The novels ‘The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ are both set in times where the expectations of society differed from the ones of today. Huckleberry Finn is set in the late 1800s, pre USA civil war and in a time where slavery was an accepted occurrence and the escape of a slave was seen as legally and morally wrong. This was also a time in which church attendance and education were seen as tokens of respectability. A young boy, the eponymous character, Huck, seeks to reject all that he regards as oppressive and cruel in order to establish an alternative life as a wanderer, far from adult control.
The Catcher in the Rye’, on the other hand, was set in the late 1940s, a time when teenagers were just beginning to gain their own lives and being allowed more freedom than ever before. The picaresque novel gives the reader an insight into middleclass life in New York in the 50s and how one boy felt trapped by the expectations of his parents and school. His period of comparative freedom leads to unexpected consequences as he falls victim to depression and eventual supervision in an institution, putting paid forever to his dreams of freedom.
Both novels present the themes of freedom and escape and the selected extracts portray incidents in the characters’ lives which focus on this theme. In both of the extracts, the characters are pretending to be someone else, Huckleberry Finn a young girl and Holden Caulfield taking a false identity. The reader may infer from this that by assuming a different and fake identity, the two boys can escape from their own lives; ones that are full of problems and worries. Escaping their lives allows them both to live a little more freely, even if just for a little while.
However, Huckleberry Finn and Holden take on their new identities for different reasons. For instance, Huckleberry Finn assumes the alternative identity in order to travel across town without being recognised by anybody, as he was supposed to have died not long before. Another reason he had to pretend to be a girl is to protect his and Jim’s safety. Holden on the other hand, assumes the alternative identity in order to befriend people he meets on his journey without the people realising that he should still be at school. Various audiences of the two novels would interpret and receive the occurrences in the extracts very differently.
For example, the audience of Huckleberry Finn would be shocked at Huck escaping, living with a slave and then dressing as a girl. This is because the changes in society since Huckleberry Finn was written are significant. In the late 1800s, young boys were to be well educated and then sent off to be a successful businessman, not to escape and run amok. Slaves were also seen as inferior and a possession and anybody helping them was breaking the law. Another thing that the different audiences would feel differently about is the fact that Jim gets called a ‘nigger’ quite often.
An audience of the 1880s would accept that as normal as they were used to hearing it, whereas an audience of the 2000s would be shocked by this, as the word nigger has a very malicious meaning nowadays and is considered a racist insult due to the equality rights now instilled in the majority of society, due to the word undergoing perjoration. The audience of Catcher in the Rye would probably not be surprised at the behaviour that Holden employs, as teenagers in the late 1940s were gaining a new sense of freedom and the dangers of letting your children out into the world unsupervised had not yet been considered.
They also would accept that he might befriend any stranger that he comes across. However in the 40s there still existed traditional views about respect for authority although they were gradually evaded. His parents however do not approve of him staying in the hotel by himself. In the 2000s however, we would frown upon a young teenager travelling around alone, talking to strangers and booking a hotel room in a large city. The maturity of the two different characters is also very different.
Although Holden wants and tries to be mature, the reader very quickly sees that he is in actual fact very childish and naive. This could be so that he can escape the realities of adult life, and stay in his idealistic child’s world forever. Despite this, he does attempt to seem more of an adult by using more taboo language and more complicated language around people who he would like to impress, like the females in the Lavender Room. For example, he says; ‘I’m twelve, for Chrissake.
I’m big for my age. ’ Although the word Chrissake, which is the words ‘Christ’s sake’ after undergoing elision and with Holden’s idiolect, is not considered taboo now, it was still frowned upon in the 1940s, as some sectors of society were still highly religious. Another taboo word he used a lot is ‘Goddamn’. Again this word, which is the words ‘God damn’ that have also undergone elision and are with Holden’s idiolect, is no longer considered taboo or offensive, due to the change in society over time.
This language choice illustrates Holden’s immaturity as it shows that he believes that using taboo words and more complicated language will make him look more grown up, when in actual fact it simply makes him seem barbaric and pretentious. Huck, on the other hand seems quite comfortable with his maturity level, which is one that seems to fluctuate. For instance, he seems to treat the whole journey in the novel as an adventure, one that fuels his child-like imagination; as is shown when Huck plays a prank on Jim. He says; ‘I went to the cavern to get some, and found a rattlesnake in there.
I killed him, and curled him up at the foot of Jim’s blanket, ever so natural, thinking there’d be some fun when Jim found him there’. This illustrates his immature side as children are more likely to play pranks and find them amusing. Another way that Twain shows Huck’s immaturity and failed education is through his speech, as Twain uses elision in depicting Huck’s speech and gives him a very strong idiolect and dialect. One instance of this is; ‘Who done it? we’ve heard considerable about these goings on, down in Hookerville, but we don’t know who t’was that killed Huck Finn. Huck uses the word ‘t’was’ instead of saying ‘it was’. Using elision as strong as this also shows us how badly educated Huck is, despite the attempts of Widow Douglas to correct this. However, you do get to see the more mature side of Huck. One example of this is when he makes plans for his escape from his father. He makes a list of the things he needs and even fakes his own death so that he can never be found. This shows his maturity because he has the initiative to put the plans into place and fool the people he is escaping from.
Another example would be when he treats and considers Jim to be his friend, as it is obvious that he has to ignore society and make his own decision to befriend someone who could potentially get him into trouble with the law. Also, he has to overcome a moral dilemma when deciding whether to escape with Jim, or hand him over to Widow Douglas, to whom Jim rightfully belongs. The fact that Jim is a possession of someone else would shock modern audiences as they are not used to this due to the change in society.
This particularly shows his maturity because he was making a decision about somebody else’s life as well, as Jim would have been sold on if returned to Widow Douglas, therefore thwarting his plan to find his family. The decision that Huck had to make had consequences beyond his control and Huck was fully and completely aware of this whilst making the choice. The central characters in the two novels respond to the theme of escape in different but not quite contrasting ways. For Huckleberry Finn, the journey he goes on allows him to grow up and realise what he wants for himself in the future.
Huck’s resolution to embrace traditional societal values by resuming his studies shows he has come to a positive decision about his future. On the other hand, for Holden the journey is a reality check, as it shows him that he is not ready for the outside and adult world because he hadn’t even got the simple child’s world right. He saw life as a game, and was stubbornly naive. His loss of autonomy at the end of the novel shows loss of dreams of freedom and little hope of escape from the downward spiral he has found himself in along the way.
Courtney from Study Moose
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