Ernest Hemingway said the book should have ended after Huck makes his decision on the raft. The last few chapters, Hemingway says, are cheating. One writer (John Seelye) even wrote a version of the book that does end shortly after the “I’ll go to hell” scene (I won’t give away the ending, in case you want to read it. It’s pretty good.)
Still, there are still some important matters to attend to. The first is the conclusion of the king and duke affair. Huck and his new “partner” Tom Sawyer (more on him below) rush off one evening when they hear that the king and the duke are about to be caught in the act of bilking another town, but they’re too late to help:
(T)hen- here comes a raging rush of people, with torches, and an awful whooping and yelling, and banging tin pans and blowing horns; and we jumped to one side to let them go by; and as they went by, I see they had the king and the duke astraddle of a rail- that is, I knowed it was the king and the duke, though they was all over tar and feathers, and didn’t look like nothing in the world that was human- just looked like a couple of monstrous big soldier-plumes. Well, it made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.
Again we see Huck refusing to rise above. Even though these two were directly responsible for Jim’s return to slavery, Huck (unlike, I suspect, most readers including myself) feels no satisfaction at their comeuppance. Twain gives us this moment of justice; we wanted it, after the final dirty trick these two frauds perpetrated on Jim, even though our hero Huck feels only remorse.
But there’s much more in the final chapters than this – some of it at least funny until you remember what’s at stake. I think in these final chapters – (if you’re not familiar, here’s a synopsis: Tom Sawyer is a frat boy who decides to play out his own twisted version of The Count of Monte Cristo and every other maudlin escape fantasy ever written with Jim, who in reality is already free but doesn’t know it, as his own personal toy) I think in these final chapters,Twain is just taking more cracks at the sort of literature he despises, and also showing how Tom Sawyer would have ruined so many of Huck’s brilliant plans with his style.
In the end, Tom’s childishness nearly results in the deaths of Tom, Jim, and Huck, and we see Jim captured, chained, and abused – another rude slap amid all the “fun” of Tom’s ridiculous escape plans. Then, finally, Tom reveals that – ha ha – Miss Watson had already set Jim free in her will. Oh, Tom you scamp! (grrr) In reading, I beg and plead every time for Huck to kick Tom’s frat boy ass and get Jim out of there, but of course no matter how many times I read it never happens. Maybe Hemingway was right; maybe the book should have ended before Tom Sawyer came into the story once again. I’m not sure I’ve decided yet.
But before Tom Sawyer’s epic escapade, there occurs incident I feel I must mention. For me it lay at the heart of the book and all the issues it raises. Before Huck knows who he’s supposed to be to Aunt Sally, he tells a lie about a steamboat ride to their farm.
“Now I can have a good look at you: and laws-a-me, I’ve been hungry for it a many and a many a time, all these long years, and it’s come at last! We been expecting you a couple of days and more. What’s kep’ you?- boat get aground?”
“Don’t say yes’m- say Aunt Sally. Where’d she get aground?”
I didn’t rightly know what to say, because I didn’t know whether the boat would be coming up the river or down. But I go a good deal on instinct; and my instinct said she would be coming up- from down towards Orleans. That didn’t help me much, though; for I didn’t know the names of bars down that way. I see I’d got to invent a bar, or forget the name of the one we got aground on- or- Now I struck an idea, and fetched it out:
“It warn’t the grounding- that didn’t keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
Ouch! I wince every time I read that passage. Some will read this as an indictment of Huck; perhaps he hasn’t come nearly as far as I suggested in the previous entry. His later comment that Jim was “white inside” adds fuel to that fire. But while the “white inside” comment is horrible and I won’t try to defend it, the above passage is, I believe, something else entirely.
Recall the passage immediately after Huck declared “I’ll go to hell.”
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
And how does Huck take up wickedness? He goes after Jim using any tool that’s handy to help him get Jim back. In particular, Huck lies without remorse.
Isaac Asimov said that lies should be close to the truth to be believed, and that the truth itself is the best lie of all. Huck disguises his lie to Aunt Sally with a deep “truth” he knows Aunt Sally believes. A nigger isn’t a person, isn’t an “anybody.” This “truth” added to his lie will make a person like Aunt Sally believe it every time. Huck knows better; he knows Jim is a person. That’s why he’s going against everything and everyone he’s ever known to set Jim free. But he realizes that Aunt Sally, otherwise a fine and caring person, breaks humans into two distinct categories, “people” and “niggers.” And never the twain shall meet.
So why, then, does later Twain have Huck utter the detestable sentiment that Jim is “white inside”? I believe it’s to show that Huck is not entirely reformed. Huck certainly hasn’t become an abolitionist. He doesn’t believe that slavery is wrong. He isn’t there yet. Instead, Huck merely wants Jim to be free; Jim, whom Huck loves and who loves Huck; Jim, who took care of Huck on the river again and again; Jim, who valued the safety of Huck, and even of Tom Sawyer, over his own freedom. Huck isn’t quite there yet; he doesn’t understand that Jim’s enslavement isn’t just a personal tragedy, but a tragedy for all of us. But we, who are glad the king and the duke got what was coming to them, also see that it isn’t just Jim’s freedom that is precious, but freedom for all. Jim isn’t “white inside,” he’s a person inside, and people deserve freedom. Huck is still evolving; maybe someday he’ll get there with us.
OK, the funny scene. Honestly I can’t pick any of Tom Sawyer’s foolishness. Even though there’s plenty to laugh about, always in the background is the knowledge that Tom is playing a childish game with a man’s freedom, and Huck is just passively letting it happen. So let’s go back to the beginning of the book, when Huck is still thinking for himself:
Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By-and-by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.
I set down, one time, back in the woods, and had a long think about it. I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork? Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuff-box that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, says I to myself, there ain’t nothing in it. I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant- I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself. This was including Miss Watson, as I took it. I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it- except for the other people- so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go.