The River Motif in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The River Motif in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Huckleberry Finn… this is the very name that can sound familiar to almost everybody from pupils in elementary school through students at university to elderly grandparents. But the more astonishing is that the characters, the flow of events and the bunch of themes,symbols and motifs included mean for everybody something absolutely different.
Till for an 11- year- old little boy it provides a real boyish story full of flabbergasting, enviable adventures of a peer, for a 21- year- old half grown- up student it already gives opportunity for deeper interpretation of the hidden signs within the novel (eg.about the serious problems society should tackle with) between the lines and so giving also opportunity to understand why has been so popular The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn during times among all generations.
And finally the reason why this book is so dear for our grandparents is that it affords a chance them to remember their childhood when the world was totally different from today’s world, when people were far closer to nature, when those kind of adventures Mark Twain pictured were almost day- to- day; altough not on the River Mississippi but on the River Danube, not with a ’Jim’ but with a best friend and not deliberately to escape…
As it is mentioned above, the novel is abound with typical themes, motifs and symbols both of world literature and both specifically of American literature. First of all, the most characteristic from these are racism and slavery, altough the novel was written more than twenty years(1884) after the American Civil War in which the anti- slavery North won finally, the racial issues were still present and became crucial once again. This is why Mark Twain opted for such an antislavery theme for his new novel.
Secondly, since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be discussed as a ’bildungsroman’, a novel of self- cultivation, education plays an important role, both intellectually and morally. The reader can witness the development and changes of Huck Finn’s point of view in connection with the teachings on race received from Miss Watson, sister of Widow Douglas who …”took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me…” The more event happen, the more Huck’s views alter thanks to his and Jim’s, the Negro intimate relationship.
Time and again Huck gives evidence his growing ability to distinguish good and bad, enemy and friend and the nonexisting difference between black and white… and finally he reaches its climax saying: „I knowed he was white inside” . And last but not least the most significant and most commented symbol of the book is the journey of the two heroes- Huck and Jim- and the road itself, the River Mississippi. “As Pascal says ‘rivers are roads that move’, […] the road itself is the greatest character in this novel of the road, and the hero’s departures from the river and his returns to it compose a subtle and significant pattern.
” (Lionel Trilling: A Certain Formal Aptness In. Graff & Phelan: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn- A Case Study in Critical Controversy) This is not a kind of symbol which appears and disappears again and again but it is an overarching one; this is in the very focus of the story, events- both physical and both phychological- happen on the river, it has a kind of fate- determiner role. Anyway journey is one of the most important elements of human existence; adventures, unknown landscapes and countries give us knowledge. Knowledge about the unfamiliar and knowledge about ourselves.
That is why poets and authors use this pattern to educate their heroes and their readers alike. Twain’s novel is not the first example using the journey and the road- here the river- for such purpose. We can find examples already in the ancient Greek literature- Homer’s Odyssey-, or in the Middle Ages- Dante’s The Divine Comedy- in the Enlightenment- Voltaire’s Candide- and also in the Hungarian Romantic literature- Vorosmarty’s Csongor and Tunde. Altough the aim is different, the common feature all of them is the development of character with the help of a fellow and the desire of something different from the present.
As I have written earlier, the Mississippi River is in the focus of the novel, it gives the decisive symbol of freedom in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The closeness of it gives an excellent opportunity to the heroes to escape from the restrictions of society and from civilization; the fluid road symbolizes for both of them a possible mode of getaway, a possible way of freedom. It has great impact not only on the flow of events but also on the inner processes of the characters. The river offers a once- in- a- life possibility for Huck and Jim to change their life for good.
Altough they stand on the two sides of the social scale; Jim is a black slave and Huck can stand for the slave- holder layer of society, both person struggle with social and moral problems as well, both want to get far away from the oppresive roles society gives them. They need to embark on such a journey to get rid of their burdens, to discover themselves, identity and truth. They can not adapt themselves to the pre- ordained roles of society, they can not accept the fact that they have a determined function in this unhealthy community.
Huck battles with the Widow Douglas „…a persecuting good widow who wishes to make a nice- truth- telling, respectable boy of him…”, with her sister, Miss Watson, who tortures the rebellious boy with her confirmed doctrines rooted in the Bible and old accepted beliefs in racial roles and her hypocrite behaviour „…Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn’t. …And she took snuff too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself”. […] “That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it”.
He also wants to run away from his persecuting father, the drunkard of St. Petersburg, wishing exclusive guardianship over his son. He wants to get to an environment where he can make his own decisions, where he does not have to accept obsolete rules, where he can live his own life on his own. Consequently till Huck’s attempt to leave the two old ladies comes from the overcivilising training, the attempt to leave Pap Finn roots in the fear of threatening physical destruction. The other escapee is „Miss Watson’s big nigger, Jim”, who is planned to sell away to the South. But if it happened, Jim would be separated forever from his family.
