Break Down the Barrier

February 28, 2008
Humor arises in every aspect of life. It serves as a tool for cheering people up, entertainment and a common insertion in everyday conversation. Most of the time, humor is used lightly, but some choose to utilize it differently. Kurt Vonnegut exclaimed, “The best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful.” Many writers and performers use comedy as a way to prove a point or inform others of the types of lives they are living. They attempt to break down social barriers present in people’s lives, hoping that somehow they can make a difference. Mark Twain uses this method in one of the most controversial books he has written.

At first glance, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn seems like a story about a boy and his crazy adventure, but after taking a closer look, one will find that there is a lot more to it. As the #5 most challenged book, Mark Twain’s novel uses offensive language, especially when referring to slaves, and encourages ideas controversial to the time of when the book was written. Some critics, such as Jane Smiley believe that the book gives more of a reason for white people to “convince themselves that they are not 'racist.” She continues on to explain that “If Huck feels positive toward Jim, and loves him, and thinks of him as a man, then that's enough. . . . White Americans always think racism is a feeling, and they reject it or they embrace it.” In contrast to Smiley, Leslie Gregory supports Twain’s writing. She believes that his writing enhances the beliefs of that time explaining that, “Twain completed Huckleberry Finn in 1884, at a time when black identity in American society was undefined. Even though blacks had been granted citizenship in 1870 by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, Southern white society still looked upon them as sub-human creatures without souls or feelings.” She views Twain’s writing style as realistic which supports his realist style of writing.
Throughout the novel, Huck Finn experiences and observes many dealings. Twain attempts to convey his own messages through Huck’s encounters. Violence is a topic mentioned in the novel. It is displayed through Sherburn and the lynchers, the feud between the Grangerfords and Shephersons, the tarring of the Duke and King, and the farmers who ultimately shoot Tom while trying to stop Jim from escaping. Many of these scenes of violence seem absolutely ridiculous when read, which is exactly what Twain wants his readers to think. He is trying to illustrate that it is human nature to get in fights over tiny issues, which in the long run, don’t even matter. Sometimes it gets so out of hand that people even end up forgetting what started the fight or why they continue with it. Twain demonstrates this through a conversation between Huck and Buck Grangerford about the Shepherdson-Grangerford feud. Huck asks, “Has this one been going on long, Buck?” to which Buck replies, “Well, I should reckon! It started thirty year ago, or som'ers along there. There was trouble 'bout something, and then a lawsuit to settle it; and the suit went agin one of the men, and so he up and shot the man that won the suit -- which he would naturally do, of course. Anybody would." (Twain 103). Huck continues to question this absurd custom, and we find out that neither Buck nor the rest of his living family knows who started the feud or what really sparked it. All they know is that they have to fight.

This ritual has been ingrained in Buck’s head for so long that it seems silly to think any differently. Huck has the same mindset when it comes to slavery. It has been the set precedent that slaves are to work and be slaves; it is wrong to help them and definitely out of the question to aid in their escape. Although Huck has been around these thoughts his whole life, he decides to journey with Jim and help him to freedom. Huck begins his adventure with Jim initially to get away from his life and start over new, but eventually he grows and realizes that there is a lot more to Jim than he originally thought. Huck learns to appreciate Jim as a real person and eventually, a friend. “Jim was gone! I set up a shout -- and then another -- and then another one; and run this way and that in the woods, whooping and screeching; but it warn't no use -- old Jim was gone. Then I set down and cried; I couldn't help it.” (Twain 201). Huck still has a lot more growing to do in relation to his moral sense, but the fact that he has started to drift from the standard thoughts of the time and is ready to accept new ideas, shows that people can, over time, grow and move past the traditional ideals of society.

In order to affect people and actually make a change, a writer needs to have an successful method and get his point across. Twain satirizes and speaks through characters to achieve his point. He pokes fun at those people who start and continue with fights, and at how suddenly people can turn on a certain person and seek revenge on them. A drunken Sherburn becomes the victim in this position. Twain uses this opportunity to make a statement about human nature. He uses Sherburn to convey his beliefs that “The average man’s a coward” and “The average man don’t like trouble and danger” (Twain 139). Twain strongly believes these ideas which he also states in his essay “The Damned Human Race.” He describe that humans and their moral sense, is what keeps them on the low level that they are on. Twain says, “[Moral sense] manifestly is a disease. Rabies is bad, but it is not so bad as this disease”(4).

Huck and Jim’s adventure is set up like an odyssey. They set out on a long journey that is interrupted by memorable experiences and hardships. Through these encounters, Twain displays many examples where moral sense clouds people’s decision-making skills, such as Sherburn’s lynching, the feud, the Royal Nonesuch cheating people for their money, and Tom risking Jim’s well-being by having his own adventure while freeing him. Twain uses his realist approach to express this message to his readers.

Twain’s method of using satire allows him to effectively achieve his message and break down barriers. He uses the Grangerfod-Shepherdson feud to show how outrageous grudges can be, but also the consequences that arise from them. The Grangerfords and Shepherdson’s would risk any member of their families just to get back at the other family. The result is that a Shepherdson kills Buck. Twain touches the reader by killing off a character that they grow attached to, which makes them become more aware.

Twain’s message that people can over time see blacks as real people is achieved mostly at the end of the novel. Huck gradually comes to accept this idea during their voyage, but he also gets Tom hooked on the idea. Together they attempt to free Jim from bondage. They concoct an absurd plan, constantly changing it to become more adventurous even though Tom knows that Jim is already a free slave. Tom’s plan adds humor to the storyline and sucks the reader into the novel. It makes the reader want Tom and Huck’s plan to work out and Jim to be freed.

Ultimately, at the end, Tom gets shot by the farmers and Jim helps nurse him back to health. When the doctor confesses “He ain’t no bad nigger, gentlemen; that’s what I think about him”(Twain 272), the other citizens come to realize Jim as a real person too. Tom’s amusement and joy at getting shot prompts Jim to take action, which leads to him being accepted by the rest of the community.

“Comedy is there to break open the box that holds the untouchable and unsayable (Rivers qtd. in Ansen). It started with Mark Twain and his attempt to change society through humor. Now, more than 100 years later, it is still trying to be done; most recently by the movie Borat. “Borat paints a portrait of the American subconscious that would give you nightmares—if you weren’t laughing so hard (Ansen 1). Humor is an effective method to get one’s point across, and the method will be used for many more years to come. “Break the next barrier down! That’s the joy of comedy” (Rivers qtd. in Ansen).
Many people that Huck comes across in the novel haven’t had any form of formal education, yet they seem to know more than those who have had it. They appear to possess more common sense than the educated man, and it both hurts and helps Huck during his escape. When Huck arrives at Mrs. Judith Loftus’ house dressed up as a girl, Judith isn’t fooled for a bit. She runs Huck through certain tests, without his knowing, and comes to the conclusion that he is indeed a boy. “And don’t go about women in that old calico. You do a girl tolerable poor, but you might fool men, maybe.”(Twain 59). Huck also is able to fool the men with the story that he and his father have smallpox, and by doing so he is able to keep Jim away from being recaptured.

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