Mah, what a wunnerful book.
Really, a wonderful book. The stories and characters of this fairly short and fast-paced book are pretty well-known, I suppose, maybe more so in America than in Britain, where I live. I took particular pleasure in ‘putting a face to a name’ in relation to the Duke and the KIng, two characters, nasty and admirable at the same time, who come alive today in the name of the eponymous and great band from New York.
So why is this book so good? It is funny, partly because Huck is the narrator and his kooky world view is attractive and entertaining; and partly because the situations created in the book are at times comical. But that is often cut with a heavy sense of impending doom. The episode where Tom and Huck go to extravagant lengths to free Jim in a way that precisely matches Tom’s romantic and rococo ideas of how a prisoner should escape, drawn from the novels of Alexandre Dumas (who was black, of course, as Twain might have expected the reader to know), involving rope ladders and coats of arms and all sorts, is hilarious. But at the same time the reality of Jim’s slave status is kept in our minds, and the very serious risks to him of, basically, fannying around when he could have been simply set free.
Later, we learn that Tom knew all along that Jim had actually been granted his legal freedom, raising the moral question of whether he was using him as a plaything for his own fantasies. But perhaps I am being too hard on Tom, who is, after all, only a boy.
The book also raises questions about the purpose and value of education. Huck and Jim, who have little formal education, see things clearly, at least in moral terms. The moment when Huck decides the morality of turning Jim in (on the basis that he belongs to someone and the owner is losing out under the law) is not his morality, and that his morality is served by loyalty to Jim and to their friendship, is moving, for example. Tom Sawyer, who reappears from his own ‘Adventures’ towards the end of the book, has some education but uses it to pursue pointless and esoteric objectives. The Duke and the King are educated but use it to trick people; the people they deceive are uneducated, though religious; and knowledge of the bible is consistently confused with real learning, illustrating the overall effect of religion as a source of ignorance rather than enlightenment.
I loved this book.