Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Huck and Jim are still on the river. 128 years on.

Image credit: E. W. Kimble, 1884,
Public Domain via
Wikimedia Commons.
I saw that yesterday was the 128th anniversary for the release of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. And seeing as Mississippi has just ratified the abolition of slavery, it seems to be somewhat current tale. (Guess the state was too busy not properly educating and not acknowledging various people's rights to get to that...Apologizes to everyone in Mississippi that's been actually wronged and/or been troubled by your states failings.)

Huckleberry Finn is the story of a young boy, chafing at society, along the Mississippi River in Missouri. As the story progresses he flees his home and father, along with Jim, a fleeing slave, trying to escape getting sold away from his family. The story takes them on a trip down the Mississippi  via raft, learning about the world around them, people, and themselves.

For me, one of the best moments in that book, and just a very evocative moment, comes late in the book.

Sigh. Okay, I am going to be giving some SPOILERS here. Spoilers for a 128 year old book, that's been turned into a number of movies... Still!


Late in the story Huck and Jim are betrayed by folk they've met and befriended along the river. Jim is locked away as a runaway slave. Huck goes to the place he's held and is taken as a visiting relative, who will later be revealed to be Tom Sawyer (Tooooooom!!!).

Seen as an escaped slave, Jim will quickly get sold on down the river, deeper into the South, and further from his family. Huck could reveal Jim as being owned, by sending a letter to the slave owner. But for fleeing, there's little chance he won't get sold on anyway. And Huck would become a pariah for helping him. These choices trouble Huck. How is this right? Jim doesn't deserve this treatment. And he's afraid of further abuse at home for himself. But, he's also afraid of hell, for not turning in a slave. So he writes the letter down to the slave owner, and tries to get his head straight on what he should do as a good hell fearing civilized person. He decides he can't stand by, not for a friend, someone he's already gone through so much with. So, we get this section:
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper. 
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 
"All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up. 
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. 

Huck has been brought up in a society that has said slavery is good, slavery is right, slavery is the will of God. To help a slave to be free is a crime, and the path to hell and damnation. That scares Huck, as it does anyone brought up on the idea of hell. The act he's taken in this story, to befriend someone that's enslaved and help them escape, marks him as uncivilized. But Huck struggles to see things that way. He knows Jim. He sees a human being, a friend. But with hell looming, Huck tries to think of the right and proper way out of their situation. The trouble is just what the right and proper ways look to be. Huck can't accept living by society's rules, the right way of doing things, not if it means not caring when a person is treated like property and made to suffer. It's a moving moment. Seeing him, in his struggle between what's expected of him and what he thinks is right, see that society is wrong. It means he'll suffer for it, but he has to do what he feels is right. Even if it means burning for eternity in a lake of fire, the thing all of society say await him.

...Then Tom Sawyer steps in. As always, dicks around leaving Jim to suffer for his fantasies and amusement. And Huck doesn't help things, falling under Sawyer's sway. (And the book for many falters here. With Jim and Huck stuck playing fools for Tom Sawyer's ring master.) And, then, we get some surprise revelations at the end to save Huck and Jim from fates they feared.

But back to the quoted piece. At that moment he was choosing Hell over Heaven. Choosing the incivility of freeing someone from slavery over the proper response of not caring. It's a line that speaks so loudly of what society was during the days of open slavery. Over even certain attitudes that remained following the abolition of slavery. It's a type of pressure ever present. It pushes people to be uncivil for the sake of being civilized.


It is a book I do enjoy a great deal. And, for me, it is the story of the better character, in comparing Huck to Tom Sawyer. But Tom seems to get the most love (Damn bad boys.). So, if you've never read it, consider taking some time this year to get to know Huckleberry Finn.

The book has been popular, and controversial. While more recently the language used has gotten it banned, as has it's look at slavery. Many in it's own day disliked and banned it to, some seeing it as a trashy book and others not caring for a main character who would scratch themselves. But you'll have to decide for yourself, just as Huck does, between redeemability and irredeemability, when you read.

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