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Mark Twain: Realism and Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain: Realism and Huckleberry Finn

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

Is Mark Twain a Realist, nothing more and nothing less? As well as considering the meaning of Realism in a literary context this essay will critically examine the issues raised by the question with an analysis of Chapter XXXI, in which Jim is “stolen” and Huck decides that he will help Jim though he believes he will go to hell for doing so. In so doing it will be seen that the assertion is too narrow.

One view is that Realism is not attainable: it is simply impossible to represent reality within a literary framework, K. Dauber (1999, p. 386), considering Realism, argues that we can only get near to it in the imagination of the reader. The use of metaphors and similes assists us to create, within our own imagination, a landscape within which plausible events occur as part of an understandable and plausible plot. Dauber, strictly speaking, is correct, however Realist texts do exist, in considering them we need a guide as to what it is that makes them Realist.

A descriptive term like Realism is useful to the reader. D. Pizer considers that “descriptive terms” such as “romanticism, realism and classicism are valuable and necessary” (1961, pp.263 – 269). His starting point is George Becker’s definition. Becker based his definition upon readings of European and American fiction since 1870; dividing realism into three categories: the realistic mode, realism of subject matter, and philosophical realism, Pizer considers “the realistic mode” based on three criteria: “Verisimilitude of detail derived from observation and documentation” (1949, pp.184 – 197). The use of various dialects (discussed in the preface), detailed

descriptions of the river and nature are Realist observations. The style fits the first part of this definition.

Secondly is “reliance upon the representative rather than the exceptional in the plot, setting, and character” (1949, pp.184 – 197). A slave’s escape from captivity and recapture is plausible and thus Realist.

Thirdly is “an objective….rather than a subjective or idealistic view of human nature and experience” (1949, pp.184 – 197). Observations and descriptions of slavery, life in the South and on the river are objective. In chapter XXXI, Huck must decide between a moral obligation to contact Miss Watson and his debt to Jim for his help on their journey down river. The text of Huckleberry Finn up to, and including, chapter XXXI conforms to Becker’s “realist mode” definition. On this basis, Twain is a Realist.

However, categorisations are just guides as to what we may expect from a text or writer when categorised as Realist, Romanticist or Classicist. Twain explains his style in the preface. From this preface, Twain clearly considered it a Realist book. It is

clear and generally agreed amongst critics, that up to and including chapter XXXI, Huckleberry Finn is a realist text. Given the difficulties facing a slave on the run, within the contemporary context of its setting, it is plausible that Jim would face capture and be either lynched, mutilated or at least beaten if caught. However, one cannot consider Twain was “nothing more and nothing less than a Realist” in the

context of this chapter alone. Critics, in the first half of the twentieth century, focused on the ending or “evasion” for analysis. Since the mid Twentieth Century, attention has focused on issues of race, gender and sexuality. Many view the ending as disappointing: described it as an anti climax, even “burlesque” (De Voto, 1932). Tom Sawyer’s scheming to set free an already free slave is a betrayal and even “whimsicality” (T. S. Eliot (although he also argues that this is the only correct ending)). The style of the ending is different from the preceding text, it is more slapstick and humorous.

Ernest Hemingway (1935) claimed, “All modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn”, but continued: “if you read it you must stop where the nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. This is the real end. The rest is cheating”. De Voto (1932) considered the last eleven chapters fell “far below the accomplishment of what had gone before…this extemporized burlesque was a defacement of his purer work” (Cited by Hill, 1991, p 314). Tom Sawyer describes it, an “evasion”. It certainly detracts from the power of chapter XXXI: Huck’s rejection of Southern values, its belief in slavery and the superiority of whites. The “evasion” is the missed opportunity to emphasise this rejection by descending in to whimsicality and burlesque. The problem with Hemingway’s advice is that the book does not end at Chapter XXXI. Full analysis requires a complete reading.

The whole thrust of the ending, from when Tom returns to centre stage is that of comedy and farce, it is as though Huck is acquiescing in Tom Sawyers pranks and wild schemes. L. Trilling (1948) argues that Huck is simply deferring to Tom by

giving him “centre stage”. Eliot agrees, but then argues that it is right Huck does give way to Tom. The style of the book comes from Huck and the river provides form: we understand the river by seeing it through Huck, who is himself also the spirit of the river and like a river, Huckleberry Finn has no beginning or end (cited by Graff and Phelan, 1995, pp 286 – 290). Therefore, Huck, logically, has no beginning or end: as such he “can only disappear” in a “cloud of whimsicalities”. For Eliot this is the only way that the book can end. However, Eliot and Trilling rely on the fact that the River, Huck and Jim are symbolic, that they are allegorical. This suggests that the later chapters of the book are Romantic in style. The entire book must be considered in the context of the ending (however much it may disappoint), it is more a Romance; and to say that Twain is “nothing more and nothing less than a Realist” is thus incorrect.

However, what is Romanticism? In the United States Romanticism enjoyed philosophic expression within the movement known as Transcendentalism, in the texts of Emerson and Thoreau. Symbolic novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville emphasized concern with Transcendent reality. Nathaniel Hawthorne in the preface to The Scarlet Letter, The Custom House, writes, “If a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.” Romance offers a symbolic view of the world and, in that context, a historical representation of current issues is crucial (M. Kinkead-Weekes, 1982, p.74). Symbolism and allegory are fundamental to a Romanticist text: “astonishing events may occur, and these are likely to have a symbolic or ideological, rather than a realistic, plausibility” R. Chase (1962, p13).

