Just as with Moby-Dick, I began this project on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn hoping I would learn something. What about it? It’s hard to say if I learned something this time as opposed to all my other readings, as I’ve read the book now maybe nine or ten times. But there are some impressions that are perhaps evolving.
My view of the world has changed considerably since reading The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. This includes, I think, my view of Huck Finn. Before reading those two life-changing books I would have seen Huck as a pure soul, and society at large as the evil entity that chipped away at his purity – the classic idea of the noble savage contaminated by the world. Huck, being somewhat outside society, is still affected by it, but is able to recognize things about society that others cannot. Tom Sawyer, on the other hand, is entirely immersed in his society and so his soul is lost.
Now I think that interpretation is just silly. Huck is a good person at heart, but it isn’t because society hasn’t affected him. Of course he’s been affected. Huck may live most of his life on the margins of society, but those margins are still part of the world of people. Look at Huck’s use of a gun, fire, fishing line, the raft itself. All these things are human creations.
More deeply, Huck’s morality and world view come from his society, too. It just so happens that Huck lives in a society that has a built-in and irresolvable cognitive dissonance, a society that thinks of itself as moral, and in many ways is more moral than earlier societies, but at its heart holds the belief that blacks are inherently inferior, not even truly human. Yet the society does have a very clearly-defined idea of what makes someone human, and that idea has truth in it. Eventually, someone is bound to realize another truth – black people are people, and owning them as property is just plain wrong.
Huck has no desire to hurt others; he knows this is wrong. He’s smart enough to figure out that those who have hurt him – his father, in particular – are living life poorly, while those who have given him some measure of help – the Widow, JudgeThatcher – are better, more worthy people.
What about Jim? In the beginning, Huck doesn’t see Jim in the same category as the Widow or Judge Thatcher, or even pap. Jim is just a prop, a plaything. Huck is prone to loneliness, and therefore he’s happy to have Jim along as they each try to escape in their own way from society. Huck’s also prone to adventures, and helping Jim escape is at first a great adventure. Huck is none too fond of Miss Watson, Jim’s owner, and so he’s unconcerned in the beginning about Miss Watson’s loss of property.
Soon, though, things start to change. On the one hand, Huck begins to see that Jim isn’t just a plaything; he’s a person with thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams, just like any other person. This comes as a shock, as it doesn’t match what society has taught Huck about blacks. On the other hand, Huck begins to feel the depth of the crime he’s committing against that society. When a society is built upon a great immorality, the only way it can preserve that immorality is to stigmatize the very notion of questioning.
The institution of slavery is not something to be even questioned, let alone challenged. Why? Because it doesn’t take much questioning to find that the institution itself is immoral. As Huck begins to discover Jim’s true character, he realizes that those ideas he’s absorbed from society – one, good people are better than bad people and two, blacks are inherently inferior, in fact are not truly people at all – are mutually incompatible. When you recognize a cognitive dissonance like that, you have to do something about it or go crazy. You have to accommodate your world view to a new way of seeing the world. This dissonance is so radical that Huck has to build a new world view to accommodate it. But world-building is never perfect, and takes time. Huck’s new construct has room only for Jim, and not blacks in general, as people. But Huck is evolving, as we see throughout this extraordinary book. Perhaps, with time and experience, Huck will grow a little more. And as readers, so will we.
OK, I’ll finish with one more scene that makes me laugh. At the funeral of Peter Wilkes, the services are interrupted by a commotion from the basement of the church.
They had borrowed a melodeum—a sick one; and when everything was ready a young woman set down and worked it, and it was pretty skreeky and colicky, and everybody joined in and sung, and Peter was the only one that had a good thing, according to my notion. Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait—you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn’t seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, “Don’t you worry—just depend on me.” Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people’s heads. So he glided along, and the powwow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker’s back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided and glided around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people’s heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, “He had a rat!” Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don’t cost nothing, and it’s just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn’t no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.
So long, Huck. It’s been a great ride.