Since its publication the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has retained its popularity with the reading public; It’s theme, Motive, Moral and Plot, though, have eluded acclaiming readers, skeptical detractors and literary critics. This confusion was the author’s who wanted the book to sell.
Slavery, Southern society and the Mississippi River seemingly move the story. However, a river of Christianity also runs through the text. Unlike the river waters which purify Huck as Jim and he float into slaveland, Southern constructions of faith, hope and charity from 1 Corinthians 13 are not Christian. This thematic flow gives the novel an ironic soul, making the Adventures a tract against religion as it is practiced.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain, was raised a Presbyterian, and he was well acquainted with the King James version of the Bible and other works of English protestantism. Despite wide circulation of those works, Southerners had religion but little Christianity. Huck notes the,
pretty ornery preaching – all about brotherly love and such-like tiresomeness, but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over, going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.(147)
Huck’s questioning comes to him naturally. Startled by Pap and quizzed, Huck reads aloud. Pap growls, First you know you’ll get religion, too.(24) Religion practiced in the South corrupts. A note warning Jim’s captors of a plan to free the slave pleads, I am one of the gang, but have got religgion and wish to quit it and lead an honest life again. (334)
Huck learned the Bible from the widow and Miss Douglas. Ye cannot serve God and mammon, Matthew 6:24. If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast…and come and follow me. Huck gives Judge Thatcher his money in Chapter 5, and throughout the novel he never thinks he can reclaim the money and buy Jim’s freedom.
Huck seeks the more excellent way. The King James version of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, prescribes the conduct of a Christian:
THOUGH I speak with tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
3. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
4. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5. Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6. Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7. Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10. But when that which is perfect is come, than that which is in part shall be done away.
11. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12, For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
One must act with charity, a Christian love which burns into the heart and pilots all action. A mere act of liturgy, prophecy or charity without the requisite state of mind and heart is nothing. Christians must not be envious, boastful, conceited, proud, rude, selfish or vengeant; they must seek truth and ride the joy of charity overflowing with kindness while withstanding suffering. Throughout the Adventures Huck narrates without judging; he practices faith, hope and charity and learns the greatest of these is charity.
Faith is evinced through prayer and professions to piety: …You had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals...(2) Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it.(13) When the King and Duke commenced their swindle of the heirs of Peter Wilkes, …they kneeled down and rested their foreheads on the coffin, and let on to pray, all to their selves.(212)
A preacher at the camp meeting aroused the crowd with imaginary visions of the Holy Ghost. They shout[ed] and cri[ed]… tears running down their faces; singing and flinging…themselves down on the straw, just crazy and wild.(172) And the king got agoing (172) about being a pirate in the Indian Ocean, collecting eighty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents. And then he fetched away a three-gallon jug of whisky, too,that he found under a wagon…(174) Slaveowner/preacher, Silas Phelps come in every day or two to pray with Jim, the captured, runaway slave.(309)
But prayer described in the novel mostly departs from Scripture. Matthew, Chapter 6:5-6 directs,
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily, I say unto you, They have their reward.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into they closet, and when thou has shut the door, pray to thy Father, which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
Southerners manipulated faith. The widow
…learned me about Moses and the bulrushes, and I was in a sweat to find all about him; but by and by she let it out Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people.(2)...I wanted to smoke…She said it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean…Here she was a-bothering ￼about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody…yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.(3)
The king’s duds was…all black, and he did look real swell and starchy…when he’d take off his new white beaver and make a bow and do a smile, he looked that grand and good and pious that you’d say he had walked right out of the ark, and maybe was old Leviticus himself.(204)
The king and duke…took on about that dead tanner [Peter Wilkes] like they’d lost the twelve disciples.(212)
Despite biblical interdiction, Acts 17:22, superstition of white people throughout the novel resembles the superstition of black folk. Huck thought differently, I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies…It had all the marks of a Sunday school.(17)
Southerners have no greater understanding of Christianity than the sensibility of the slave, Jim. The commandment, Ye shall not steal, is modified: …the best way would be for us to pick out two or three things…and say we wouldn’t borrow them any more..it wouldn’t be no harm to borrow the others…(80) About Solomon and his million wives, Jim poses, Now I want to ast you: .what use is a half a chile? I wouldn’t give a dern for a million un um…He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’. A chile or two, mo’er less, warn’t no consekens to Sollermun…(95,96)
Southern whites ignore the tenets of Christianity. The Grangerfords and Shepardsons go to the same church yet feud: If you notice, most folks don’t go to church only when they’ve got to; but a hog is different.(148)
Educated whites disregard the creed. A new judge leading Pap to temperance fails: The judge he felt kind of sore. He said he reckoned a body could reform the old man with a shot-gun, maybe, but he didn’t know no other way.(28) Silas Phelps …was a-studying over…Acts seventeen…(316), an anti-slavery verse, yet Phelps remained a slaveowner.
