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Effect Does Mark Twains Picaresque Novel English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4363 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The sub-genre of picaresque fiction, more popularly known as ‘rogue tales’ in English literature, is based on the adventures of picaresque heroes – picaros – of low social class. Characterised by their humorous yet insightful depictions of reality, they often serve to reflect and criticise the social contexts in which they were composed. Writers such as Mark Twain(1835-1910), through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have engaged in this particular genre in their works.

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In his novel, Twain delivers the story of an uneducated boy named Huck and conveys the realistic observations made through the eyes of this young picaresque hero in his journey down the Mississippi River. Twain delineates the devastating impact of modern civilization on the “natural life”, criticises the flaws in the legal verdict and religious teachings and condemns the idea of slavery which permeated the Southern states of America in the 1800s.

Twain demonstrates his sharp acumen through acerbic criticisms on the immoralities of society and the deterioration of human condition. By discussing relevant literary and language features in the work, this essay aims to disseminate the flaws in societal values and laws portrayed in the novel into four categories: civilisation and the ‘Natural Life’, the impact of the Mississippi river on the picaro’s development of moral stature, fallacies in the legal structure and the lack of morality, and derision of religion.

The conclusions reached within each sub-headings provide evidence that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a powerful and realistic projection of its historical and social context. Despite the apparent happy endings in both work shown through Huck’s successful escape from all social constrains and Jim the Slave’s freedom at last, Twain exploration of controversial yet pervasive social dilemmas still continues to fuel debate to this day, evidencing the continued relevance of these concepts in today’s society.

(299 words)

Introduction: Picaresque as a Genre and

historical context of the Novel

To what effect does Mark Twain’s picaresque novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,

examine the process and consequence of one’s rejection of the laws and values of society, and reveal its flaws?

Originated from the Spanish derivative “picaresca”, the sub-genre of ‘picaresque novel’ in English literature is often considered synonymous with ‘rogue tales’; literary works which are characterized by the adventures of picaresque heroes – picaros – of low social status through which authors reflect, explore and criticize their societies on multiple levels. The genre itself requires the author to create the backbone of their works based on depictions of the picaros’ adventures, and in doing so, the plot is based on numerous settings that reflect all social strata, and the values and laws which its members adhere to.

The genre demonstrates its sheer value in Mark Twain’s picaresque novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Huck Finn), often described as the “first indigenous literary masterpiece” of America. Drawing upon his person experience as a river pilot on the Mississippi River as well as his observations of the society of the deep-south before and after the Civil War (1861-1865), Twain composed Huck Finn as an insightful reflection of the conflicts of laws, traditions and values between the society and its individuals. The novel was published in 1860 only to be poorly received; it was considered ‘obscene’ and ‘overly bold’ as Twain defied the social taboo by directly dealing with sensitive issues at the time, most notably slavery, racism and religion.

However, in doing so, Twain unveils the inconvenient truths of the American society where the powerful ‘majority’ satiate their needs and justify their actions through hypocrisy and moral corruption, whilst the ‘outsiders’ – from the orphaned and ‘uncivilised’ Huck Finn to the noble slave Jim – resist the social indoctrination that attempts at ingesting their rights and values. By questioning the true extent of morality behind societal values and laws, Twain condemns the laws and values of society that attempt to manipulate and eliminate often the higher ethical values of individuals from different backgrounds.

Civilization and the ‘Natural Life’

“[Huck Finn] had to go to church; he had to talk so properly that speech was become

insipid in his mouth; whithersoever he turned, the bars and shackles of civilization

shut him in and bound him hand and foot.”

Throughout the novel, Twain portrays the deep-south society as a harmonious entity superficially but underneath, the townspeople are divided into two discrete categories: the ‘mainstream’ majority and the segregated minority. Presented in Huck’s first-person narrative, the small Missouri town of St. Petersburg is depicted as a world of conflict between those the majority who enforce ‘civilization’ and the minority who either reject or are denied from the opportunity to become ‘civilised’ citizens.

The novel begins in this small town in the ‘deep-south’ where Huck Finn, the first person narrator and the picaro, resides in. Huck immediately establishes his social identity: an uneducated, “poor lost lamb” who has been adopted by Widow Douglas as her son, an act of sympathy and care. It is through the picaro’s narrative that the implication of this event is revealed; Huck, who admits that he “couldn’t stand it no longer” of the Widow’s attempt to “sivilize” him, displays his incompatibility with the traditional deep-south society where its fundamental values – namely civilization – are systematically passed on from one generation to another through indoctrination.

