A Study of Huckleberry Finn: Are Self-reliance and Mutual-reliance Mutually Exclusive?


By Micalyia Douglas

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, first published in 1884, has been praised and criticized for varying reasons. This novel has been the center of many debates, one of the most prominent topics being its ending. Some argue the ending is sub-par in comparison to the rest of the novel, while others acknowledge the growth that Huck has undergone and Twain’s subtle nod to this change. Leo Marx heavily criticizes the ending in his essay “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling and Huckleberry Finn,” written in 1953. He says “I believe that the ending of Huckleberry Finn makes so many readers uneasy because they rightly sense that it jeopardizes the significance of the entire novel. To take seriously what happens at the Phelps farm is to take lightly the entire downstream journey” (292). This is a direct contrast to Toni Morrison’s essay, “Introduction to Huckleberry Finn,” where she acknowledges the change in Huck and sees the impact the journey has had on his outlook on life. Morrison does note that Jim was “torturously, unnecessarily freed” (301); however, this does not take away from the fact that Huck “light[s] out to the Territory” (290) with, as Morrison puts it, a “first-rate education in social and individual responsibility” (302). Marx argues against the ending because he believes it takes away from the meaning of the journey where Huck and Jim traveled downstream. However, Morrison believes the ending brings out the complexity of the novel. The ending is torturous and cruel, but it is very meaningful and can be viewed in a more positive light with Jim heading back to his family and his own children and Huck moving on into the world to test what he learnt about mutual reliance and self-reliance.

In chapter seven, Huck exercises the act of independence and self-reliance that sets the entire book into motion: he stages his own death. He begins his plans in chapter six where he expresses his frustration with being abused by his father: “I was all over welts. He got to going away so much, too, and locking me in…It was dreadful lonesome. I judged he had got drowned and I wasn’t going to get to go out any more. I was scared. I made up my mind I would fix up some way to leave there” (124). In this instance Huck decides to escape and become truly self-reliant. He doesn’t want to be civilized by the widow, nor does he want to be beaten by his Pap, so he must become independent and branch out on his own to escape both fates. This leads to Huck staging his own death, which initiates the action of the book. In this moment, Huck exercises true self-reliance. He is depending on his own powers and resources rather than those of his father, the widow, or others around him, namely Tom. Huck is ultimately in charge of formulating his escape plan. Tom is not there to romanticize the situation and formulate an ‘elaborate’ escape plan; however, Huck comes up with a thorough and concise plan that Tom would never have imagined unless he had read it in a book. Huck’s plan allows him to cut ties with those who were holding him hostage and gives him the opportunity to be “ruther comfortable and satisfied” (131). In executing this plan, Huck did not stop to think how his father or the widow would be affected by his actions, but instead only took into consideration his own self-preservation and selfish motives. This is an important moment in the novel because as the novel progresses, we see Huck thinking of others and taking a more considerate stance on several matters. We see Huck’s growth from this first act to the point where he decides to “light out for the Territory” (290).

After Huck stages his death, he heads over to Jackson’s Island. In the first two paragraphs of chapter seven, Huck seems rather content and satisfied that his plan has worked. He is still riding on the adrenaline of success, but once this initial joy wears off, he begins to identify lonesomeness. By faking his death, he has cut off everyone he had ever held dear. His family and friends, Tom especially, now consider him dead. He no longer has any kind of companionship and it begins to sink in. “When I was in the dark I set by my campfire smoking, and feeling pretty satisfied; but by-and-by it got sort of lonesome…counted the stars… there ain’t no better way to put in time when you are lonesome… And so for three days and nights. No difference…” (133). In Morrison’s essay she writes, “What does Huck need to live without terror, melancholy and suicidal thoughts? The answer, of course, is Jim” (301). This sense of melancholy only breaks once he sees Jim. In Jim he finds the companionship he was missing, and this is where readers can see their bond begin to take shape. We also see the mutual reliance between Huck and Jim. Huck is dependent on Jim for companionship and Jim is safer with Huck than he would ever be on his own. Both bring a certain je ne sais quoi to the relationship, which allows for a powerful dynamic in which the pair thrive despite the circumstances. Huck brings a protection of sorts whilst Jim provides the knowledge that he’s absorbed throughout his years. This creates an environment for their mutual reliance as both men have something to offer to the other. This relationship is the significance of the novel that Marx believes that the ending has jeopardized. Morrison also draws attention to the importance of their relationship, “…the healing properties Huck longs for, is made possible by Jim’s active, highly vocal affection. It is in Jim’s company that the dread of contemplated nature disappears, that even storms are beautiful and sublime, that real talk… takes place” (301).

