Huckleberry Finn: Lecture Three
In a novel of this sort, one which explores the growth of a young protagonist towards some final and significant state of being, we expect there to be stops and turns and reversals in the process. But we do expect that the accumulation of experiences will lead to lasting changes, epiphanies or awakenings from which there is no going back. I mentioned that in the opening chapters, those prior to the discovery of Jim on the island, Huck seemed passively adaptable, carried along by the powerful personalities in his life: the Widow and Miss Watson; Tom Sawyer; Pap. For as long as the novel stays on shore - in civilization or in ignorance - Huck makes no real progress, the changes he undergoes motivated either by a desire for comfort or survival.
Under Jim's tutelage, we have seen at least one major epiphany, one major restructuring of his paradigm: the decision to not betray Jim and the resulting conviction that, morally, he is a lost soul. In the second and third stages of the raft portion of the novel, there are further irreversible accumulations, and the question that begins to emerge is what kind of self-image and what view of society as a whole will Huck have acquired by the end.
In chapters 17 and 18, Twain's satire is never gentle; indeed the bitterness of the author seems nowhere more evident than it does here. The Grangerford - Shepherdson feud is a damning picture of moral corruption - stagnation aimed directly at what Huck calls "the quality" - the social elite of white society that sprawls along the banks of the great river.
When Huck is finally admitted to the house, he seems to have entered a picture-perfect model of civilized society, materially and spiritually secure. "It was a mighty nice family", Huck tells us, "and a mighty nice house, too." (93) And indeed there are rag rugs, brass knobs, beautiful clocks, an illustrated family bible, beautiful curtains, and "just bushels" of grand cooking.
But there are flaws in the picture of the handsome-featured beautifully dressed family, so well mannered that they stand when the older generation enters the room. One is quite humorous, the ever mournful happily deceased - we assume - Emmeline Grangerford, who created hilariously bad verse about each and every departed soul, rushing, poem in hand, to get to the body before the undertaker. The other flaws, however, are less humourous. Young Buck is disappointed at not having had a chance to kill a Shepherdson, and we fancy his chagrin is about as deep as his dislike of having to "comb up" on a Sunday. The elder Colonel Grangerford is indeed a "gentlemen all over"- in aspect - with his tall slim build, his dazzlingly white suit, and his clean-shaven, darkish paly complexion. But he also has "the blackest kind of eyes, sunk so deep back that they seemed like they was looking out of caverns at you" (97), a description that reminds us of Pap's face when he emerges in Huck's room. And while the family does go to church, where they listen to sermons "all about brotherly love", but, we are told, "The men took their guns along." (101) Twain's attitude to this hypocrisy is clear when he has Huck tell us about the pigs who go into the church to keep cool: "If you notice, most folks don't go to church only when they've got to; but a hog is different." (101)
When the focus shifts to the feud itself, satire drops from the page, and the picture that emerges is nightmare. Buck, Huck's age, has no idea what caused the feud, yet tries to shoot a young man on it's account. His scornful question to Huck, whom, he discovers, does not know what a feud is, is "Why, where was you raised?" (99) as if the idea of killing others for no particular reason other than their name should be part of any "quality" upbringing. The image of an elder Shepherdson, "white hair a-flying in the wind" (100) riding down an unarmed fourteen year old and shooting him down is grotesque, made more so by Buck's inability to see this, as Huck does, as a cowardly act. But nothing matches our final view of the feud, in which Buck and another young man are surrounded by Shepherdsons singing out "Kill them, kill them." Clearly, the bodies of the two youngsters are mutilated, for Huck, who eventually buries the two, can never get the image out of his mind: "it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night, to see such things. I ain't ever going to get shut of them - lots of times I dream about them." (106)
