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The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2785 words Published: 12th May 2017

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Originated from the Spanish derivative “picaresca”, the sub-genre of picaresque fiction is more popularly known as “rogue” tales in English literature. Through the adventures of picaresque heroes – picaros – of low social class, picaresque novels are characterised by their humorous and often satiric depictions of reality that often serve to reflect and criticise the social contexts in which they were composed. Writers such as Mark Twain (1835-1910) has engaged in this particular genre in their respective works, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

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In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain tells the story of an uneducated, orphaned boy named Huckleberry Finn and the realistic observations made through the eyes of this young picaresque hero in his journey down the Mississippi River. In his work, Twain delineates the devastating impact of modern civilization on the “natural life” and extensively criticises the hypocrisy of slavery permeating the Southern states of America in the 1800s.

Twain demonstrate his sharp acumen through acerbic criticisms on the immoralities of their respective societies and the consequent deterioration of human condition. By analysing the different fashions in which these social dilemmas are portrayed, this essay aims to focus on five perspectives: ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5’, discussing relevant literary and language features in the works under each sub-heading.

The conclusions reached within each sub-headings provide evidence that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a powerful and realistic projections of their social contexts. Despite the apparent happy endings in both works, the authors’ 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. (304 words)

Introduction: Picaresque as a Genre and

historical context of the Novel

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

prove that “society’s laws and values can be in conflict with higher moral values” [2] ?

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” [3] 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 ‘uncivilized’ 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 the 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.” [4] 

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 ‘civilized’ 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” [5] 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” [6] of the Widow’s attempt to “sivilize” [7] 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 civilized 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 [8] again” [9] , he was finally “free and satisfied” [10] . 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 new civilized 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 ‘civilized’ 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 ‘civilized’ 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 civilized. 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 [11] 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” [12] and declaring that he “didn’t want to see [Pap] no more” [13] discloses the poor paternal care that Huck has been receiving, if at all, from his abusive father and hints at a dim outlook on the relationship of the father and son in the future. This event in the plot points at the selfishness of the civilized law: in addition to its indoctrination of civilized values on Huck, it selfishly instills an unethical and unreasonable treatment of the minority – Huck – which altogether shows/reveals its poor protection of the juvenile picaro in order to fulfill what it believes to be ‘civilised’.

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This decision consequently discusses a system which places full authority and power of his ‘property’ – slaves – in the hands of the Whites. The social deprecation/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 [14] in today’s society. Indeed, Jim is only described to be a ‘property’ of Miss Watson, another Caucasian townsperson. The two premises – 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 negroes 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 selfishness of the civilized society seen earlier in the plot. Ironically, Jim is not suited to be considered ‘civilized’ 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 civilized society’s deprecation of his value as a mere property by demonstrating his ability to ‘feel’ and ‘dream’ at his own will. In implicitly comparing the misery of slaves to that of Huck under the supervision of Pap, Twain alludes that a society that eliminates individuals’ values, provides poor protection of the less powerful articulates his disapproval



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.

Bloom, Harold. (1986) Modern Critical Views: Mark Twain. Chelsea House Publishers, United States of America.

Hutchinson, Stuart. (1993) Mark Twain: Critical Assessments Volume II. Helm Information Ltd., East Sussex, United Kingdom.

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.


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]

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/>


Gradesaver. Unknown Year, ‘Map of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ [online] [retrieved 4 September, 2010] http://www.gradesaver.com/the-adventures-of-huckleberry-finn/ study-guide/section11/


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