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In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain paints, through the southern drawl of an ignorant village boy, the story of America as it existed in the quickly receding era of his own childhood. While written about childhood adventures, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is all but carefree, utilizing its adolescent narrator to subtly portray, analyze, and criticize society. At the most superficial level, Twain introduces a profusion of characters each with a distinctive personality and vignette of life in the South during the mid 19th century. Delving deeper, Finn provides a clear evaluation of bondage, from the perspective of Jim’s flight from slavery to his own struggles with the oppressions of behavior, thought, and the freedoms he desires. On the faintest of thematic notes, Twain’s scorn for Southern hypocrisy can be seen in Huck’s contradictive moral struggles between Jim’s freedom and Southern Christianity, which embraces equality of all who believe but endorses slavery at the same time.
Regarded by many as the great American epic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn surpasses other literary works of its time not only for its story and language, but for its carefully crafted characters as well. For instance, although only a minor character, Mrs. Judith Loftus was painstakingly constructed to represent the model pioneer wife in her shrewdness and coarse kindness. The tobacco “chawing” loafers in Arkansas who, “laugh at the fun and look grateful for the noise,” embody the bored village loiterers in Everytown, USA. Twain’s precise creation of each individual can be witnessed also in the hot-blooded Grangerford family who are, “gentlemen all over,” and characterize the new American aristocracy. Through his characters, Twain produces brief sketches of American life that merge in the course of the story to illustrate a societal whole of the time.
Bondage permeates the novel as the central theme in both Jim’s escape from slavery as well as Huck’s escape from civilization. Jim’s flee from the physical bondage of slavery in the deep South precipitates the driving force of the journey by forcing the two protagonists off Jackson’s Island evidence of how fundamental finding freedom is to the story. Huck also strains against the torments of captivity, but of a different sort. He struggles against the suppression of uncivilized behaviors and thoughts that he experiences living with the Widow Douglas. Finn feels such contempt for acting “sivilized” that he prefers the abuse of his father to living with the Widow Douglas, later evading his tyranny as well. Using the stories of his two main characters, Twain conveys his distaste for the modern civilization, a civilization that ties down each of its occupants in ways that restrict the freedoms for which, each yearns.
Often seen as a satire of good society, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reveals Twain’s contempt of Southern hypocrisy which romanticizes the idea of Christian morals, but at the same time clutches to the slavery of fellow believers. This irony of southern gentility plays into the novel through Huckleberry’s perverted clash of morals between doing the “right thing” by enslaving Jim and allowing Jim to retain his freedom thereby going to Hell. As Huck says during his internal conflict, “It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger get his freedom and if I was to ever see anybody, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame . . .. My conscience went to grinding me and the more wicked and low down and ornery I got to feeling” (177-178). From the modern reader’s standpoint, this Catch-22 situation seems almost laughable, but in the time period written, Twain’s work boasted a significant amount of controversy illustrating the actuality of the irony depicted in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Blending humor with surprisingly mature undertones, Twain created a novel considered to be the American national epic. Through the eyes of young Huckleberry Finn, Twain sketches a silhouette of life in the South, shows his contempt for slavery, and attacks the false Southern romanticism so prevalent in the society of the era.
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