Huck, then, is powerfully affected by his witness of the cruelty that man inflicts on man, and it sends him fleeing back to the raft - and Jim, whose voice reassures him - "nothing ever sounded so good before" (106) - and who has yet again prepared a home by repairing the raft. Huck is anxious to leave the moral corruption behind - and its manifested violence, which he thinks he has caused by abetting the Romeo and Juliet romance that takes place between a Grangerford and a Shepherdson:
I never felt easy til the raft was two mile below there and out in the middle of the Mississippi. ... We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft. (107)
It is worth noting that Jim, as befits his near spiritual role, has always been on the shore, waiting for Huck to return. Jim is once again set outside of the society that Huck has momentarily entered, not merely because it would be dangerous for him to be seen, but because his role demands it. His gentle humanity continues to serve as a stark contrast to the corruption in white society. In chapter 23, for example, Jim remembers his own cruelty towards his daughter, who, unknown to Jim has been rendered deaf and dumb by scarlet fever, and who becomes a mutely innocent victim of his parental anger. Jim describes his reaction when the knowledge of what he had done hits him:
Oh, Huck, I bust out cryin' en grab her up in my arms, en say, "Oh, de po' little thing! de Lord God almighty fogive po' ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long's he live." Oh, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef and dumb - en Id been a-treat'n her so!" (142)
The contrast between Jim's heartbroken self-damnation of his treatment of the child affects the reader vividly, for we recall Pap, the Grangerfords and the Sheperdsons, the Widow and Miss Watson, and all the other grotesque parental figures who have raised up children so warped that one of them can look at the cold-blooded murder of a child and see in it an act of courage on the part of the killer.
Chapters 17 to 31 bring us to the end of the raft journey. This section too will conclude with a decision by Huck. The main difference between this section and the one immediately preceding is that now, the corruption on the shore comes to the raft, and stays there, pushing Huck and Jim out of their home, making them outsiders in their own world.
A point worth noting - and many have noted it, particularly those who wish to see a homosexual dimension to the novel - is that through much of their time on the river, Huck and Jim are naked. Whether this is an indication that there might be more to their story than I have thus far suggested, or whether this fact has a more logical place within the established imagery of the novel I will leave to you to decide. Also of interest is their account of the origin of the stars.
The King and the Duke are themselves venal, and through his account of their actions, Twain makes it evident that there is very little moral difference between them and those who will become their victims, the exception being the three Wilks sisters. Appearing first as ragged individuals clearly being chased by someone, they are soon portrayed in a way that allows Twain to once again launch an attack on all the signs and symbols of American civilization. The younger one is a "snake oil" specialist, an actor, and a fortuneteller. The older one runs a little "temperance revival" here and there, and rounds out his income with faith healing, preaching, and missionary work. The royal titles are clearly efforts on their parts to get out of having to do any work on the raft. One assumes an English title; the other a French, announcing that he is the "late" (dead) Dauphin.
Huck sees through the charade quickly, but in another example of the passivity many critics make a great deal of, he accepts it for the sake of peace in the family. How far Twain wishes the reader to take the implications of these "titles" is also debated. Does the hint of European aristocracy suggest that the entrenched class divisions of Europe have invaded and had a hand in the corruption of the new world? Is Twain's intent more local, designed to help us see the ease with which Huck and Jim, masters of their free raft world, are shoved back into virtual slavery? Certainly the name "Bilgewater", which refers to the stinking water found stagnating in the bottom of a ship, is Twain's deliberate irony, as was the name "Shepherdson", suggesting "son of the shepherd" - Christ!
