Finishing Huckleberry Finn

September 27, 2021

I’ve finished “Huckleberry Finn,” and I want to go straight to the controversial ending, in which Tom Sawyer reappears.  It’s painful to read of all that Jim is subjected to, all because Don Quixote – excuse me, Tom Sawyer – feels the need to stage a dramatic rescue of the kind that he’s read in chivalrous romances like “The Man In the Iron Mask”, a rescue which requires that Jim literally enact the part of a longtime prisoner in a pest-infested dungeon.  It’s painful to see Tom playing this game for three weeks, treating Jim like a stage prop at best and a fool at worst, and of course endangering Jim’s chances of really becoming free.  It’s doubly difficult to see Huck put up so little resistance to Tom’s nonsense, though he does at least try.

Jim does protest at one point, and his words then are some of the most memorable in the novel:

“Jim, don’t act so foolish.  A prisoner’s got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain’t ever been tried, why, there’s more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it than any other way you could ever think of to save your life.”

“Why, Mars Tom, I doan’ want no sich glory.  Snake take ’n bite Jim’s chin off, den whah is de glory?  No, sah, I doan’ want no sich doin’s.”

“Blame it, can’t you try?  I only want you to try—you needn’t keep it up if it don’t work.”

“But de trouble all done ef de snake bite me while I’s a tryin’ him. Mars Tom, I’s willin’ to tackle mos’ anything ’at ain’t onreasonable, but ef you en Huck fetches a rattlesnake in heah for me to tame, I’s gwyne to leave, dat’s shore.”

“Well, then, let it go, let it go, if you’re so bull-headed about it.  We can get you some garter-snakes, and you can tie some buttons on their tails, and let on they’re rattlesnakes, and I reckon that ’ll have to do.”

“I k’n stan’ dem, Mars Tom, but blame’ ’f I couldn’ get along widout um, I tell you dat.  I never knowed b’fo’ ’t was so much bother and trouble to be a prisoner.”

“Well, it always is when it’s done right.  You got any rats around here?”

“No, sah, I hain’t seed none.”

“Well, we’ll get you some rats.”

“Why, Mars Tom, I doan’ want no rats.  Dey’s de dadblamedest creturs to ’sturb a body, en rustle roun’ over ’im, en bite his feet, when he’s tryin’ to sleep, I ever see.  No, sah, gimme g’yarter-snakes, ’f I’s got to have ’m, but doan’ gimme no rats; I hain’ got no use f’r um, skasely.”

“But, Jim, you got to have ’em—they all do.  So don’t make no more fuss about it.  Prisoners ain’t ever without rats.  There ain’t no instance of it.  And they train them, and pet them, and learn them tricks, and they get to be as sociable as flies.  But you got to play music to them.  You got anything to play music on?”

“I ain’ got nuffn but a coase comb en a piece o’ paper, en a juice-harp; but I reck’n dey wouldn’ take no stock in a juice-harp.”

“Yes they would they don’t care what kind of music ’tis.  A jews-harp’s plenty good enough for a rat.  All animals like music—in a prison they dote on it.  Specially, painful music; and you can’t get no other kind out of a jews-harp.  It always interests them; they come out to see what’s the matter with you.  Yes, you’re all right; you’re fixed very well.  You want to set on your bed nights before you go to sleep, and early in the mornings, and play your jews-harp; play ‘The Last Link is Broken’—that’s the thing that ’ll scoop a rat quicker ’n anything else; and when you’ve played about two minutes you’ll see all the rats, and the snakes, and spiders, and things begin to feel worried about you, and come.  And they’ll just fairly swarm over you, and have a noble good time.”

“Yes, dey will, I reck’n, Mars Tom, but what kine er time is Jim havin’? Blest if I kin see de pint.  But I’ll do it ef I got to.  I reck’n I better keep de animals satisfied, en not have no trouble in de house.”

…. Tom …. studied it over, and then said Jim would have to worry along the best he could with an onion.  He promised he would go to the nigger cabins and drop one, private, in Jim’s coffee-pot, in the morning. Jim said he would “jis’ ’s soon have tobacker in his coffee;” and found so much fault with it, and with the work and bother of raising the mullen, and jews-harping the rats, and petting and flattering up the snakes and spiders and things, on top of all the other work he had to do on pens, and inscriptions, and journals, and things, which made it more trouble and worry and responsibility to be a prisoner than anything he ever undertook, that Tom most lost all patience with him; and said he was just loadened down with more gaudier chances than a prisoner ever had in the world to make a name for himself, and yet he didn’t know enough to appreciate them, and they was just about wasted on him.  So Jim he was sorry, and said he wouldn’t behave so no more, and then me and Tom shoved for bed.

