Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

HUCK FINN: Final Thoughts

Many people who've read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been troubled by the final chapters of the novel.  They are, in a word, boring.  Once Jim is captured and is held on the Phelpses' farm and once Tom Sawyer appears in the story again and once Tom and Huck spend chapters employing their outrageous plans to free Jim, well, the air is out of the balloon, and the story sags to its famous ending when Huck declares he's going to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest"--probably because he's sick of the novel, too, and wants out of there.

So what happened?  Why at the end of Chapter XXXI--the moment when Huck decides he would rather go to hell than betray Jim--does the story collapse, implode?  Scholars have offered a variety of explanations over the years, none all that convincing to me.  Some have said, for example, that Tom Sawyer's return is an artful way for us to measure the growth of Huck Finn: Tom has remained a boy; Huck has matured.  But Huck doesn't seem all that mature in these chapters.  Like someone at a high school reunion, he reverts to his former placid, passive self, allowing Tom to concoct and enact ever sillier scenarios for Jim's rescue.

And surpassingly cruel ones, too.  For days Tom and Huck make Jim endure all sorts of indignities; they even risk his life (remember: when they are running away, the farmers are shooting at them).  And then we learn at the very end that Jim has been free the entire time (only Tom has known this)--and that Tom was just playing.  Playing with the life of another human being, a black man who must have been horrified to realize that his life was in the hands of a crazy little white boy.

Some have said it's sort of a return to "reality"--a return to Life the way it really is after their journey on and down the river.

But I have another idea.  I think Twain just lost it.  He lost Huck's voice.  He lost his energy.  He lost the sense of what he was doing.  He had captured a slippery spirit--an Ariel--but then relaxed a moment, and it got away.

We know that Twain did not write the novel easily.  He put it aside from time to time.  He started it in 1876, not long after Tom Sawyer.  (The opening chapters are very much like Tom's adventures--but with a first-person narrator.)  He wrote a couple of months, then quit.  He picked it up again in 1879, wrote some more months, then put it aside again--stopping in the middle of the attempted lynching of Col. Sherburn.   In the summer of 1883 he started again--and finished.  He published it in February 1885.

So here's why I think Twain "lost it" in those final chapters.  After Huckleberry Finn, he tried a sequel--Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.  He started writing it in 1884 at the same time he was preparing Huck for publication.  He wrote nine awful chapters, then quit, never to return to it.  The magic just isn't there.

Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), also narrated by Huck, is a bizarrely bad adventure story involving a balloon ride that takes them across the Atlantic and into Africa.  The illustration shows lions leaping at Huck as he and the others barely escape.

Next--Tom Sawyer Detective (1896), again with our old friends, again narrated by Huck, again a book that begs much from the reader.  A murder case.  Tom solves the case, one that involves hidden diamonds, as well.

And between 1897-1902 he very nearly finished another sequel--Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy--another silly novel that features a reappearance of the Duke and the King.  Jim is working for wages, still trying to buy back his family.  Tom has another wacky plan: to make everyone in town fearful of a slave revolt and of the arrival of Abolitionists.  Jim gets accused of murder--guess who really did it?  Tom's the hero again--but Twain broke off the story just before the end.

These sequels (actual and aborted) are hard to read.  In a way, it's as if Ishmael returned to tell another story, Moby-Jane, about a frisky female teen whale that's just looking for a good time and has to learn the hard way that a whale's life is serious, not all surging up into the sunlight and texting her friends.

When I was teaching the novel, I always dreaded arriving at those final chapters, dreaded having to read them again, dreaded the looks on students' faces when they came to class to ask What happened?

Well, I'm happy with the good parts--the great parts.  Twain wrote something wonderful, then lost his way.  But in my view the splendor of those earlier chapters has light eminently sufficient to illuminate the rest of the way.  The end of the trail is indeed a little flat, certainly dull--but that soft light in the sky?  Now that's something.

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