It’s All in the Ending: A Refutation of the Critics of Huckleberry Finn’s Ending

A paper written for my English IV Satire class. I may or may not have gotten blowhardy.

“The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creatures that cannot.”

—Mark Twain, What is Man?

Imagine for a moment a Huckleberry Finn without the frustratingly complicated ending. A Huckleberry Finn in which, à la John Seelye, author of The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck does not bend to the will of Tom in the final chapters, but, instead, stands fast, clutching his Huckishness to his breast, abetting Jim in his escape without reserve and, following Jim’s inevitable death fighting for his freedom, stands bitter and lonely, lamenting the loss of his only true friend. This ending, while not lacking in romantic fervor, possesses little of the power of the original ending. By it, Seelye destroys all meaning, serving up simply an emotionally satisfying ending, replete with the Campbellian hero’s apotheosis in Huck’s realization of the idiocy of Southern Society and its treatment of blacks. In killing off Jim, Seelye does not elevate his struggle for freedom, but rather cheapens it. It is not news to anyone that freedom means more than anything to Jim; he does not need to prove it to us through some heroic fight against his white aggressors as Seelye seems to believe. All Seelye has succeeded in doing is eliminating all of Jim’s potential power as a comment on society, the power which Mark Twain’s ending gives him. In Seelye’s hands Jim accomplishes nothing but a romantic and tragic gesture, essentially devoid of meaning, though reeking of heavy-handed symbolism. Likewise, Seelye’s Huck manages no great comment on anything. He has simply run his quest to its logical conclusion, lost a good friend, and decided, without much consequence, that society is not for him. Seelye has upset the balance between fiction and reality, which, in Mark Twain’s novel, holds much of the novel’s truth. This doesn’t matter to Seelye, though, he has his emotionally satisfying ending and now he can finish the book without chucking it against a wall.

Without its ending, Huckleberry Finn is little more than a simplistic bildungsroman: naïve white boy learns his lesson about slavery and becomes a better person for it. The end. Fade to black. Roll credits. Happy-go-lucky ending perfect for entertaining the masses. Huckleberry Finn is not, however, entertainment. Rather it is high art and biting commentary and, as such, its ending is confrontational, unexpected, and off-putting. So off-putting in fact, that generations of literary critics have attacked Mark Twain for the “literary failure” of his ending, arguing that it doesn’t fit with the rest of the book, nor meet its expectations, nor resolve the story in a satisfactory manner. Such criticisms of the ending, however, are unsubstantiated and entirely ridiculous. In fact, the ending of Huckleberry Finn is not only a fitting one, but a good and meaningful one, lending the story all of its staying power.

Blind rejection of the novel’s ending completely ignores Mark Twain’s actual purpose in the writing of Huckleberry Finn and denies him the chance to make his admittedly unpleasant point. The ending of the novel is what gives the earlier chapters their meaning; it is a pessimistic statement regarding man’s ability to conquer evil, regarding the nature of society, and it is Mark Twain’s comment on fiction’s ability to cloud moral judgement.

