Huck Finn Literary Criticism

In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain portrays his main character and the novel’s namesake, a deeply complex individual, even as a child. He has obvious abandonment issues and continues to struggle with finding his place in society. Huck starts by trying to fit in with Tom and a band of young boys, but eventually finds true companionship in a slave named Jim. Huck continues in his struggles as his moral beliefs conflict with the moral beliefs of the society of his time.
This conflict comes from Huck being so immersed in a society that he does not seem to belong in, all while still trying to find a place that he does belong. According to Harold Bloom and Leslie A. Fiedler, “The moral crisis of the book is created by the constant disjunction in the mind of Huckleberry Finn between what he thinks he ought to do, and what he is aware that he must do” (Bloom and Fiedler 25-39). This is seen throughout the novel, as Huck struggles with following society or following his heart.
Another critic, Gemma Marshall, makes a point very similar to Bloom and Fiedler, saying, “Through the character of Huck and his internal debates, we see the conflict between what is morally right and what is legally enforced” (Marshall). At one point in the novel, Huck, himself, says: [The Widow Douglas] told me what she meant–I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself….

I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage in it–except for the other people; so that at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go. (Twain) This statement, which completely supports the views of both critics, does not come from Huck being a selfish individual. Rather, it comes from him struggling to survive. Once Huck meets Jim, it is seen that he does put Jim first in many occasions, because at that point, he can afford to.
Earlier in the novel, he could not let his blooming moral compass get in his way of survival. This moral conflict also contributes to Huck’s disregard for the law and his reasons why he does so throughout the novel. Earlier on in the novel, Huck is seen trying to fit in by joining Tom’s gang even if that meant killing people. At that point in the novel, one might say that Huck agreeing to this was just out of loneliness and wanting to belong. As the novel progresses, however, Tom’s actions seem to become more and more aggressive. As Bloom says, “Tom’s scheme for stealing way a Negro whom he knows to be free is not only sadistic but thoroughly immoral. ” Though to readers Tom’s actions might seem immoral, he is simply acting as a product of his society. Just as Huck was trying to fit in with Tom by agreeing to join his gang, Tom is trying to fit into his society by following the normalcies that have been exposed to him. Based on this point, Bloom goes on to say that there “is nothing any more ridiculous about what Tom does than there is about what society inflicts on them every day” (Bloom 25-39).
Readers, therefore, cannot judge the moral level of the characters based on today’s moral code, but rather of the moral code of the society that these characters were placed in. As the novel progresses, however, Huck begins to become aware of the morals in society, but chooses to go against them anyway. Bloom argues: It never enters his head for a moment that protecting Jim against recapture is anything but wrong; for he has no abolitionist ideas and questions the justice of slavery no more than did Aristotle.
He considers, however, that as an outcast he has little to lose. (Bloom 25-39) If Huck is becoming aware of the morals of his society, yet is still choosing to go against them, this can mean that Huck is subconsciously forming his own moral code. Even though he knew that helping Jim was wrong, he must have felt, some place down in his heart, that it was right. Otherwise, why would he risk his own life to do so in the first place? In a society full of moral confusion, the one character “is presented as intelligent, analytical, [and] highly moral” is Jim (Marshall). Does Jim not make for a far more suitable role model than the drunkard Pap? ” Marshall asks. He does, in fact, as he goes as far to create a home for Huck, that Pap never did. As unconventional as it may be, Jim and Huck become a family, with the river as their home. As they travel up the rive “it gradually becomes clear that the two characters leave the constraints of society behind them and create their own world on the water- it is within this world that the influence of societal values are suppressed in favour of a more logical, practical system of values” (Marshall).
It is along this journey that Jim teaches Huck what values are really important in an individual, regardless of what society says is correct. He teaches Huck what it means to value another person’s life as much as one value’s his own. It is easy to see the moral complexities in this novel reading it through a modern lens, especially in the case of Huck. Readers are constantly struggling with whether nature or nurture will come out victorious: will Huck rise above his society because he was born with the ability to think beyond what he sees in it or will society’s pressures cause Huck to break?
Contemporary reviews of the novel were also asking this question. On February 20, 1885, a review was published in The Hartford Courant. It’s author asked, “What, for instance, in the case of Huck, the son of the town drunkard, perverted from the time of his birth, is conscience, and how does it work? ” This show how contemporaries of Mark Twain were able to see and appreciate the moral complexities of his novels and his characters just as easily as readers can today. The whole study of Huck’s moral nature is as serious as it is amusing, his confusion of wrong as right and his abnormal mendacity, traceable to his training from infancy, is a singular contribution to the investigation of human nature,” the author of the review goes on to say. The fact that the author uses the term “confused” by the author of that review is an interesting one. It implies that while Huck may think of his actions as wrong, as determined by his society, his actions actually prove Huck’s ability to think in morally superior terms of his society.
Had a Southerner written this review, it may not have had the same implications. As a Northerner, who likely had much stronger anti-slavery views than a Southerner, wrote this review it makes it easier for him to appreciate the development of Huck’s moral code, despite what society was telling him. All three sources of criticism are in agreement about the moral difficulties faced by Huck throughout the novel. They also all agree that Huck is put at odds with his society because of his moral character, whether he views himself as moral or not.
Since the two pieces of literary criticism are quite modern, it is not surprising that the critics are able to look at the novel and pinpoint all of the complexities that are entangled in this novel and in the life of Huck. Since a Northerner wrote the contemporary review, and Northerners were obviously more progressive in the ideas of abolition and anti-slavery than Southerners of the time, that could explain the level of forward thinking presented in the review.
All three reviews also agree that Huck’s main conflict throughout the novel is that between himself and society. This is what causes him to set forth North in search of a place where he may belong. Luckily, however, throughout this journey he was able to find his sense of belonging right there with Jim. At the very end Huck reconciles with the fact that without Jim, Huck has nothing, as he does not belong to this society. He finds harmony by deciding to head west. Works Cited Bloom, Harold, and Leslie A.
Fiedler. “Huckleberry Finn: Faust in the Eden of Childhood.. ” Bloom’s Major Literary Characters (2004): 25-39. EBSCOHost. Web. 17 Feb 2013. Hartford Courant 20 Feb 1885, Page 2. Web. 18 Feb 2013. www. etext. lib. virginia. edu/twain/harcour2 Marshall, Gemma. “Literary analysis: Controversial themes in Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. ” Helium: Where Knowledge Rules. 05 Dec 2008. Web. 18 Feb 2013. Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Guy Cardell. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002. Print.

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