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Realistic and Romantic Literary Traditions in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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“Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” This witty aphorism, although intended as a commentary on society, also reveals some of Mark Twain’s beliefs about literature. By asserting that fiction must stay in the realm of possibility, Twain establishes his preference of Realism over Romanticism. Realism, a literary style which presents ordinary life in an objective and factual way, is the antithesis of Romanticism, a style which stresses imagination, emotion, and the awesome power of nature. However, despite this proclamation, aspects of Romanticism are clearly present in Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which seamlessly blends both Realism and Romanticism. These contrasting literary styles are found in the setting, characterization, and plot of the novel.

The use of vivid detail enables Twain to establish an absorbing visual setting. Although the setting is inspired by actual rivers and towns, Twain utilizes a number of Romantic techniques to convey specific aspects of the characters’ surroundings. To establish Huck’s familiarity and comfort with nature, Twain clearly personifies nature, a common aspect of Romantic literature:

The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead…and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn’t make out what it was , and so it made the cold shivers run over me. (5)

By embellishing the natural surroundings, Twain establishes Huck’s point of view and personality. However, Twain also uses Realism to add authenticity to the setting, forcing the reader to recognize the truth behind his words. By presenting towns and rivers as they actually exist, Twain creates a plausible setting for his story:

We judged that three nights more would fetch us to Cairo, at the bottom of Illinois where the Ohio River comes in, and that was what we was after. We would sell the raft and get on a steamboat and go way up the Ohio amongst the free states, and then be out of trouble. (78)

It is necessary to point out that Twain often romanticized even those aspects of the setting that are based on real landmarks. This is especially evident through Twain’s illustration of the Mississippi River. The river, which could easily be described as simply a large waterway that serves as a mode of transportation for Huck and Jim , instead becomes a highly symbolic element that inspires their imagination. However, even within this idealized setting, Twain adds specific, almost pedestrian details:

Then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve let dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it! (114)

Twain’s masterful combination of Realism and Romanticism creates a diverse setting that reflects actual rivers and towns in an idealized way.

Twain’s use of both Romanticism and Realism to develop his characters is evident in the dissimilarity between Tom and Huck. While Tom’s flamboyant imagination compels him to make decisions that help him fulfill his fantasies, Huck’s down-to-earth mentality enables him to take the most logical course of action. In this way, Tom serves as a symbol of Romanticism, while Huck is the epitome of Realism. Tom’s romantic tendencies are quickly established in the novel:

Kill the women? No; nobody ever saw anything in the books like that. You fetch them to the cave, and you’re always as polite as pie to them; and by and by they fall in love with you, and never want to go home and more. (11)

Tom dreams of living out the romantic fantasies he has been exposed to through reading. Huck, on the other hand, believes that these ideas are pointless and illogical. While Tom uses his imagination to liven up ordinary occurrences, Huck refuses to see past the truth:

But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer class at that. (14)

Although both boys feel strongly about their views, Huck lacks Tom’s confidence, and therefore keeps his opinions to himself. Because of this, Tom’s Romanticism triumphs over Huck’s Realism. This triumph is short-lived in the eyes of the reader, however, because Twain brings Tom’s Romantic views into conflict with Jim’s freedom. Instead of easily escaping, Tom makes a production out Jim’s stint in captivity, claiming that it would not be right to escape easily:

Blame it, this whole thing is just as easy and awkward as it can be. And so it makes it so rotten difficult to get up a difficult plan…why, all you got to do is to lift up the bedstead and slip off the chain….It’s the stupidest arrangement I ever see. You got to invent all the difficulties. (229)

While Tom’s Romanticism is acceptable as childish play, his desire to fulfill his own fantasies at the expense of another’s freedom is almost sickening. Twain utilizes both Romanticism and Realism within his characterization of Huck and Tom, but he clearly favors Huck’s realistic outlook on life.

Twain creates conflict between the Romanticism of Tom and the Realism of Huck, yet this conflict is not repeated in the development of the plot. Realism and Romanticism work together to further the events of the story. At several points, Twain uses a distinctly realistic tone to advance the plot, such as when Huck and Jim become separated on the river:

The second night a god began to come on…I passed the line around one of [the saplings] right on the edge of the cut bank, but there was a stiff current and the raft came booming down so lively she tore it out by the roots and away she went…There warn’t no raft in sight; and you couldn’t see twenty yards. (78)

This twist in the plot illustrates an event that would be commonly experienced when traveling along the river. By advancing the plot through the use of realistic situations, Twain reinforces the authenticity of his novel. However, Twain also employs rather outlandish plot devices that are representative of Romanticism, such as Tom’s particularly miraculous appearance near the end of the book.

“It’s Tom Sawyer!” By jings, I most slumped through the floor! But there warn’t no time to swap knives; the old man grabbed me by the hand and shook, and kept on shaking. (215)

It is simply illogical for Huck to randomly show up at the exact same house where Tom is expected. This truly preposterous event is an example of Twain’s use of Romanticism.

A fusion between the two styles is evident in the actions of the duke and the king. Both characters use outlandish, yet effective, ploys to extort large sums of money from their victims. However, Twain meshes these romantic, outrageous schemes with common-place, realistic events from his time period. This is apparent in the camp-meeting scene:

He told them he was a pirate…and, poor as he was…put in the rest of his life trying to turn the pirates into the true path…Then somebody sings out, “Take up a collection for him take up a collection!” (128).

By utilizing both Realism and Romanticism to formulate events in the novel, Twain increases the effectiveness and fluidity of the plot.

Mark Twain uses both Realism and Romanticism, often simultaneously, to develop the setting, characterization, and plot of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although Twain states that “fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities,” his use of both Romanticism and Realism is evident throughout the novel, and this added richness benefits the reader.

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Realistic and Romantic Literary Traditions in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (2018, Jun 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from
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