Huckleberry Finn: hero or villain?

Originally developed in Spain, one of the various styles of writing used by authors is that of the picaresque novel, which involves a picaro, or rogue hero, usually on a journey, and incorporates an episodic plot through various conflicts. Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (AHF), is a picaresque novel, marked by its episodic plot with a unifying theme of the river and the characterization of Huck Finn as a rogue hero. The novel’s periodic plot is demonstrated by Huck’s many adventures in separate episodes having independent conflicts.
Gary Weiner, a former English teacher, states that “the picaresque novel is [… episodic. Various scenes may have little to do with one another, and entire scenes may be removed without markedly altering the plot as a whole” (88). The conflicts that govern Huck’s encounters with people like the dishonest and devious king and the duke, the Grangerford family, or Colonel Sherburn are very different and disconnected from one another. Whereas one episode involves two crooks, the duke and the king, the other involves a long-standing family feud between the Grangerford and Sheperdson families, and the third involves a Colonel defending his honor, with very little connection among the episodes.
Tom Quirk, an author, editor, and English professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, also purports that “Huckleberry Finn is a highly episodic book, and the arrangement of episodes observes no incontestable narrative logic. The feud chapters precede rather than follow the Boggs shooting not for self-evident artistic reasons but because we are to suppose that is the order in which Huck lived them” (97). The different conflicts exhibit the novel’s picaresque style and are used to relate the story of a wandering rogue hero.