However, neither Jim nor Huck are completely altruistic in their actions and though we see an abundance of kindness and mutual reliance which strengthens their bond as the novel progresses, there are also several acts of self-reliance and self-preservation. The first of these instances we observe when Jim hides the identity of the dead man they found in the house that was floating on the river. It is not until the end of the novel that Jim reveals that the man was Huck’s father. Jim looks at the man and says to Huck, “It’s a dead man…Come in, Huck, but don’t look at his face – it’s too gashly” (140), after which he covers up the face under the guise of protecting Huck from the sight. But later in the novel we see that Jim was truly hiding the identity of Pap. Jim’s motive was purely self-interest, and this was the perfect act of self-reliance. Jim knew that he needed Huck and was under the impression that if Huck discovered his father was dead, he would no longer need to keep running. Due to this he decided that it would be in his self-interest to ensure Huck had a reason to keep running by not revealing the dead man’s identity. This was a moment where Jim was truly self-reliant and self-sustaining. When we find out Jim’s true reason for not wanting Huck to see the dead man’s face, our understanding of the relationship between Jim and Huck deepens. This is an important moment Marx may have overlooked as it shows the strength of Jim’s character and his agency. Marx believes that the events on Phelps Farm simply make Jim a pawn in Tom and Huck’s game, but in the moment Jim decided to hide the identity of Pap, he becomes the marionettist and Huck the marionette. Both Jim and Huck were pawns at one point or another but that does not diminish their humanity. Jim’s behavior helped to teach Huck “social and individual responsibility” (302), according to Morrison, and I am inclined to believe this. The world does not revolve about any one person, meaning that as human beings we must be reliant upon and considerate of others, but that does not diminish our instincts to survive and our self-reliance. This is one of the messages Mark Twain was delivering in the novel and is the mark Marx has missed by criticizing the plot’s twist.

Jim’s action of hiding Pap’s death can be contrasted with Huck’s deciding to run away with Jim. However, Huck’s intentions were not completely free of fault. When Huck visits town and speaks to Mrs. Judith Loftus, he learns that many believe Jim had killed Huck. Upon hearing that Mrs. Loftus’ husband is heading to Jackson Island in search of Jim, Huck rushes to him and exclaims, “They’re after us!” (147). Marx identifies this as a crucial moment in the novel where Huck is said to have exercised true camaraderie. The truth is the men are after Jim and they truly believe Huck is dead. Huck could very well have sent Jim on his way, but instead he joins forces with Jim. He accepts mutual responsibility and allows for mutual reliance to transpire. This is the significance Marx alludes to in his essay. The multifaceted relationship Huck and Jim share is very important to the novel. I agree with Marx where he acknowledges the significance of the relationship between Huck and Jim. Their connection portrays so many themes and important lessons. However, the important (and good) moments between them are not limited to those outside the boundaries of Phelps Farm and neither are the bad limited to within the borders of Phelps Farm. Despite the weight to their relationship and their mutual reliance, the truth remains that Jim needs Huck to survive just as Huck needs Jim. If Jim didn’t have Huck to steer the path and protect him, then he would no doubt have been captured, whilst Huck needed Jim’s companionship to keep the loneliness at bay. He also needed the older man for guidance, as Jim had a world of experience and expertise and could teach Huck the things in life that school and civilization could not. Although this decision to keep running with Jim fosters mutual reliance, it is mainly built on self-reliance. The decision to join forces is mainly for self-preservation. They both know they need the other to make it through this journey and make the decision that is in their best interest. This changes as the book continues because in the chapters to come, we see their relationship transform and the two make decisions for the other, seemingly disregarding their own self-interest, though their self-reliance resurfaces.

There are several instances of Huck going against the grain and being compassionate and considerate of Jim and his plight. In chapter fifteen he humbles himself and apologizes to Jim after playing a mean prank on him. He pretends that getting separated from Jim is all in Jim’s dreams. This trick deeply upsets Jim as he was very worried about Huck and grateful when they were reunited. When Huck is properly chided by Jim, he soon swallows his pride and apologizes, which “[he] warn’t ever sorry for [it] afterwards…” (162). This is the moment we see the novel taking that turn toward the two truly being concerned with one another. They are no longer absorbed by their own plight but are instead invested in each other. Huck continues this way throughout the journey downstream. He continuously battles with the gap between what he was taught is wrong and what he ultimately feels and believes is right. When Huck is faced with the decision between writing to Miss Watson about Jim, which society has taught him is the right thing, and breaking Jim free, which will, in his mind, certify him a spot in hell, he decides to go to hell. This is the crowning moment where we see Huck putting Jim’s predicament before his own self-interest. Huck makes the ultimate sacrifice for a friend. Not to say that Jim hasn’t made sacrifices of his own. Jim has sacrificed many nights of sleep to keep watch and allow Huck to get rest. This is in direct opposition to his own self-interest. Another example of Jim’s putting himself on the line for Huck is when he helps Tom get medical attention after being shot. Jim could very well have taken off, but according to Huck, “he was white inside” (280). This is a rather horrid statement which is of utmost significance to the novel. This is because despite the changes we have seen in Huck, he is still influenced by society and associates the black skin-tone with sub-par or worse whilst white men are noble and great. We have seen immense growth in Huck, but he is still strongly influenced by his upbringing and a society where enslavement is commonplace and is the only norm Huck has been exposed to. In Huck’s mind calling Jim white inside is a great compliment, despite the truth that the audience understands, which is that the statement is dehumanizing and demeaning.

