Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Not Trying to Talk Alike and Succeeding: The Authoritative Word and Internally-Persuasive Word in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Not Trying to Talk Alike and Succeeding: The Authoritative Word and Internally-Persuasive Word in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Article excerpt

"It don't make no difference how foolish it is, it's the right way--and it's the regular way. And there ain't no other way, that ever I heard of; and I've read all the books that gives any information about these things."

Tom Sawyer-Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 304

"I went along, not fixing up any particular plan, but just trusting to Providence to put the right words in my mouth when the time come; for I'd noticed that Providence always did put the right words in my mouth, if I left it alone."

Huck Finn--Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 277

"In this book a number of dialects are used.... The shadings have not been done in haphazard fashion, or by guess work; but pains-takingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding."

The author-Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Given Mark Twain's embrace of a diversity of dialects and the painstaking accuracy with which he renders this diversity, (1) it seems natural enough to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn through the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin. As David Sewell writes in Mark Twain's Languages, "If Mark Twain discovered empiricism without reading Locke, he also looked forward to the particular interpretation of linguistic variety that we associate with Bakhtin" (7). In fact, much criticism that does not make direct reference to Bakhtin's work still reads Twain in ways consistent with Bakhtin's definition of the novel as a "diversity of social speech types ... and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized" (262). "The prose writer," writes Bakhtin, "does not purge words of intentions and tones that are alien to him, he does not destroy the seeds of social heteroglossia embedded in words, he does not eliminate those language characterizations and speech mannerisms (potential narrator-personalities) glimmering behind the words and forms, each at a different distance from the ultimate semantic nucleus of his work, that is, the center of his own personal intentions" (298). Certainly this description fits a novel that features a cast of characters who are not all trying to talk alike. In the following essay, I wish to offer not only a Bakhtinian reading of Huck Finn, but also of that novel's relationship to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I wish to suggest that Bakhtin's distinction between the "authoritative" and the "internally-persuasive" word can also distinguish the central differences between The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These differences lies in Twain's decision to make Huck the narrator of his own tale. Whereas the narrator of Tom Sawyer is absolutely authoritative, Huck presents a rather unliterary authority. In Tom Sawyer, Twain forces language to submit to his own intentions; however, by making Huck the narrator of Huck Finn, Twain relinquishes control over heteroglossia, which Michael Holquist has called "a roiling mass of languages" (69). Because Twain gets out of Huck's way, he allows Huck to be a different kind of hero, and one that is ultimately more compelling. Whereas Tom is "the sanctioned rebel" (Fetterley, "Sanctioned" 126), Huck--and his companion Jim--are entirely beyond sanction. Tom does not need to struggle to assimilate the authoritative word to his internally-persuasive word because he takes the latter from the former. Huck, on the other hand, must struggle to assimilate the authoritative word and his own internally-persuasive word. As a result of this struggle, Huck's story is different than one written "mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls."

Because Twain allows Huck to tell his own tale, the reader witnesses what Bakhtin calls an ideological becoming, a struggle between authoritative discourse and internally-persuasive discourse. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.