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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Literary & Critical Analysis

Instructor: Sharon Powell
This lesson is a literary and critical analysis of Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn.' In this lesson, the social contradictions that were evident during the time period that this text was written will be analyzed, as well as what Huckleberry Finn contributes to that discussion.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Critical and Literary Analysis

Mark Twain is one of America's best-known authors. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain addresses--through the character of Huck Finn--a variety of ideas that conflict with one another. Huck experiences these contradictions throughout the novel, while attempting to find his own personal idea of freedom in a conflicted nation.

Freedom

Freedom is an idea that is emphasized throughout Twain's novel. From Huck's perspective, conformity to the expected societal norms is the equivalent of prison. In chapter four, Huck states 'Living in a house, and sleeping in a bed pulled on me pretty tight mostly, but before the cold weather I used to slide out and sleep in the woods sometimes, and so that was a rest to me'. This statement demonstrates that the most basic expectation--sleeping indoors--made Huck uncomfortable, as it was a form of constraint. Huck was restricted from living with the natural, outside world, as he would have preferred. Huck experiences the loss of an abstract version of freedom, which is very real to him.

There is another loss of freedom that Twain addresses, and that is the idea of slavery. Huck's neighbor, Miss Watson, is a slave owner. Jim, her slave, plays an integral role in the novel. The character of Jim is important to the tone of the novel, as he is representative of the conflicting ideals of the Nineteenth century: the strive for freedom and democracy in a land that promoted and perpetuated the institution of slavery.

Twain seems to have wanted to highlight this inequity of ideals, as he put a spotlight on Jim and his plight. Considering the time period that this was written, Mark Twain to be confronting the disconnect between the American ideals of freedom, and the manner in which those ideals were being put into action.

Prejudice

The theme of prejudice is presented by Twain throughout the text in various forms. This includes both racial prejudice, and class prejudice. Huck is looked down upon because is considered uncivilized; he has no mother, his father is a drunk, and he bucks against expected societal practices, like school and church. Racial prejudice is presented in different forms, from the manner with which white slaveholders are discussed, to the portrait of slavery that is painted.

Twain uses verbiage throughout the text to demonstrate the regard to which he holds white slave owners. He repeatedly refers to Caucasian characters as 'stupid', and refers to white southerners as low-lives who 'take a chaw' non-stop. This characterization is meant to show that white slaveholders were not of a superior stock in comparison to the population of black slaves. Twain is again addressing--through the theme of prejudice--the conflicting ideals that were at the forefront of American policy and practice during the Nineteenth century.

Honesty and Conscience

The character of Huckleberry Finn lives his life in an honest manner. He does not pretend to enjoy school, church, or the basic standards of modern society. As such, he always finds himself in trouble. Twain created Huck as such to contrast the dishonest people that he would encounter throughout his adventures in the novel.

Additionally, the blunt honesty of Huck regarding his own conceptions and superstitions boldly contrasts the ideals of the many people that Huck would meet along his journey. For example, Huck meets the feuding Grangersons, who are intent upon murdering their neighbors, the Shepardsons. The Grangersons don't acknowledge that their murderous intents conflict with their religious ideals, which is promoted in a church sermon 'all about brotherly love.' Again, Twain spotlights the hypocrisy of the era; ideals that are in constant conflict with actions.

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