Wednesday, September 11, 2013
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
When it comes to the "Great American Novel," I feel like you have basically two options: Moby Dick and Huck Finn. Then again, only one of those takes place on American soil--the other one's at sea and all. Not only is Huck Finn a great novel, it's about America in a real sense. The above passage comes just after Huck decides to do what he perceives is the "right" thing and notify Miss Watson that her slave Jim has run away, but his memories of Jim's kindness to him change his mind. He rips apart the letter, exclaiming, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." Huck is stuck in a kind of doublethink, caught between what he knows to be right and what he feels to be right, and that dissonance is at the very heart of slavery, as a philosophy and a legal institution. Fumbling with that dissonance, trying to make these two "rights" one, trying to reconcile the ideal of America and its practical reality--these define American history, even past 1865. I don't think I'm stretching when I say that Huck Finn attempts to do exactly that.
I've already written about Huck Finn here, so I'll refrain from writing a long review. But the question that interests me now is: What's up with the ending? The "I'll go to hell!" speech is so perfect and so cathartic, but it's then undermined by the "comic" ending in which Tom Sawyer reappears. Huck convinces Tom to help free Jim, who has been captured, and Tom turns it into a Count of Monte Cristo-inspired game in which they dig tunnels under the shed Jim is kept in (instead of going through the door) and hiding useless implements in his food. It's all very demeaning to Jim, whose humanity we thought had been firmly established in the above scene. (Nor is it very flattering to Huck, who I hadn't thought of us as quite so stupid.)
If you were inclined to be critical, you might say that Twain squanders the moral seriousness of the novel, and that he compromises his artistic judgment to placate fans of Tom Sawyer. I wonder, on the other hand, if the switch back into that book's mode isn't meant to make us queasy, to discomfort us. Maybe it asks us: What are we doing when we tell stories? Tom's is a story; so is Twain's--and history, a cognate of the word "story," is another. What kind of story do we want our histories to tell?
Posted by Christopher at 6:14 PM