Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Huck Finn is Mark Twain's quintessential rogue character. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, serendipitously escaped its author's intentions mid-draft, much as its hero artfully escapes different forms of confinement--from the social to the literary. Indeed his opening words give Twain the slip: "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly." Huck's audacious leap from the page, a meta leap, not only renders Twain a character in his own novel, but hints at a relationship between reality and fantasy, and more precisely, between life and the escape from it.

From the start, Huck proves to be a new kind of American hero, a child free to speak in his own dialect, the raw and buoyant language of the Mississippi. His freedom of expression is the first sign of a newly discovered personal freedom, one that has enabled Huck to navigate between the values of his time and society and those of his own heart. In a way, Huck Finn is a rewriting of Homer's Odyssey, with the key difference that instead of returning home, Huck is escaping it. He escapes the brutal clutches of his alcoholic father, he escapes the widow's attempts to civilize him, he escapes the inevitability of growing up. When the runaway slave, Jim, eventually joins him, the theme of escape acquires a new urgency. 

At the same time, escape always threatens to become escapism, a longing for transitory freedom that leads one hopelessly astray. If the novel seems fanstastical--a boy and a slave drifting on the currents of the Mississippi in a raft, meeting all kinds of adventure--that is because fantasy is a form of escape, and Huck grows dangerously content with it. His friend, Tom Sawyer (like Don Quixote before him), is addicted to fantasy literature, distracting both him and Huck from the hard facts and exigencies of life. The ludicrous plot he hatches to free Jim, which Huck goes along with, reveals the implausible vision on which escapist literature thrives. However exhilarating and meaningful it renders the dramatic situation, it only thwarts Jim's flight into freedom, and eventually gets him recaptured. As Ernest Hemingway once said, this is where the novel should have ended, on a note of bitter irony, where the boys' fantasies of escape cost a man his freedom--and in turn, forfeit their own innocence.

But that is not where the story ends. The climax of the novel, in which Huck defiantly chooses to protect and shelter Jim at the cost of his soul and reputation--"all right, then, I'll go to hell"--suggests that it cannot end there. Huck's climactic decision reflects the fulfillment of an independent conscience, mature enough to channel the experience of escape and exile towards a higher end. As the boys make concessions to the urgency of freeing Jim, they begin to come to terms with reality and, unwittingly, with growing up. And growing up is incompatible with ceaseless escape; eventually, one must return to the world, if only to try to change it. Once Jim's predicament has been resolved, they do return. Jim's freedom is restored and Huck is offered a home. His narrative now ended, Huck is free to continue his life story as he sees fit. Will he stay and be "sivilized" by his adoptive mother, or head out west to the Indian Territory? The novel returns to an unwritten beginning. Only Huck, older and wiser, and in every reader's heart, can tell where it will go.

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