Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ follows chronologically the earlier ‘Tom Sawyer’, but has a much darker, more adult tone. Huck is the novel’s first person narrator, and has a primitive, naive view of the world which contrasts with that of the reader, and provides much of the humour and insight of the novel. Huck is dirt poor, uneducated, and more than a little feral. His mother is long dead, and his father is an abusive alcoholic who treats Huck like a slave. To escape his father’s abuse he runs away – he fakes his own death, steals a boat, and sails off down the Mississippi, looking for somewhere to hide. The parallels between Huck and Jim, the escaped slave he meets and befriends, are done with a light touch – Huck has almost no self pity, and doesn’t equate his position with that of Jim. It is not so much that he believes himself superior to Jim, but that his awareness of Jim’s role as a slave, as property, with no rights whatsoever, is rarely challenged.
Jim and Huck sail down river, having various adventures. They meet a family engaged in a bitter feud with some neighbours (to be precise Huck meets the family, Jim remains hidden through these chapters) just at the point where the feud erupts into deadly violence. They meet two con-artists and become embroiled in some of their scams. Eventually Jim is captured and imprisoned, and in some of the final chapters of the novel which even its most ardent supporters recognise are misconceived, Tom Sawyer is reintroduced and the children’s book, Just-William style of the earlier novel is reimposed, before a resolution in which Jim is freed.
‘Huck Finn’ is lauded as a masterpiece of American primitive literature. Twain certainly captures the scenes of living on the river vividly. But the whole impact of the otherwise complex and subtle novel was spoiled for me by the constant and repetitive use of the n-word. The word is used casually and in most cases without vicious intent, and no doubt was historically accurate. Although the novel was published in the UK in 1884, and the US the following year, the setting of the novel is some 20 or so years earlier, when slavery in the South (having been abolished across Northern states as early as 1804) was still in force. Abolition and the free state are mentioned as background, but the attempt to take Jim to freedom is abandoned easily. Huck’s presentation of slavery is very matter of fact – he reports Jim’s distress that his wife and children have been sold to another owner – but there is little or no empathy, nor indeed recognition of their shared misfortune. All the black people in the novel are portrayed as caricatures – they speak an exaggerated form of English, rendered phonetically thus:
“But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s sot, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when you fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”
They are all also hugely superstitious, frightened of ghosts and witches, and are extremely easy to tease or fool, with a child-like innocence or naivety. Huck and Tom have no hesitation in exploiting this gullibility for their own amusement.
As Huck gets to know Jim, his admirable qualities emerge. He is kind, faithful, and patient. He sacrifices his freedom for Tom’s welfare, and suffers uncomplainingly the many injustices placed upon him. Twain’s portrait is generally sympathetic, despite his use of many of the ‘Uncle Tom’ cliches of the time. But this emphatically isn’t an anti-slavery novel – that battle had been won years earlier after the Civil War. Equally it doesn’t present the case for civil rights for emancipated slaves or opposition to racism – its setting means that is simply not an issue. So at best the presentation of the issue of slavery in ‘Huck Finn’ is ambiguous.
Ultimately it is the use of the n-word that defaced this book for me. Finn is a charming and thoughful narrator, and his insights into his world are at times witty and interesting. But imagine (say) ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with a foul swear word used casually by the characters every other page or so. The values of the novel would remain, its wit and intelligence, the clever characterisation, and so on, but it would be really hard to prevent the use of the distressing language from spoiling one’s appreciation of these aspects of the novel, wouldn’t it? I am not suggesting bowdlerising this novel, although such things have been done, but I doubt it would prevent readers from enjoying it if alternative language was used.