Characters such as Widow Douglas and Miss Watson not only serve as the embodiment of the mainstream society but also display almost identical attitudes towards Huck. Mainly in the form of scolding and strictness, they aim to civilize Huck in a dutiful attitude: he is put into new clothes, taught about the bible, forced to learn grammar and spelling, and is expected to ‘behave’ in an socially acceptable manner. However, Huck’s illiteracy (“sivilize”), symbolic of Huck’s alienated and estranged lifestyle from the civilised society, is the first indication of his inability to assimilate to the group of ‘majority’ in St. Petersburg.

Twain further establishes conflict between the two contradicting ideals through his depiction of Huck’s continuing discomfort at such indoctrination: he confesses that when he “got into [his] old rags, and [his] sugar-hoghead again”, he was finally “free and satisfied”. The stout contrast between the spacious house of the Widow, and the old rags and sugar-hoghead highlights the symbolic meaning of the two elements: while the former represents the newly civilised society and one’s adaptation to it, the latter hints at Huck’s former isolation from the society and is also emblematic of the traditional, natural life that Huck had once led prior to his adoption. Huck’s choice of sugar-hoghead over the Widow’s residence bears significance in the sense that despite the society’s inculcation of sophisticated ideals upon Huck, his natural self remains unaltered.

Nonetheless, portrayal of Huck’s struggle and feeling of discomfort in the initial stages of the plot provokes the reader to question the morality behind the society’s demeanor of forcibly inducing changes in Huck’s natural lifestyle through indoctrination of their ‘civilised’ values which, in doing so, makes the assumption that their ‘civilization’ is undoubtedly superior to the ‘natural life’ that Huck pursues. The society, as shown in the novel, eliminates even the juvenile individual’s values in life and thus, eventually commits itself to becoming one entity that later proves to be a hypocritical, moral-ingesting mechanism.

fallacies of the ‘civilised’ society,

its values and laws

Huck’s narration made during both his time at St. Petersburg and the journey along the Mississippi River introduces on socially sensitive issues such as wealth, slavery and religion that ultimately constitute the hypocrisy of the society that claims to be highly civilised. In doing so, Twain depicts the society surrounding Huck as merely a collection of degraded precepts and values that defy reasonability and logic, proving it less worthy in comparison to some of the more ethical values demonstrated by Huck and Jim.

Originally, the small society of St. Petersburg seems sympathetic to Huck for having a drunkard Pap and his practically orphaned status. The seemingly benevolent society, however, soon reveals its unreasonableness when the new judge, a typical representation of societal laws and values, allows Pap to keep custody of Huck based on ‘rights’ as the biological father. This judgment is detrimental to Huck’s welfare; relieved at the fact his father “hadn’t been seen for more than a year” and declaring that he “didn’t want to see [Pap] no more” discloses the poor paternal care that Huck has been receiving, if at all, from his abusive father and offers a dim outlook on the relationship of the father and son in the future. This event in the plot points at the self-indulgence of the ‘sophisticated’ law: in addition to its indoctrination of civilised values on Huck, it selfishly instills an unethical and unreasonable treatment of the minority – Huck – which altogether unveils its poor protection of the juvenile picaro in order to fulfill what it believes to be ‘civilised’ conduct of law.

This decision consequently discusses a system which places full authority and power of his ‘property’ – slaves – in the hands of the Whites. The social degradation of the slaves is more vividly explored through the picaro’s set of descriptions of Jim; indeed, one of the most shocking elements of the novel for the modern readers. Huck refers to him as a ‘nigger’; most probably a metonymy which Twain intended to reflect Huck’s honest view of African Americans from his ‘white’ perspective in his time, yet often perceived as a metaphor with all its strong connotations in today’s society. Indeed, Jim is only described to be a ‘property’ of Miss Watson, another Caucasian townsperson. The two conditions – of being a ‘white’ and a young boy – lead to Huck’s shallow treatment of Jim and his humanity, and in the meanwhile, obstruct the picaro from gaining an insight into the complex emotions and struggles that Jim experiences as a person. Although the narrator remains oblivious of his limitations, Twain, based on the immorality of such treatment and establishing Jim as a representation of the black population at the time, further depicts slavery as an allegorical portrayal of the dehumanizing conditions of blacks in America even after the abolition of slavery.

It is on the raft of Huck and Jim, used to travel on the Mississippi River, that the hypocrisy of societal law is highlighted through the relationship between the picaro and Jim the Slave. Directly following the portrayal of the society’s demolition of Jim’s social status, the succeeding plot includes the growing intimacy between Jim and Huck on their journey together; as discrete as black and white, such relationship is fundamentally unacceptable. By establishing a socially-condemned relationship, Twain reversely criticizes the deep-south society which segregates individuals on a racial basis.

