This extract comes from one of Mark Twain’s novels, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, a book about a young boy and a former slave who does not know he had been freed, living together as friends. They try to survive by themselves during racist times in America, more precisely around the Mississippi river. This novel was first published in 1885; the passage we have to study is situated at the very beginning of the tenth chapter, and is mainly about Jim and Huckleberry Finn living on an island, apart from the rest of civilization, remembering souvenirs and trying to live in rather good conditions.
We can clearly tell since the first lines of this extract that it belongs to the Picaresque genre (close to the novel of apprenticeship), as we follow the young boy in his various experimentations, discoveries and daily actions. The use of orality is also clearly noticeable, as many oral expressions, especially from the African-American culture, are used by both characters all along the extract.
The internal focalization, marked by the constant use of the personal pronoun ‘I’, was chosen by Mark Twain as a way to give more importance to the principal character of the story, who is also the narrator. To study plainly these two pages, my first part will focus on the characteristics of the novel of apprenticeship that can be found in this extract. In a second part, I will study the relation between Jim and Huckleberry Finn, as well as the particular case of the young boy, who is ‘trapped’ between youth and adulthood because of his unusual lifestyle.
I will finally study through this extract the superstitions and view of death that contemporaries of the late 19th century had, knowing that Mark Twain exaggerated them to mock the credulity of people around that time The first thing noticeable while reading this extract is the fact that it clearly belongs to a very particular literary genre called the Picaresque genre.
Indeed, through this extract, we follow a young thirteen-year-old boy who discovers life all by himself, eventually helped by his friend Jim, a former African-American slave who does not know he has been freed, thus living in constant fear of being caught for being a fugitive, something very often punished by death at that time.
Many elements of the Picaresque genre are present, especially the description of an individual’s youth and his daily discoveries and experiences; indeed, Huckleberry Finn is described in this extract as a boy craving for adventure and knowledge; he keeps asking questions, particularly to his friend Jim, who sometimes gets annoyed or afraid by the young boy’s curiosity: ”I wanted to talk about the dead man and guess out how he come to be killed, but Jim didn’t want to” (lines 1 to 2).
Furthermore, as every young boy his age, Huckleberry Finn has his own opinions on certain matters and does not always agree with his elders. Indeed, sometimes he just takes for granted what is told to him: “That sounded pretty reasonable” (lines 5 to 6) even if the discussed subject is everything but reasonable and the statements he agrees with certainly false: “he might come and ha’nt us; he said a man that warn’t buried was more likely to go a-ha’nting” (lines 3 to 4).
On the contrary, under different circumstances, the boy can judge that something is wrong or disagree with ideas; in these cases, he will not hesitate to express himself and even make fun of Jim: “You said it was the worst bad luck in the world to touch a snake-skin with my hands. Well, here’s your bad luck! ” (lines 17 to 18). Moreover, apart from having opinions and telling what he really thinks, Huckleberry Finn learns and improves his skills while experimenting, learning and discovering: “Jim told me to chop off the snake’s head and throw it away, and then skin the body and roast a piece of it.
I done it” (lines 38 to 39). As he discovers many things, Huckleberry Finn makes mistakes and learns from them; this bad experience in the episode of the snake taught him at least a lesson, even if it is based on a pure superstition: “I made up my mind I wouldn’t even take a-holt of a snake-skin again with my hands, now that I see what had come of it” (lines 52 to 53).
The end of this extract is also full of events experienced by the young boy, such as the catching of an apparently huge fish, which surprised him and amazed him in many ways: “catch a catfish that was as big as a man”, “we found a brass button in his stomach and a round ball, and lots of rubbage. We spilt the ball open with the hatchet, and there was a spool in it” (lines 70 to 76). All these elements clearly show that this extract belongs to the Picaresque genre, as Huckleberry Finn lives, he learns and discovers many aspects about life.
He is slowly moving towards adulthood, and even discovers notions about death, danger and afterlife, making him aware of the precariousness of one’s existence. This second part will give a study about Huckleberry Finn’s slow transition from a very naive youth to the beginning of an adult life, as well as an overview of his relation with Jim, and more particularly about the language used by them both, which is very representative of the strong ties they have together.
First, we can clearly see how the young boy is placed in a very particular situation; he is still a child, but has to survive and must manage to live in precarious conditions; he also has to help out his friend Jim, as if he were already a mature and responsible adult. This is especially the case as Jim still thinks he is a fugitive slave and is very afraid to get caught by any white American citizen, forcing Huckleberry Finn to do nearly everything involving communication or interaction with strangers.
This particular situation creates difficult moments and even dangerous events, such as the episode of the snake. Indeed, as the boy is still pretty young and naive, he does not that snakes can be very dangerous, and that, apparently, if a dead snake is situated somewhere, “its mate always comes there and curls around it” (lines 37 to 38). So the boy joyfully killed a snake “and curled him up on the foot of Jim’s blanket, ever so natural, thinking there’d be some fun when Jim found him there” (lines 36 to 38).
Finally, this bad joke ended up in a long and unpleasant moment, especially for Jim, as he got bitten by the snake and suffered from it for four long days: “now and then he got out of his head and pitched around and yelled […] His foot swelled up pretty big, and so did his leg. ” (lines 45 to 48). This lesson seemed beneficial to him, even if it is based on a superstition, as he tells himself after seeing what happened to his good friend Jim: “I made up my mind I wouldn’t ever take a-holt of a snake-skin again with my hands, now that I see what had come out of it” (lines 52 to 54).
