Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a literary masterpiece of the 19th century that follows the adventures of young Huckleberry Finn in pre-Civil War America. Twain utilizes symbolism and dramatic irony throughout the work, which raises the depth of the story considerably. These techniques paired with colorful characters and various Realist and Regionalist elements make for a deep and meaningful story. To fully appreciate Huckleberry Finn, one must become acquainted with its esteemed author, Mark Twain (1835-1910).
Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Twain was the sixth of seven children born in his family, and one of only four that lived past childhood (Encyclopedia Britannica). Twain experienced health problems for the first ten years of his life, due to premature birth. Twain was coddled as a result, which in turn led to misbehavior due to his lack of discipline. This element of Twain’s life will later find its way into Huckleberry Finn, as Huckleberry also has a knack for mischief. Though born in Tennessee, Twain moved to Hannibal, Missouri at age four and spent most of his childhood there (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Hannibal was significant in many ways, one of which being the fact that it served as the inspiration for Huckleberry Finn’s fictional locale of St. Petersburg, continuing the trend of childhood influence in the novel. Missouri was also a slave state, explaining Twain’s exploration of the institution of slavery in his writing. Twain’s father died when Twain was just 11, which led to his entry into the printing business in order to support the family. This was Twain’s first exposure to writing, as he would occasionally submit articles to the paper for which he was typing.
He proved to love writing, as his work evolved from light verse to chronicles of boyhood adventures (Byrne). Twain’s writing is best described as colloquial speech paired with humor and social criticism. His writing spanned the movements of both Realism and Regionalism. Unique to his writing was the use of unabridged regional dialect in his characters, which would go on to popularize certain types of American language and dialect. This usage of language also served to distinguish his writing as this technique was used exclusively by Twain at the time.
Twain’s distinctive style has made him one of the most celebrated writers in American history, and his characters, such as Huckleberry Finn, have become cultural icons. Perhaps Twain’s most acclaimed work, Huckleberry Finn chronicles the adventures of a young boy living in a typical southern town, who had recently come across a large sum of money. The story opens with a dissatisfied Huck. He disdains his recent change in lifestyle to one of cleanliness and order, but perseveres nonetheless so that he may stay a member of his best friend, Tom’s, robber gang.
Soon after the novel starts, Huck’s drunken father, Pap, comes to town to attempt to take Huckleberry’s money. After some time in the town Pap kidnaps Huck and holds him in a cabin. Huck escapes and meets up with a slave, Jim, with whom he teams up. They travel down a river and eventually meet up with two fugitive con-artists, who pull scams in towns by the river. They end up selling Jim, coincidentally to Huck’s best friend, Tom Sawyer’s, aunt and uncle. They hatch a plan to free Jim. Tom is shot in the leg and Jim sacrifices his freedom to nurse Tom.
Jim is revealed to have been free the whole story, and it turns out that Pap died. As the story comes to a close, Huckleberry Finn states he plans to travel west. Huckleberry Finn embodies the movements of both Regionalism, writing that focuses on elements of particular geographic regions, and Realism, writing that depicts contemporary life and society. An obvious example of Regionalism in Huckleberry Finn is the dialect used by the character Jim, seen in this quote, “Yo’ ole father doan’ know yit what he’s a-gwyne to do.
Sometimes he spec he’ll go ‘way, en den ag’in he spec he’ll stay” (18). This gibberish shows how a typical 19th century southern black slave would have actually talked. Due to lack of education, slaves’ pronunciation of certain words was off, leading to an incoherent slang. Instead of overlooking this discrepancy in dialect, Twain highlighted it in Huckleberry Finn in order to give Jim a more individualized identity. Readers could recognize Jim as a southern slave from his way of speaking alone, rather than an explicit description in the story.
Another example of Regionalism is Twain’s repeated use of the word nigger, or “N word” (Web Studio). The use of this word provides insight to the cruel treatment of black slaves, something that only southerners had exposure to at the time. The N word is frequently used in reference to the slave Jim, evidenced in this quote, “Miss Watson’s nigger, Jim, had a hair-ball as big as your fist” (17). The racism of the south during the 19th century is well represented here. Jim is referred to as a nigger, and nothing more than property of a white woman.
This discrimination was only really only seen in the south at this time, but Twain’s use of the N word gave non-southerners an idea of the cruelty that blacks endured. As the story progresses, the word becomes a symbol of hate due to its constant use, and serves as a symbol for racism (Web Studio). The use of the N word gave the reader a lasting impression of the south, which served to make the story more emotionally powerful. Huckleberry Finn also exhibits Realism, through the depiction of society as gullible.
Twain explores this gullibility when the king and duke go to the camp meeting to collect money from the churchgoers. The king makes up a story about his being a pirate who lost his crew at sea, to which the people respond by saying, “‘Take up a collection for him, take up a collection! ’” (128). Twain depicts society like this because this is how he actually viewed society. Twain wrote in his personal notebook “that society in heaven consists mainly of gullible persons. ” By this, he means that most people that society accepts are naive, which he views as negative.