Feb 272011


The publication last fall of the first of three volumes of Twain’s Autobiography has not only given University of California Press a bestseller but also stirred interest once more in Twain’s other work, so I decided to give The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn another read. What struck me this time through was how much the world of the novel is filled with narrow pieties and superstitions, with shallow sentiment and prejudice, with lack of resolve and general moral and intellectual torpor—and quick turns to violence. The last is related to the former: these are sides of an equation.

“We ain’t burglars. That ain’t no sort of style. We are highwaymen. We stop stages and carriages on the road, with masks on, and kill the people and take their watches and money.”

“Must we always kill the people?”

“Oh, certainly. It’s best. Some authorities think different, but mostly it’s considered best to kill them—except some that you bring to the cave here, and keep them till they’re ransomed.”

Tom Sawyer, early on, defines appropriate conduct for a gang he’s forming, drawing inspiration from what he’s absorbed from the old world and new, their history and sentimental thrillers. What Sawyer conceives in playful boyish aggression, however, either lies latent in the language of the adults—someone should count the number of times words related to killing are dropped—or is at the threshold of erupting at almost every turn, in knife fights and fist fights, in blood feuds and mob lynchings. I missed this in previous readings, how deeply pessimistic Twain is in Huck Finn.

Then again, perhaps his world is not so unfamiliar. For example:


This picture appeared not long ago on Sarah Palin’s Facebook—just before Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat, Arizona, was shot.

What I most wanted to look at was the ending, which left me unsatisfied last time through and has been cause for much critical debate over the years. Adam Gopknik recently gave his take in his review of the Autobiography in The New Yorker (November 29, 2010):

One wants to defend the ending (somebody has to, as with O.J. Simpson), but it’s indefensible, callow and dull, and the only explanation is that Twain’s show-biz instincts—Tom Sawyer’s a hit, everyone likes him, that shtick is gold—got the better of him. The ending has the inconsequence of a comedian looking for a way off the stage.

I must confess I’m skeptical of critics who believe they have a better idea of how to write a novel than the author. As for his seemingly objective modern critical standards, I am reminded of Northrup Frye’s remark in Anatomy of Criticism:

Every deliberately constructed hierarchy of values in literature known to me is based on a concealed social, moral, or intellectual analogy.

But the last ten chapters are bizarre. Jim is at last captured and locked up at Aunt Sally’s farm, waiting to be sold, and Tom Sawyer, drawing inspiration from sensational escapes such as that found in The Count of Monte Cristo, plots a complicated scheme to free him that takes weeks to carry out. In the process he subjects Jim to accelerating abuse and throws the farm and town into turmoil, all in the name of “honor.” While Huck and Tom tunnel away, they have Jim create a coat of arms, scratch inscriptions on a rock, and visit him with minor plagues of rats and snakes and spiders, and so on, all for proper effect. Tom even proposes they smuggle in a saw so Jim can cut off his foot to free himself of his shackle when all he needs to do is lift the bedpost and slip off the chain. They could simply have stolen the key to the shed and taken off early on, as Huck suggested. Tom, however, objects:

Work? Why, cert’nly it would work, like rats a-fighting. But it’s too blame’ simple; there ain’t nothing to it. What’s the good of a plan that ain’t no more trouble than that? It’s as mild as goose-milk. Why, Huck, it wouldn’t make no more talk than breaking into a soap factory.”

Honor, apparently, cannot be bought easily. But this time around it occurred to me that Tom gives the answer not only to the odd ending but also explains the whole novel. Difficulty and stirring things up are not only the book’s purpose but also set the principle that determines its construction. It is also a novel about getting people to talk in a world where sensible talk is difficult.

Part of Twain’s problem is that so much of his material is thematically thin. By thin I mean there just isn’t much to think about and little to dramatize convincingly. What moves most characters is petty and mean, however great their pretensions. The Grangerfords and Shepherdons have been fighting a family feud for years, even though they have forgotten the cause of their dispute. There is scant thematic material to explore here and little else to have the characters do but take shots at each other like soldiers in a well-known video game, which is what they do. The only thematic interest in this section comes from the mawkish, morose pictures by dearly departed Emmeline Grangerford, which set the comic undertone that provides the ironic tension the main action needs.

