In 1884, Mark Twain published the sequel to his critically successful The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Rather than writing the sequel as "another 'boy's book' in the light comic tone"1 in which Tom Sawyer was written, Twain took a different approach. He took it upon himself in this new novel to expose the problems which he saw in society, using one of the most powerful methods available to him. The novel was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; the method was satire. The beauty of using satire was that it was humorous with a serious message, subtle yet powerful. The novel was both a work of humor and serious social commentary. Twain uses generous amounts of satire of man's cruelty to man, of religious hypocrisy, of Romanticism, and of superstition in Huck Finn both to amuse the reader and, more importantly, to make the reader aware of the social "ills" which Twain saw at the time. However, even since its publishing, the debate has gone on over what Twain's purpose was in writing Huckleberry Finn. One school of thought contends that the book is merely a work of humor. Indeed, when it first came out, few took the novel to be a work of the "social history of an era and the atmosphere of a region"2 and commentary upon this; the reading public failed to see the commentary, and it was the humor and adventure that carried the novel to success.3 In fact, some even go so far as to say that satire plays no part in the novel. "David Burg...posits that this novel elaborates 'a picaresque tale in the amoral fable form' and does not use satire to reform any wrongs."4 This however is an extreme view.
On the other end of the scale, there are those who maintain the novel is primarily satire used as commentary by Mark Twain. "The truly profound meanings of the novel are generated by the impingement [through satire] of the actual world of slavery, feuds, lynching, murder..."5 They do not dismiss the humor in the book, but believe it enhances the story: "Huck is a funny book suitable for children, too, but the grownups who read it will find depths in its humor and in its meaning."6 This school of thought sees the satire in Huck Finn as social commentary on the part of Twain.
Whichever view a person holds, it is difficult to say that there is no satire in the novel. The undeniable purpose of satire is "to criticize or make fun of something bad or foolish."7 Thus when Twain named the sinking steamboat after Sir Walter Scott, or when Huck teased Jim after being separated in the fog, he was not just making fun of anything; he was making fun of some particular thing which he saw as being bad or foolish. Through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the readers eyes are opened to the things which Twain saw in society and which he didn't like the looks of.
One wrong which Twain saw and didn't like was that a man could be so cruel and inhumane to his fellow man. Showing this satire perfectly is treatment of Jim as he is being held by the Phelpses. In the story, Jim has been sold back into slavery by the king, in itself showing cruelty of one man to another. The Phelpses are good meaning, well intentioned Christian people, but society has taught them that slavery is perfectly alright and that slaves are something less than people. And so Jim is treated accordingly: locked up in a shed, although the Phelpses do not leave him locked in solitary confinement the whole time, as they were good Christians. Yet it was not Mr. or Mrs. Phelps who was most cruel to Jim, nor the king, who sold him back into slavery, but Tom Sawyer. Tom had needlessly risked the life of Jim, who had already (though not to his knowledge) been set free, which was the most cruel thing one could do to him. Indeed, almost the whole while they had the ability to set Jim free. In fact, they even let Jim out in order to help move a grindstone into the shed: "We see it warn't no use; we got to go and fetch Jim. So he raised up his bed and slid the chain of the bed-leg,"8 and after moving...
Cited: Auden, W.H. "Huck and Oliver." Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.
Blair, Walter. Mark Twain & Huck Finn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.
Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Fishkin, Shelly Fisher. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Kazin, Alfred. Afterword. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. By Mark Twain. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
Long and Le Master. The New Mark Twain Handbook. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985.
Mandia, Patricia M. Comedic Pathos: Black Humor in Twain 's Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1991.
Marx, Leo. "Mr. Elliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn." Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
Webster 's New World Dictionary for Young Readers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.
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