Much of the book is, in fact, an analysis of the power of fiction and and its effects. Huck, a boy who at best might be called semi-literate, spends the majority of the book fighting a society which largely defines itself by books and literacy. Along Huck’s journey, Mark Twain repeatedly connects romantic ideas of adventure with danger as well as implies that the American adoption of such romantic ideals as “noble honor” is responsible for the class divide between the literate and the illiterate, creating a dangerous disparity. Most obviously, the reader is presented with Tom Sawyer and his obsession with romantic adventure literature. From the very beginning, Mark Twain condemns Tom’s elaborate games and fabrications through Huck’s easy dismissal of them as “make believe.” When Huck questions Tom’s brash statements, we applaud him and laugh at Tom’s rather ignorant answers. But all of this is harmless fun: Tom’s fantasies lead to nothing more than the disruption of a Sunday school picnic and, before long, Huck is out on the Mississippi, living one of Tom’s adventure stories. Huck is hyperaware of this fact all along the river, mentioning Tom from adventure to adventure, commenting that Tom Sawyer might have done something with more style than Huck had and even at one point, saying to Jim, “I wish Tom Sawyer was here. . . . He’d a called it an adventure—that’s what he’d a called it” (93). In this manner, Tom never really leaves the action of the book, accompanying Huck as a sort of absent presence all along the way, and so, when he turns up again at the end, it is really hardly a surprise. His presence, too, is a constant reminder of the “romantic adventure” which Huck’s life most certainly is not, no matter what fiction Tom would spout to the contrary. Mark Twain does not limit himself to Tom in his abuse of romantic literature though; Emmeline Grangerford and her penchant for morbid poetry sharply satirizes trends in romantic literature as does the Grangerford-Sherpherdson feud born out of the ridiculous Southern obsession with “honor,” “duty,” and “nobility,” greatly popularized by romantic literature. Not for nothing does Mark Twain name the wrecked steamboat Huck so desperately wants a Tom Sawyer-esque adventure on the “Walter Scott” (98, 102). Huck, of course, bites off a bit more than he can chew when he boards the “Walter Scott,” and comes face to face with the reality of one of Tom’s games, seeing for the first time the true danger of the so-called “adventures” that European literature so often romanticizes.

Nowhere is Mark Twain’s criticism of romantic literature more harsh than in the ending, as we are awakened to the full terror that is Tom Sawyer. Tom is as frightening as he is because he represents the reality that often the most intelligent, creative people have the most potential for cruelty, fabrication and emotional ignorance. The web of fabrications and lies which Tom creates in the last chapters of the novel as part of his plan to free Jim are testament to this sad fact. So intent is Tom on doing the thing “properly” (by which he means in the style of a romantic adventure story), that he loses himself in his own lies. He is completely comfortable with “letting-on” to himself that things are other than what they are, to a point where he most believes it himself. Unable to discern his fiction from reality, Tom blinds himself to Jim’s situation, completely oblivious to the fact that Jim’s life really is hanging in the balance, illustrating the way in which fiction can cloud moral judgement. Huck, on the other hand, is uncomprehending of Tom’s schemes, unable to see their necessity (for good reason), though equally unable to defeat Tom in an argument over it. Consequently, Huck acquiesces to the ridiculous (and foolishly dangerous plans), though he maintains his criticism throughout, admittedly to little avail. Contrary to the claim of common criticism of Mark Twain’s ending, neither Huck nor Jim is passive in this section of the novel. Certainly, Huck subordinates himself to Tom almost immediately, but who can blame him? In a battle of wits, Tom will always be the winner and following Tom’s discovery of Jim’s prison, which puts him a step ahead of Huck, Huck never manages to catch up. Claims that Huck loses all of what he learned on his journey down the Mississippi are gross overstatements, though. The simple fact is that Huck has learnt to resist and deal with “enemies” such as slave-traders and con-men and honor-obsessed southern gentlemen wielding guns. Nothing along the way has prepared him to stand up to and defend himself against his friends, a group to which Tom belongs, as we mustn’t forget. In his naïveté, Huck trusts Tom as a friend and to do so is his undoing. Delving further into the text, it is interesting to note that Mark Twain, far from having improvised the ending, has carefully constructed every detail. Not only is Huck very unprepared to resist the influence of Tom, but he is also struggling to keep a handle on who he, Huck, is. After having spent a large portion of the earlier chapters of the book defining “Huck,” he relinquishes his hold on his own identity the moment he steps onto the Phelpses’ farm. He is greeted immediately by Aunt Sally with a smiling “It’s you, at last!—ain’t it?” to which Huck involuntarily replies “Yes’m” (305) without even knowing who “you” is. With that simple contraction, Huck has effectively thrown his own identity out the window, as from now on he must struggle to be someone else. The dilemma is increased by the fact that he doesn’t even know who he is supposed to be: the line “I wanted to. . . find out who I was,” (308) has both a literal and figurative meaning. Huck wants to know who he is supposed to imitating, but he also wants to know who he is, now that he has cut himself off from Huck and from his game-changing decision to “go to hell” (297) in an attempt to rescue Jim, merely a chapter before. The situation gets no better once he finds out that he is supposed to be Tom Sawyer. Though this appears a saving grace to Huck, for he knows Tom and can easily imitate him, in reality it’s a terrible curse for now he must act like Tom—furthermore act like the person that Tom represents. His Huckness, so recently defined and developed, is rendered useless immediately.

