Huckleberry Finn - Social and Literary Aspects

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Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel about a young boys coming of age in Missouri of the mid-1800s. The main character, Huckleberry Finn, spends much time in the novel floating down the Mississippi River on a raft with a runaway slave named Jim. Before he does so, however, Huck spends some time in the fictional town of St. Petersburg where a number of people attempt to influence him. Before the novel begins, Huck Finn has led a life of absolute freedom. His drunken and often missing father has never paid much attention to him; his mother is dead and so, when the novel begins, Huck is not used to following any rules.

The book's opening finds Huck living with the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Both women are fairly old and are really somewhat incapable of raising a rebellious boy like Huck Finn. Nevertheless, they attempt to make Huck into what they believe will be a better boy. Specifically, they attempt, as Huck says, to "civilize" him. This process includes making Huck go to school, teaching him various religious facts, and making him act in a way that the women find socially acceptable. Huck, who has never had to follow many rules in his life, finds the demands the women place upon him constraining and the life with them lonely. As a result, soon after he first moves in with them, he runs away. He soon comes back, but, even though he becomes somewhat comfortable with his new life as the months go by, Huck never really enjoys the life of manners, religion, and education that the Widow and her sister impose upon him. Huck believes he will find some freedom with Tom Sawyer.

Tom is a boy of Huck's age who promises Huck and other boys of the town a life of adventure. Huck is eager to join Tom Sawyers Gang because he feels that doing so will allow him to escape the somewhat boring life he leads with the Widow Douglas. Unfortunately, such an escape does not occur. Tom Sawyer promises much but none of his promises comes to pass. Huck finds out too late that Toms adventures are imaginary, that raiding a caravan of "A-rabs" really means terrorizing young children on a Sunday school picnic, that stolen "joolry" is nothing more than turnips or rocks. Huck is disappointed that the adventures Tom promises are not real and so, along with the other members, he resigns from the gang. Another person who tries to get Huckleberry Finn to change is Pap, Huck's father.

Pap is one of the most astonishing figures in all of American literature. He is completely antisocial and wishes to undo all of the civilizing effects that the Widow and Miss Watson have attempted to instill in Huck. Pap is a mess: he is unshaven; his hair is uncut and hangs like vines in front of his face; his skin, Huck says, "Is white like a fish's belly or like a tree toads." Pap's savage appearance reflects his feelings as he demands that Huck quit school, stop reading, and avoid church. Huck is able to stay away from Pap for a while, but Pap kidnaps Huck three or four months after Huck starts to live with the Widow and takes him to a lonely cabin deep in the Missouri woods. Here, Huck enjoys, once again, the freedom that he had prior to the beginning of the book. He can smoke, "laze around," swear, and, in general, do what he wants to do. However, as he did with the Widow and with Tom, Huck begins to become dissatisfied with this life. Pap is "too handy with the hickory" and Huck soon realizes that he will have to escape from the cabin if he wishes to remain alive. As a result of his concern, Huck makes it appear as if he is killed in the cabin while Pap is away, and leaves to go to Jackson Island a remote island in the Mississippi River. It is after he leaves his father's cabin that Huck joins yet another important influence in his life: Miss Watson's slave, Jim. Prior to Huck's leaving, Jim has been a minor character in the novel he has been shown being fooled by Tom Sawyer and telling Huck's fortune. ...
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