Realism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Realism, often an equivocal and elastic term, is a literary device that many writers of literature have purposed to portray amidst an ever changing world. However, the portrayal of realism or rather the discernment of realism in various works of literature has been subject to critique due to discordant interpretations of realism. As such, one of the interpretations of realism is that it refers to any literary or artistic representation of life in an accurate and faithful manner, devoid of literary conventions, false concepts or misplaced beautification and glorification of the world. Basically, realism is the careful description of everyday life, with socialist realism mostly referring to the lives of lower or middle class characters. Realism can also be interpreted as the literary movement in Europe, Americana and England that was forged from naturalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Is Mark Twain a realist? More so, does Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” portray realism in the characters of Huck and Jim as they deal with freedom and civilization or lack thereof?
One perception of realism in literature is that it is not achievable. This view is emphasized by Dauber who contends that people can only come close to or get a glimpse of realism in their imagination as readers (Dauber, 1999, p. 386). The utilization of similes and metaphors helps readers to formulate within their imagination, a panorama whereby plausible events take place. While this notion of realism advanced by Dauber is correct if not permissible, it is impossible to dispute the existence of realism in literature given that a realistic view of the society is often portrayed through texts. It is for this reason that George Becker’s definition of realism is of extreme importance in literary analysis as it deems descriptive terms such as realism, romanticism and classicism as not only necessary but also valuable throughout history (Becker, 1949, 185). This definition of realism is based on American and European fiction that divides realism into three categories, that is, the realism of subject matter, realistic mode and philosophical realism. As such, in the book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the use of various dialects, details derived from documentation and observation and detailed description of nature and the river are realist observations. This is evident in the substantial amount of vernacular speech utilized by Twain in the book which serves to relay vital information about the characters and give them life. Moreover, the escape of a slave from captivity and his recapture is evidence of realism as it exemplifies the reliance on the representative rather than the exceptional in the plot of the novel. Realism is based on an objective rather than an idealistic or subjective perception of human experience and nature (Pizer, 1961, p. 264). The descriptions of slavery in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” are objective. For instance, Huck faces a moral dilemma between contacting Miss Watson following the escape of Jim or letting the matter go as a form of gratitude for the debt he owes Jim for assisting him on their journey down the river. Thus, the first portion of the book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” that is, the first thirty-one chapters conform to the realist mode.
Notwithstanding, categories only exist to guide readers to form an opinion about the writer in terms of whether he or she is a romanticist, realist or classicist. The portrayal of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as a realist text is widely agreed upon by critics. This is because, given the difficulties faced a slave on the run in the modern context of the book, it is plausible that Jim would end up being recaptured and tortured, mutilated or lynched as retribution for his act of bravery. Moreover, it is common for people with freedom of thought to face internal conflicts. After fending for himself for years, Huck was equipped with practical competence and common sense which he used to analyze ideologies and make decisions when he experienced internal conflicts based on society’s expectations and values. A good example of an internal conflict that Huck experiences is his desire to help Jim flee captivity and get his freedom; a decision that would have made him an accomplice to crime. However, Huck rejects the urge not to be an accomplice to crime and instead offers Jim help based on his own self-derived morality regarding what he contemplates as the right thing to do in such a situation. The coherence of this context to realism is overwhelming as internal conflicts that involve following the law or doing what one considers as morally right or justified is plausible and real moral dilemmas in the society. However, the Twain cannot be considered as realist based on the first thirty-one chapters of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
The end of the book is to an extent disappointing or an anti-climax. This is due to the “brave” act of Tom to set free a slave in the name of Jim who is already free which is whimsical even though it is a plausible ending. The first thirty-one chapters take the reader on a practical, realistic and emotional journey of a slave determined to get his freedom and his colleague who’s boisterous and “free-soul” nature forged from years of independence see him reject the Southern beliefs and values that glorify the superiority of whites and slavery. The humorous nature of the Huck’s wild schemes and pranks in his return to center stage at the end of the book is a missed opportunity by the author to reiterate the rejection of the Southern beliefs in white supremacy and slavery. While it can be argued that the extensive use of irony and satire by Twain is an effort to denounce racism and other vile social issues prevalent in the South and that his use of humor is only a vehicle for readers to consider these ideas in a more palatable way, these literary devices are an offence to plausibility and the realist tradition.
It is more than comprehendible that Miss Watson would not grant Jim is freedom and thus, the interjection of humor by Twain is inconsistent with realism depicted in the first portion of the book. Moreover, the transformation of Huck from bravely helping Jim and brooding over his moral position in assisting a slave to his clown-like demeanors or actions is a plot that is not befitting of realism. The ending is more of a reflection of the conflict that is faced by the author, but represented in the character of Huck. This is because Twain wanted to have an ending that criticized the Southern society and its values while at the same time gaining its approval. By freeing an already free slave, Huck becomes a white hero who avoids going to hell and neither defies any moral codes of the South nor breaks the law. This is a disappointing retreat and let-down from the dramatic and formidable decision by Huck to reject the Southern society and its values that gloried slavery and white supremacy and entertain the possibility of him going to hell rather than betray Jim. Therefore, while the plot of the book is based on the reality of racism and freedom in the face of civilization, for the better part, that is, the ending ought to have portrayed a resounding denunciation of the Southern beliefs in white supremacy and slavery devoid of humor and satire that could dilute this message. Nonetheless, Twain fails in the context and renders this book an inaccurate depiction of realism.
Becker, G. J. “Realism: An Essay In Definition.” Modern Language Quarterly, vol 10, no. 2, 1949, pp. 184-197. Duke University Press, doi:10.1215/00267929-10-2-184.
Dauber, K. “Realistically Speaking: Authorship In The Late Nineteenth Century And Beyond.” American Literary History, vol 11, no. 2, 1999, pp. 378-390. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1093/alh/11.2.378.
Pizer, Donald. “Late Nineteenth-Century American Realism: An Essay In Definition.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol 16, no. 3, 1961, pp. 263-269. University Of California Press, doi:10.1525/ncl.19126.96.36.199p0091p.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. New York, Sterling, 1884,.