A book is more than its climax, of course, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn builds to that climax not just by drawing Huck and Jim closer together, but by contrasting their relationship with the other characters in the book. There are too many to mention here, but a short diversion into these side stories will help us understand Huck’s looming decision.
Shortly after Jim and Huck realize that they’ve missed Cairo, Illinois, Twain needs a plot device to keep the pair moving down river. He finds it in a steamboat that crashes into the raft, sending Jim one way and Huck the other. Huck, apparently unconcerned with Jim’s well-being, swims for shore where a new adventure awaits.
Yes, this is a weakness in the story. How could Huck just abandon Jim, not knowing if Jim were dead, injured, or picked up by a passing ferry? One might argue that it’s Huck’s attempt to escape from his conscience, but there’s no indication of that in the text. Instead, I have to believe Twain inserted this forced separation of Jim and Huck simply because he wanted to tell a different story, one in which Jim could play no part.
Shortly Huck is taken in by a family known as the Grangerfords. Again we see Huck refusing to rise above.
Col Grangerford was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and pap he always said it, too, though he warn’t no more quality than a mudcat himself.
If pap is a mudcat, Huck by extension is, as well. We know better. We know Huck is more than the sum of his mother and father, and yet we love Huck’s humility.
After some niceties and a hilarious exploration of the works of the Grangerfords’ deceased daughter Emmeline (more on her below), Huck learns that the Grangerfords are in a long and deadly feud with a family called the Shepherdsons. We see the feud for what it is, senseless violence that can end only when everyone is dead, and we see how silly is the idea that the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons are somehow “well born.”
At the end of the feud incident, Huck is reunited with Jim on the raft again (turns out it wasn’t “smashed all to flinders” but was just fine and was found caught on a snag by the Grangerfords’ slaves. What a coinkidink!). Huck and Jim aren’t alone for long, however, before two con men known as the king and the duke hop aboard and start giving orders. Again we see a weakness in the book, as surely Huck and Jim could have found a way to escape from these two if they really wanted to, and were really serious about heading upriver. But that doesn’t fit where Twain wants to go.
The king and the duke are an interesting contrast. The duke, younger and more sophisticated, is again and again outdone by the king (even in their names, as the duke chose only to go for imitating a lesser nobility while the king went right after the French throne!). The king lacks all the duke’s pretense, and yet consistently manages to bilk more cash from the locals and to find the more lucrative con games. Some of the funniest scenes come when the duke, playing a deaf mute, has to bite his tongue as the king again and again says the most ridiculous things while imitating an English reverend.
Before the crucial king and duke scenes, however, comes a strange passage in which Huck witnesses a murder. As Huck has already seen plenty of killing in the feud, one wonders why Twain felt the need to add another body to the count. My feeling is that the murder of Boggs by Col. Sherburn was meant as more fuel to the idea that there’s something rotten in society, bringing into question anything that society might believe. The murder and its aftermath expose the worst traits of humanity, until you start to believe that Twain has given up.
But then there’s Mary Jane. The eldest of the three sisters the king and the duke attempt to rob blind, Mary Jane becomes the one person in the entire book (with the exception of Jim, of course) that we are supposed to truly like. Huck, young boy that he is, seems particularly attracted to the redheaded 19-year-old MJ and decides to take a chance by telling her the truth about the king and the duke. What was Twain getting at with Mary Jane and Huck? I honestly don’t know. Maybe he wanted Huck to encounter at least one good person before he must make his own crucial choice. Maybe he needed to make sure no one was rooting for the king and the duke, because he knew their betrayal and eventual comeuppance was on its way. Maybe he just wanted to explore a hint of some sexual feelings in Huck. I’ll need to think more about it.
At any rate, once the adventures with Mary Jane, the duke and the king reach their hideous and hilarious climax, it’s time to move to the meat of the story.
Once more, though, a passage that always makes me laugh. Emmeline Grangerford, described above, was a painter and a poet obsessed with death. She wrote poetic obituaries for anyone who had died. She painted pictures of mourning and sorrow. She could write about anything, her brother reports, so long as it was “sadful.” But then she herself withered away and died after failing to find a rhyme for a dead person named Whistler. And Huck gets off one of the best lines anywhere.
Everybody was sorry she died, because she had laid out a lot more of these pictures to do, and a body could see by what she had done what they had lost. But I reckoned that with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard.