Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Review: Is It The Great American Novel?

Mark Twain, in his typical tongue in cheek fashion, warns the reader at the very beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (right before the table of contents) that nobody should try to find motive, moral or plot within the story. Despite the very clear command, it has been ignored by countless scholars and literary types ever since it was first published. This is not only a novel still debated today, but has entire courses devoted to it. This would make you think that Twain would be rather annoyed how much attention and discussion his novel has gotten over the years, but then again, Twain also expressed a disdain for romanticism in literature, yet I am not sure his novel could embrace a concept much more. Maybe you aren't supposed to take those words at face value, just like you aren't with his characters like the Duke and the Dauphin. Twain must have known he created a work of literature that would grasp the attention of the public and cause an excessive amount of dialogue among many (which may be the very reason he has the warning put in place).

The greatest amount of dialogue has been over the fact a mere 'children' story could be considered The Great American Novel. Of course, there is also a fair amount of debate over if the novel really is a children book, let alone if it is suitable for children. Speaking of trying to keep the book from children, can The Great American Novel also be one of the most banned books in public schools? That leads to the question of what really qualifies for a book to be The Great American Novel? On the back cover of the copy I own, Ernest Hemingway is quoted saying, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." Coming from an author with Hemingway's reputation, that is an incredibly powerful endorsement. Then there is the whole debate over if Hemingway is even right. At some point you just grab an Advil for the growing headache and nausea, and decide to watch The Weekend at Bernie's instead.

First things first, lets address the obvious, and affirm that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an excellent book (as if someone who read it would be willing to actually challenge that point). Even this many decades later, it still has a charm and uniqueness about it that goes completely unrivaled (which is impressive considering how often you have to take a film from the 80s or even 90s, and attach a comment like 'it was original or cutting edge for its time'). Despite being a novel that inspired countless works and is arguable one of the most well known (if not read) books of all time, there isn't another story that is quite like it. The novel created theme, tropes and ideas that have been used by almost every great work since. Its contribution to literature is not debatable (but rather the exact level or its overall significance), or its impact on any form of story telling that has been used since its publication. All those things are great to know for an university essay, but the really important part is to remember its greatest achievement is being an entertaining read.

Despite Twain's apparent leanings towards realism in literature, Huckleberry Finn is pure fantasy and embraces most young boys dreams and desires to run off to have adventures. It is not only an adventure, but the noblest kind because Huck is on a mission to free his good friend, Jim. The river raft journey to the free states is one of the most iconic and remembered pars of this story, and definitely the portion that my younger self eagerly wished could reenact. This is probably why it is so startling to realize that the river raft portion is probably only a little over half of the story (and I might be giving it too much). The fascinating part for me is how there is probably so much more to this novel than most readers even remember, and it really does not just follow one singular plot(as Twain so aptly warns us from trying to find). The novel is really a compilation of episodes that happen to seamlessly transition into each other. I am sure a part of that reason is Twain ended up veering away from his original story after he had written several pages (according to the introduction I have in my copy, the plan was for the story to more closely resemble The Adventures of Tom Sawyer -- and it was to include an elephant, DRATS to veering off course!). Maybe an even bigger reason for the episodic feel is Twain not only took over a decade to write this entire novel, but he actually had substantial breaks from it (which might have been over his own wrestling with the direction he wanted to take). In the end it creates for a different kind of book, and one with numerous fantastic adventures that reminded me of my own childhood (not that I saved a lot of slaves by escaping on a raft, but more that many of the events where the type I fantasized or played out as a kid).

I felt it would be important to address some of the novel's flaws. And yes, the possible Great American Novel is not free from such things. The biggest and most glaring flaw in the work is Twain's reliance upon far fetched coincidence and deus ex machina. At certain points in the book, the use of both devices are over the top, eye-rollingly bad. They're so blatant and poorly executed that they could risk pulling you out of the entire story. Reflecting back on the novel, the only excuse I can think of was Twain was so caught in a corner at certain scenes but at the same time knew where he wanted to jump to next, thus orchestrated these contrivances as a way to quickly move on. The coincidences and deus ex machina that are perpetuated at key points in the novel are so glaring, that if they were used in almost any other novel it would destroy the credibility of the tale and possibly the author. It doesn't do that here. Actually, you are entirely willing to forgive and ignore the crime every single time. This is completely due to it being an engaging and well written masterpiece otherwise. Plus it is Mark Twain, and who is going to argue with Mark Twain (besides the fact it is really bad etiquette to debate with a corpse).

There is probably another flaw in the novel that you expect me to address. The very flaw that has got it banned numerous times, and makes it a hated book among some circles. It's racist. Or at least, some believe it to be an offensive and racially insensitive book. To those that believe that, I could not disagree more and argue these people are perfecting the art of completely missing the point.

I realize the major contention of the novel is the excessive use of the 'n' word. There is probably also some issues with how some characters describe black people. I will heartily agree that the 'n' word is a vile one, and my disgust for it is the very reason I refuse to write it here. But it did not offend me at all when reading this novel. Part of that is due to the fact the word was part of the accepted vocabulary at the time, and so with a novel that has a prominent black character, it would have been almost impossible to omit it (and I'm sure such a thing would not have crossed Twain's mind, even if he hated the word). The bigger reason for why I feel it isn't offensive in the novel, is the authenticity of the characters, time frame and setting demands the words use. It is the word that would be used by every character in the novel, and the story would seem unrealistic if another word was chosen. I do hate the word, but I also can't ignore it is a word that is used by modern bigots and a word that was common usage even less than a century ago among certain people. The fact is, if I am ever compelled to write a story that contains a racist slime ball or the story is set over a hundred years ago then there is a good chance I'd use the word. I think there has to be some allowance when it comes to art, in order to capture a period or setting properly.

If you look past the use of the word, you will quickly notice the novel is far from racist. The greatest value of the story may be that it is outright anti-racist. The easiest way to prove this is to look at the character, Jim. Jim is probably one of the most wise, loyal, goodhearted, honest, likable and pure characters in all of literature. Every other character in this novel has glaring and ugly flaws, but it is hard to find any in the character of Jim. And if he does have one, it would be he is too trusting and loyal (and such virtues are rather hard to ever be cast as actual legitimate flaws).

I believe it is easy to argue the novel is one of the earliest works that speaks out for equality and rights in America. It doesn't do it in a blatant way, and the flawed Huck who grows and learns at some points does cause his good friend, Jim, some humiliations due to the influence of Tom Sawyer (who causes the protagonist to almost forget all he learned previous). On the other hand, Huck Finn (especially when he is free from the clutches of Sawyer's mischief) proves to be a mature and virtuous (at heart) figure. His loyalty demonstrated to Jim is not only a great example for race relations, but also an example of true love and morality. I think the most fascinating part of this is that Huck doesn't see it that way. He believes he is an immoral and devilish boy bound for hell, because he chooses to help a friend rather than obey the law of the time. Huck is socially conditioned to see blacks as slaves and the property of whites. His 'conscious' constantly eats at him because he knows he is 'stealing' a nice white ladies' property, and doing something he is led to believe is the ultimate sin. I find the internal struggle to be incredibly deep, and one of the truly great moments in literature. It is a definite commentary on social justice, but also a look at how some of morality is clearly a creation of the society. In today's society Huck did the right thing when he rescued Jim, and even when he lies throughout in order to protect his friend (because otherwise, his friend would be recaptured which in our eyes is the greater sin). Huck never believes he is in the right, but decides he'd rather go to hell and do the wrong thing by putting his friend over morality. It is the ultimate of noble sacrifice to choose the worse of fates, in order to protect one you love.

It is deep themes like this that prove Huckleberry Finn isn't really a childhood story at all. It is adult literature that happens to have a juvenile as the protagonist. Though it is a story I would have no problem reading to my child, it would be one that demands explanation and patience. For example, one of the things that makes this book so engaging to me is how Twain so expertly captures the dialect of each character (or so I assumed he is doing it correctly), and changes his writing style to fit each individual. You instantly get the accent and verbal habits from the way it is written. But it is language that would be hard for a younger reader to grasp, and I even found myself having to reread paragraphs. I do believe it is a great strength in the novel, but I also feel it is something that causes the book to alienate some readers (especially children or young adults).

I have now written all this, and still avoided answering the questions I laid out earlier. I definitely have not made any affirmation towards if The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is The Great American Novel. That is due to the fact, I really don't think that can ever be fully agreed upon. Huckleberry Finn is a book that everyone needs to read once. It truly is one of the rarest of gems among literary history. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an entertaining story of adventure that packs deep meaning that is relevant and crucial for all types of readers and generations.

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