As for Jim, Mark Twain has in him the most important (if not only) moral act in the novel’s ending. Far from the racist portrayal of Jim Mark Twain is often accused of having slipped into in the ending, the final scenes involving Jim instead set him apart from all the other characters who, during the ending, are governed entirely by self-interest (Huck is an exception to this statement as a whole, though he can be accused of some self-indulgence at points). At the novel’s climax, Jim sacrifices his long-awaited chance at freedom in order to aid the boy who, for the last couple of weeks, had been solely responsible for Jim’s discomfort and continued imprisonment. In doing so, Jim displays his infinite capacity for compassion which Tom so glaringly lacks, illustrating better than any act of martyrdom in the name of freedom could have, the depth of injustice permeating the South. This entirely selfless act, ending in Jim’s recapture, emphasizes his courage and altruism, two characteristics entirely not in line with racist depictions of blacks in the South. If any doubt remains regarding Mark Twain’s depiction of Jim’s agency and humanity at this point, his rescue of Tom completely dispels it.

Further criticism accuses Huck of abandoning Jim at this crucial juncture in their story, preferring to live in comfort a while longer with the Phelpses, rather than to free Jim immediately and easily and return to the river. Whether or not Huck does abandon Jim at this stage, it wouldn’t be the first time. Let us not forget Huck’s time at the Grangerfords’, where he completely submitted to their lifestyle, subordinating himself further to Buck and the Grangerford family than he ever does to Tom. At this stage, Huck seems content to live with the Grangerfords indefinitely and thoughts of Jim do not bother him. Of course, Huck learns his lesson in short order when he gets the opportunity to experience the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud first hand and witnesses the destruction caused by romantic ideals. All of this is not to say that Huck does not abandon Jim while at the Phelpses’, indeed, he does, to a degree. This abandonment, however, is not deserving of the criticism it has garnered. Far from exposing some horrible inhumanity or racism in Huck, it lays bare a fundamental flaw in the fabric of Southern society. When Tom and Huck go to Jim’s hut and Tom “told him all about our plans. . . And not to be the least afraid, because we would see he got away, sure” (343-344), Jim responds with a simple “all right” (344). Huck thinks nothing more of it; Jim has okay’d the plans and that’s all Huck needed. Now it doesn’t matter how long it takes or how they do it; Jim knows and understands. A reader, however, can find much in Jim’s quiet “all right.” Huck lacks the sensitivity to read into the situation, but also he lacks the ability to even imagine a deeper meaning in those two simple words in the first place. No matter how much Jim means to Huck, Huck is still a Southern-raised white boy, ignorant to many truths about blacks. The entirety of Huckleberry Finn is encapsulated in Huck’s simple failure to see any greater meaning behind those two words.

By the end of the novel, one thing has become entirely too clear: fantasy is dangerous. In explaining to the doctor about Tom, Huck says “He had a dream. . . and it shot him” (383) and without meaning to, Huck has hit exactly on the truth. Tom did have a dream—a whole lot of dreams and illusions and, more often than not, delusions—and that was what shot him. Not that scared bunch of farmers with guns, but Tom’s own web or fantasies and fiction. By this time, the full title of the book has taken on a morbid significance. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn holds none of the same meaning that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer does. Adventures are no longer boyhood escapades, but dangerous matters of cruelty which can end in injury and death. Adventures, fantasies, fictions, and abstractions of any kind obstruct reason, moral judgement, and—likely as not—will lead to bloodshed.

