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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
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FORM AND STRUCTURE

As with any published work, Huckleberry Finn has had its critics. Some people have said, for example, that Twain has Huck say certain things that no uneducated kid could ever have thought of. Others have said that some of the comic scenes in the novel are badly placed, coming immediately after tragic events.

But it's on the subject of structure that most criticisms of the book are made. Even among readers who like the book, a large portion will admit that they were disappointed with the last quarter-the section in which Tom Sawyer puts Jim and Huck through his meaningless "adventure" rituals.

Up until that point, the book has a pretty tight structure; and then, some people say, it wanders off into another story that has little to do with everything that went before. Not everyone agrees with this criticism. Before you decide whether or not you do, think about the structure of the novel.

The story divides pretty neatly into three sections. In the first section, Huck introduces himself, Tom, and Jim (briefly). He gives us a lot of information about what he thinks and how he's different from the people he knows. And we learn more about him by contrasting him with Tom. We also get a good serving of humor in the salty comments he makes about such people as Miss Watson. This section ends when Huck fakes his own murder and runs away.

The second-and longest-section has Huck running away from civilization and Jim running away from slavery. We meet Jim as a human being in this section, and learn a good deal more about what makes Huck tick. We get a pleasant view of life on the river, and a dim view of human nature. This is the section in which we come to understand why Huck wants to get away from the civilized world. The section ends when he goes to Uncle Silas' farm to find Jim. In the final section, Huck is back in civilized society, so solidly that he's living with Tom Sawyer's relatives. Once Tom shows up, the rest of the book is more about him than Huck or Jim. Jim becomes little more than a stage prop, and Huck is an observer, as Tom once again steals center stage.


Is that last section out of place in the novel, as some people charge? After winning our sympathy for Jim, did Twain make a mistake in letting Tom treat him like a piece of furniture, and in letting Huck go along just because of Tom's forceful personality?

Or did Twain have a good reason for including that long third section? Some writers have said he did. One of the explanations they offer is that Twain wanted to give Huck a chance actually to walk out on civilized society. To make that possible, Twain had to get Huck back into the world, and to show how that world contrasted with the one Huck was looking for.

Another explanation says that Twain brought Tom back into the story so that he could remove Huck from the limelight. Without Tom's shenanigans, Huck's real adventures, and all the good qualities they illustrated, would have made him a hero. And that's something he never could have dealt with. To keep Huck from having to face such a thing, these writers say, Twain included the Tom Sawyer chapters and allowed Huck to slip away quietly at the end.

You may agree that the last quarter of the novel seems thoughtlessly tacked on; or you may accept one of the explanations you've just read. A third possibility is that you have your own ideas on why the final section of the novel does or doesn't fit in with what comes before it.

In any case, the structure of Huck Finn is a topic on which many serious readers disagree. Whichever side of the debate you take, just be sure you have defensible reasons for it.

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