In his exasperation he chooses the adventurous runaway along the Mississippi and then down the River Ohio to reach finally Cairo, where slavery is far less strict then it is in the South. And after pooling enough money he would buy his wife and children. It can be said that Jim is the absolute loser of society, his situation is the most desperate. In comparison the two needs, Huck’s running away rather „…a withdrawal from a civilization which includes the bad rightousness of Miss Watson and the rightous badness of Pap Finn” (Abel 76), while Jim’s bondage and so his flight „…is a more definite one than the boy’s and his idea of escape takes a more concrete form also”.
(Abel 75) In this way for them land means only an enermous oppressing power and the single chance of solution is running away. After Huck escaped from his father and Jim from Miss Watson they met by chance on the nearby Jackon’s Island. So together set off the journey on the Mississippi on a raft. This raft on the river means the only source of peace, pleasure, freedom and independence for Jim and Huck, it seems as if there would not be never a better place for them, they are deprived of the social and political restrictions, racial and other artificial differences are vanishing.
At the very beginning “Nevertheless, Huck’s association with Jim puts him in a conscious dilemma: he must deny his humanity and betray Jim, or flout society’s categories and commands and help him. As he says to Jim at the start of their journey together: “People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum- but that do not make difference. I ain’t a- going to tell, and ain’t a- going back there, anyways.
”(Abel 77) Throughout the adventures Jim and Huck seem to the readers like a father and his son, “Jim giving to Huck the affection he cannot give to his own children, and Huck finding in Jim the loving protectiveness his actual father has never offered him”(Abel 77) While the farther the fluid road is flowing down with them, the more Huck’s human sympathy towards Jim develops. It’s because the “repeated instances of two expressions of Jim’s humanity. One is Jim’s perpetual care and concern for him […] the loving kindness of a father for his son.
The other is his continual mourning, when he thinks Huck is not observing him…”(Abel 78) The river is something ever changing phenomenon, it is impossible being always harmonic and peaceful. It brings the adventurers various trials during which they can testify their personality, draw conclusions so that broaden their mind. The first lesson was, mainly for Huck, when he lived for a while with the Grangerford family- the first time when he gets separated from Jim. He found them loving, nice and kind people and he came across with their son, Buck, who became Huck’s good friend.
But soon after his arrival it turned out that the family has an ancient enemy, the Sheperdons, although the feud is hereditary and at this time nobody remember the origin of the conflict. In a gun- fight Buck dies- and all male family members of both families-, Huck returns to Jim and to the repaired raft. “No home like a raft, after all” and they keep flowing down the Mississippi, “…the River … that will not let them land at Cairo, where Jim could have reached freedom; it is the River that separates them …the River that reunites them, …” (Eliot 333).
After some peaceful, quiet days of rafting fate afflicts them with a couple of humbugs- the rightful Duke of Bridgewater and the rightful King of France. But fortunately the one thing Huck learned from his father how these kind of people should be handled: “If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn’t no objections ‘long as it would keep peace in the family…” Our heroes tolerate the fugitives as long as they do not abuse and betray Jim and Huck: the King and the Duke sold the Negro in secret as a runaway nigger.
Fortune in the misfortune that plantation where Jim was being kept belongs to Tom Sawyer’s uncle and aunty; to Silas and Sally Phelps and they are waiting for Tom’s visit…Huck performs Tom and the arriving Tom plays his own brother, Sid. They also play an exciting game; that is to say Tom…they want to free the captivated negro, Huck just want to steal the key, till Tom overcomplicates the mission with his bizarre imagination trained with adventure novels and on Sunday- school teachings.
After a lot of unnecessary efforts (digging a hole under Jim’s bed, bringing a huge stone in the hut, make Jim write with his blood…), the negro managed to escape but soon he is recaptured. Then everything turns out: “Then Tom announces that Jim has all the while been legally free: “Old Miss Watson died two months ago, and she was ashamed she ever was going to sell him down the river, and said so; and she set him free in her will. ” In my opinion this is the climax of the story, the reader can see the result of the moral and physical development of Huck.
This is the point when the voyage and the moral and physical progression of the story stops and seem to begin to regress. The dynamism of actions and the drift on the river has an end… The last episodes mirrors the huge contrasts between Tom’s childish fantasy and Huck’s much- developed, reality- sensitive character, which was gained through the happy- sad experiences during his adventures. “At the end of the story Huck learns that Pap Finn is dead, and that he can safely return to St.
Petersburg if he wishes. Tom’s aunt, Sally Phelps, however wants to adopt Huck and civilize him, but Huck knows he can’t stand that. “I been there before”. But this is not because he has not changed in the least… it is because his personality underwent a certain development, he realized that his place is not in the socially and politically directed human world but on the river, among the woods, where he was never disappointed, where he has found his independence and identity.
He realized that his fate is rather Nature than Society. List of works cited/used: •Darrel Abel: Masterworks of American Realism. Barron? s Educational Series ,INC Woodbury, New York •Gerald, Graff and James, Phelan. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn- A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Boston: Bedford Book of St. Martin’s Press, 1995. •Peter Messent: Mark Twain. Modern novelists Macmillan Press LTD 1997
•http://www. marcopolo. provincia. venezia. it/tommaseo/lezioni/Inglese/adp_99_00/Huckleberry. htm