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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel which has often been surrounded by controversy because of issues such as violence and racism. Therefore, many critics write about whether or not this Mark Twain novel is an appropriate piece of literature for children to be reading before or even during high school. Because of the quality of the writing, including the use of vernacular, the life lessons and the historical view of America, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be included in the curriculum of grades nine through twelve ELA classes, and not before.
Because of the violence and racism, children younger than ninth graders should not be taught this novel. Waiting until at least the ninth grade will give children the chance they need to develop the reading skills and maturity level that will most benefit from reading Twain’s novel. At that time, the gruesome depictions of violence and “adult” language will not be detrimental to a student’s development.
If dealt with correctly and under the guidance of caring teachers, the experience of reading this book in grades nine through twelve can be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Huck Finn is a novel that can be read over and over, each time providing a rich look at mid-America in a controversial point in its history.
Twain’s novel is controversial for many reasons, one of the greatest being the amount of violence it contains. Many critics believe that the use of violence in the novel is over done to the point where they do not want younger children reading it.
The extent of savagery Twain used in his novel is shown when Huck and his friend, an escaped slave Jim, are separated from one another after a storm on the river. Huck swims to shore and stays with a family, the Grangerfords, for some time. He quickly learns about their way of life. In fact, Huck is stuck in the middle of a feud the Grangerfords have with an opposing family, the Shepherdsons. Huck becomes close to a boy in the Grangerford family named Buck, but while fighting with the other family, Buck is shot right in front of Huck and dies in the river. “I ain’t a-going to tell all that happened- it would make me sick again if I was to do that,” (Twain 115). The violence is so senseless that even Huck can’t talk about it anymore. This kind of violence is too much for a young child to learn to deal with, whether or not there is any kind of important message attached. It is important to learn about the fact that there is senseless violence in the world, and this is exactly what is going on at this point in the novel. The two families involved can’t even remember how the feud started. Introducing this idea to young, immature children is dumping a complex issue in their laps with no tools for handling the complexity. This is supported by a comment made by Lauriat Lane, “The Grangerford-Shepherdson feud strikes the modern reader as a senseless mess,” ( 161). Lane is saying that the feud is confusing to modern readers. If adults even have a hard time with this kind of message, children will certainly not understand that it is wrong to have a pointless battle; they will only retain how much violence is occurring. If introduced in ninth through twelve grade, pointing out that senseless violence is something that happens in our society becomes something that young adults can discuss and work out for themselves. The existence of and issues surrounding senseless violence are certainly still alive in modern society. High school students can be guided through this material with the goal of not becoming overwhelmed by the violence but being prepared for the realities of life. There are other instances of violence in the novel that can be looked at for this purpose.
Some time after Huck was with the feuding families, Jim is sold into slavery on a plantation. Huck is determined to free Jim even if he has to steal him away. Coincidentally, the plantation is owned by Tom Sawyer’s aunt, and Tom is Huck’s old friend. At this point, Tom shows up and begins coming up with dangerous, risky and harmful plans to free Jim. What makes it all more violent and cruel is that Tom knows that Jim had actually already been freed, making all of his attempts to “free” Jim unnecessary and heartless. At one point while discussing Jim’s “escape plans”, Tom says, “Jim, don’t act so foolish. A prisoner’s got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain’t even been triedâ€¦”(Twain 262). This illustrates the violent depths that Tom will stoop to just for the thrill of the adventure. He would put Jim in danger of being in a room with a rattlesnake, at risk of being bitten, just so he can have fun. Of course this is an awful example for children not yet in high school. They could get the wrong idea that it is okay to harm others as long as it is just for fun. High school students would be capable of seeing this without thinking that Tom’s cruelty is actually funny or harmless, especially with a teacher’s guidance. Jane Smiley points out this problem with Tom’s behavior also. “â€¦in which Huck finds Jim imprisoned on the Phelps plantation and Tom Sawyer is reintroduced and elaborates a cruel and unnecessary scheme for Jim’s liberationâ€¦”(61). Any mature reader, or high school student readers guided by their teachers, can be exposed to this without taking away the wrong message. In fact, it provides an opportunity to discuss something that some high school students are possibly experiencing in their own lives. Clearly, the amount and kind of violence in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn make it an inappropriate reading choice for young children. But there are so many reasons why high school students should be taught the novel.
One of the great things about Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is that it provides the kind of complexity that can hold up for many readings. For this reason, the novel should be read many times throughout a reader’s life. Each time they read the story, they will find nuances that they hadn’t seen before. An example of a portion of the novel that can be read multiple times is the Royal Nonesuch perpetrated by the Duke and Dauphin. They are the two con-artists who travel with Huck and Jim for a portion of the adventure, and one of their many schemes is organizing the Royal Nonesuch. This means they say they will perform a show for three consecutive nights, but really they perform for about a minute, they take the townspeople’s money, and then they leave, quickly. The only reason so many people continue to go to the show is because all of the men are too embarrassed to admit they have fallen for the trick, (Twain 150). If this were to be read by someone younger than the high school level, only the basics of the situation would be understood, such as the idea that people are being tricked. Some may just see how immoral the con-men are, which is the basic idea, while others might understand the satire of the situation, which is the more advanced idea that Twain intended readers to understand. Either way, the benefit of reading the novel in high school is that one can always reread the book when they are older, and by reading it at a younger age, they can at least start developing their ideas so they have something to build upon in the future. Supporting the idea that Twain’s novel is meant for a wide range of ages, James M. Cox writes, “Because it is, everyone can read it at least four times in life, and each time it will be a different book,” (53). This agrees with the idea that it does not hurt to read the novel while still only a young adult in high school, because even at that age, something will be gained from reading it. There are many places in the novel where a reader’s maturity level can affect their understanding of what is happening and what it means.
