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What's wrong with Huckleberry Finn?

Huckleberry Finn, circa 1885

I’ve been thinking about writing this article for a while now, ever since the recent flap about removing “the n-word” from Mark Twain’s most famous novel. Well, today’s the day. Let me start by being perfectly clear: this post isn’t about that. I have no problem at all with the language in that book. The vocabulary Twain uses is all perfectly accurate for its time and culture. It is entirely relevant to both the plot to the book’s whole point. In my opinion, anybody who wants to change it is an idiot. I will admit, though, that I found the counter-reaction by the folks who want to replace it with robot was pretty amusing. By the response they got, I’d say I was hardly alone in that.

No. Vocabulary of any stripe is not what’s wrong with Huckleberry Finn. Now that we’ve got that clear, we can move on to talking about what is wrong with Huckleberry Finn, subtitled:

How Mark Twain sabotaged his characters


Character lessons from a classic

Pick whichever you like, because the way I see it, Twain made some massive errors in character development in that book. Don’t get me wrong. The guy was a brilliant writer, with a flair for dialect that won’t likely be repeated any time in the next few centuries. But as somebody who specializes in techniques for effective character development in fiction (which is why you’re reading this blog, after all), I have to take Twain to task for a few things. Oh, and I suppose in the interests of fairness, I should say that this whole post is basically one huge spoiler, so if you haven’t actually read Huck Finn yet, then a) where have you been? And b) go read it, then come back. I’ll wait.


Huck is inconsistently drawn. On the one hand, he’s the street-smart kid who has had to fend for himself his whole life. His Pap is an abusive drunkard, so much so that Huck has spent much of his life prior to the start of the book living on the streets rather than staying within arm’s reach of his old man. And he makes it, right? He survives. That speaks to a self-reliant, intelligent boy. One with some mettle to him. In fact, the very sort of character we can believe would, in the early chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, fake his own death and scoot off down the Mississippi, with little more than the clothes on his back and his own self-confidence, in order to escape his abusive father forever. Great, dramatic opening to the novel, and it sets a certain tone for Huck.

Unfortunately, subsequent events undermine Huck’s portrayal quite a bit.

There are two major breaks in Huck’s portrayal. The first one comes when Huck and Jim encounter those two charlatans, the King and the Duke. These guys are con men. Their deal is to travel up and down the Mississippi, stopping in little towns along the way just long enough to set up some kind of scam as fortune tellers, mesmerists, religious revivalists, whatever, long enough to fleece the locals before leaving town.

They are indeed colorful characters to add to the novel, but they’re a problem for the portrayal of Huck because Huck ought to be smarter than that. When he meets these two jokers, there’s a bunch of dialogue about the sorts of business they’re into, and it’s obviously not legit. One of them mentions selling some sort of snake oil to take the tartar off of teeth, which it does, except that it generally takes off the enamel too. That kind of thing. Huck is right there to overhear all of this—he has to be, the book is in first person and Huck’s the POV character—so he darn well ought to know they’re both no good.

Except, then one of them claims to be a Duke, and then the other one claims to be a King, and Huck basically goes along with it. Why? Huck ought to know better. He and Jim are both heading down river, trying to escape scrutiny from, well, anybody in authority. The authorities will send Huck back to his Pap, and Jim back to his owners, and neither one of them wants that. So why let two charlatans whose very modus operandi invites scrutiny hang out with you? Why? It makes no logical sense, and all we can conclude is that Huck isn’t really as sharp as we had been led to believe. And sure enough, later on one of these guys more or less turns in Jim for some reward money. Which leads us to:

Tom Sawyer

Wait, didn’t I say this was about Huckleberry Finn? I did, and we’ll get to the second major failing in Huck’s portrayal in a minute, but first let’s look at the problem with Tom Sawyer. I don’t mean Tom Sawyer the book, I mean Tom Sawyer the character. We’re supposed to like Tom Sawyer, right? That loveable scamp! In Tom Sawyer (the book), Tom Sawyer (the kid) gets into all kinds of mischief. He’s a little devil, for sure, but a cute one and essentially good at heart. We’re given to understand that he is a good kid, despite his adventurous carryings-on.

