Huck's Heresy

Article excerpt

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852 at the height of the abolitionists' struggle to end slavery, Stowe strove to make readers aware of the evils of that institution and in so doing to win sympathy and support for the antislavery forces. As Uncle Tom's Cabin was effective in doing that, it was an important weapon in the abolitionists' arsenal. Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, did not appear in the United States until 1885, more than twenty years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. As slavery had long ceased to exist in the United States and, with each passing year, had fewer supporters, Huckleberry Finn was not--indeed could not have been--part of any anti-slavery movement. There was no slavery left to oppose.

It is no accident, though, that slavery does play an important role in Hackleberry Finn. Twain could have sent his narrator down the river in the company of a White friend such as Tom Sawyer, but he did not. He chose, instead, to make Huck's traveling companion an escaped slave, Jim. In introducing a slave, and thus slavery, into his book, Twain was not endeavoring to awaken readers to the wickedness of an institution that had ceased to exist. Most of his readers, he knew, had long been awake to that wickedness. Rather, Twain uses his attack on slavery, an attack with which the majority of his public would already agree, to gain from his mostly Christian audience a sympathetic reading of his radical assault on their religion.

Though Twain's narrator links slavery with Christianity as early as the first mention of Black people in Huckleberry Finn--"By and by they fetched the niggers in and had prayers"--it is necessary to remember that, as Tom Quirk has noted, Huck is "quick to perceive, slow to comprehend." Thus Twain's narrator is unaware that he is setting up this association between Christianity and slavery and therefore does not make it explicit, much less grasp what such a connection might imply. Alert readers, though, in large part because of the nonstandard English Huck speaks, will have begun to understand, even this early in the novel, that the uneducated adolescent narrator is naive. They will have accepted Twain's tacit invitation to come to their own, more sophisticated, conclusions about the phenomena Huck describes. That Twain does not do the work for his readers of explaining the connection between religion and slavery and of elucidating what that connection implies but instead forces his audience to figure it out for themselves, makes his radical view of their religion much less alienating for his Christian readers than a more direct statement of that view would have been.

Twain's narrator is never explicit, but still, the connection between Christianity and slavery, and what Twain believes that connection implies, is hard to miss. In fact, it is difficult to find a character in the novel who is identified as a Christian and who does not have his or her morality called into question over, in addition to other transgressions, involvement with slavery. The Grangerfords, for example, attend church and not only enjoy the sermons "all about brotherly love and such-like tiresomeness" but also relish them at length afterwards. Their enthusiastic Christianity does not, however, prevent them from engaging in a decades-long orgy of mutual murder with the Shepherdsons or from enslaving more than a hundred black people.

Twain takes pains in this section to dissociate his narrator from the slavery he has been using to attack Christianity. He has Huck report that the slave provided for him at the Grangerfords "had a monstrous easy time, because I warn't used to having anybody do anything for me...." That Twain takes such pains is further evidence that he is working from the premise that slavery is evil and that anything in sympathetic association with it is, by implication, evil, too. …