Huck and the Picaresque tales

This is my thinking of how to use the central sections of the book within the constraints of the OCR A level Elit exam.

First Picaresque – the use of a central character -often an urchin or other disreputable but lovable character by whose innocence the world is presented to the reader in a manner both amusing and educative. Examples such as Voltaire’s Candide or the rogue Till Eulenspiegel are good examples of the genre.

My colleague Lucy Aitchison prepared this short PPt to help to explain it in class:

In the central sections of Huck, Twain resumes his narrative but much has changed – no longer a ‘boys’ own’ story, we read a series of tales in which Huck is an interested bystander and Jim is reduced almost to nothing. Twain is not writing in the manner of Tom Sawyer here, but is making points about the state of Southern society and using Huck – his picaro – to link the apparently random ideas which he needs to propose – the degenerate and amoral world which exists in the newly conquered South and which, presumably, needs to be brought to the attention of the reader.

In each section we read a tale at turns humerous and serious. Huck’s innocence allows him to chew the events over in his mind and even when he reaches no firm conclusion, the reader does.

We have 5 sections:

The Feud

Pokeville – arrival of Dauphin and Duke and destruction of the floating republic of the raft.

Bricksville – Boggs and Nonesuch

The Will

Pikesville – Selling Jim

In the exam for OCR we need to remember that the students are not being examined on thew text per se, but applying it to answer a wider question. I ma trying to help students to engage with the themes which are central to each section and overarch the section as a whole.


The section which opens the second part of the book, following the destruction of the raft by the steamer, plunges Huck into the heart of the ‘sham chivalry’ of the South. Twain targets the attitudes of the Southern Aristocracy and a number of ways. The first might be the idea that the wealthy and powerful are failing in any form of moral leadership. The two families are obsessed with Death from the children upward. There is absolutely no sense of a wider responsibility to the emerging society of mid 19th Century America, rather a selfish obsession with a feud, the roots of which have no basis in memory. They care more for the idea of heroism, rather than cowardice and seem to be oblivious to child-murder taking place around them. Colonel Grangerford is given a full description at the start of chapter XVIII – unusual in this text – and the abiding imagery is cruel and dark. No wonder his proto-emo daughter found so little to celebrate in life other than death.

Another idea is the idea of moving away from nature. They live in a stout house- a ‘double house’ – suggesting permanence (and looking ahead to the mansions of Gatsby in which the same idea of conquering nature are explaored) and a wish to impose a human presence on nature. Within the house nature is reduced to porcelain copies – both more colourful than the original, and also damaged – and whilst animals suitable for hunting are evident, the animals within the house are reduced to lifeless china copies.

As examples of the wealthy and powerful, the keep slaves, naturally as we are in the South. Huck’s conscience has not yet fully rebelled against this noxious practice and he is keen to point out the fact that each member of the family has a slave – even he – although he does not ‘use’ his since he is inexperienced in such things. What we notice is that the slaves seem to be the only members of this household with a mortal compass which is not deformed by the Feud and their wealth. It is slaves who help Jim to hide and slaves who lead Huck to find his friend. Clearly wealth does not produce a moral clarity in this text any more than it does in Gatsby.

The truly brave in this story are the lovers – Harney and Sophia. It is clear that Harney avoids hitting Buck when he chances upon the boys in the wood, and Sophia seems to be the planner and instigator of the elopement. She plans well and the arrangements hold. The pair leave the river for a new, and presumably better, life. The message is clear – this society, for all its gilding, as not a society in which love can thrive.

In POKEVILLE we meet the Dauphin and Duke for the first time. These grifters, embodying a trope of US Literature which meets fruition in the character of Gatsby are now the focus for the examination of the South. Through them we explore greed, gullibility, idleness and cruelty, as well as a total breakdown of what might be called the Pioneer spirit – and the embryonic American Dream. Whilst Twain gives us the wonderful humour of the sequence in which the pair practise their Shakespeare, he has already delivered a start critique of society. Jim and Huck become effective prisoners and servants on their own raft. Jim is humiliated and treated as a commodity to be bullied into any form required by his new ‘masters’, whilst Huck becomes their servant – eventually taking on the role officially in the Will sequence as ‘Adolphus’. The mini-Eden of the raft -the pre-lapsarian recreation of the American state that existed before ‘sivilisation’ intruded is abruptly shattered at the beginning of Chapter XX when the pair take over the wigwam and consign the pair of travellers to the deck for the rest of the narrative.