We first see the two rascals in action in the religious camp meeting in Pokeville. The "King", seeing an opportunity, announces to the crowd that he had once been a pirate, but thanks to the intensity of their Christian feelings, he had seen the light and emerged a new man:
He was glad of it, it was the blessedest thing that ever happened to him, because he was a changed man now, and happy for the first time in his life; and poor as he was, he was going to start right off and work his way back to the Indian Ocean and put in the rest of his life trying to turn the pirates on to the true path; for he could do it better than anybody else, being acquainted with all the pirate crews in that ocean; and though it would take him a long time to get there without money, he would get there anyway, and every time he convinced a pirate he would say to him, Don't you thank me, don't you give me no credit, it all belongs to them dear people in Pokeville camp meeting, natural brothers and benefactors of the race. (121)
The gullibility, the ignorance, the hysteria of the townspeople who promptly shower the King with money and kisses and tears leaves no doubt that Twain is attacking the same traits that he feels lie beneath the power of religion., and demonstrating his apparent belief that organized religion is one large travelling con show, turning its followers into victims and building for itself tremendous material wealth.
The King and the Duke work their way down the river on the raft, stopping to bilk one town after another with their inventive cons, but it is their attempted swindle of the Wilkes sisters that forces Huck towards the first of two moral decisions, each prompted by his moral disgust at what is taking place around him.
The clothing imagery at work through the novel again emerges as the King dresses to prepare himself for whatever Providence may provide. Huck looks at the transformation and is amazed:
The king's duds was all black, and he did look real swell and starchy. I never knowed how clothes could change a body before. Why before, he looked like the orneriest old rip that ever was; but now, when he'd take off his new white beaver and make a bow and do a smile, he looked that grand and good and pious that you'd say he had walked right out of the Ark, and maybe was old Leviticus himself. (144)
But the man remains the same, and a new set of children, the Wilks sisters, take their turn as victims of the corrupt forces that dominate the shore world. Armed with the wealth of detail scavenged from an unsuspecting young preacher, the King and the Duke impersonate the relatives of a wealthy and recently deceased man, setting up a wail and letting loose floods of tears when they are told that they missed seeing him alive. Huck responds by telling the reader, 'Well, if ever I struck anything like it, I'm a nigger. It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race." (148)
With Huck's words, it is worth remembering that the people living along the river contribute to their own deception, responding to a person's dress, race, or accent, and ignoring what lies so obviously just beneath the surface. While not as foolish or bestial as the people of Pokevill or Brickville, the people surrounding the Wilks sisters, with the exception of the Doctor, whose warnings they ignore, are willingly swept into the net cast by the two outrageous con men. Huck says he had never seen anything so disgusting as the display of tears created by the Duke and the King as they stood over the body of their "brother", but he notes that when the hymn begins to play, "everybody joined in with all their might, and it just warmed you up and made you feel as good as church letting out. Music is a good thing, and after all that soul-butter and hogwash, I never see it freshen things up so, and sound so honest and bully. (150)
As the con proceeds, Huck becomes more and more aware of the evil that is being done. Once again, he has been dragged into a world not of his making, and once again, under a new name, he is playing a role in that world. He is no great liar on this occasion, and one of the girls trips him up several times as he tries to describe his life in England, but the truly good Mary Jane saves him, castigating her sister with the truly Christian command: "The thing is for you to treat him kind, and not be saying things to make him remember he ain't in his own country and amongst his own folks." (159) Confronted with her example of true goodness, a goodness that we see several times, when she weeps at the plight of her former slaves, sold by the Duke and the King, and when she weeps over the body of the deceased, alone, with no-one about to approve or be impressed, Huck is forced into action. He decides, "there ain't no good way but one. I got to steal that money, somehow; and I got to steal it some way that they won't suspicion that I done it." (160)
Here we see one of the most significant and most subtle ironies of the novel Whenever Huck sets out to do good, true good, a good that modern readers would approve, he must commit what to him is an immoral act. To save Jim, he must lie. To save the girls from the King and the Duke, he must lie. In order to help Jim achieve his freedom, he must lie, and betray, and countenance theft. So corrupt is the world around him that the only way a moral deed can be done is via an action that the doer must see as immoral. Huck is constantly haunted by his own apparent evil, and it tortures him until the end of the novel. Indeed, when Mary Jane tells him she will pray for him, he thinks "if she knowed me she'd take a job that was more nearer her size." (173) He sees himself as corrupt, and as unworthy of or beyond her efforts.
