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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
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CHAPTER 18

"Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family."

Chapter 18 begins with this straightforward appraisal of the colonel by Huck. By the time you reach the end of the chapter, you'll see that Twain wrote those sentences with cutting sarcasm.

Huck's description of the colonel and some of his relatives is intended to show us how upright, how admirable, and how aristocratic the Grangerfords are. The colonel, for example, commands not only respect, but awe. He always walks straight, he's never frivolous or loud. He has all the characteristics of a being several cuts above the general run of the human race.

His family follows rigid rules of propriety. They have a dress code, and they carry themselves like aristocrats. Taken altogether, they're the most admirable people Huck has ever known.

But right after this description, he says something that might set an alarm going in the back of your mind. "Each person had their own nigger to wait on them," he tells us. (He adds that the slave assigned to him had an easy time, because Huck wasn't used to being waited on. But, of course, he would never conclude that this contrast hinted at some defect in the Grangerfords.)

Soon after he tells us how wonderful these people are, he recounts a conversation in which he asks Buck about the feud with the Shepherdsons. He asks a number of pointed questions, each of which makes the Grangerfords look pretty silly, but neither he nor Buck seems to see this.


From this conversation, he learns such things as these: it isn't clear exactly when the feud started; there may be no one left who remembers what the original argument was about; a large number of people from both families have been killed in the feud; many others have been injured; just this year Buck's fourteen-year-old cousin was killed; the boy chose to face his killer rather than be shot in the back while trying to get away; Buck thinks the Shepherdsons are brave and admirable men.

In giving us this conversation, what is Twain suggesting about these people? How intelligent can it be to continue a murderous feud whose origin has been forgotten? How admirable is a pride that allows family members to die for no apparent reason? What kind of people would teach their children to accept murder-and being murdered-as the normal course of events?

And finally, there is that admiration which Buck has for the Shepherdsons. He expresses it so forcefully that it must be a part of the family creed along with all the rest of the nonsense.

This kind of respect for the enemy is what you might expect to find among opponents in sports. These people seem to think they're involved in a game. But it's a "game" in which their family members are dying.

The gentle fun that Twain seemed to be having in the previous chapter has by now turned to contempt. By the end of this chapter, even Huck is so disgusted by what he witnesses that he can't tell us about the details, for fear that he'll be as sick as he was when he saw them.

But even if their actions make him sick, Huck is still slow to learn the real lesson-that many of the people he looks up to are not as admirable as he thinks. Because a favor he did for one of the Grangerfords led to this latest outbreak of warfare, he holds himself responsible for the bloodshed. To Huck, the rules of his "betters" are still to be obeyed, even if those rules are supporting something as stupid as this feud. Huck also tells us in this chapter of how he gets back together with Jim, who has repaired the raft, which was damaged but not destroyed. Huck is very happy to get away from this particular branch of civilization, and he and Jim agree that "there warn't no home like a raft, after all."

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