Many have criticized Huckleberry Finn’s ending for its optimism. They resent an optimistic tone which they see as cheapening the novel, turning it into a spectacle. Well, it certainly does the second and definitely not the first. In creating his absurdly fairy-tale ending, Mark Twain succeeded in constructing a far more pessimistic one than could have been achieved by other means. Why is that Huck reckons he’ll “light out for the territory” (405) in the novel’s closing lines? The simplest explanation is that he’s fed up with society, with its cruelty and irrationality. Already, this is pessimistic. However, that would place Huck in largely the same position he was in at the start of the novel, and while the two situations largely mirror each other, Huck is not entirely the same Huck Finn that he was at the start of the story. He has become, if nothing else, more self aware, and as a result he probably is running from himself just as much as he is from society. Huck, throughout the course of the novel, and particularly during the ending, was complicit in the doings of that society which he seeks to escape, and he knows it. But worst of all, he has become aware of his unintentional indifference towards Jim while on the Phelpses’ farm. Whether or not he has done it consciously, Huck has realized what Jim’s “all right” meant and he is ashamed that he did not know it earlier. And so he will run west, away from himself and away from Jim. Hoping somewhere to find a better society and a better Huck.

Mark Twain is determined in his ending to illustrate in full his idea regarding the state of man and the world. Knowing full well that his readers wants a likable ending, he denies it to them, after having dangled its promise in the form of Chapter 31 and Huck’s “I’ll go to hell” speech. That point, so crucial for Huck, practically screams “turning point” at the reader and eggs the reader into anticipating Huck’s apotheosis. But it never comes. The reader has been tricked; Twain has denied them their ending, eliciting the outrage he desired. Why? Because life isn’t tidy. People are not tidy. So why on earth should his ending be tidy? Clean, satisfactory endings are falsehoods and Huckleberry Finn has just explored the dangers of falsehoods. Instead, Mark Twain allows his ending to expose his characters’ limits and honor their points of moral excellence (if and when they exist).

Readers of Huckleberry Finn often choose to see its ending as flawed because it seems the only excuse for such brazen flouting of the literary “rules.” Mark Twain, as a writer, is absurdly confrontational, challenging his readers on all the opinions they formed early on in the book and turning its many ironies back on them. Ultimately, Huckleberry Finn’s victim is the reader, which explains why so many people dislike the ending, its being the real villain in the situation.

In the end, it is only through his calculated execution of Huckleberry Finn’s ending that Mark Twain achieves his meaning. With any other ending, the novel would have remained a sweet, emotional story of development, lacking the stinging bite of criticism and warning Mark Twain’s version holds. According to him, the relative strengths of good and evil in the world are drastically unbalanced (reference Tom’s easy victory over Huck at the Phelpses’) and society is far from being the idyllic, equal post-Civil War affair it pretends to be. Nothing concrete has changed following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Freedom has not yet been fully achieved; its granting was a mere technicality. As unsubstantial as Miss Watson’s deathbed manumission, the Emancipation Proclamation is far from having achieved its desired effect and to convince ourselves otherwise would be foolish. Just as foolish as the idea that for an ending to be “good,” it has to be likable.

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3 comments
  1. jt ellenberger said:

    Hello.

    I haven’t the first idea who you are, but I felt obligated to tell you that I used your essay on the ending of Huckleberry Finn with my honors literature course in the school where I teach in North Carolina.

    I have read a number of your other offerings on Weather for Ducks. You are ridiculous smart (as they say in these parts).

    Thank you.

    • thefifthe said:

      Wow! Thank you so much! And thank you for telling me, as well—it’s really lovely to think that the stuff I sporadically stick on here is being read by someone somewhere and maybe even appreciated. So thank you again—I’m ridiculously flattered you thought my writing worthy of sharing with your class!

  2. Very Nice. Thank you for this exceptional analysis of Huck Finn’s ending (which I have just discussed with my son, a high school junior)

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