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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
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The word satire is used in different ways. The dictionary gives more than one definition, and a whole list of synonyms. Without getting involved in any technical definitions, I'm going to use satirize to mean "making a comment on something by ridiculing it."

You've already seen Twain satirize such things as religion, superstition, and slavery, so you're familiar with the technique. The following episode, however, is the first in a series of extended satirical comments on the society that Twain-and Huck-grew up in.

In fact, some of these episodes are so extended that some critics have said they interfere with the flow of the novel, that Twain should have shortened them or left them out altogether. After you've read the whole book, you can decide on that for yourself. For now, be prepared to follow Huck on a series of visits ashore that lead to some pretty bitter comments on human nature. (The comments come not from Huck, but from Twain.) The first of these episodes is in Chapters 17 and 18, which you should read as a unit.

The barking dogs that surround Huck quiet down and back off at a command from inside the house. What follows is a series of suspicious questions and cautious instructions about moving slowly toward the house, all coming from a disembodied voice inside.

The people inside obviously think Huck is someone else. When he is finally let in, and the door immediately bolted behind him, he finds himself surrounded by men aiming pistols at him. They satisfy themselves that he isn't a Shepherdson, and their behavior immediately changes completely.

The Grangerfords become courteous, solicitous of his comfort, concerned about his welfare. They accept his story about being an orphan who fell overboard from a steamboat, and they not only feed him, but have him move in with Buck, a family member about his own age.

The suspicious behavior at their first meeting turns out to be the result of a decades-long feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, but Huck quickly forgets this early treatment. Instead, he concentrates on what he sees as the marks of a fine, educated, aristocratic Southern family.

This is one of those scenes in which you can almost hear Mark Twain blowing a bugle to attract our attention from behind Huck's back. Twain grew up in a society that had a high regard for families like the Grangerfords. As an adult he came to feel contempt for people who used a family tree to hide inner decay.

Huck, being as simple as he is, will tell us about how everything looks on the surface. Twain wants us to look beyond what Huck is saying, to see more than he does.

For example, Huck describes in loving detail several of the decorations he finds in the Grangerfords' house. They're all in pretty poor taste, but Huck thinks they're just terrific.

The contrast is a little more obvious when Huck talks about the drawings left behind by young Emmeline Grangerford. They're dark and gloomy, as he tells us, but he doesn't realize how maudlin and sentimental they are. Read his description of what the family does to celebrate the dead girl's birthday each year, and see if you could have told it with a straight face as he does.

He does get in one good line about her when he says, "I reckoned that with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard." But he seems to be saying even this seriously, not for the laugh that it deserves.

If the drawings don't make Twain's point adequately, the poem drives it home with a sledgehammer. It's very difficult to read "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd" without at least cracking a smile. (Dec'd is an abbreviation for deceased.)

The high-flown language is suitable for the passing of a president or a king. The subject matter is not only an insignificant boy, but one who came to an end in the manner of a cartoon character-by falling down a well. (The death of the boy isn't funny; the phrasing of it is, especially when the line is surrounded by the flowery language of the rest of the poem.)

Huck's final comment on this poem is, "If Emmeline Grangerford could make poetry like that before she was fourteen, there ain't no telling what she could a done by and by." Huck means it as a compliment. Twain is breathing a sigh of relief that something prevented her from going on, even if it had to be death itself.

The comments Huck makes after reading the poem are in the same vein-the admiration of a simple boy, which you aren't expected to take seriously. In this chapter Twain is poking gentle fun at the Grangerfords. He's setting us up for the bitter comment, which comes

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