Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) not only tells a story in this famous contribution to American literature, he also goes to great length to depict civilized humanity in a light that is anything but glamorous or glorious. In fact, his descriptions of typical representatives of society regarding their motivations, actions, habits, and morals are conveyed with subtlety but with unmistakable critical intentions. The metatextual aspects of this work appear gradually but intensify toward the end until the novel reaches a point where it begins to border on the absurd, a literary aspect explored more fully by later writers, such as playwright Samuel Beckett.
Distinct elements of absurdity materialize when Huck Finn searches for Jim, his fellow traveler on the raft, who had been sold as a runaway slave by a con-artist. In the course of this search, Huck stumbles upon the farm of Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas who mistake him for Tom Sawyer. Huck goes along with this mistake, creating a situation that gets compounded when the real Tom Sawyer shows up. The latter, however, volunteers to go along with the ruse by posing first as a stranger and then as his own brother Sid.
The novel depicts Huck Finn as a character who learned to stand on his own two feet at an early age and is used to surviving by his wits. He lacks formal education, and it is clear that he likes to view himself as un-”sivilized,” but he is smart enough to wiggle himself out of almost any difficulty. His intelligence manifests itself in an uncanny ability to recognize human motivations and shortcomings and to act accordingly. However, he does not exploit people and generally refuses to compromise his own moral code which is fairly strict and amazingly conventional. Tom Sawyer, by comparison, is a well-read boy who clearly represents Clemens’s view of the “learned” factions and aspects of society. The picture that emerges when Huck and Tom start to collaborate is one of almost perpetual conflict of the two in their mutual quest of a common objective: the liberation of Jim. Clemens turns this conflict into a tit-for-tat comparison of an “honor” student from the school of hard knocks in the so-called “real world” and his counterpart from the school of human civilization who functions mostly by using knowledge acquired from books.
Where Clemens’s sympathy lies in this comparison becomes evident from the lengthy introduction Huck gets regarding his character development through inner conflict. This inner conflict materializes when Huck’s innocent faith in the presumably wise and moral ways of human society clashes with what personal experience has taught him to value: his friendship with Jim. Huck agonizes a long time over committing the “sin” of helping a “nigger” acquire his freedom and his inability to refuse this help which he considers to be “immoral.” What finally emerges from this inner struggle finds expression in Huck’s decision rather “to go to hell” (167) than to leave his friend at the mercy of his captors.
By comparison, Tom Sawyer, as Clemens’s representative of book knowledge and formal learning, has no such qualms. He readily accepts the idea of helping a “nigger,” even though (or perhaps precisely because) this help would be against the law. Compared to Huck Finn, in other words, Tom Sawyer lacks a social conscience; in fact, he almost comes across as a sociopath. Also, he seems to be driven primarily by his thirst for adventure and an overactive imagination which he employs primarily in an effort to create farfetched pretexts and downright idiotic plans for the actual implementation of these adventures.
When the two boys begin to work toward the common goal of liberating Jim, a distinct pattern emerges. Huck proposes practical solutions that work, and Tom proposes totally unworkable plans based on “artistic” values and style according to some absurd Romantic notions acquired from books. On every occasion, Tom’s plans are tried first; only when they fail are Huck’s ideas implemented. So, while Jim sits chained to a bed in a hut behind the house, the rescue plans get bogged down with frivolous complications, such as the stealing of a sheet, a shirt, some case knives, the digging of a tunnel, sawing off the leg of a bed, climbing a lightning rod, a rope ladder, tin plates, a candlestick, a pewter spoon, a shirt on which to write a message in blood, and so forth.
Huck, the “uneducated,” clearly plays second fiddle to Tom. Huck seems to be awe-struck by Tom’s Romantic inclinations, even though he realizes that Tom is capable singularly of thinking up irrational schemes that don’t work. But then he rationalizes that he would not be able to count on Tom’s assistance unless he allowed Tom to indulge himself in his absurdities.
Some of the things Tom comes up with could have gotten them in really serious trouble. On one such occasion, for example, Tom gets shot in the leg. True to form, he is proud of his wound, which is serious enough to require the attention of a doctor. To save Tom’s life, Huck sets out to find a doctor which, in turn, leads to the recapture of Jim. Clemens uses this event to write a devastating testimonial on and about the core of human society, a faction far more typical and representative of what Clemens seems to dislike about humanity than what Tom represents. The testimonial starts when Jim, as a runaway slave, gets insulted, assaulted, and almost lynched by his captors. What saves him is the consideration that lynching him would be destroying property–someone else’s property, someone who might demand compensation. Even, when the doctor vouches for Jim and tells everyone how concerned and helpful this black man was in saving Tom’s life, the best these good Christians are willing to do is not to curse and hit him anymore. But relieving him of his excessive chains, that occurs to no one, all highly touted Christian compassion notwithstanding. Only when Tom Sawyer reveals that Jim has already been set free by his owner’s will does Jim finally gain his freedom. Clemens clearly recognized a capacity for human brutality with which our century has become only too familiar.
The final chapters end in a crescendo of activities in the tradition of many novels, and many loose ends are tied up in the same tradition. One end that remains conspicuously untied is Clemens’s characterization of Jim. Although Jim is depicted as a man with most of the qualities of a human being, he comes across as little more than a human vegetable. He seems to be lacking such natural capacities as a distaste of or even hatred toward those who have made most of his life an unending torment. He good-naturedly goes along with almost everything the two teenagers propose for the sake of his rescue, even if these half-baked pranks threaten his life, prolong his agony, or endanger his freedom. He refuses to go along only once when Tom proposes that he sleep with a rattle snake. Surely, even a slave in the pre-Civil War South had more spine as well as greater intellectual depth than what Jim displays. Is it possible that exploring the human soul of a slave was beyond the literary capacity of Samuel L. Clemens? Or did Clemens avoid the topic intentionally in order not to stir up excessive hostilities toward his novel as well as against himself? In other words, did Clemens bend to the racist whims of his time with excessive subtlety for the same reason that Huck Finn bends to the intellectual whims of Tom Sawyer? I do not know if an answer to this question exists. Perhaps it can be found somewhere in Clemens’s personal papers; perhaps he took the answer with him to his grave. It is possible that he was not even aware of this particular shortcoming, but for an author of his stature this seems unlikely. What is likely enough to be acceptable at face value is that Clemens disliked certain aspects and characteristics of human society with sufficient intensity to have the hero of the novel profess a preference for the “Territory” (216) in order to avoid his well-intentioned Aunt Sally’s efforts to “sivilize” him. By having Huck state his intentions to that effect at the end, Clemens reveals subtly but unmistakably what he thought about American society at that time.