Mark Twain is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the history of the United States, having spun many memorable and iconic tales in his own creative and unique style. Held high in this position as a great “American” novelist, Twain flirted with the creation of a universal masterpiece in his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, critics disagree on whether or not Twain’s work with Huckleberry Finn truly reaches the stature of a masterpiece, and that disagreement stems from the course the author chose for his conclusion. T. S Eliot finds Twain’s ending to be true to his style and the rest of the novel.
Leo Marx finds that the ending abandons the apparent goals of the novel, leaving the work short of excellence. Twain ventured into the arena of greatness by combining two timelessly classic elements, and casting them as the central “characters” of his work. According to Eliot, Twain uses the “character” of the Mississippi River to relate to all nature, and he uses the title character of Huckleberry Finn to relate to the boy of mankind. Twain uses the former to guide the story and the latter to experience it. He engages the reader with his signature, easily accessed narrative and builds a strong foundation from these two universal elements.
The only real question is the payoff; can the strength of the beginning be carried through to the end? This is where debate ensues, for Twain seemingly departs from the path he has laid throughout the novel to bring the story to resolution in a manner consistent with Twain’s writing, but not so much with the established course of this novel. Critics, such as T. S. Eliot, see the story’s ending, filled with the game-like attempts of the Tom Sawyer to free Jim, as a way to bring the reader back to the feelings of the beginning of the novel. It is a position with which I cannot disagree more.
Instead, it is the view of Leo Marx that I see as the best dissection of the ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one filled with flaws, significant enough that they “jeopardize the significance of the entire novel. ” (Marx 291) Marx points out that the beginning of Huck’s journey with Jim has one specific goal, the goal to get Jim to freedom. This is made clear when Huck discovers the Duke and the Dauphin have sold Jim, causing Huck to say: After all this long journey . . . here was it all come to nothing, everything all busted up and ruined, because they could have the heart to erve Jim such a trick as that, and make him a slave again all his life, and amongst strangers, too, for forty dirty dollars. (199) Marx states “Huck knows that the journey will have been a failure unless it takes Jim to freedom. (294) However, at the end of the book we discover through Tom that Jim is already free. The impact of this revelation threatens the entire purpose of the journey, and diminishes the events along the way. Possibly the most disappointing aspect of the ending is Tom’s plan to free Jim from the barn. Filled with humor and games, the freeing of Huck’s close friend is made into a joke.
This comes after the fact that (1), Huck has made his journey down the river a quest for Jim’s freedom, and (2), Huck’s “growth in stature” (as characterized by Marx, p. 296) has elevated the tone of the story beyond farce. Two of the most prominent examples of this growth — Huck’s decision to “go to hell” rather than let Jim be sold back into slavery, and his sorrow felt for the Duke and Dauphin while seeing them run out of town, tarred and feathered, by the angry townsfolk – are trivialized for the sake of a few laughs at the end. We believe that we have experienced a metamorphosis of Huck.
Starting as a naive and ignorant child, skeptical about the ways of society, we are lead to believe that Huck finally has a grasp on what it means to be human, as well as a “mature blending of his instinctive suspicion of human motives with his capacity for pity. ” (Marx 295) Huck’s participation in Tom’s scheme not only sacrifices the character growth that seemed a central theme of Twain’s story to that point, but also seems to represent a mishandling of the conflict identified by Marx the difference between “what people do when they behave as individuals and what they do when forced into roles imposed upon them by society. (Marx 300) Huck is well aware of his goal: freedom for Jim. The relapse of his character without equal awareness is inexplicable without explanation from the author. As Marx points out: The conflict between what people think they stand for and what social pressure forces them to do is central to the novel. It is present to the mind of Huck and, indeed, accounts for his most serious inner conflicts. He knows how he feels about Jim, but he knows what he is expected to do about Jim. 300) The idea of freedom in the minds of Huck and Jim are different from the simple definition of freedom, “for freedom in this book specifically means freedom from society and its imperatives” according to Marx (p. 303) The freedom sought by Huck and Jim is freedom both in the literal sense of being free from slavery, and in the figurative sense of being free from society’s expectations. However, given Huck’s questionable decision to go along with Tom, Huck gives into social pressure once again.
He has given in to they ways which we were lead to believe he had overcome; he has given into the one convention he set out to escape from in the first place. It is with the appearance of Tom, that Huck’s quest for freedom no longer seems so important, even though he was previously willing to “go to hell” for what he had so diligently fought for along the way. The idea, the goal, is devalued for no clear reason. Such a departure of character cannot go simply unaddressed by the author.
With Huck shifting back into the childish role we observed in the beginning of the novel, we also see yet another character simultaneously regressing, Jim. The tedious, degrading actions of the boys, in an effort to free Jim, are at first noted by Jim as such. However, he quickly becomes inexplicably submissive and accepting of what the boys are doing to him. This bears no resemblance to the Jim presented to the reader when the two companions were on the river. Twice Huck plays practical jokes on Jim, and twice Jim calls him out as being disrespectful, hurtful, and inconsiderate.
And now, with freedom ever so close, the reader is expected accept that Jim’s passion for freedom and intolerance of nonsense has too vanished along with the maturity of Huck. Exactly how Twain expects this to be believable by the readers is questionable, unfortunately an answer is never offered. Instead, Twain seemingly dismisses the growth of his protagonists and resorts to the easy western comedy style from earlier in the novel. In the view of Eliot, this return to the introductory feel of the novel is a perfect example of great literary form.
Instead, this return is nothing more than the apparent defeat of our seemingly maturing protagonist. Eliot’s argument that this return is of great form causes Marx to note in rebuttal, “A unified work must surely manifest coherence of meaning and clear development of theme,” and this regression of character fails to do either. With the ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being so clearly chronicled by Marx as a failure to complete the initiated theme, it is left only to see Eliot’s argument for the greatness of the ending as an argument refuted.
As clear as Marx’s chronicle, it is equally clear that “Huck Finn’s besetting problem [is] the disparity between his best impulses and the behavior the community attempted to impose upon him…” (Marx 304). It is this disparity that needs resolution in order to have a proper ending to Huckleberry Finn. It is the transformation of the character, Huck Finn, through progression, not regression that would make the book a pure work of excellence.
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