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Critical Analysis Of Huckleberry Finn

7748 words - 31 pages

Critical Analysis of Huckleberry Finn

In outlawing reading for motive, moral, and plot, the notice
proleptically--if unsuccessfully--attempts to ward off what in fact
has become an unquestioned assumption behind most interpretations of
Huckleberry Finn, namely, the premise that the text affords a critique
of its extraliterary context by inveighing against the inequities of
racism. In Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor James M. Cox analyzes why
such readings of the novel are problematic. His contention, anomalous
with respect to Mark Twain criticism in general, is that the novel
mounts an attack against conscience, specifically the conscience of
the moral reader. He locates this attack in the last ten chapters of
the novel--the famous Phelps farm episode--and maintains that the
discomfort and disapproval readers feel about Tom's cruelty toward Jim
stems from their own identification with Tom:

If the reader sees in Tom's performance a rather shabby and safe bit
of play, he is seeing no more than the exposure of the approval with
which he watched Huck operate. For if Tom is rather contemptibly
setting a free slave free, what after all is the reader doing, who
begins the book after the fact of the Civil War? . . . when Tom
proclaims to the assembled throng who have witnessed his performance
that Jim `is as free as any creature that walks this earth,' he is an
exposed embodiment of the complacent moral sentiment on which the
reader has relied throughout the book. And to the extent the reader
has indulged the complacency he will be disturbed by the ending.[2]

Cox proceeds to move his argument to a more general level by showing
how the novel exposes the principle upon which morality, and its
internalized representative, conscience, are constructed. As "an agent
of aggression--aggression against the self or against another,"
conscience deprives the individual of free choice and subjects him or
her to painful restraint (Cox, Mark Twain, p. 177).

{2} While Cox's reading compellingly provides the grounds for
understanding the rationale behind the notice at the beginning of the
novel, I will argue that conscience, while an "agent of aggression,"
is represented as an ambivalent force whose effects, while
undisputably violent, cannot be dissociated from a certain
epistemological or cognitive necessity.

{3} Cox's analysis of the novel's depiction of conscience as enacting
self- and other-directed aggression and as a constraint upon free
choice certainly describes the spirit in which Huck flees from the
moral sensibility of the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson.
When Huck climbs out of the window and joins Tom on his evening
adventures, he attempts to elude the vestments of society, both
literally and figuratively: like clothing, the metaphorical terms that
the Widow imposes...

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