Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stands as a sempiternal example of satire in which the author expresses his viewpoints through situations and characters of the novel. The book traces the exploits of a young boy, Huckleberry Finn, and his eventual friend, a runaway slave named Jim. They escape their old lives, using the Mississippi River to travel to new ones, and along the way, encounter a crazy cast of characters. They witness people’s stupidity and life’s irony through various occurrences with people like the Grangerfords, the duke and king (and the towns that they scam), and the Phelps’s community. One of the best examples that Twain uses to demonstrate his views about man and society is seen through the clever Colonel Sherburn and a speech he gives to an angry mob. Through examples from Huck Finn’s adventures, it is evident that Twain possesses the belief that man cannot make decisions for himself but relies too much on other’s opinions.
A primary example of Twain’s belief is demonstrated through Colonel Sherburn. The colonel shoots a man on the street, and the town, naturally, is distressed. An angry mob that is looking for a lynching grows, and they travel to the colonel’s home to do the dirty deed; however, the colonel meets them on the porch, staring and fearless. He expresses his disapproval in their actions and claims that not one man there would ever lynch someone unless it was night or were adorned with masks. “The average man’s a coward” (172). He believes, as does Twain, that no real man can do any sort of action without another man supporting him and holding his hand. On the other hand, he also distinguishes that a man will do something (whether he desires to or not) just to belong and to mask his existing and prevalent cowardice. Sherburn accuses the mob of not wanting to be there at all, “You didn’t want to come . . . you’re afraid to back down—afraid you’ll be found out to be what you are—cowards—and so you raise a yell . . . and come raging up here” (173). Twain uses a Southern, angry mob to eloquently describe man’s inherent dislike for being his own man.
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Another example of man’s inability to make his own decisions is depicted within the Grangerford family. Huck spends some time with this family where he discovers that they are waging a family war with their neighbours: the Shephardsons. No one in either family knows exactly how the feud began, but both sides continue to fight and kill. Huck even questions Buck Grangerford about the cause of the feud, and Buck replies, “Laws, how do I know? It was so long ago” (128). Also, the Grangerford and Shepherdson feud paints an honest picture of the consequences that arise when one decides to be his own man and follow his heart. Harney Shepherdson and Sophia Grangerford fall in love and decide that they should elope; nobody in either family approves of them being together.
Their secretive and swift escape proves enraging to both families and causes massive bloodshed of a battle between both. Because a feud started long ago for an unknown reason, most men in both families die, allowing no one to freely live and make future decisions (136). The families act as secretive mobs, as Sherburn describes it, and allows no one to be an individual.
A third example of man relying too much on other’s opinions lies with the duke and the king. They are two con men that Huck and Jim meet who deceive (or attempt to deceive) every person they encounter. One such deception is with a terrible show they produce called “The Royal Nonesuch”; it is designed to encourage many to come so they proclaim that it is so risqué that women and children are not admitted. Basically, the king cavorts about a stage naked and painted in bright colours for just a few moments. While the audience finds this amusing, they feel seriously cheated and thus decide to punish the two scamming gentlemen. The judge stands up and declares that they should pretend the show is amazing, and convince all of their friends to witness the show, that way, everyone “will be in the same boat” (179). Even though people really want to do something to make the king and duke learn a lesson while suffering, the crowd (as a whole) decides to be cowardly, in order to not be laughed at, and thus miss their opportunity to punish the two schemers (180).
Another great example of man’s inability to decide things for himself occurs shortly after Jim is recaptured by the doctor at the Phelps’s. In this section, Twain proves that men are idiotic and ignorant. When the men from the village are handed Jim, they spend all of their time cussings and beating him so that he is in a sorrowful state. They even plan on hanging the poor man to make an “example to all the other [slaves] around there” even though he is not theirs (329). However, the doctor, who witnessed how good a person Jim really is, speaks on Jim’s behalf and the mob resists. The doctor says, “Don’t be no rougher on him than you’re obleeged to” (329), and they are not. This, once again, proves that men are cowards at heart. It proves that Sherburn is correct when he states that men do not enjoy violence (172).
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn proves to be an excellent example to portray Mark Twain’s views on life and society.
By using a character’s speech to an angry mob, Twain demonstrates that he believes that man is incapable of making his own decisions but needs constant approval from others. He also shows this through the Grangerfords, the king’s and duke’s actions, and the Phelps’s community. Twain not only gives his own opinion but delivers truth to the world. Man, generally speaking, seems to be incapable of making personal decisions. Examples of this are evident throughout history, including literature—and not just Mark Twain’s writings. For instance, if one examines Henry David Thoreau, especially the play about him: The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, he notices that Thoreau is an individual, while most people around him are not—even the ones who claim to be, like Ralph Waldo Emerson. Therefore, through an examination of history, literature, and even modern culture, it is clear that Mark Twain’s perspective is correct: man is incapable of making his own decisions, but (because of his hidden insecurities) craves other people’s approval.
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