Leo Marx argues that the ending takes away from the meaning of the novel. Marx claims, “Huckleberry Finn …transcends the narrow limits of its conventions. But the ending does not. During the final extravaganza we are forced to put aside many of the mature emotions evoked earlier…” (294). I strongly disagree. Marx believes “the most obvious thing wrong with the ending, then, is the flimsy contrivance by which Clemens frees Jim… He makes little attempt to account for Ms. Watson’s change of heart, a change particularly surprising in view of Jim’s brazen escape” (294). Marx focuses on the lack of explanation instead of noting that Ms. Watson was accepting responsibility for her cruel actions. He begins his essay by critiquing what happened on Phelps Farm. However, the importance of Phelps Farm is not the obvious actions, but the meaning behind the actions. I truly believe the events on Phelps Farm tie the novel together. Throughout the journey both Huck and Jim have their own intention and motivation, but somehow they end up caring for and trusting each other. The man and the young boy form a friendship that leads Jim to trust in Huck to help him despite the ordeal Tom is making of the whole process. What happened on the Phelps farm is representative of the plight African-Americans faced in order to attain their freedom. They were constantly tested and teased; they were often manipulated and stage-managed. However, this did not break Jim’s trust in Huck, nor did Huck lose sight of the purpose of his mission. They continued to exercise mutual-reliance, and this allowed Huck to see the importance of interdependence, trust, and support. This allowed for Huck to see Jim as more than just a “nigger,” but as a comrade and a pillar of potency. The challenges that Tom orchestrated did not deter the alliance Huck and Jim shared and that is why the ending is so important. Huck “light[ing] out to the Territory” was equally as significant. Huck had learned quite a bit about the importance of dependence but that did not diminish the importance of independence and self-reliance. Morrison sums up the growth we see in Huck best: “it is important to note that the lessons of his growing but secret activism begin to be punctuated by speech, not silence, by moves toward truth, rather than quick lies” (302). The quick lies she refers to are Huck’s quick-witted responses when he is placed in a difficult situation. He would often produce lies that would help him extricate himself and Jim from the challenges they faced. However, at the end of the novel we see Huck telling the truth and disclosing his alliance to Jim. He has a better sense of right and wrong and it is evident in the growth he has underwent throughout the novel.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has received a lot of flak for its ending, but the ending can be argued to be the best part. The relationship Huck and Jim have fostered is not to be broken down by Tom’s tomfoolery but is instead strengthened because they have withstood another test of time. The relationship Huck shares with Jim has a lot to offer to audiences as there are so many lessons to be learnt from their interactions. It is important to be able to exercise independence and individuality, but no man is an island. One person does not have all the talents or the knowledge and there needs to be some balance to independence. There comes a point when we must become interdependent and lean on each other for support. This novel still has a lot to offer. Society still has a long way to go before people start allowing for the bridge between independence and dependence to form. There’s much we can learn from Huck, the key lesson being that independence, or self-reliance, is important, but without dependence, or mutual-reliance, it can be awfully lonesome. This is an issue that we battle with in everyday life. It appears in politics, laws, race, and education. We constantly face the battle of being independent, but the true success happens when we are interdependent and inter-reliant.

Works Cited

Marx, Leo. “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Tilling and Huckleberry Finn.” Vol. II The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed Robert S. Levine, Shorter Ninth ed., New York, Norton & Co., 2017, 292-294.

Morrison, Toni. “Introduction to Huckleberry Finn.” Vol. II The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed Robert S. Levine, Shorter Ninth ed., New York, Norton & Co., 2017, 300-302.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Vol. II The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed Robert S. Levine, Shorter Ninth ed., New York, Norton & Co., 2017, 108-290.

Course: ENG 222 American Literature II, Spring 2019
Assignment: Literary Analysis
Instructor: Jeff Partridge
Instructor comments: In this essay, Micalyia Douglas constructs a nuanced argument in support of the Phelps Farm scene that closes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, citing relevant evidence from the text and utilizing the arguments of two critics included in the Norton Anthology of American Literature to carve out space for her own views. In this, she fulfills the parameters of the assignment, and she does so skillfully: the essay is well written, balanced, patiently expounded, and lucid. Micalyia avoids the tendency to set up one of the critics as a straw man, but rather recognizes the merits of the argument she disagrees with and not just what she sees as its deficiencies. Finally, the essay is more than an argument on the ending of Twain’s novel, but a thesis on self-reliance as, one might say, an American ideal in need of companionship. Note: the author is proud of her Jamaican linguistic heritage and declined my suggestions to change words like “learnt” and “whilst.”



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