If not for Jim speaking up, you might have to put down this section of the novel as a mere burlesque of Jim, not just by Tom but by the author – an episode in which Jim is made into a mere object of comedy, without a voice.

But Jim does speak, and though he cannot see a way to escape the plan or to directly refuse it – he is dependent on Tom and Huck, and he knows it – he is allowed by Twain to say what trash Tom is trying to dump here.

There’s some question today about whether Twain meant this episode merely as a funny burlesque in keeping with what his readers, even Northerners, would have wanted in that time period.  Maybe he did, I don’t know enough about it to say.  Stephen Railton has an interesting essay about it.

But Jim’s protests, at least, don’t serve any comical purpose.

And what Jim endures in his “cell,” with the rats and such, is not played for laughs.

Jim turns out to be the most human person in the book.  For one, he sees more in Huck than anyone else cares to see, and respects this child-outcast, as has often been noted.  And he’s a hero to the grievously injured Tom at the end, voluntarily risking his freedom once more in order to get Tom a doctor.  There are no whites, not even Huck himself, who are given as much nobility, in the sense of genuine goodness, as Jim is given in the book.

Now, what was Twain thinking with this final section?  I don’t know, but let’s imagine the book without it.  That is what you’re longing for throughout the final section, for the games to end and for Huck and Jim to get back on that raft and find a way to secure Jim’s freedom.  For an all-too-brief moment, before our friends are re-captured and sent back, we get the longed-for scene on the raft:  “Now, old Jim, you’re a free man again, and I bet you won’t ever be a slave no more.”

But ending the novel with nothing but an escape to freedom would not quite tell the truth.  It would be too romantic; it would leave out too much.  It would leave aside the fact that Huck’s moral awakening has been limited, and the fact that in many ways he continues to see Jim as a slave. 

We’ve seen previously that Huck’s individual conscience can land in a fine place (“I’ll go to hell”), but when Tom Sawyer returns we see how difficult it is for an individual not to be influenced by others, not to be a social creature, an individual of the times – even in the case of this boy who has grown up as a social outcast. 

That’s a bracing realization but it’s true, and it would have been entirely missing if Huck and Jim had merely ridden off into the sunset.  The novel then would be a more “modern” novel for us but we’d have to classify it as a rank romance.

Reinhold Niebuhr faced this issue most notably in a book I re-read earlier this year, “Moral Man and Immoral Society” (1932).

There is much that is offensive about how Twain treats Jim in the final part of the book.  But I think there would have been much offense if Huck’s moral awakening had been the final word, and he and Jim had simply gotten off safely, without any picture of how the evolution of consciousness in one individual might look when the individual returns to society.  The hard-won moral evolution might be just-about overwhelmed, is the sobering truth. 

And we did have intimations of this truth earlier in the novel.  Even after Huck has had tender and awakening exchanges with Jim, he totally forgets Jim when he stays with the feuding family.  Nowhere does Twain show us Huck looking for Jim; and they are reunited only due to the initiative of a slave on the plantation who is harboring Jim.

So the section in which Tom Sawyer returns, which has often been described as not in keeping with what has been accomplished previously in the novel, turns out to be consistent with what we’ve already seen in Huck’s character.

Now, Tom’s burlesque and abuse of Jim – if not necessarily intended by Twain as anything more than an entertainment of its time that we can recognize as racist – does at least unintentionally show what society continued to think of, and do with, black people even after slavery.  The more I look at this section of the book, I can’t help seeing uncanny similarities between Jim’s situation and that of blacks after the Civil War:

  • Jim is an object of whites’ derision, comedy, and romantic notions of “rescue”.  Check.
  • Jim is a free black whose freedom is paper-thin, something that whites who know of it will casually risk or barely mention.  Check. 
  • Jim is a free black living in rotten, infested conditions lacking all dignity, and who is still dependent on white lords.  Check.  
  • Jim has white friends who pledge to free him but go about it so slowly, nonsensically and ungenerously that you wonder whether the pledge was earnest or a joke.  Check.  
  • Jim is a free black in danger of being lynched.  Check. 
  • Jim is a free black who is even in danger of being successfully sold back into slavery, if his freedom cannot be proven or is forgotten by whites.  Check.

All this is what happened historically.  We all know that Reconstruction gave way to the Klan; and there is growing awareness today that even slavery itself continued in lingering pockets after the war, and blacks everywhere labored in conditions as close to literal slavery as possible. This history was notably told in Douglas A. Blackmon’s “Slavery By Another Name“.

Perhaps with only partial awareness, Twain’s ending shows us that post-Civil War blacks were technically “free” but hardly living free or dignified lives, and in real danger of not even being technically free.

That is one of the many unexpected things I’ve found in “Huckleberry Finn.”

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