Yes, another classic. I’m teaching it again this year, so I thought I’d post a review while I’m thinking about it. This book is among my favorites. Mark Twain’s sense of humor permeates the story, yet there’s a serious underlying issues that he treats with intelligence and grace.
The story follows Huck Finn, a thirteen-year old boy living in Missouri just prior to the Civil War. Tired of being “sivilized” by the widow who has adopted him, yet terrified of his abusive, alcoholic father, Huck fakes his own death and runs away. On his way, he meets Jim, a runaway slave (and friend from Huck’s town) who recently learned he’s going to be sold to a plantation further south—far away from his family. Torn by society’s standards (it’s wrong to help a runaway slave, and the widow already told Huck he might be headed toward “the bad place” when he dies) and his own moral compass (Jim is his friend, and even though he is a slave, he seems strangely like a human being!), Huck decides to help Jim escape.
Using the lens of a thirteen-year old boy, Twain criticizes society of the time, making the statement that people are ignorant and cruel, and morals should be individually-calibrated, not dictated by others.
First, the ugly. This book has a history of being banned, but mostly because people have no common sense. Twain uses the n-word in this book more than two hundred times. As a result, some school districts have banned the teaching of the book. Some have even called the book “racist.” But the most important thing to understand is: this book is an anti-slavery, anti-racist work. Twain was trying to show, through ignorant (though comical) characters, how closed-minded humans can be and how it’s sometimes impossible when living by society’s accepted standards to do the right thing. Kind of ironic to have people boycotting the book and proving Twain’s sad truth about humans right, even over a hundred years later.
But the entire work is praising the anti-slavery movement (in fact, the book was written after the Civil War, but Twain still wanted to show his thoughts about the south, and racism, in general). The n-word in the book is used in a descriptive way, not a derogatory one (though, granted, the word itself has come to have a very derogatory connotation) the same way I might say, “there’s a hairless rat.” A slave is a terrible thing to be (and thus, to be called), but the term in the book is only meant to refer to a slave, not to insult it. On the surface level, the book is an adventure and coming-of-age tale. Huck encounters numerous friends and foes and goes on lots of adventures before everything works out (mostly) well in the end.
On a deeper level, the novel is a satiric look at society. Some key elements: at once point, Huck becomes involved with a family that has been feuding with another for generations. The go so far as to bring guns to church and scold each other for being too slow to arrive with a gun when the threat of their enemies is nigh. In another section of the novel, Huck meets two tricksters who call themselves the Duke and the King. They are despicable, but Twain uses them to illustrate the worst in humanity. At one point, they put on a “fake” Shakespearean play, raking in lots of money for tickets. When half the town is fooled and angered about losing their money, Huck thinks it’s time for the King and Duke to run away before they’re caught. But the King and the Duke know people too well: those who were tricked do not reveal the tricksters; rather, they allow the other half of the town to waste their money on the fake Shakespearean play.
I won’t go into more detail about plot summery—there’s always Sparknotes, as my students like to remind me—but I will say that this novel is humorous and touching, a satirical work with just the right amount of optimism. My favorite part of the book, though, is the ending. Huck returns to society and realizes that he doesn’t want to deal with people after all (a boy after my own heart!), and so he hightails it out West. It’s something I think we’d all like to do at times–even if just metaphorically.