Critical Essays Freedom versus Civilization


 As with most works of literature, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn incorporates several themes developed around a central plot create a story. In this case, the story is of a young boy, Huck, and an escaped slave, Jim, and their moral, ethical, and human development during an odyssey down the Mississippi River that brings them into many conflicts with greater society. What Huck and Jim seek is freedom, and this freedom is sharply contrasted with the existing civilization along the great river. The practice of combining contrasting themes is common throughout Huck Finn, and Twain uses the resulting contradictions for the purposes of humor and insight. If freedom versus civilization is the overarching theme of the novel, it is illustrated through several thematic contradictions, including Tom's Romanticism versus Huck's Realism.

The Romantic literary movement began in the late eighteenth century and prospered into the nineteenth century. Described as a revolt against the rationalism that had defined the Neo-Classical movement (dominate during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century), Romanticism placed heavy emphasis on imagination, emotion, and sensibility. Heroic feats, dangerous adventures, and inflated prose marked the resulting literature, which exalted the senses and emotion over intellect and reason. Authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe all enjoyed immense popularity. In addition, the writers of the New England Renaissance — Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier — dominated literary study, and the public's appetite for extravagance appeared to be insatiable.

By the end of the 1870s, however, the great age of Romanticism appeared to be reaching its zenith. Bawdy humor and a realistic portrayal of the new American frontier were quickly displacing the refined culture of the New England literary circle. William Dean Howells described the new movement as "nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material." A new brand of literature emerged from the ashes of refined Romanticism, and this literature attacked existing icons, both literary and societal. The attack was not surprising, for the new authors, such as Mark Twain, had risen from middle-class values, and thus they were in direct contrast to the educated and genteel writers who had come before them. Literary Realism strove to depict an America as it really was, unfettered by Romanticism and often cruel and harsh in its reality. In Huck Finn, this contrast reveals itself in the guise of Tom and Huck.

Representing the Romantic movement, Tom gleefully pulls the logical Huck into his schemes and adventures. When the boys come together at the beginning of the novel to create a band of robbers, Tom tells the gang that if anyone whispers their secrets, the boy and his entire family will be killed. The exaggerated purpose of the gang is comical in itself; however, when the gang succeeds in terrorizing a Sunday-school picnic, Twain succeeds in his burlesque of Romanticism. The more Tom tries to convince Huck and the rest of the boys that they are stealing jewelry from Arabs and Spaniards, the more ridiculous the scene becomes. After the gang steals turnips and Tom labels them as jewelry, Huck finally decides to resign because he "couldn't see no profit in it."

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