Huckleberry Finn is perhaps one of the most identifiable characters in American literature. He is first introduced as a supporting character in the Mark Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but takes the leading role in the 1884 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This second work has been celebrated as a novel of exceptional bravery, especially in its commentary on slavery. It’s also been considered controversial, in its use of language, and some argue that the subtext of the story mocks, rather than celebrates the enslaved. It has remained a book that evokes controversy, and of the books most likely to be banned in school settings. The character of Huckleberry Finn evokes equal debate.
In Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn is young boy who is generally seen as Tom’s temptation to avoid work. While Tom is being raised by his aunt in a polite manner, Huckleberry Finn is a rough, unlettered, “wild child” who tempts Tom out into the wilderness of the natural world. Together, Huck and Tom end up immersed in solving a mystery and discovering buried treasure. Tom Sawyer is more a children’s book than its sequel Huckleberry Finn, though it is certainly the case that both are critically read.
Twain’s sequel is written in first person from Huck’s point of view. It clearly deviates almost immediately from typical children’s fare by Huck ranting about how he doesn’t care to be “civilized” by his caretaker, the Widow Douglas. His good for nothing, alcoholic father arrives at this point in order to try to get Huck back to lay his hands on the treasure Huck found in Tom Sawyer
Huck finds himself drawn to the plight of the slave, Jim, owned by the Widow Douglas’ sister. He overhears a conversation regarding whether Jim ought to be sold and decides to help Jim escape north. Huck steers Jim and himself South instead on the Mississippi River. The journey Huck takes with Jim involves numerous encounters with various colorful characters, all backdrop for Huck to wrack his conscience and wax eloquent on the nature of slavery, the worth of a person of color, and the rights of people to be free. In a way, Huck’s “civilization” attempts by the widow, and his desperate need to escape to be his own person are like a distant mirror of the much more difficult plight of Jim.
While the middle of the novel can be viewed as a powerful criticism of slavery and an argument that all people deserve freedom, the end of the novel is troubling, confusing and often drives critics mad. Tom Sawyer reenters the scene, and both Tom and Huck decide to enslave Jim, locking him away, so that slave catchers won’t catch him. Unfortunately at this point, Tom knows that Jim has actually been freed. Huck’s willingness to act the part of enslaver is troubling and reduces his overall effectiveness as a spokesperson for abolition.
Perhaps Twain meant to suggest that the Southern mindset is so strong, it’s impossible to take an abolitionist stance for long. Alternately, Huck’s moral quandary on the Mississippi River may be viewed as a joke. In either case, it’s not difficult to understand why some people argue that the tone of the book is overtly racist.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when viewed as a novel does represent an important first in American literature. The story, as told by Huck, is told in the slang (vernacular) language of a poor Southern boy, rather than by an omniscient narrator in more correct English. Since the book is controversial, it is perhaps worth reading, so readers can form their own opinions as to the relative value of Twain’s effort, and on Huckleberry Finn himself.