In the middle section of Huckleberry Finn, Twain is offering a critique of the ‘sham grandeur’ and ‘sham chivalry’ of the Southern States. His perspective in the later 19th century was to see the once innocent freedoms of these states degenerate into sloth and hypocrisy, tainting the sense of true ‘Americanness’ which he recalled even from his days on the River in the 1850s.
He is savage in his criticism, not just of the ne’er do wells he creates but also in the credulous, greedy and lazy inhabitants of the various settlements reached by the raft. It is clear that his criticism is all reaching and also that Huck is sometimes torn between his conscience and his willingness to be led by the pair – after all, we learn in Chapter 19 that he sees through them, but has learned from his pap that ‘the best way to ge ton with his kind of people is to let them have their own way’.
This makes Huck complicit in the swindles and lies which follow, but does he have a choice?
Huck and Jim have floated down river into the South. Both are criminals in the eyes of the law. Huck’s burgeoning conscience is addressing his response to the issue of slavery at this point. He has just felt the guilt of not giving up Jim and is a troubled young man. He is not in a position to hand in the pair, once they have seen Jim, and has to go along with their wishes, including ceding control of the raft. From this point Jim and he are relegated to the raft and denied the shelter of the wigwam. It seems that the raft is now being overpowered by the malign force of the pair of con-artists in a metaphorical representation for the poisoning of the Southern States by a reliance on what Twain called ‘dreaming’ and for a search for an easy route to a fast buck.
The Dauphin and Duke emerge from the undergrowth on the run at the start of chapter 19. At the beginning of the chapter, Twain paints an idyllic picture of raft-life – untainted by the degeneracy of life ashore – for the last time Huck and Jim are relaxed and at ease, watching the river, smoking and living their lives to suit themselves. The spectre of ‘lonesomeness’ is raised once again in this opening, but Huck seems now to be able to stave it off by using nature as a source of solace. What is clear is tha the pair have no real purpose now. The journey has become aimless and the pair really are in the hands of nature as Twain shifts his focus to society and away from their relationship.
The Dauphin and Duke are chance companions, both swindlers and proud of it. They frankly retell their exploits and in a game of one – up – manship adopt their personas. Huck sees through their fictions, yet does nothing to hinder them at this stage. Twain has linked neatly to the earlier scene when Huck is teaching Jim French in Chapter 14 by the choice of royal title and allows himself, therefore to further suggest Jim’s naivety as he does believe in the pair, asking the Dauphin to teach him French and querying the behaviour of such august personages in Chapter 23. Huck decides it would be pointless to educate him further.
Twain’s critique is centred on three devices: The camp meeting preaching; the Royal Nonesuch and the defrauding of the Wilks sisters. Each in turn becomes more dangerous and each shows not only the criminal intentions of the pair, but also the weakness of mind of the townsfolk. The townsfolk receive their own savage critique in the scene of Boggs’ death,
The Camp Meeting (ch 20):
The pair are devising their next adventure. Whilst the Duke indulges in several little plans, including the beginnings of the Shakespeare joke, the King goes into action – not subtle but hugely effective. He and Huck attend a camp meeting – a church service held by itinerant preachers in frontier areas of the USA in the 19th century. At this event Huck links the activity of the preachers to those selling food and refreshment in their sheds and in his portrait of the 1000 or so attendees draws notice to the poverty of some and the sly courting of others. We are aware of the importance of religion in the Pioneer model and this section neatly shows how such event s have degenerated when attended by a gullible and emotional crowd, easily won over by the power of words.
The preachers are all described as excellent workers of a crowd. As they speak, the crowd respond in a collective hysteria and Twain stresses that the noise ‘drowns out’ the preaching itself. At this point, the King leaps into action and tells his story: a reformed pirate who needs money to return to the Indian Ocean to save the souls of his former comrades. He raises $87.75 by this work. His success is built solely on his ability to speak – a popular demagogue – and the utter gullibility of the crowd who are by implication not only taken in by the words of the church but also by those of the Dauphin.
Although the Duke is slightly chagrined at this success, he has raised some money by subtler means – establishing little scams at a business level and preparing a ruse whereby the raft can sail by day: Jim is to be tied up and a poster made to describe him as an escaped slave, recaptured. For the first time since leaving Hannibal, Jim is now to be tied up during the day. This will foreshadow his eventual selling in Chapter 31.
The Royal Nonesuch (ch 21-23)
Twain has much fun at the bowdlerised Shakespeare to be performed. The humour is not subtle and there is a sense of change on the raft – the excitement of rehearsal and the general sense of ownership by the Dauphin and Duke further remove Huck and Jim from their rural idyll. The town is now firmly on board.
After a lacklustre showing for the great Shakespearian actors, a new plan is hatched – The Royal Nonesuch. Billed as ‘Ladies and Children not admitted’ to raise the prospect of filth in the show, this seems fitting for a town described as being ‘nothing else but mud – mud as black as tar’ in which the main street was the scene for dogs baiting sows and in which the locals do little apart from chew tobacco and bet on the dogs – a lazy, run down town doing nothing to better itself. The arrival of Boggs is a monthly diversion watched with humour. His death is callous and brutal as well as unnecessary. In this aside Twain shows not only the degenerate nature of society but once again brings us face to face with the role of firearms in protecting some form of tainted honour. Sherburn murders Boggs in cold blood. The response is to lynch him – there seems to be no evident authority in the town – and the lynch mob is faced down by the murderer who stresses the lack of bravery and of a sense of manhood. Sherburn’s disdain for the mob and establishment of the Southern cowardice which means that ‘any real lynching’ will be done in darkness neatly establishes how honour has been degraded even since the feud. It is clear that in this world, a man is the one in possession of a gun and lacking the fear of using it. Life is cheap in the South.