Eliot’s interpretation, when considered in this context, asserts that Twain was not in fact writing as a Realist exclusively or, arguably, at all.

Hemingway does receive support in his argument that the ending “is cheating”. From Leo Marx, in his 1953 article: “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn”. He agrees that the ending does not fall within the realist tradition and offends plausibility in several ways: Miss Watson would not free Jim, the interjection of humour is “out of keeping” with the rest of the book: Huck’s easy transformation from bravely assisting an escaped slave and agonising over this moral position maturely, to clown; is not plausible. To assist in humiliating Jim, a slave transformed to “freedom fighter”, when known, by Tom at least, that he is free already (however implausible that may be) is at odds with chapter XXXI and all preceding chapters.

The ending reflects a conflict within Twain represented by Huck and Tom, he wanted to criticise Southern society but also to gain its approval. He does this by “freeing” an already free slave, so of the two white heroes, neither transgresses the law, nor break any moral codes of the South, and Huck is saved from going to Hell. This marks a massive retreat from the powerful, and arguably most dramatic, scene in the text: the decision of Huck to reject that society’s values and go to Hell, rather than betray his friend Jim. Marx may have been critical of the ending of the book in terms of content, but, in his 1956 article, which examines the literary style of Twain in Huckleberry Finn, he considers use of language and the “book’s excellence”. He

concludes the article by eulogising the text as one “which manages to suggest the lovely possibilities of life in

America without neglecting its terrors”. The two articles when read together are a powerful argument in favour of categorizing Huckleberry Finn as a Romance Twain a Romanticist rather than “Nothing more and nothing less than a Realist.”

J. M. Cox (1966) challenges Marx’s assessment: postulating that it is a story about a boy who has found himself, through force of circumstance in a difficult position. The reappearance of Tom in the story is a relief to Huck. By deferring to Tom at this stage, Huck is acting within character as developed earlier in the text: happy to be free of the responsibilities thrust upon him. However, this analysis disregards the moral development of Huck in the text up to and including Chapter XXXI and the maturity of his moral deliberations.

Marx, and others, are attempting to impose a political agenda that is not evident from the text; succumbing to the fashion that it is necessary for a hero to have an agenda. Huckleberry Finn is a child’s book. To impose sub texts involving subtle critiques of racial, gender, sexual and political issues misses the point entirely and is an over intellectualisation: blatantly ignoring Twain’s instructions at the beginning of the book (R. Hill, 1991).

If following Hemingway’s advice then Twain is no more and no less than a realist, but is not to read the book in its entirety: Chapter XXXI is not the end of the text.

Twain has succeeded in creating a work of fiction that engenders precisely the kind of debate that he ironically dissuades the reader from indulging in: a literary masterpiece that stubbornly refuses to fit neatly into any categorization at all. To say, “Twain is a Realist nothing more and nothing less” is thus inaccurate.

Word Count: 1609


George Becker, (June 1949), pp. 184 – 197, “Realism: An Essay in Definition”, in Modern Language Quarterly

Richard Chase, (1957), The American Novel and Its Tradition, Anchor Books p. 13

James Cox, “Attacks on the Ending and Twain’s Attack on Conscience”, in Mark Twain: The fate of Humor, University of Missouri Press (1966); excerpted in Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan (1995) St. Martins Press pp.305 – 312

Kenneth Dauber, (Summer 1999), “Realistically Speaking: Authorship, in late 19th Century and Beyond”, in American Literary History, Vol. 11, No.2, pp 378-390

T. S. Eliot, “The Boy and the River: Without Beginning or End” reproduced in Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan (1995) St. Martins Press pp. 296 – 290

Ernest Hemingway, 1935, Green Hills of


Gerald Graff and James Phelan Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, (1995) St. Martins Press

Richard Hill, (1991), “Overreaching: Critical Agenda and the Ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Winter 1991): reproduced in Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan (1995) St. Martins Press pp. 312 – 334

Mark Kinkead-Weekes, (1982), “The Letter, the Picture, and the Mirror:

Hawthorne’s Framing of The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne New Critical Essays, Vision Press Limited, p. 74

Leo Marx, (1953), “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn” The American Scholar reproduced in Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan (1995) St. Martins Press pp. 290 – 305

Leo Marx, (1956), “The Pilot and the Passenger: Landscape Conventions and the Style of Huckleberry Finn”, in American Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2, (May, 1956) pp. 129 -146

Robert Ornstein, (1959), “The Ending of Huckleberry Finn”, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 74, No. 8 (Dec., 1959), pp. 698 – 702

Donald Pizer, (1961), “Late Nineteenth Century American Realism: An Essay in Definition”, in Nineteenth Century American Fiction, Vol. 16, No.3 (Dec 1961), pp 263-69

E. Arthur Robinson, (1960), “The Two “Voices” in Huckleberry Finn”, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 75, No. 3. (Mar. 1960), pp. 204 – 208

Lionel Trilling, (1948), in Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1948 Rinehart edition, excerpted in Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Case Study in Critical Controversy, Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan (1995) St. Martins Press pp. 284 – 290