Huck narrates the ‘true’ Jim: a man who makes escape from his owner as an only option not to be sold and separated from his family and only hopes for his freedom. Twain accentuates the fact that Jim’s desire for freedom is not a selfish one but a life-risking act to work towards freedom and ultimately buy his family’s freedom. Such manifestation of selflessness creates a solid contrast to the self-indulgence of the civilised society seen earlier in the plot. Ironically, Jim is not suited to be considered ‘civilised’ according to the social standard, yet proves himself as a human figure in pursuit of higher values in life. Jim’s assertion of a profound sense of humanity through not only his courageous action but also the expression of his emotional struggle defies the civilised society’s deprecation of his value as a mere property by demonstrating his ability to ‘feel’ and ‘dream’ at his own will. Twain alludes that a society that fosters the concept of slavery – and thus the superiority of one race over another – is not justifiable regardless of how ‘civilised’ that society proclaims itself to be.

The consequence is a world of blurred morality, in which seemingly civilised white people express their criticisms on the injustice of slavery or the cruelty of dehumanizing black men. On the whole, the reader is compelled to conclude that the treatment of characters such as Huck and Jim illustrates how both the nobility of Jim and individuality of Huck are debauched by the society’s lack of reasonability and consideration in its law and the forced instillation of civilisation while paradoxically oppressing black men under slavery for purely unjustified, hypocritical reasons.


“Well, the second night a fog begun to come on… [we] wouldn’t try to run in fog”

The Mississippi river, as well as all other settings in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a symbol, setting and a physical representation of “thematic continuity” throughout the novel. The protagonists, Huck and Jim, are more than mere wanderers – they are both escaping not only from the physical setting of St. Petersburg but more importantly from “their respective forms of bondage” of civilization and slavery, as imposed by society. In this sense, the Mississippi River serves as an embodiment of the picaro’s developing set of values and morals as the towns on the River’s banks exert malevolent influence on the ‘paradise’ and consequently on Huck and Jim.

The novel’s status as a picaresque fiction is characterized by an adventure or quest which naturally involves frequent transition of setting. From St. Petersburg, a microcosm representative of the typical segregated American society, Huck seeks an escape from the civilised society that no longer offers him proper protection. By travelling along the Mississippi river on a raft, both Huck and Jim safely arrive on Jackson Island, a small island located between Missouri and Illinois, which becomes the new ‘paradise’, making the raft a new symbol of their search for physical freedom and independence from the antagonistic society. This idea is supported by Huck’s direct comment, “You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft” away from all forms of indoctrination, immoralities and restrictions. In this sense, the River serves as a benevolent ‘helper’ which assists the pair in rejecting societal morals and laws that removes the rights and values which the two protagonists possess.

In a historical context, the River could also be considered as a symbolic ‘connector’ of all four regions of America: it was the major form of boundary between the industrial East and the undeveloped West and along with its tributaries – the Missouri and Ohio rivers – provided a major form of transportation between the North and the South. As the novel progresses, the river provides a pathway for the pair towards the Southern states, exposing the picaro and Jim to entrenched slavery and increasing danger. In doing so, Twain seeks development in his protagonists through the revelation that the Mississippi River is not completely free from the evils and influences of the nature.

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The Mississippi river begins to threaten their life and freedom altogether as the current “tore [the raft] out by the roots”, creating an ominous mood and a sense of danger for the reader. According to Huck’s narrative, natural element such as the fog is said to be “closing down” that “you couldn’t see twenty yards”, therefore denying Huck and Jim from reaching their planned destination, the town of Cairo in the free state of Illinois. Perhaps, the fog may be a symbolism of the increasing influence of the immoralities of society that blur one’s vision or judgement of the right and the wrong, thus disrupting the search for free will. Considering that Cairo represents the ultimate freedom and safety for Jim in particular, Twain alludes that neither the River nor the society is no longer a benevolent, safe place which it was once believed to be and creates a sense of victimisation for the two protagonists as the hypocritical society continually exerts its influence over even the ‘outcasts’ who reject its unjust law and corrupt values.

The Mississippi River


“She was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldn’t see no advantage

in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it.”

As a part of its effort to educate Huck, the society of the deep-south attempts to instill its fundamental Christian beliefs and values into the picaro’s mind. Twain derides such religious teachings through the development and maturation of the picaro during which he questions and justifies his decisions based not on religious teachings but rather with his perception and conscience.

Originally an outsider, it is obvious near the beginning of the novel that Huck is oblivious of Christian ideals. He narrates that “[Widow Douglas] learned (taught) me about Moses”, yet Twain displays his humourist side through Huck’s immediate reaction: “I was in a sweat to find out all about him… [but] Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take stock in dead people”. Such comical dismissal of ‘Moses the dead’ by Twain, known for his “wit to ridicule organized religion”, directly establishes a contrast between Huck’s insensitivity and the society’s systematic teachings of religion.

