Mark Twain’s famous realist novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a masterpiece of social criticism and analysis. The author skillfully depicts a variety of human failings and foibles, personified in the characters of everyday people and groups. Twain appears to be satirizing and criticizing the old South, but underneath his humorous portrait of Southern social issues, the book is a serious critique of all humanity.
With his typical biting satire, Twain points out social issues such as racism, and lynching, as well as human character flaws like religious hypocrisy, gullibility, and violent natures. Many characters Huck meets in the book illustrate common temperamental flaws, as well as defining familiar Southern stereotypes. The king and the duke, picked up midway through the story, symbolize the greedy aspect of human nature. Their presence turns Huck and Jim’s relatively peaceful journey to a series of clever scams and frauds.
Huck Finn Essay Example
Even the names Twain gives us for them are symbolic of their role; the low and despicable will always attempt to masquerade as something noble. Huck illustrates this well when he comments, “What was the use to tell Jim these warn’t real kings and dukes? It wouldn’t a done no good; and, besides, it was just as I said: you couldn’t tell them from the real kind. ” (Twain 139) Huck’s cynical insight shows that all human beings, regardless of who they are or who they claim to be, are fundamentally greedy, self-serving, and unscrupulous.
The Grangerford and the Shepherdson families personify a variety of human failings, but chief among them are violent, brutal natures and hypocrisy. Their feud has continued for so long that no one in either family remembers either the perpetrator or the original quarrel. The men of both families carry weapons everywhere, even to church. Huck remarks about the church service they attend, “It was pretty ornery preaching—all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon…and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforedestination…. (Twain 98) Despite the family members’ cold-blooded murder of each other, they hypocritically say that sermons about “brotherly love” are excellent. They recognize the value of brotherly love, but fail to apply the tenets of it to themselves. The value of human life is a repeated issue in this novel (much of the plot is centered on a runaway slave), and this is one of the best illustrations of the disrespect for human life in the novel. Buck describes the killing by a Shepherdson of a cousin coolly, without the slightest hint of sadness over his death, merely explaining to Huck what he did wrong while trying to escape.
Another pervasive issue which resounds through this novel is racism. Huck regards Jim as a person—an inferior person in some ways, but as their journey together continues he begins to regard him as an equal. In a climactic scene, Huck chooses to rescue Jim over doing what he knows society regards as being right. This can be seen as Huck’s final decision to believe and act in the way he believes to be right, rather than how society expects him to. However, other Southerners regard Jim, a person with emotions and feelings who, as Huck says, is “white inside,” (Twain 247) as a mere piece of property.
After the doctor speaks up for Jim and tells the farmers that he deserves better treatment, the only concession they will make is “that they wouldn’t cuss him no more. ” (Twain 257) Twain also lampoons the human quality of seeking out the low and despicable, as illustrated in the “Arkansas Difficulty. ” After an attempted performance of Shakespeare by the duke and king fails, the two con artists advertise a second show. Huck describes it, “So the duke said these Arkansaw lunkheads couldn’t come up to Shakespeare; what they wanted was low comedy — and maybe something ruther worse than low comedy, he reckoned.
He said he could size their style. So next morning he got some big sheets of wrapping paper and some black paint, and drawed off some handbills…. Then at the bottom was the biggest line of all, which said: LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED. “‘There,’ says he, ‘if that line don’t fetch them, I don’t know Arkansaw! ’” (Twain 135) The performance is a success. With this scene Twain cleverly satirizes people’s natural reaction to view and know about the low and dirty aspects of life. If women and children are not admitted, the content must be loathsome.
And the more you tout how low a thing is, the more people will attempt to experience it. Ironically, after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was deemed to be obscene and was banned in certain cities, Twain published advertisements declaring that his book was deemed “dirty. ” Sales skyrocketed after this publication, in some places rising 3,000 percent. (Salvas 3) The townspeople in the town with the funeral symbolize gullibility and the natural human instinct to believe whatever they want to believe.
Despite all the evidence which points to the fact that the king and the duke are not the heirs, the townspeople continue to accept that they are. The king illustrates this well when he cynically comments, “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town? ” (Twain 159) Although the well-informed and sensible people easily see through the king’s frauds, they are carried along by the force of public opinion. Like a herd of lemmings, the people blindly continue on the way they think is correct, even while common sense would tell them that it is not.
Finally, the scene with the death of Boggs contains perhaps the most philosophical passage in the novel: Sherburne’s speech directed at the angry lynch mob. In this passage, Twain shows how easily a group can become an angry lynch mob, an occurrence common in the old South. Facing down the angry rabble, Sherburne delivers an eloquent and scornful contemplation about the average man, describing the cowardice and mob mentality of humanity. He tells them “Your mistake is, that you didn’t bring a man with you; that’s one mistake, and the other is that you didn’t come in the dark and fetch your masks. (Twain 131-132) In this contemptuous passage, Twain accurately and fluently describes the lemming mentality of people, and their willingness to follow anyone who sounds right. The average person wants to stay safe, but a single agitator can easily turn a milling and confused group into an angry mob—as happens here. This is a powerful comment about the collective mentality of people—they will do anything to protect their reputation and hide their underlying cowardice. In conclusion, Twain’s novel is an exceptionally clever work of social commentary.
While on one level it is a brilliant criticism of the social flaws of Southern civilization and Southerners, it is also an analysis of all humanity. Twain cleverly illustrates numerous social issues by drawing realistic Southern characters, who personify various personal and social evils.