Huck Finn and the Providential Benefit of a Good Novel

N O T I C E

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G. G., Chief of Ordnance

With this unilateral prohibition, Mark Twain warns off any conscientious readers from setting foot in his greatest novel. Of course, his threat only serves to excite the very thing it forbids. Like trespassing vandals, we shrug off his violent injunction and enter The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at our own peril—shovel in hand—eager to unearth motive, moral, and plot even if we have to dig them from a deadman’s grave.

Those who ignore the author’s satirical notice never leave empty-handed. Huck Finn is rife with moral complexities, clear themes, and compelling narratives. However, we may not be pleased with the loot we gather from the story. Many readers finish the adventure with a deep sense of frustration and displeasure. To them, Twain winks an eye: “Can’t say I didn’t warn you…”

Torrential Providence.

Twain’s tale is straightforward in one sense. It chronicles the adventures of a young town pariah and a runaway slave. Huck and Jim encounter one another on Jackson Island after escaping captivity—Huck from a locked cabin and his abusive father, Jim from his owner Miss Watson and the prospect of being sold to slave traders. The two are forced to the fateful decision to try their luck on the river.

Surging through the novel like an unpredictable, undulating serpent is the mighty Mississippi. The river is an unfeeling, irresistible force that holds absolute sway over the course of events that unfolds chapter by chapter. Early in the novel, Huck wrestles with whether to trust “Providence.” However, as Twain’s narrative flows downstream, he shows how mistaken Huck and the rest of the characters are to even conceive of a capital ‘P’ Providence. In his mind, providence is an emotionless river. Providence often punishes good men and rewards scoundrels. Providence has a lower-case ‘p’; it is not something to trust so much as an inevitability we must come to accept. We cannot miss Twain’s cynicism: the flow of life’s current is completely outside our control.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about the futility of life and the scrambling of morals. When the river swallows a shipwrecked steamboat along with three ruffians aboard, Huck feels guilty for stealing their boat to save his own skin—guilty of murder! When Huck and Jim’s raft is commandeered by two testy vagrants, they feel powerless to resist. Town by town, Huck is forced with uneasy conscience to participate in their shameless scams. When he finally tries to do what’s right, intervening on behalf of sisters who are about to be swindled out of their inheritance, everything goes wrong. Twain’s point in all these river adventures is that we are passive actors in this life, largely unable to change the events around us and foiled in our best attempts to do good.

Twain steers the plot in a way meant to confound us at every river-bend. At the close of Chapter 29, when it seems Huck and Jim are finally free of the infernal Duke and King, the author refuses us the satisfaction. The two conmen come bursting from the shore to recapture the raft. We share Huck’s hopeless despair: “So I wilted right down onto the planks then, and give up; and it was all I could do to keep from crying.”

The Long Con.

In the end, Twain proves to be the greatest conman of them all. Huck’s serendipitous encounter with pal Tom Sawyer late in the novel gives us brief hope things may end well after all. However, much like the King and Duke, Tom coopts the entire narrative and all its characters to create his own ever complicating and confounding Quixotic adventure. The reintroduction of Tom—and his nonsensical imagination—as the story wanes should tip us off to Twain’s devious scheme. It doesn’t.

The author saves his wry twist for the moment when it will inflict the most shame on his readers. After using Tom to drag out the novel’s conclusion for what feels like an eternity, he gives Tom the honors of unraveling everything. Tom reveals a preposterous truth: Jim has been free all along! Tom explains that Miss Watson is dead and granted Jim’s freedom in her will. Twisting the sharp blade of irony, Jim then reveals a secret he’s kept the whole journey: Huck’s murderous father is dead as well.

The fateful decision Huck and Jim made at the story’s outset was based on false pretenses. Jim and Huck had risked life and limb on the Mississippi for nothing.

Cracking the spine of Huckleberry Finn is like buying tickets for what promises to be a fantastic show—it’s Mark Twain for goodness’ sake! However, when the curtain rises Twain himself “comes a-prancing out on all fours, naked; and…painted all over, ring-streaked and striped, all sorts of colors, as splendid as a rainbow.” Wagging his bare, be-striped rear in our faces and cutting a shine, Twain then exits stage right. As the curtain falls, we realize the whole novel was one big farce.

Twain is the ultimate Tom Sawyer. He creates a fanciful world that pretends at meaning, that feigns at purpose, that gives just enough hope for redemption. As we close the book, Twain leaves us blushing. Having transgressed his initial warning, we are left with a sense of regret for having ever indulged his ill-fated saga.

True Character in a Fictional Narrative.

Twain’s point is to satirize the human instinct to search for a meaning in this universe. How foolish for us to pretend that there is any point to the story we are living—that it has any sort of sensible conclusion or triumphant finish. Rather, all human existence sputters to an embarrassingly pointless finale. In his conception of reality, we are all voyagers on the fickle yet omnipotent Mississippi. To believe otherwise is to play pretend.

However, Huck Finn is not meaningless. Certainly the plot takes a rather circular turn, yet we cannot help but recognize that the characters caught up in this epic have been forever changed by their participation in it. Herein lies the value of fiction literature. Although the circumstances shaping Huck’s journey were false, the character he develops along the Mississippi isn’t.

In Chapter 31, Huckleberry comes to a crisis moment while separated from Jim. He must choose whether to send word to Miss Watson of the location her runaway or to commit what is in his mind the unforgivable sin: Help Jim attain his freedom for good. Obviously, Huck’s morals have been completely twisted around by the perverted influences in his life. Nonetheless, he makes what he believes to be a damnable decision out of love for Jim. After first writing the letter to Miss Watson, he says, “I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.”

Crisis moments like these are why fiction is an invaluable gift. If we are willing to suspend disbelief and enter a fictional reality for a few hundred pages, we can emerge out the back cover changed. In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior explains the way fiction forms virtue: “Plot reveals character. And the act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader’s own character. Through the imagination, readers identify with the character, learning about human nature and their own nature through their reactions to the vicarious experience” (20-21).

We don’t have to receive Twain’s fatalistic worldview to benefit from our journey down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim. We knew implicitly that the entire perilous trek filled with bandits, shipwrecks, starvation, violent family feuds, and manhunts was a complete fiction from the start. When we nevertheless willingly enter into each moral dilemma with Huck, our own wrong perspectives are being deconstructed. Real virtue is being built in its place.

Good and Bad Reading.

To read fiction with no other objective than entertainment is to be like Tom Sawyer. Unlike Huck, he has read the great novels. But his mind is stuck in the realm of disbelief—or rather, make-believe. Sawyer misses the entire point of fiction to begin with. It is not merely a means of escape from reality, but it is a place where we can abscond for a few hours to develop true character that bears fruit when we return to the real world.

Sports are a perfect modern day example of the way fiction develops character. We agree to play by certain made-up rules inside arbitrarily drawn lines for a random amount of time with foolish things like balls, sticks, and rackets. And yet, when young men and women step inside the lines of that field or court—a realm based on a fabrication as false as the one that steered Huck’s raft down the Mississippi—it becomes a place to cultivate true grit, integrity, and virtue. No one can deny that.

The notice nailed to the cover of Huckleberry Finn gives us fair warning. The providential hand of Mark Twain that steers our raft through his novel will not allow us to leave his fictional world the same. We will feel the pinch of conflicts with no clear resolution. We will be confronted by the contradictions in our own morals. We will question how we have been shaped by wrongheaded societal norms.

What a wry twist indeed that a novel meant to satirize providence can be used by Providence to change Huckleberrys like you and me.

(photo credit)