Free Research Paper On Huck And Setting In The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a beautifully told look at Midwestern life through the rambunctious misadventures of the titular character – a young troublemaker who navigates a decidedly pleasant, quintessentially American landscape full of hope, tradition and challenges of its own. Though Huck Finn himself and the characters with which he is surrounded are central to the story, of equal importance is the decidedly Midwestern setting, and the ways in which the community Huck lives in is structured and depicted. America in Huckleberry Finn is a place of small-town quaintness, the newness of America and its wilderness being combined with the mundane nature of everyday community life; this heavily informs Huck Finn’s own morality and character, representing the need of American individuals to assert itself and its independence against the orthodoxy that civilization often renders upon others.
Life Along the Mississippi
The general appeal of Huck Finn to an American audience – and perhaps, the thing that makes this novel such a classic – is its ability to connect deeply with the everyday experience of America’s small towns. The book “is filled with the materials of local humor writing, and it draws for its fundamental mode of presentation on the conventions of personal narrative,” offering itself as a barometer of universal boyhood experiences growing up in America (Arac 18). In essence, the world of Hannibal, Missouri could easily stand in for any small town in the nation, offering in Huck Finn the kind of innocent, anti-authoritarian figure that readers could relate to. In this way, Twain used Huck as a means to explore the stuffiness of ‘proper’ small-town life, as well as the major American anxieties of the time, including slavery.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Midwestern America is shown to be a place that is preoccupied with propriety, with the church being a largely emphasized part of the community gathering that occurs in the town. Huck’s town is extremely poor, living modestly and compensating for their lack of income and industrialization through Southern notions of hospitality and the values that often come with small towns. St. Petersburg, Missouri, for instance, is an incredibly church-minded population which uses religion to ensure the morality of its townsfolk. Even then, the people seem to only go to church out of habit, making it more of a quaint tradition than any philosophy anyone actually follows: “If you notice, most folks don't go to church only when they've got to; but a hog is different” (Twain 126). In this way, the America of Huckleberry Finn is incredibly dissonant and intentionally so; America is full of contradictions, using such oppressive systems and strict behavioral standards to instill a sense of order and freedom (Jehlen).
Independent of these small towns, however, the book’s overall setting is the Mississippi River itself, given that Huck’s own adventures take him to several places along the river, all of which carry with them the problematic nature of being slave states before the Civil War. Along the way, Huck meets not only the conservative townsfolk of his hometown of St. Petersburg and Hannibal, but the drunken louses and degenerates that also populate the town.
There is a divide in these settings between the prim, proper Christian way of living (which, notably, still endorses slavery) and the allure of alcohol, freedom and the open river: “Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain't that a big enough majority in any town?” (Twain 199). The Mississippi River setting reveals itself to be somewhat of a backwater area, filled with superstition, alcohol and troublemaking, a place on the cusp of transition from a slave state to a free one.
Underneath the pleasant veneer of small-town life in St. Petersburg, however, there is an incredibly scandalous underworld that exists, showcasing a harsh world of slaves and thieves, among other things. Slavery in St. Petersburg is a relatively mundane thing, something that people tacitly accept and endorse as part of the everyday. All of the slaves in the book are ‘household slaves,’ a far cry from the back-breaking work of the plantations, but a more hidden, accepted form of ownership that is rarely questioned in this society.
With slaves like Jim, who have a more intimate, close relationship with their masters due to their household status, house work is shown by Twain to be just as cruel, if not more cruel, than plantation work, because of the explicit dehumanization of those slaves. Even though they are considered to be the lucky ones, they are never treated as a human being, even though the novel depicts many of the slave owners as good people (like the Widow Douglas). This hypocrisy is clearly noted by Huck, who doesn’t really respect the people in his town: “That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it” (Twain 10). Jim’s run to freedom is not just an individual cry for help, it is Twain’s way of showing the cracks in this obviously flawed system.
Huck as an Outsider Looking In
Huck’s own gregariousness and curiosity places him as an outsider in the town, with the Mississippi River townsfolk being somewhat conservative and restrained in their values. While they do not want to make trouble, Huck’s only goal in life is seemingly to get into mayhem and mischief. At the beginning of the book, Huck has been placed under the care of the Widow Douglas, a paragon of the kind of virtue the Midwest attempts to assert in its citizens. The Widow’s goal is, ostensibly, to civilize Huck, to make him more like the kind of respectable townfolk the Widow believes there should be more of (and which fits into the very specific religious and social traditions she espouses).
Much of the Widow’s civilizing includes a heavy emphasis on Christianity, Twain using Huck’s wry sense of humor to point out the silliness of using religion as the paragon of civilized behavior. As the Widow attempts to teach Huck about the story of Moses, Huck (being the independent, rebellious trickster he is) realizes that Moses is no longer alive, and so he decides he is not interested (Twain 10). Huck’s annoyance at the attempts of the Widow and Miss Watson to change his behavior and improve it showcases the tension between the wilderness and civilization that is at the heart of the Midwestern setting of the story. Huck himself is an independent thinker, a pioneer of sorts, never allowing himself to be drawn in by the ordinariness of small-town life and the way things are – a crucial conduit for exploring these issues found in the book.