Though the story’s plot is episodic in nature, there is, however, a unifying factor of the river, shown through the conflict and water diction. John C. Gerber, a well-known Twain scholar, affirms in “Mark Twain: Overview” that though “episodic in nature, the story nevertheless holds together because of the river [and] the constant presence of Huck as narrator”. Every episode in the book takes place along the banks of the Mississippi River, as Huck and Jim travel down the mighty river, trying to find Cairo.
From the crashed steamboat to the Royal Nonesuch spectacles along the riverside towns, the small conflicts are related by their proximity to the river. Leo Marx, Senior Lecturer and William R. Kenan Professor of American Cultural History Emeritus at MIT, cites T. S. Eliot, a poet and also another critic, in saying that “‘The River gives the book its form. But for the River, the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending'” (12). Water diction is used to purvey a sense of the unifying river in the book.
As Huck and Jim raft down the river from Jackson Island, Huck comments: “Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely” (AHF 129). The river physically holds the story together and also underlies the whole novel. Huck can be compared to Weiner’s definition of a Picaresque hero as: “The picaresque novel is a witty, satirical form that revolves around the exploits of a lower-class hero of dubious morals, often called a ‘rogue hero. ‘ This hero lives by his wits as he moves through the various strata of his society.
The hero is constantly in and out of trouble but often uses his street-smarts to emerge from compromising situations. ” (87) To that extent, these four character traits are seen in the hero of the story, Huckleberry Finn. Huck can be characterized as having dubious morals through his actions and reasoning. Huck justifies some of his immoral actions, such as stealing, by using his pap’s own actions as a precedent. Quirk states, “Huck is often capable of pseudomoralizing, citing his pap as authority for lifting a chicken or borrowing a melon” (92).
As Huck tells the reader during the preparations to help Jim escape from the Phelps residence, “Along during that morning I borrowed a sheet and white shirt off of the clothes-line [… ] I called it borrowing because that was what pap always called it [… ]” (AHF 256). Also, Huck rationalizes his immoral action when he sneaks into a circus without paying. He defends his action by saying that he did not need to waste money: “I ain’t opposed to spending money on circuses, [… ] but there ain’t no use in wasting it on them” (AHF 159). Huck, therefore, carries out improper and immoral actions akin to thievery.
Weiner verifies this: “there is no honor among thieves, and Huck, by necessity, has become one of them” (83). Thus, Huck demonstrates the characteristic of being a rogue hero through his immoral actions and their justification. Rogue heroes travel ‘through’ various social strata; through the episodes that Huck experiences, Twain presents the many levels of antebellum Mississippi valley American social strata. Huck starts traveling with Jim, a runaway slave, down the Mississippi river, and eventually befriends him, a lower class individual. Huck, after playing a cruel joke on Jim, apologizes to him.
This is highly out of convention for the milieu of the time, as Jim is naught more than a slave, while Huck is a white boy: “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger – but I done it, and I warn’t sorry for it afterwards, neither” (AHF 98). This exemplifies one instance where Huck mingles with a person of a lower class. Additionally, Huck cares enough about Jim that he resolves himself to free his friend and suffer the consequences: “I studied a minute [… ] then says to myself, ‘All right. Then, I’ll go to hell’ [… I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again [… ]” (AHF 228). Huck sacrifices the most valuable part of himself, his soul, to stay with his lower class friend Jim. Huck also interacts with people of higher social classes: “Tom Sawyer, his aunt, the Widow Douglas, and Miss Watson are all drawn from the middle class. The Sheperdsons and Grangerfords represent the wealthy, aristocratic upper class” (Weiner 73). Miss Watson, who cares for Huck in the beginning, and the Widow Douglas are not overly wealthy, but do have several slaves (AHF 11).
The Phelps family, who Huck mingles with when they mistake him for Tom Sawyer, also belongs to the middle class. Huck describes them as well-off, but not overly wealthy family: “Phelps’s was one of these little one-horse cotton plantations”(AHF 232). The cotton plantations were very successful at the time, but the Phelps’s is one of a smaller size, denoting their middle-class status. When Huck arrives at the residence of the Grangerfords, an upper-class, aristocratic family who he stays with, he describes: “It was a mighty nice family, and a mighty nice house, too.
I hadn’t seen no house out in the country before that was so nice and had so much style” (AHF 112). Huck also describes the house as having features like a fireplace and other luxuries that only the affluent could afford. Therefore, Huck satisfies another requirement of the rogue hero, interacting with characters from various social classes. Another facet of the picaresque hero is his constant entanglement with trouble. Each episode that Huck experiences, embroils him in that conflict until he escapes to stumble into the next conflict.
After the episode where Huck and Jim are separated in the fog, they encounter a group of slave-hunters; following that, more trouble befalls them as a steamboat runs into their raft, forcing Huck into the water. Eventually, Huck washes up on the property of the Grangerfords, where he faces the next conflict. In his attempts to escape from trouble, Huck often inadvertently stumbles into more trouble. Huck quick-wittedly answers “‘Goodness sakes, would a runaway nigger run south? ‘” to the king and the duke’s wondering if Jim is a runaway slave (AHF 138). However, according to R. J.
Fertel, a Twain scholar, Huck’s quick-witted answer “gets [Jim and Huck] out of the frying pan and into the fire: the duke responds by printing the slave bills that enable their rafting by day and that leads ultimately to Jim’s being sold back into slavery” (92). The different conflicts in the story as well as Huck’s responses and reactions get Huck often into trouble. Finally, Huck fulfills the fourth criterion for a rogue hero by using wits and practical knowledge of the world to avoid or escape from trouble. Whenever Huck is tangled in a problem, he concocts a story for himself on the spot and manages his way out of trouble.
According to Fertel, “[Huck], [… ] [is] an improviser always ready with a tall tale or scheme or counter scheme [… ] Huck’s improvising is [… ] harmless, brought to bear on others only to avoid trouble” (94). After Huck tries to slip away from the duke and the king after the townsfolk find out that the two are not the real relatives of the deceased man, Peter Wilks, the king catches Huck and asks if he was trying to give them the slip. Huck quickly lies that the man “‘that had aholt of me was very good to me [… ] and he was sorry to see a boy in such a dangerous fix; [… he [let] go of me and whispers ‘Heel it now, or they’ll hang ye for sure! ‘ and I lit out'” (AHF 219). Similarly, when Jim is in danger of being discovered by raftsmen, he quickly lies to them and convinces them that his father has smallpox: “‘[… ] gentlemen, if you’ll only pull ahead, and let me heave you the head-line, you won’t have to come a-near the raft;'” the men immediately back off: “‘Keep away, boy – keep to looard. [… ] Your pap’s got the smallpox and you know it precious well. [… ] Do you want to spread it al over? ‘” (AHF 103).
Huck lies again to protect himself as well as Jim. In addition, he uses his practical knowledge to support his story when he is cornered by Mrs. Judith Loftus. To see if Huck was really from a farm, as he had told her while in the guise of a girl, she asks him questions, such as “‘Which side of a tree does the most moss grow on? ‘” to which Huck promptly and correctly answers “‘North side;'” Huck’s practical knowledge convinces her, as she responds, “‘Well, I reckon you have lived in the country,'” and relieves Huck of momentary trouble (AHF 71).
Quickly concocting stories and lies as well as utilizing practical knowledge characterize Huck’s wit, fulfilling this criterion of the rogue hero. An episodic plot and Huck Finn as a rogue hero establish Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a picaresque novel. The plot consists of many episodes with separate and disconnected conflicts, all bound by the river. Huck Finn can be characterized as a rogue hero, thus fulfilling all the necessary criteria for the picaresque novel.

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