Of course there is the problem of slavery. Huck has his famous crisis of conscience in Chapter XXXI, where he says:

And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s n—-r that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared.

He continues this debate for pages, which is curious because I don’t recall his being that moved elsewhere by matters of church or state. Usually his conscience strikes when someone is about to get hurt. But Twain is only using Huck to stage the debate for us—and there just isn’t much for us to think about. However childish Huck’s thinking, the adult argument he engages is no more sophisticated. I have no idea how this chapter appeared to Reconstruction America, where change was largely nominal, but anyone who has paid much attention to slavery and religion—or any system of values and beliefs—won’t find anything to put the two together. Ultimately, the distance between belief and the practice is so great that it is absurd—and darkly comic. Slavery, or rather our conception of it, is a horribly bad joke, as damning an indictment as any Twain might have made, and the only thing he can do is hammer home that point with repetition until it sinks in, which is what he does in these pages. In lecture halls Twain would repeat a bad joke over and over until the audience finally started laughing.

Something similar happens in the last ten chapters. Jim isn’t being tortured by all of Tom’s abuse, we are. Jim endures it good-naturedly. We are the ones who agonize at Tom’s manipulation of Jim, at the stalls in plot, the twists and inward spirals of his nonsense. We want Jim to be freed and the novel to find moral resolution. Instead we keep getting the fact of Jim’s enslavement thrown at us. But theme is intimately related to plot, and what characters do in a novel’s world depends on its meanings. There has to be a point to climax, some frame of reference for its resolution. Yet slavery does not make moral or intellectual sense, so there’s no coherent way, dramatically or thematically, to wrap the novel up. Incoherence is the concluding thought and resulting climatic effect. Twain gives us the ending the novel requires and leaves us where we need to be.

It is appropriate, I suppose, that the only one who suffers bodily harm is Tom himself, who gets shot in the leg by the pursuing mob once they finally make their escape. But not until the very end does Tom reveal the irony that slaps us all in the face: Jim was freed months ago in Miss Watson’s will. His elaborate scheme was just literary indulgence, maybe some boyish perversion. What are we supposed to make of that? Nothing, except perhaps think about getting slapped and why. What took ten chapters to develop is dismissed in a few quick paragraphs and the novel whisks us away in a “happy ending” where we are not allowed to dwell.

Why should we be?

In so many ways, the main character of Huck Finn is its audience. I can only imagine what kinds of maneuvers Twain had to work with his contemporaries, though the novel gives much indication that they weren’t getting the point. Many modern critics have criticized Twain for demeaning Jim and trivializing slavery—Jane Smiley, for example, in “Say It Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts”—but they have the benefits of a more tolerant audience and the experience of over a century of change and reflection, which Twain did not. How superior modern critics are I will have to leave to them to decide, but I will challenge them to define and defend their grounds. I will not dismiss their arguments, however, because their concerns are serious, vital to the fabric of this country, and constantly need airing out. But let’s not reject books or close off discussions—or force a narrow esthetic on writers that constricts what and how they write. (Smiley prefers Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

What kind of ending do we want? If the fog doesn’t fall that night, if they make the turn at Cairo up the Ohio River and into the free states, what would that have resolved? Perhaps we would have had the satisfaction of seeing Jim freed, though he still would have been separated from his family, but that would leave slavery intact below the Mason Dixon and take it out of sight. And it would deflate, I would argue, the overwhelming absurdity of the horrible joke. Better to torture us than give a satisfactory ending. Such an ending would also have further isolated the South from the national debate, not much more settled in the 1880s than at the time of the Civil War. But also Twain’s subject is not just the South, but all our history and our European inheritance—and the whole damned human race—of which slavery was one part. The life Jim finds in the free states would have been different, but not much better.