These professions of faith accompany the revelation of charity in chapter three. Relying on Mark 11:24 [Therefore, I say unto you, What things so ever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye shall receive them, and ye shall have them.], Miss Watson tells Huck, to pray every day and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so…Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without the hooks.(13) Miss Watson chides the foolishness. Huck asks the widow who tells him …the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts”(13) of 1 Corinthians 14. Benefits of these gifts elude Huck, especially after the widow explained, …what she meant – I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself,..I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it – except for the other people…(13-14)
Both the widow and Miss Watson urge Huck to practice charity but differ in description of the rewards. The widow’s version is to lead Huck so his actions more closely relate to public benefits of conforming to Southern society. The widow described Providence...to make a body’s mouth water.(14) When Huck dirtied his clothes after a night out …the widow she didn’t scold, but only cleaned off the grease and clay and looked so sorry that I thought I would behave a while if I could.(13)
[B]ut maybe the next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it [the widow’s providence] all down again. (14) Miss Watson demanded individual, internal reformation of character to make Huck Christian, and she was direct: Well, I got a good going-over in the morning, from old Miss Watson, on account of my clothes;(13) Miss Watson, told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. She got mad…She said it was wicked to say what I said;…she was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going…(3-4)
Listening to each woman Huck…could see that there was two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there warn’t no help for him any more. I thought it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow’s, if he wanted me, though I couldn’t make out how he was agoing to be any better off then than what he was before…(14)
Huck favors the widow’s Providence. Miss Watson drives him away. She wants to sell Jim, separating him from familar surroundings and family. Helping Jim escape bothers Huck (52-53, 124-125, 127-128), but he passes over the ramifications as they float South where Huck will learn charity and receive spiritual gifts.
He witnesses events…to make a body ashamed of the human race.(210) The legal system tolerates Pap going for Huck’s money.(Chapters 5,6) Boastful boatmen are …chicken-livered cowards. (111) The Grangerfords and Shepardson families feud. (Chapters 17,18) After Boggs is killed and Colonel Sherburn defies the mob, he notes: If any real lynching’s going to be done, it will be done in the dark, southern fashion; and when they come, they’ll bring their masks…(191) Southerners suffer frauds in the camp meeting, hold overly romantic notions and are duped by the king and duke, giving new significance to the reference about hypocrites who pray in public:…Verily, I say unto you, They have their reward. (Matthew 6:5)
Huck is edgy when the king trusts…in Providence to lead him the profitable way – meaning the devil(204), Huck reckons. [B]eing brothers to a rich dead man, and representatives of furrin heirs that’s got left, is the line for you and me, Bilge. Thish-yer comes of trust’n to Providence.(214)
In Chapter 28 Huck balks, hides the money in the coffin and tells Mary Jane about the scam. He knows he cannot join the widow’s Providence be good and civilized and receive the rewards of Southern society. He tells Mary Jane: …I’d be all right, but there’d be another person that you don’t know about who’d be in big trouble.(240)
Mary Jane responds, Good-bye, I’m going to do everything just as you’ve told me;…and I’ll pray for you too! Pray for me! I reckoned if she knowed me she’d take job that was more nearer her size… and if ever I’d a thought it would do any good for me to pray for her, blamed if I wouldn’t a done it or bust.(244)
In Chapter 31 the king takes a bounty for Jim, a runaway slave. Jim is imprisoned. Huck must choose. The widow instructed him about “spiritual gifts,” and Huck puts them to the test within the Widow’s Providence, again. Seeking absolution, he considers telling her by letter where Jim is:
…it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me that’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t agoing to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks, I was so scared…It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because i was playing double…You can’t pray a lie – I found that out.(268-269)
But Huck doesn’t send the letter because he has internalized the problem of man facing God, thus taking his faith private. He sits in the wigwam of the raft. It – the wigwam and the dilemma – it was a close place like the closet Miss Watson took him into in Chapter Three. Huck ponders whether to follow Christian charity, to help Jim and do everything he could for Jim, look out for Jim and not think about himself.(13) He resolves to rescue Jim, thereby choosing the Providence described by Miss Watson. But he still believes he is controlled by the Providence described by the widow. Southern society will condemn him. Huck says, All right, then, I’ll go to hell…(271)
Clemens made the structure of the Adventures a cross. Faith, hope and charity on the upward pole intersect Southern civilization of whites and Negroes in the Mississippi Valley:
S O U T H E R N S O C I E T Y
When Huck becomes charitable, he finds himself at the junction of the cross. The only character who is charitable and Christian throughout the story is Jim. After Jim’s capture, Huck reflects in the wigwam and voices a prayer:
I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on to of his’n, stead of calling me – so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one’s he’s got now;…(270)
Jim is a slave, and in the novel it is he who is nailed on the cross. Implicit in the narrative are questions: Should Huck save Jim. Should Huck attempt to save the nigger on the cross. Should Huck work himself...up and go and humble [himself] to a nigger: Huck…done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither.(105) It is inexplicable that today’s detractors of Huckleberry Finn, like ante-bellum Southerners, don’t believe in humbling themselves to the nigger on the cross and dispute Huck’s decision to save him.