We can see here a discussion of abuse of power which is linked to the ranks adopted by the pair. It seems important to them to be able to show a position in a hierarchy -something utterly alien to the Pioneer world and which, just as when used by the Colonels in the passage suggests a willingness to abuse power and to seek leverage over the common folk. These common folk are not spared criticism though. Either they are gullible -led by religion to believe the crackpot story of the ‘pirate’ or they are too lazy to respond to the evident decline of their town as seen in Bricksville. In this section though, Twain plays on the gullibility which is seen in the inability to recognise a conman in the religious setting. Presumably, the criticism is directed at the overly religious as well as the hypocritical behaviour of the grifters. Religion is used in the first part of the book to highlight both hypocrisy and to establish the stifling upbringing of Huck. Here it is used almost to show the way in which the overly religious leave their common sense at the door of the church. Yes, they are generous, but this is clearly foolishness. Perhaps a group so easily parted from their money do not really deserve to have that money in the first place.

As the raft reaches BRICKSVILLE Twain holds nothing back in terms of describing the squalor and moral turpitude of the town. The townsmen are too lazy to engage with their surroundings and there is an ugly brutality to the whole town – pigs and dogs fighting in the street, sunk deep in mud. Into this squalor rides Boggs – a sympathetic yet flawed character, possibly echoing Pap in his drunkenness – a man living outside society who receives no help before being murdered in cold blood by Colonel Sherburn. It is unclear where Sherburn or Grangerford attained their rank, but it serves to show the abuse of power in authority which we see later in work like Grapes of Wrath. There is no due judicial process and Twainis able to use Sherburn’s speech to the crowd to further make his point: yes, Sherburn is a murderer, but the townsfolk are so lacking in moral fortitude that men like he can get away with this behaviour. Possibly, we should be pleased that he acknowledges his crime so openly – would that Daisy Buchanan were so honest. What we do see is the death of an old way of life at the hands of a new era of callous brutality -might is right in this world and there is no room for the outsider.

In the same town, the gullible are put to the test. They fail. Rather than rebelling against the dire performance of the nonesuch, some idea of honour sees the duped first audience plan to share the humiliation before finally acting against the tricksters. It is obvious that this is the way that society as whole behaves. They are tricked and whilst we recognise the greed of the Dauphin and Duke, we cannot help but feel that the townsfolk rather deserve all they get. No longer is the Pioneer Spirit which would overcome all obstacles evident in these lazy and thoughtless fools.

The longest section involves the duping of the sisters over THE WILL. This is clearly an utterly illegal action and one in which we see the Dauphin driving the Duke towards deepening his engagement with cruelty and greed. Like all good conmen, they invest a little to gain much, yet they do have the opportunity to leave with the gold. They go further and we are shown not just their greed and wish to make money for no clear purpose, but also the harsh reality of the South. The selling and splitting of the slave family highlights their cruelty and reflects back to Jim’s lament for his lost wife and children. The girls are deeply affected by this cruelty and it serves to highlight the moral failure of the South. The story, with its numerous twists and setbacks is told as an amusing tale of mistaken identity and mystery, but we should not be blind to the ideas being considered which will link elsewhere in our reading.

We should be aware of the inherent cruelty of the Dauphin and Duke who seek to exploit the townsfolk solely for personal gain -not to build or develop, but simply to indulge in drinking their way through a wasted life. In this the decay of the ideals of the American Dream as established by the Puritanical first settlers could not be more clearly expressed. This is the genesis of the spirit of the short-cut to wealth which has become the Dream by the time we reach the 1920s.

In PIKESVILLE it comes as little surprise to find Jim sold down the river by this pair -or rather by the Dauphin. Students will find much here to use in discussions of Race and of slavery. As the only one of the set texts in which slavery is legal and regarded as one of the cornerstones of society, the text serves such a strong purpose in engaging students with central issues. Yes, Huck’s crisis of conscience does not in any way help Jim and the slaves, yet it is important: a member of white intellectual society is presenting through Huck the pathway to a clear thought which acknowledges the immorality of slavery. Although written in the 1890s, many whites were yet to be convinced of the immorality of the position of the South before the war. It is simplistic to expect the attitude of the nation to shift entirely within those 30 years – Twain seems to acknowledge the issue of overturning the years of established tradition and education and though the voice of this boy, we begin to learn how to be better than we are.

What comes through here is the hypocrisy of white society and the obscene cruelty of the slavers. Against them we see the selfless goodness of slaves whenever we meet them and although we do see elements in Jim of the stereotypical ‘lazy’ and superstitious black, Twain shows many more examples of the white community (and in terms of superstition, of Huck) being tainted far deeper by these character flaws than the slaves in the story. Huck’s voice is used to talk us through the seismic change in outlook required to move from a position of acceptance of slavery as the norm, to an understanding of the immorality of the trade in human lives, through the regular inversion of the tropes of Heaven and Hell. Simply winning a war was not enough. On a personal note, I prefer to read this text as a base for discussion of Race in American Literature than the hideously whitewashed world of Gatsby, in which even Jazz is given to a central European orchestra to perform at one of Gatsby’s parties.