Or we could have had a tragic ending, more in keeping with reality and the world of the novel, where the currents of the Mississippi inexorably take them to New Orleans and Jim is sold and we are exposed to what the river sheltered them from, the cruelty and hardships of the plantation. But with the ensuing charge of emotions that would be unleashed in this experience, the absurdity would still be lost or consumed. By distancing us in these chapters and playing with our expectations, Twain keeps his argument alive and us in our seats, though squirming. I’m wondering if Brecht’s distancing effect—Verfremdungseffekt—comes into play here, “which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer” (from Brecht on Theatre). Also odds are good such a book would not have been published, or if it were, not read, or if read only would have divided the country even more in destructive debate and further isolation.

My point about audience is an esthetic argument, not political. Writing is a matter of pitting one’s stories about the world against those the world tells about itself and seeing what can be figured out.

Everything is fiction. Some of us are just more honest about that fact.

At any rate, Twain would not give up his sense of humor, which not only encourages us to question ourselves but also sustains us, and maybe helps keep us together. Nor would he abandon constructing his novel the way it needed to be written. And maybe he helped lay the groundwork for the novels that eventually followed—read Toni Morrison’s essay “This Amazing, Troubling Book.”

The Freitag triangle

notice twainFrom the front pages of the novel

Actually, what most struck me this time through is how odd the whole book is. There are so many scenes that stall, that could have been compressed, so much that seems merely incidental. Odder than the last chapters is the attention given to who should have been marginal characters, the Duke and King, and they could have been disposed of much sooner. The whole plot does not follow a linear progression built upon character, motive, and social forces, but rests on coincidence and accident—missing the turn at Cairo because of the fog, ending up at Aunt Sally’s after so many weeks rafting down the river—and there are so many scenes that do not connect with others. But plot depends upon a character’s power of action and the coherence of his or her world. In a world where characters have limited range and the world is confused, there can be no clear course of action, no rising climax, and no dramatic resolution. Put differently, if one looks from the distance of Twain’s overarching skepticism, everyone will appear small, their actions inconsequential. In such a novel, such a world, we might as well have a pair of frauds carry us along for the ride and think about what they represent—and make fun of them at our peril.


The novel can be explained by a long tradition. Its shallow characters, the satiric cast, the episodic nature of the plot—all of these elements are consistent with the picaresque novel, and Don Quixote is often alluded to, probably an influence. But I still want a principle that explains the logic of its design. I would argue that it is the expectation of a well-made novel faced with its absence that determines Huck Finn‘s construction and sets the tone. It is the ghost of rising climax, hovering everywhere, that gives the novel its form and tension. I also prefer to think of it as a novel looking forward to modern forms and to our condition, the fog of the last hundred years.

Realism is tricky word, subject to interpretation. Much of Huck Finn‘s “realism” comes from ironic deflation of sentimental modes. But it is real in an American sense and it is an American book in its openness and skepticism, in the good nature of characters like Huck and Jim that emerges in spite of all, and most in its love of our language, the dialects which engage and convince us start to finish. And there are moments, even if we can’t relate them to anything or link them together, such as this:

It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows, and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!

It is not hard to see why Hemingway was so taken by this book or how it influenced him.

The image at the top of this post—as well as the tragedian above—comes from Edward Winsor Kemble’s original illustrations for the novel. The Duke and King have at last been caught, are suitably attired, and are being sensibly escorted out of town.

— Gary Garvin




Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his essays and short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinqthe minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.



  2 Responses to “Ridin’ the Rail: The Ending of Huckleberry Finn Revisited — Gary Garvin”

  1. I think it was around 1970 that John Seelye came out with a revised version of the novel, which he called THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. He cut the final chapters and gave the book a tragic ending with Jim dying while trying to escape.
    It still seems to me that the best things about Twain’s novel are the quality of the writing–as in the “big river” quotation above–and the sense of humour that make the novel such fun to read.

    • Much thanks for reading, Robert. It was also around the time I wrote this that there was another Huck Finn controversy over a new edition that replaced the n-word with slave, for use in the schools, I think. One can only wonder what controversy it will stir fifty and a hundred years from now.

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