Huck must move cautiously as he sets about undermining his two companions, for he must keep in mind the safety of Jim, still back at the raft. But the carefully laid plan put together by he and Mary Jane is shattered by the arrival of the real brothers of the dead man, and by the efforts of the townspeople to discover who is who. It is only in the lightning illuminated and chaotic darkness around the grave site that the discovery of the gold allows Huck to escape, and once he does so, he "fairly flew" back to Jim and the concealed raft.
There are those who suggest that the disappearance of Jim from the action of the novel for such a long interval is a weakness in the book's structure. But I think it is worth noting that during the long interval, Huck is never far from thoughts of Jim, and that the lesson taught by Jim about not casting dirt on those who treat you kindly is precisely the motive for Huck's actions on behalf of both the Wilks sisters and Jim. If a teacher's lessons are to be seen to have had an impact, the test must take place in the absence of the teacher. If anything, I would suggest that Jim's prolonged separation from Huck - made quite literally necessary by his race - is thematically necessary if we are to see Jim as an effective spiritual force which is having a meaningful impact on the adolescent protagonist.
Their reunion is joyful, but limited by the need to get away. But the raft will fail them this time. While Huck quite literally dances for joy at being "free again and all by ourselves on the big river and nobody to bother us," (184) the King and the Duke emerge from the darkness, having escaped the vengeful crowd. Huck collapses inwardly at the sight, telling us "it was all I could do to keep from crying." (185)
Why does Twain not allow our two heroes to escape and continue down the river, looking all the while for a way of getting back up the river to the free states they passed that night in the fog? There are two answers. First, the King and the Duke have brought the corruption of the shore society to the isolated raft, and have dragged Huck back, captive to their plots. His participation in those plots does not corrupt him, but he has seen too much of the pain and the suffering that goes on to ever achieve the freedom he once had. Of equal importance is the necessity of a truly heroic act by Huck on behalf of Jim. This we have not yet seen. True, the white lie told back in chapter 16 keeps the slave hunters away from the raft, but Jim had already taken steps to protect himself, and had the men boarded the raft, they would not have found Jim. We need to see Huck save Jim in the same way Jim has saved Huck, by pulling him out of the traps society sets. Or we need to see him fail to do so.
The need for this heroic action is brought about by the King and the Duke, who sell Jim back into slavery for forty dollars, thereby presenting Huck with the opportunity to assume the Judas role to counter Jim's Christ like status. The scene in which Huck makes his decision is agonizing. He is outraged at the trick the men pulled on Jim, but then considers that Jim might be happier back with his family, albeit as a slave. This rationalization does not work. He then shifts to self defense, thinking that if he acts for Jim, "It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom" (191) and the shame of this wrongful act would never depart.
At that moment, Huck has a false epiphany:
And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, while I was stealing a poor woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm ... I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. (192)
The values of the white society he grew up beside come flooding back, convincing him of the evil of his actions on behalf of Jim, and assuring him that "people that acts as I'd been doing about that nigger goes to everlasting fire." (192) Huck is astounded and relieved by evidence of this all knowing Providence, and is convinced he will now be able to pray. But he cannot. His private morality, gained with the assistance of Jim, and strengthened by his revulsion at the things he has seen on shore, forces him to consider the other side of the moral dilemma:
And got to thinking over our trip down the river, and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't see no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was. (193)
The thoughts of Jim's constant protective and nurturing presence overwhelm the voice of Providence, and Huck cannot act in what he sees as the moral way. Unable to see the surrounding society as itself corrupt, and his acts against that corruption as essentially heroic and good, Huck must make what he sees as a bargain with the devil, determining to save Jim, and accepting with awful fatalism, 'All right, then, I'll go to hell." With these words Huck enters the last stage of his journey, away from the river, and deep within the land itself.