The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is one of those great classics that you can read at different stages of life and get something different from it each time you read. I have heard others speak of reading it as an adventure story as a child, a commentary of slavery as a young adult, and even deeper meanings later in life. I can say the same for myself. The most memorable parts of the book, at my first read at age 12 or 13, were the humorous scenes. I have always enjoyed Twain’s wit, though it has felt more biting to me as time has gone on. In college I felt the unfairness of the choices that Huck and Jim were left with and found it much darker than the first time I read it. Reading it with my students this year I found it rich with questions to be explored: If the river is a metaphor of freedom for Huck and Jim, what is the meaning of its deep southward flow back into slave territory and the sort of slavery Huck and Jim encounter as “subjects” of the Duke and Dauphin? I was struck with the parallels to democracy that Huck and Jim experienced and the limitations the aptly named Duke and Dauphin place on their democracy when they boarded the raft. I pondered whether Jim was the coveted father figure to Huck that could not be found in Widow Douglas’s charity. I was interested in Twain’s view of Christianity as professed by Widow Douglas and its contradictions in Miss Watson.
I encourage you to pick up the book again. It is an easy read. Discuss the above questions with your kids. Here are a few more questions for thought:
Compare Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Do they change from the beginning of the novel to the end? How? Positive or negative changes?
What do you think of the justice meted out to the Duke and Dauphin?
Truth is an over-arching theme in the novel. if you refer to my Literature Study Guide, you will see truth is one of those classical virtues that we look for in art, especially literature, along with beauty and goodness. Where do the characters lie to themselves? To each other? What are the consequences of lying? Of telling the truth? Truth seems to be at the heart of this book. It is a theme that could be explored with every character in every chapter. I wonder what Twain would think of post-modernism.
What beliefs and assumptions is Twain asking the reader to examine?
What similarities can you find between the ideas Twain presents here and the ideas of other famous authors? Of Shakespeare? Of Cervantes? Tom seems to have a great deal in common with Don Quixote. Thomas Jefferson? John Locke? It is a favorite tool of ours to compare other writings and find similarities or contrasts. For instance, for quite some time after reading Reflections on the Revolution in France and The Rights of Man we asked ourselves how Thomas Paine would view each piece, then how would Edmund Burke view the same piece of literature. Do a comparison with what you have read recently. Did you read the Federalist Papers with me? What would Alexander Hamilton or James Madison think of the novel? Did their ideals for America seemed to be realized in Twain’s world?
I hope you enjoy your read! Join me reading The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass next.
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