Against this violent background the show is put on, preceded by a circus, an innocent entertainment in which Huck revels. Again, the comparison is clear. All the townsmen get in theNnonesuch is a heavily painted, naked King cavorting on the stage. They are enraged, yet in a scene reminiscent of the Emperor’s New Clothes, their hypocrisy leads them to keep silent rather than look foolish. The next night is talked up an equally well sold. The townsmen would rather dupe their friends and neighbours than look foolish, expecting to get the last laugh – but the Dauphin and Duke are older hands at this and escape without damage and the group sails off to further adventure.
As the scene ends, Jim opens up his conscience to Huck and tells of his beating of his deaf daughter – he is troubled and Huck for the first time becomes aware of the reality of slaves and family – he has never been shown such a human response by Jim and his education develops. He laughs at the exploits of the Nonesuch and this passage brings him up short as he recognises true goodness set against the background of the swindling pair.
The Wilks fraud (ch 24-30):
The most serious adventure is given the longest treatment. In it we see the King pumping a young man for information and developing a plan to defraud 3 young women of their inheritance. Huck is at times amazed by the depth of his deception and fully aware of the manner in which the skilled fraudster prepares his ground. This is not a chance prank of the nature Huck plays on Jim, but a deep-seated and fraudulent nature. As the impersonation develops, Huck finds himself emotionally drawn to wards Mary-Jane and this heightens his unease. There are a number of close shaves, especially when Huck is nearly uncovered by Hare-lip’s questioning. Only the doctor tries to intervene but the girls, led by Mary Jane thrust their money onto the Dauphin. Twain is merciless here in depicting the ease with which the girls and town are defrauded by a bad English accent and good homework.
Even the Duke is slightly worried here, more at the threat posed by the doctor, bu the King insists on seeing through the plan to sell the whole household and the scene continues. Huck’s conscience is pricked by the trickery and focus is reached when the King oversees the sale of the ‘niggers’ to unscrupulous traders. Families are broken up and the girls are distraught. Following Jim’s confession on the raft, Huck can now feel this anguish and determines to help the girls. He steals the money and hides it in the coffin – his plan is half formed and the coffin is buried before this is discovered. He finally summons up the moral strength to reveal the whole thing to Mary Jane, including giving her the Nonesuch poster from Bricksville. He was unable to deliver Jim to the authorities in Ch 16 but has now turned in the two swindlers. His moral compass is becoming well tuned.
Only once the real claimants have arrived and the coffin exhumed in order to ascertain for certain who is related (checks on handwriting proving inconclusive), is the money uncovered and the plot unravels. Huck escapes and for a moment feels the joy of freedom on the raft before the sound of the approaching skiff makes him break down in tears.
What follows is interesting. In the inquisition as to the theft of the money, the Duke and Dauphin fight and the elderly Dauphin is finally made to admit tha the stole the money – Huck is relieved – before long, however, the pair are drunk and seem closer than ever. So shallow is the honour of this sham grandeur which is infecting the society of the South.
The series of chapters concludes with a discussion of slavery and the final emergence of Huck’s character as a good, moral human totally at odds with all those around him.
After a long sail, the group land at Pikeville (the shark of the river) -an ill-omened name. The pair wish to resurrect the Nonesuch and whilst the Dauphin leaves the Duke and Huck to wait for his return, he enters town and we discover him to have sold Jim to a slave trader to make money. Until this point, Jim has been out of shot for much of the section – relegated to serving the King and Duke along with Huck. He has been tied up by day and then advertised as a ‘sick Arab’ to avoid detection – the joke being on the locals who might see this ridiculous figure and consider this description to be true.
Now he is sold, the three remaining rafters discuss the fate of ‘their nigger’. In the argument Huck takes the position that the Dauphin has acted wrongly by selling what he calls ‘my nigger’. The idea that Jim is little more than a commodity is obvious and this lies at the heart of the slavery debate. In the South, a human can be seen as a commodity to be bought and sold on a whim. Huck eventually is allowed to leave the raft to find ‘his nigger’. This will make up the third section of the novel.
Before he leaves, Twain shows us Huck’s true development. Torn by conflicting emotions he considers his role as the boy who stole Miss Watson’s ‘nigger’ and tries to pray for forgiveness, yet is unable to do so. He believes himself to have sinned in this action and eventually writes a letter to be sent to Miss Watson to inform her of the whereabouts of her lost property. Yet he cannot bring himself to send this note and his thoughts tend back to the time on the raft before the taint of the South – he recognises Jim as a friend. He takes up the paper and says ‘allright then, I’ll go to Hell’ as a he tears it up. At this moment of crisis he has defied the societal code of the South and declared himself for humanity. Although the novel is set in 1839 or thereabouts, readers after the Civil War, will have no difficulty in seeing the ideas of the Confederacy being downed in this action. His aim is to get away and to indulge in more ‘wickedness’ by stealing Jim back out of slavery.
The raft journey is over. It has been successful in tha tit has brought Huck to this point of mature self-knowledge. The raft has become tainted with society in the shape of the tricksters who mirror Huck and Jim, replacing goodness with a tawdry kind of evil which preys on society before betraying it. They will get a fitting come-uppance, yet even this upsets the good Huck.