It is also implied that the perspectives in which Huck and the rest of the society view religion do not concur at all. When Miss Watson explains the concept of heaven to Huck, he exhibits his inability to find any genuine interest in this “good place” where the dead “go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever”. To Huck, the practicing of religion and regular attendance at the Sunday School is of no meaning or value, and thus, is subject to Twain’s mockery of conventional religious teachings in society.

In relationship to the picaro’s initial introduction to religion, Twain organizes succeeding events in the plot to prove that Huck’s perception and conscience are by no means less worthy than the religious values upheld by society. During Huck and Jim’s journey on the river, the ‘Duke’ and the ‘Dauphin’ – satirical nicknames for two conniving characters on the raft who deceive Huck and Jim constantly – sells Jim, the ‘property’ of Miss Watson. With a letter addressed to Miss Watson, Huck realises that he has to “decide, forever, betwixt (between) two things, and [he] knowed (knew) it”. The reader gains an insight of the picaro’s moral dilemma where he is split between two premises: the life-risking actions of the Duke and the Dauphin lead to Huck’s thought of returning to the life at home in St. Petersburg which would force Jim to retreat to his status as a slave. The influence of society on Huck up to this point is revealed as he admits guilt for ‘stealing’ Miss Watson’s property.

However, his declaration of “All right, then, – I’ll go to hell” not only exhibits the increasing value of his friendship with Jim but, in a deeper context, is an exhibition of his own sense of logic and conscience that is independent of religion. Twain implies that Huck’s ‘hell’ is a more honorable place to be than the ‘heaven’ of those who abide to society’s cruel and hypocritical principles, one example being the inhumane treatment of Jim. As an important point in character development, Huck’s firm attitude – “People would call me a lowdown Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum (Jim) … but I ain’t agoing to tell.” – further reinforces his denial of the ‘educated’ world as his high regard for Jim is a direct contradiction to slavery, and hence the society.

In hindsight, it is Twain’s interweaving of several implications in the plot and character relationships that leads Huck to “acquiring convincing moral stature” during which he clearly rejects the religious values of his surrounding and fosters his own set of moral principles, and thus condemning the society through the derision of religion values that it adheres to.


To what effect does Mark Twain’s picaresque novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,

examine the process and consequence of one’s rejection of the laws and values of society, and reveal its flaws?

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain delineates the conflict between the values and laws of society and those of an individual as represented by the picaro and first person narrator, Huck. His depiction encompasses the sheer difference represented in the conflicts of civilisation and the ‘natural life’, government law and moral law, religion and its derision, slavery and racism which directly reflect some of the major controversies in his time prior to the American Civil War, also the basis of the novel’s historical context. Like the Mississippi river, Twain intertwines Huck’s moral dilemma in various stages of the plot and in doing so, portrays the “acquiring of moral stature” of Huck to his readers.

Key techniques such as the symbolism of Cairo and the Mississippi river, character relationship of Huck and Finn, first person narrative of Huck and Twain’s humourist approach overall contribute to the reader’s perception in the concluding stage of the novel that those who reject the societal values and laws will eventually detach themselves from the mainstream society. The consequence, however, is a positive one: individuals who do so demonstrate higher ethical standard through their decisions as Huck has shown through his choice of supporting Jim’s search for freedom and instead defy the governmental law that treats slaves as mere ‘properties’ of the owners.

The author’s strong condemnation of society, and its laws and values in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provokes his readers to reflect back on the reasonability and justice of today’s society: are we, under the name of civilisation and religion, repeating the same mistakes from our tragic past through systematic demolition of the rights and values of the minority? If so, what is our moral basis?



Bird, John. (2007) Mark Twain and Metaphor. University of Missouri Press, Missouri, United States of America.

Blair, Walter. (1960) Mark Twain and Huck Finn. Cambridge University Press, London, England.

Quirk, Tom. (1993) Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn: Essays on a Book, a Boy, and a Ma., University of Missouri Press, Missouri, United States of America.

Twain, Mark. (1966) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Penguin Book Ltd., London, England.


DeviousTF. (2008) ‘Does Mark Twain’s classic prove that society’s laws and values can be in conflict with higher moral values?’ [online] [retrieved 19 October, 2010] < http://bookstove.com/classics/the -adventures-of-huckleberry-finn-a-theme-analysis/>

Howells, Walter Dean. (1882) ‘Ten good reasons why Huck Finn deserves a second chance’, Whiddle-tee-Wheck (New York literary journal).

Mailer, Norman. (1984) ‘Huckleberry Finn, Alive at 100’, The New York Times, December [online] [retrieved 14 August, 2010]

Ryan, Stephen K. ‘What Atheists Don’t Want You To Know About Mark Twain’s Secret’ [online] [retrieved 25 October, 2010] < http://www.stjoan-center.com/twain/atheists.html>


Gradesaver. Unknown Year, ‘Map of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ [online] [retrieved 4 September, 2010] (see appendix)


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