Saturday, August 25, 2012

Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1884-5) - The Conflict

Here is the conflict, in a nutshell.  Huck is helping Jim escape from slavery, and he feels guilty about it.
Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself.  He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn't sell them, they'd get an Ab'litionist to go and steal them. 
It most froze me to hear such talk.  He wouldn't ever dared to talk such talk in his life before.  Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free.  It was according to the old saying, "Give a n----- an inch and he'll take an ell."  Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking.  Here was this n-----, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn't even know; a man that hadn't ever done me no harm. 
I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him.  My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever, until at last I says to it, "Let up on me—it ain't too late yet—I'll paddle ashore at the first light and tell."  I felt easy and happy and light as a feather right off.  All my troubles was gone. 
But when Huck meets the slave hunters, at the last minute he changes his mind and doesn't turn Jim in.  But then he feels guilty about that!
I got aboard the raft, feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn't no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don't get started right when he's little ain't got no show—when the pinch comes there ain't nothing to back him up and keep him to his work, and so he gets beat.  Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s'pose you'd a done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now?  No, says I, I'd feel bad—I'd feel just the same way I do now.  Well, then, says I, what's the use you learning to do right when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?  I was stuck.  I couldn't answer that.  So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.
You can see the main conflict clearly.  Huck believes that to do right, he must turn his friend Jim over to the authorities, because Jim is a run-away slave.  But Huck can't bring himself to do it.

Usually, our conscience is telling us to do right when we're tempted to do wrong.  In this case, Huck has conflicting feelings.  First, his conscience tells him to obey his societal teachings and turn Jim in.  Then, his conscience tells him to protect Jim, and help him escape.  He actually believes his conscience is telling him to do wrong.

That story line plays out throughout the book.  However, this book was published 20 years after the Civil War.  So it was hard to get up the emotional front.  But Mark Twain had good intentions, and personal experience.  Later in the book he describes a slave auction where children are sold away from their mother.  The law at the time allowed this.  It's so horrific and unthinkable today.  But Mark Twain wrote this according to real life.  He later wrote an account of a woman he knew.  While living in Connecticut with his wife and children, he had a servant who was a former slave from the south.  She told him the story of how all her children were taken from her at auction and sold to different people.  Her youngest son was just a little boy, and he was pulled from her arms and sold away.  It's a heartbreaking story.  It makes you hate the entire human race for being such horrid assholes.  Sorry for the language.  But that real-life story is retold in Huck Finn.  To read Mark Twain's telling of the real story is far more emotional than reading the account of it in Huck Finn.  In Huck Finn, it didn't feel as real, or as emotional.

Huck Finn is not just about slavery.  There are several run-ins with various types of people along the Mississippi.

He comes across thieves on a sinking steamship who plan to murder one of their cohorts.

He meets charlatans who cheat people by various con-games.  One of them attends a backwoods revival and claims to be a reformed pirate who needs money.  Later they pretend to put on a Shakespeare play and bilk people out of their money.  They pretend to be an heir to an estate, and begin selling off all the items for a quick buck.  This is where we find the slave auction.  It's interesting to note that although slave auctions were not at all uncommon, Twain gave us a glimpse of how the people in the village felt about it.  They are upset, especially at the idea of splitting up families.  Finally, these charlatans make a handbill showing Jim as a runaway slave, although they believe him to be the property of Huck.  Then they sell Jim to a local farmer who intends to get the reward.

Huck meets a family which is in the midst of a feud with another family.  He gets to know them, especially their son who is Huck's age.  That storyline ends in tragedy.

Overall, the book is a series of unrelated adventures that culminate in a highly unlikely coincidence, having Tom Sawyer show up.  The book was already in decline at that point, but it takes a definite downturn here.  Gone is the seriousness of style, and back is that hokey kid-like adventure, with Tom somehow convincing Huck and Jim to pretend they're in the midst of some Gothic romance novel, and Jim becomes a character in a Dumas story, a noble prisoner planning a cunning escape.  They basically free Jim every night to help them make things associated with the story, but return him to his quarters by morning.

But it doesn't matter.  The climax of the book is over.  This is just playing around until Twain could manage to write "The End".  The climax was the point at which Huck made the supreme, personal decision that if he truly is going to hell for helping his friend escape slavery, then he will go to hell.  Twain couldn't have had a finer climax, a more encompassing high point of the book.

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