Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Huck the Thief

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Huck the Thief

Article excerpt

FORTUNATELY, TOM GOT SHOT. It may be lovely to live on a raft, but only when you can live high, hogging watermelons without having to "chaw" over a lot of Tom's "gold-leaf distinctions." Had the grand evasion gone as planned, had Tom, Huck, and Jim made it to the raft safely, the beauty and simplicity of raft life would have been diminished by Tom's insistence that they leave off "borrowing" the occasional chicken or cantaloupe from local farms. Tom can't even purloin a few candles without leaving five cents on the table for pay. Lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest may be a bittersweet ending to a bittersweet novel, but it beats having to share a raft on the southern Mississippi with Tom.

In his 1966 article "Thief and Theft in Huckleberry Finn," Robert Vales demonstrates that thievery is a major theme in Huckleberry Finn, appearing in virtually every major episode. Vales argues that the theft motif helps unify the book, as well as justify the much-maligned "evasion" ending. Vales's observations are astute, for the predominance of thievery in the novel does serve to bind many of the episodes of the novel together around a recurring plot device. Theft, however, serves as much more than a simple, if ingenious, plot device or character trait. In fact, Huck's role as a thief in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provides a means of observing his growth and change. As the narrative progresses, the succession of thefts performed by Huck--from the imaginary "julery" and "ingots" stolen by Tom's harmless band of robbers, to the very real act of slave-stealing on the Phelps's farm--chart Huck's growing moral depth and awareness. What one witnesses in Huck is a willingness to engage in increasingly serious acts of thievery, coupled with an expanding awareness of the moral implications connected to these same acts.

With the promise of relentless robbery and murder, Tom's band of robbers seems a likely candidate for adventure and general mayhem. But, in the series of fanciful raids led by Tom, the theft is imaginary. The highlight of Tom and Huck's brief career as highwaymen is an aborted raid on a Sunday School picnic; they nearly made away with some doughnuts and jam, a rag doll, and a hymn-book, but, as Huck tells us, the "teacher charged in and made us drop everything and cut" (15). With these essentially innocuous boyhood pranks, neither Huck nor Tom faces any significant moral dilemmas. There is no moral content to an imaginary theft of invisible diamonds; there is no need to reconcile deed with conscience. With little at stake, either materially or morally, Tom's hapless band of robbers soon dissolves.

The early exploits of the band of robbers was but a prelude to greater thefts to come. With his flight from Pap and St. Petersburg, Huck leaves Tom and the band of robbers far behind, and, at the same time, Huck leaves behind a bit of his boyhood. As he takes to the raft with Jim, Huck not only drifts south, into the somber heart of the Southern slave system, but psychologically, Huck also begins to drift into the somber territory of moral awareness. The change is simple at first, expressing itself in a need to justify his acts of petty theft and assuage his conscience. For example, soon after fleeing Jackson's Island, Huck explains how he found food: "Every night, now, I used to slip ashore, towards ten o'clock, at some little village, and buy ten or fifteen cents' worth of meal or bacon or other stuff to eat; and sometimes I lifted a chicken that warn't roosting comfortable, and took him along" (79). To leave the explanation here would indicate that Huck's conscience bothered him little, if any. Instead, however, Huck explains why it was okay for him to steal chickens: "Pap always said, take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don't want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain't ever forgot. I never see pap when he didn't want the chicken himself, but that is what he used to say, anyway" (79). …

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