Mark Twain had presented his argument against Walter Scott in Life on the Mississippi. He returns to it in Huckleberry Finn and in fact makes it a principle, if submerged, theme of the novel. It explains some of the unpleasantness of the novel’s final episode.
Southerners developed an ethical system that was a fantasy based on novels; that is Twain’s argument. The novels are not really the issue, just useful stand-ins for a critique of Southern culture – the over-emphasis on honor, the duels and feuds, the glorification of violence, and the pride in lost causes – all of this on top of a dehumanizing system of chattel slavery, which was also part of the fantasy, allowing slave-owners to think of themselves as feudal chiefs.
Tom Sawyer is the novel’s representative of this ideology. He wants to turn everything into an adventure story, a less innocent pastime than it first seems. By the end of a novel, Sawyer is revealed as a sociopath, completely indifferent to human suffering and all too proud of his new bullet wound. The irony of that detail is pretty ugly.
I love Huckleberry Finn for his independence and his ability to make moral decisions – “’All right, then, I'll go to hell’” (Ch. 31), right? “It was awful thought, and awful words, but they was said.” The escaped slave Jim becomes his friend, as human as himself.
Yet Finn cannot free himself from Tom Sawyer. Jim and Huck come upon a steamboat wreck. Jim says skip it; Huck says:
“Do you reckon Tom Sawyer would ever go by this thing? Not for pie, he wouldn’t? He’d call it an adventure – that’s what he’d call it; and he’d land on that wreck if it was his last act. And wouldn’t he throw style into it?... I wish Tom Sawyer was here.” (Ch. 12)
Six pages later, just by the way, we learn the name of the steamboat:
“On the wreck.”
“Why, there ain’t but one.”
“What, you don’t mean the Walter Scott?” (Ch. 13)
Huck had also wished Tom were present while he was emptying out Pap’s cabin and faking his own death. Whatever problems a reader might have with the final episode of the novel, when Tom Sawyer engineers Jim’s escape from imprisonment, but only on Tom’s insane terms, as if they were all in a Dumas novel, you can’t say that Twain had not set things up. Thematically, the ending logically follows.
The episode is deeply uncomfortable. However resourceful Huck is on his own, he is crushed in the presence of Tom Sawyer, servile, even. He achieves a powerful moral breakthrough about his friend Jim and then abandons it without a fight. I understand why people dislike the ending. It is unpleasant.
No more unpleasant, though, than what Jim has been experiencing throughout the novel. He already lives away from his family, his wife and two children living on a Missouri farm while he works in town. He flees slavery because of a threat that he will be sold away from his family. He hopes to work in Illinois and buy his family. The further he floats south – the longer Tom Sawyer keeps him chained up in prison – the more he risks not only personal violence but the loss of his family.
For Huck Finn, family is something to escape, plus he is just a boy. How can he understand any of this? The young reader has the same excuse. The adult reader ought to struggle to bring Jim out from the background.
Much of the above is indebted to John Keene’s story “Rivers,” from Counternarratives (2015), in which Jim tells his story. It is a fine piece of literary criticism.