Of central importance to Huck’s character is his friendship with Jim, the slave he escapes with down the Mississippi River, and thus a recipient of Huck’s morality and values. While Jim is a tremendously good friend to Huck, there is also the extremely dated sense of morality that Huck has, clearly instilled in him from birth - that Jim is still a slave, and the right thing to do would be to turn him in to the authorities for escaping (Bennett 3). Luckily, Huck’s sympathy for Jim wins over his sense of ‘morality’ in the end, and so he goes with Jim to secure his freedom. In this sense, Huck rebels against the current order of things, as established in American culture, that slavery is a thing that should be tacitly endorsed.
Since Huck is such an independent thinker, he seems to come to this solution much more easily than any of the other characters would – mostly likely through his experiences with Jim and the astounding effect they have on his point of view. Huck’s proximity to Jim throughout his adventures allows him to see the nobility, bravery and sensitivity he has as an individual, showing him to be a loving, caring and courageous individual who does not deserve to be enslaved. That Jim is such a paragon of virtue despite the pernicious stereotypes about blacks during that time only makes it more apparent to Huck that his preconceptions about race and slavery may not be accurate.
Despite Huck’s inability to fit in with this small town geniality, he identifies much more with his lower-class brethren than those of the upper class. This serves Huck both well and poorly in alternating degrees, as his troublemaking is received differently depending on who catches him. In his ordinary life in St. Petersburg, he is just the innocent town troublemaker; however, once he is caught by his Pap, he is taken to his cabin in the woods to be beaten and imprisoned. This is also made clear in the section of the book in which Widow Douglas attempts to civilize him, dressing him up in fancy-boy clothes and trying to keep him nice and orderly: “it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied” (Twain 9). Huck is shown to be someone who simply could not fit in with the trappings of society, making him the perfect window through which Twain can reveal the hypocrisy and foolishness of his setting.
Poking Fun at Rich and Poor
The lower-class citizens of Missouri are not the only ones lampooned by Twain in the book, as the rich are shown to be just as foolish as the poor. Even the upper-class families in the book, the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords, are locked in a blood feud that has lasted for decades, even though they go to the same church. When Huck and Jim arrive at the Grangerfords’ home, it looks palatial and luxurious, a true home that Huck admires. However, it becomes clear that this family and their feud are way too concerned with family honor, to the point where they put it on as an affectation rather than make it something they truly believe in. This sense of conflict and grudge-holding does not escape even the richest people Huck meets in the book, showing a decidedly tense conflict between class as well as race.
Another set of characters that fill out the setting of Huckleberry Finn are the duke and the dauphin, the two con men who represent the more seedy underbelly of Mississippi River life. Being very clearly frauds and tricksters, Huck and Jim find themselves at their mercy while traveling downriver: “It didn't take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn't no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds” (Twain 141). While the duke and the dauphin themselves are dangerous cheats, Twain also takes care to poke fun at the people who actually fall for them, like the audience of the Royal Nonesuch production they put on. The reason the duke and the dauphin are such successes is that they prey on the townsfolk’s inner malice and hypocrisy, as they encourage others to go to the show so they too can be swindled.
Given the overarching themes of Jim’s need for freedom and Huck’s desire for independence, the fact that neither of them get what they want is likely the real tragedy of this book. In the end, Jim returns to slavery and Huck is brought back to the Phelps household, relegated forever to the role of sidekick to his more-accepted friend Tom Sawyer (Jehlen). Even when Jim is eventually freed, it is due to a technicality; his master had died not long after their escape began. The fact that Jim has been a free man the whole time renders their whole journey somewhat moot, and all of the bucking of societal trends and common courtesy is all revealed to be part of Tom Sawyer’s sadistic little game, as he had refused to tell Huck about this new information.
Still, with this, and with Tom’s promise that he will head west to find his fortune in Indian territory, the raging American spirit continues to dwell within Huck and Jim. The actual adventure they went on, and the lessons they learned about each other, cannot be erased no matter how little consequence it held by the end for them. Thanks to their escape, Huck learned new perspectives about the world he lives in, especially the treatment of slaves and the ability for evil to thrive in such a hypocritical, judging environment. By the end, it is clear he would no longer try to become civilized in order to live with the likes of the Phelpses and Aunt Sally (who are good people but own slaves). Instead, he wants to go with Jim out west to find someplace he can truly believe in.
The setting of the Mississippi River provides a perfect backdrop to the conflict between American individualism and the hypocrisy of ‘civilized society,’ as represented by the character of Huck Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck is an independent thinker, someone who is reticent to follow the rules. This makes him a more honest character than many of the hypocritical people of St. Petersburg, Hannibal and beyond, who use religion and society to mask terrible injustices like slavery, crime and violence.
Huck’s journey with Jim offers him a way to shake even those bad habits he has remaining, eventually coming around to the idea that Jim is (and should be) a free man. In exploring the world of the Mississippi through Huck’s innocent, fresh and smart eyes, Twain offers trenchant social criticism of slavery as a practice and the inherent silliness and hypocrisy of religious-based small-town society.
Arac, Jonathan. "Nationalism, Hypercanonization, and Huckleberry Finn."Boundary 2 (1992):
Bennett, Jonathan. "The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn." Philosophy 49.188 (1974): 123-134.
Jehlen, Myra. "Banned in Concord: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Classic American
Literature." The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain 97 (1995).
Schacht, Paul. "The Lonesomeness of Huckleberry Finn." American Literature(1981): 189-201.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sovereign, 2012.
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