thinking and resourceful Huck revert back to his default role as this show-off's loyal sidekick.
Bottom line now I've read both books - when it comes to Mark Twain's famous boy duo, much as I love the truly contemplative and heroic Huck, I kept wishing someone would deliver Tom a good punch in the face.
(I'm getting psychological now, but I can't help thinking Tom gets envious when he hears all about Huck's real adventures, and feels the need to compensate by making himself ringleader of the most dramatic pretend ones he can invent, which just happens to involve manipulating other people and toying with Jim's life.) Anyway, the bromance which I thought so healthy in the first book has sadly taken a toxic turn, especially now we see Tom sweep Huck along for a cruel ride along with everyone else.
Notwithstanding the Tom factor, I love this book. Huck is a humble and gentle soul, and also a survivor whose unfolding character arc is a masterpiece. I would never tire of reading his heartfelt and evocative descriptions of life along the river, and enjoying more of the 150-year-old sunrises we get to sample within these pages.