Friendship is a subject that can be looked at quite differently depending on the age and perspective of the reader. When looking at the relationship between Huck and Jim, specifically, depending on the age of the reader, it can be interpreted differently. Younger readers do not tend to question characters’ motives as much as older ones do. The sincerity of Huck and Jim’s relationship might not capture the attention of a younger reader. The extent to which Jim cares about Huck can be seen when the two find a dead man on an abandoned boat. Jim looks at the body and tells Huck not to look at it. “Come in, Huck, but doan’ look at his face-it’s too gashly,” (Twain 50). Later on it is revealed that the dead man was Huck’s Pap. Jim may have been being selfish or selfless by not telling Huck his father was dead. The younger reader might see two people who are just traveling together. They might focus on the jokes that Huck plays or the distance that Jim seems to keep between them. It certainly can be read at this level. It becomes deeper as the reader becomes able to return to the novel and see that Huck cares enough to go after Jim when he is taken into slavery. Jim cares enough about Huck to want to shield him from his father’s death, even when it means further responsibility and hardship for Jim to have Huck along. Another upside to reading the story multiple times, especially at least once as a young adult, is that the ideas one comes up with are not necessarily ever wrong. At a younger age, the idea may start out simplistically, but by reading the novel again at an older age, those ideas can be built upon so as to find the deeper meaning in Twain’s literature. As R. Kent Rasmussen stated, “Literature is not an exact science. Different authorities can, and often do, disagree on issues, and Huckleberry Finn is a virtual battlefield for disagreement,” (109). This statement encourages people to debate over their interpretations of what the novel means, and whether it is moral or immoral. Because the novel is so full of opportunities to disagree, high school students should be given the opportunity to form their own ideas and their own arguments. Twain’s novel is good for high school students because it allows them the opportunity to come up with their own ideas, and to learn how to support them, but it is also an excellent source of learning because of the history and significance it has in American and World literature.
One benefit of a book like this is truly the historical perspective of America that it provides. One way for Twain to provide this historic insight is by writing in the vernacular. At one point in the novel, Jim is revealing a bit of his past to Huck as he speaks about his young daughter. “My, but I wuz mad! I was a-gwyne for de chile, but jis’ den-it was a do’ dat open innerds- jis’ den, ‘long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker- blam! – en my lan’, de chile never move’!” (Twain 156). Twain captures exactly how the character speaks; where he puts the emphasis in his words and how well portrayed Jim’s emotions are. He makes the reader sympathize with the character so much more when he is speaking. Because of Twain’s ability to capture exactly how the character would sound in person, he is very well known for his ability to write in the vernacular. ” In this novel Twain, despite all previous writing done in the vernacular mode, effectively shattered the accepted boundaries of literary language in America,” (Messent 73). A benefit of using this kind of language for a high school student is that in the act of reading the vernacular, the reader’s voice becomes the voice of the “vernacular-speaking” character. In a way, the reader can literally have the voice of Jim. This kind of language use can help a high school student understand characters even more. Twain’s mastery of vernacular has made him legendary and unique among all writers, and for this reason, his novel should be read in high school. Students from the ninth grade and up should have the experience of reading the novel, and with it the experience of reading the exquisitely done vernacular.
Twain’s novel is unique in its style in every aspect. It has many important themes that can be related to at many stages of life, such as friendship, morality, the value of a human life and many others. By reading the novel in high school, students can be developing their own way of thinking about controversial topics like racism and violence. Students can think about how important friendship and loyalty are compared to blindly following what others say to do. All of these themes come out of a single novel, and give students a variety of topics to think about, debate and even embody. Another positive side to Twain integrating so many different themes into one novel and one adventure is that even if a student reads the book and doesn’t feel as though they truly understand everything, they can at least begin to think about some of the themes that are in the book, either the more obvious and simple ideas, or the more hidden, complex and significant ones. One sure thing about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is that it does not speak to a specific, small group of readers. Twain’s novel can reach anyone and everyone on some level, because there is just so much about life in general and mankind’s dilemmas entwined with the obvious yet exciting adventure. Cox comments yet again that:
Whatever the outcome, we know that Huckleberry Finn will be a part of our future as much as it will have been a part of our pastâ€¦There is really no other American book like it- there is probably no book in the world’s literature like it. Its capacity to meet us throughout our lives is what makes it a book for everybody-whether educated or un-educated, rich or poor, old or young, sophisticated or plainâ€¦(54).
Obviously, Cox believes that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is such a significant piece of work that it will always be a part of literature, and a large part at that. The reason it will be able to stay a solid part of history is that people of all ages, social statuses, or intelligence levels will always be able to find something in it that will speak to them where they are coming from. People will always be able to get something out of Twain’s novel, no matter how many times it is read.
Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a timeless novel surrounded by years and years of controversy and debate. Although the points argued over have changed throughout the years, depending on the current morals and values of American society, there are debatable issues nonetheless. In modern times, some people do not find the language and violence used to tell the story to be beneficial to or easily understandable by contemporary readers. For this reason, Twain’s novel should only be taught in the grades nine through twelve ELA curriculum, so as to not expose children any younger than high school to the controversial topics of the story without the guidance or maturity level that they need to take on these kinds of issues. Even though students as young as the ninth grade may not understand all of the concepts and themes of the novel, they will at least begin the process of having read this outstanding and important American novel which provides so many opportunities for American citizens (and others, of course) to learn about and take a good look at their country and themselves, including the good along with the bad.
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