Only he’s not. Or maybe the sudden wealth he acquired at the end of Tom Sawyer changed him, or something, because in Huck Finn, Tom is not a good kid at all. He’s a thoughtless, callous little prick. Again, if it has been awhile since you read the book, let me remind you:

So Jim is in captivity, being held at Tom’s Aunt Sally’s place, where Huck has ended up, and through a case of mistaken identity, Tom and Huck pretend to be each other for a while. That part’s rather amusing, but what isn’t amusing is the part that comes next. Huck explains to Tom that Jim is being held captive, and asks Tom’s help in setting Jim free. Tom says sure, he thinks that sounds like great fun, but what would be even more fun would be if they played it up as a grand escape, a’la The Count of Monte Cristo.

Rather than just busting Jim out forthwith, Tom concocts this elaborate sequence of preparations they have to undertake, and tasks for Jim to complete, because that’s how “the best authorities” say it’s supposed to be done. Such as, Jim has to keep a journal on a stolen shirt using his own blood for ink. Never mind that Jim can’t read and write. Tom wants him to scrawl messages on the bottom of tin plates and toss them out the window to smuggle messages out, fashion a rope ladder, and on and on.

If it was just for a day, just to occupy the time until nightfall when they could actually spring Jim out of there, then it wouldn’t be a problem at all. But this business goes on for months. Literally. Tom extends Jim’s captivity for about two whole months because Tom wants to play at his little prisoner escape game. Not once does Tom give a single thought to what Jim must be enduring, locked up inside a tiny, cramped shed that’s dark as a cave and hot as an oven, and every minute worrying and heartsick over whether he’s ever going to see his wife and kids again.

Poor Jim. Enduring day after day of hell while Tom enjoys his little game. But endure it he does, becausae he knows he’s a slave and has no right to ask for anything better. (Note, that’s characterization, too, but in a good way that supports our view of Jim.)

Now look. I know times were different then. And I know people weren’t brought up to think about how slaves felt about anything. Tom is just a product of his times. But no matter how I look at it, I just can’t forgive him for causing Jim to endure months of unnecessary captivity. It amounts to torture, is what it is, and that simply does not square with the view of Tom as a good-hearted person. He’s just selfish, that’s all.

Huck, part two

Which brings us back to Huck. Because Huck is different than Tom. Huck actually has been thinking about Jim’s side of things. He has developed a sense of empathy for Jim, through their shared adventure down the river, through the many kind things Jim has done for Huck. That’s the whole reason why he has got it into his head to free Jim. So how is it, then, that Huck goes along with Tom’s cruel adventure plan which does nothing but put Jim’s freedom at risk? How is it that when Tom starts talking about tin plates and ink made out of blood, that Huck doesn’t smack him right across the mouth and say “Tom, Jim’s my friend and I won’t have him locked up one more minute than I have to. I’m bustin’ him out this very night. You can help me, or you can get out of my way.”

I don’t know, but he doesn’t. I guess Twain was having too much fun with this little slapstick side-plot or something. The problem is, it casts Huck in a poor light. All the mettle we saw in him, the inner strength that enabled him to undertake a great risk in order to escape from his father, vanishes like a haystack in a hurricane next to Tom’s tomfoolery. That, my friends, is a characterization problem.

What’s right with Huckleberry Finn

But it’s not all bad. Besides seeing Jim behave like a slave would, I would be remiss not to give Twain major props for the bit of characterization that happens at the turning point in the novel. This is immediately after Huck discovers that Jim is gone and that the King and the Duke have turned him in for “forty dirty dollars” of the reward on Jim’s head. Huck is debating whether to write to Jim’s owner, thinking that if Jim is doomed to be a slave, he should at least be back with his family. (See, empathy!) And he’s worried for his immortal soul, because he knows it’s a sin to help a runaway slave. Except, Huck doesn’t want to send Jim back into that life, even though everything he has ever been taught says that would be the right thing to do. Deep down, he know it isn’t right at all. Fair warning: I refuse to vandalize Twain’s prose in this passage by either omitting the n-word or replacing it with “robot.”

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. —Huck Finn

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. 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 night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, 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; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell"—and tore it up.

That’s characterization, right there. Seeing a character willingly sacrifice his immortal soul to save a friend, that’s powerful stuff. For all the characterization problems in the novel, I think that moment saves the book. Twain took 220 pages (at least in the edition I have) to bring Huck to that moment, and every bit of it contributes to the powerful effect of seeing Huck make that choice.

May 28, 2011 05:07 UTC

Tags: character, consistent, Mark Twain

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