Putting Jim on the cross is controversial, but Clemens advanced the idea in Huck’s prayer. In doing so he mocked Southern whites, the camp meetings and the glory of evangelists’ timeless voices describing appearances of Jesus Christ: “I see Jesus ￼before me, all the time, in the day, in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms…” Moonlight is necessary because Southerners cannot see Jesus in the dark.
At the beginning of the novel, the widow wants to sivilize Huckleberry. After charity is explicated in Chapter 31, the remaining eleven chapters exhaust hope found in the widow’s Providence, southern civilization. Tom Sawyer returns to the story, and he conceives a plot to free Jim. But Huck was bothered that Tom, …a boy that was respectable, and well brung up; and had character to lose(292) would help the slave escape. Huck didn’t know it was Tom’s sport; the widow had died and freed Jim in her will.(358) Again, Huck is homeless. He subordinates himself and his new faith to the tomfoolery: He[Tom Sawyer] was always just that particular. Full of principle.(307) Jim, too, recognized the folly but…allowed we was white folks and knowed better than him.(309)
About the escape and Jim’s recapture, Southerners blather about the complexity of the escape scheme and wonder who had done the planning and why – conversations with little bearing to reality.(Chapter 41) Tom Sawyer was proud of the adventure and especially the bullet he took in the leg, which he wore around his neck.(362)
At book’s end Huck heads for the freedom of the Territory; otherwise Aunt Sally is…going to adopt me and sivilize and I can’t stand it. I’ve been there before.(362)
Tom Sawyer was published in 1876, the same year Clemens was feverishly writing Huckleberry Finn. He had more material about the river and Southern society than he could use in one book. The jarring impact of the Civil War was fresh. Clemens had lost his chosen profession of riverboat captain. He set aside the Adventures until 1879-1880, when he wrote a bit more. Following a trip up the Mississippi in 1883, Clemens pumped out Life on the Mississippi detailing the downside of Southern society and Huckleberry Finn in 1884. These books, along with Pudd’nhead Wilson’s exposition of the black man’s plight, 1894, are a trilogy. The Adventures is the hinge book integrating both themes – Southern society and race.
As a novelist Clemens had responsibilities to art and to society. The trilogy was his response to the War – expressions of despair that lessons of the horrible slaughter were forgotten or never learned. The South had not changed. Reconstruction had failed. Slaves, now free Negroes, were drowning in tides of caste and race supported by the civilization which fueled Southern war fever in 1861.
But Mark Twain’s dilemma was laying down camouflage for the anti-religious theme in the novel. By this text he had tied the Adventures to the most widely book read in the English language, the Bible. He released Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a children’s story, a sequel to the popular Tom Sawyer. The same characters appear at the beginning of the Adventures, but the similarity ends with writing style and content. Later, more Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn sequels were published which had nothing to do with the thematic content of Huckleberry Finn. Next, Twain approved original illustrations which show the protagonist as a meek boy of eight or ten years, not the savvy adolescent telling the narrative.
Also some captions to the illustrations are misleading e.g. “thinking” (270). Finally, Twain admonishes readers in a prefatory note from taking the book seriously:
NOTICE – PERSONS attempting to find a Motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a Moral in it will be banished; persons attempting go find a Plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
Yet the lesson of 1 Corinthians 13 are not forsaken. Faith and charity abide, but there is no hope in Southern civilization in American civilization. Hope is left to the future. For six score years readers have recognized the obvious and have been sidetracked by Mark Twain’s counsel to seek neither motive, moral or plot. Our future is to discover and understand the motive, moral and plot in the Adventures, as Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote them, and to live accordingly.
1. The numbers in the text are pages from the corrected, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001.
2. This text is largely the same as appears in Criticism, Essays, Stories, iBookstore, Michael Ulin Edwards, FREE.