On the contrary, Huckleberry Finn can sometimes disagree with Jim or other adults, and has his very own ideas and theories: “I’ve always reckoned that looking at the new moon over your left shoulder is one of the carelessest and foolishest things a body can do” (lines 59 to 61). The young boy also enjoys discoveries and actions, and can be naive enough to take huge risks only in the purpose of entertainment and amusement, especially when he gets bored: “Next morning I said it was getting slow and dull, and I wanted to get a stirring up some way.
I said I reckoned I would slip over the river and find out what was going on” (lines 83 to 85). Furthermore, Huckleberry Finn seems to enjoy simple activities with his friend Jim, that he sometimes seems to see more or less as a father, such as fishing: “the first thing we done was to bait one of the big hooks with a skinned rabbit and set it and catch a catfish” (lines 68 to 70).
He is very proud of the fish he took, as a child would, and seems to exaggerate the facts to show off: “a catfish that was as big as a man, being six foot two inches long, and weighted over two hundred pounds […] he would a flung us into Illinois” (lines 70 to 73). He also likes the idea of dressing up, an activity many children his age and below affectionate particularly: “couldn’t I put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl? That was a good notion, too” (lines 88 to 89).
Following this enthusiasm, we could notice that, while he went downtown disguised as a girl, he got fascinated by a middle-aged lady who was knitting near a candle in her house. He apparently saw in her a symbol of knowledge, wisdom and sweetness, and went straight to see her to speak with her, carried away by his curiosity, as any self-confident child would have certainly done: “There was a woman about forty year old […] knitting by a candle that was on a pine table […] so I knocked at the door.
Finally, we can point at the young boy’s behavior towards his friend Jim during the episode of the snake; we can indeed notice that, as children when they do mistakes, Huckleberry Finn prefers to lie and hide the truth, and does not confess his guilt to Jim, as a way to avoid punishment or reprimanding; but at the same time, he wishes to make it up to him, as a true friend would do: “I warn’t going to let Jim find out it was all my fault, not if I could help it” (lines 43 to 44). As a way to end this second part, we will study the relation between the young teenager and Jim, especially the language expressions they have in common.
As a matter of fact, the reading of this extract clearly shows strange verbs, words and expressions; orality is used all along the text to plunge us into the reality of the scenes, as a way to permit a better understanding of this very peculiar relation between an African-American adult and former slave and a young White teenager in the racist end of the nineteenth century America. Indeed, Jim’s way of speaking is also used by Huckleberry Finn, who acts and expresses himself as his friend most of the time.
This is why we come across expressions used by Jim such as: “ha’ant”, “warn’t” or “a-ha’nting” as well as sentences or phrases told by the young boy such as: ‘I warn’t going” or “I’d druther been bit”. Furthermore, we can notice the massive use of the verb “to reckon”, as much used by Jim than by Huckleberry Finn; in fact, all these language curiosities come from the African-American culture, but are also used by the White American teenager, who is not supposed to talk like this, but who took from Jim this way of expressing himself.
In the last part of my essay I will study the particular topic of death, and how this notion is seen by both Jim and Huckleberry Finn, who permit us to understand what people thought back in the late nineteenth century. The extract we studied is full of allusions to death and various superstitions, and the reactions of the two friends towards macabre events are a way of letting us understand how their contemporaries (especially the poorly educated ones) considered death, afterlife and bad luck.
Indeed, since the very beginning of this text, superstitions are present, and Jim seems really afraid and bothered at the idea of speaking about dead people, especially if they had not been properly buried: “He said it would fetch bad luck; and besides, he said, he might come and ha’nt us; he said a man that warn’t buried was more likely to go a-ha’nting” (lines 2 to 4).
Bad luck and how to avoid or attract it seems to be a big part of the common superstitions of that time; the example of looking at the new moon over your left shoulder depicts very well this subject of controversy: “Old Hank Bunker done it once, and bragged about it; and in less than two years he got drunk and fell off of the shot-tower, and spread himself out” (lines 61 to 63). This extract also gives us an overall view of what medicine was in the late nineteenth century, and how people tried to cure themselves at that time, when they did not have any proper medication or remedies.
The passage about the snake is, to my mind, a very good example of this lack of knowledge concerning health care; people thought that very rudimentary and questionable remedies and strong alcohol would help them cure: “He made me take off the rattles and tie them around his wrist, too; He said that that would help” […] “Jim sucked and sucked at the jug […] every time he come to himself he went to sucking at the jug again”. These sentences, in fact full of irony and even mockery about the beliefs people had at the turn of the
nineteenth century, are a way of letting us understand the reality of common people at that time. To conclude this study of the beginning of the tenth chapter of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we can say that this extract is mainly about the experimentations and discoveries about life of Huckleberry Finn, a young boy stuck between youth and adulthood, because of his very particular situation and lifestyle: he is struggling by himself, living with a former slave who does not know he has been freed, and who hides from the rest of the world in fear of getting in trouble with White and racist American citizens.
This extract also gives us a good overview of the life common people lived in the nineteenth century, how they saw death and luck, and which kinds of superstitions they believed in. Those themes, particularly tackled by Mark Twain, the author of this novel, inspired him in many stories he wrote, and most especially concerning his fictional character Tom Sawyer. He was very appreciated by his contemporaries and later writers; Hemingway even wrote in his non-fictional book Green Hills of Africa: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn”.