Authority in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Ryan Gantz

As was suggested at the start of this course, American Literature has remained, from the moment of its inception, strangely obsessed with the past. Novels such as Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables and Brown’s Wieland explore the way in which events and traditions of the past come to affect the actions and thoughts of individuals in the present. Faulkner continued to deal with these issues in the twentieth century through books like Absolom, Absolom! and The Sound and the Fury. Each of these novels focuses on the "past affects present" theme within the context of a single family—an enclosed line of lineage that seems to function with independence from the world around it. It is in the classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Mark Twain, (Faulkner’s predecessor as king of southern fiction), examines the role of tradition as an authoritative influence on a broader scale. Within the context of a society defined by traditions that include Christianity, slavery, southern hospitality, and boyish sport, Twain focuses our attention on the power of authoritative systems of traditions much older than our hundred-year America. During his adventures, Huck encounters the authority of royalty, of a chivalric honor code, and of romantic aristocratic texts. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn suggests that democratic Americans find appeal in the submission to such authority, or any similar traditional system of rules that limits individual freedom. Twain hopes that the reader will recognize the shortcomings of these systems and their influence when Huck cannot, and suggests to us that we must accompany our morals with the willingness to abandon—to teach against—traditions that have come to constrain us.

As the novel begins, we watch Huck "lit out" from his room at the Widow’s house to join Tom Sawyer in the formation of Tom Sawyer’s gang, a band of robbers. The promise of thievery and murder appeals to all of the boys, and each agrees to the oath Tom draws up, and signs his name in blood. Tom bases the oath on heroic romances he has read, and it becomes clear that the strength of the union originates in the strict rules each member must follow. We find it humorous that Tom insists on "ransoming" the prisoners without any understanding of the word’s meaning. But he persists, declaring, "Don’t I tell you it’s in the books? Do you want to go doing different from what’s in the books, and get it all muddled up?" (11). Each boy has an interest in the gang because of the potential for adventure and the quality of community. A bound group of friends has power, and the boys know this—the idea of being on the inside, with secrets to protect has strong appeal for any child. The boys become a gang when they submit to the system of rules defined by the oath, but in lust for adventure and brotherhood they fail to recognize that the oath in fact limits their freedom. Tom’s fiction constrains the boy’s imagination, and the gang is abandoned when it becomes clear that these fictions are not easily applied to their world of play. The game does not have a chance to become much more than a game (for the boys cause very little trouble); Twain, however, seems interested in their apparent dissatisfaction with "just pretending" (14).

After enjoying many pages and miles worth of adventures on the raft with Jim, Huck finds himself at the home of Colonel Grangerford and his clan. He describes in detail the appearance and manners of the Colonel; in admiration, Huck tells us, "he was a gentleman all over, and so was his family" (142). Huck enjoys his time with the Grangerfords, and develops a friendship with young Buck. After watching Buck shoot the hat off a man riding a horse, Huck becomes aware of the feud between the Grangerfords and another aristocratic family, the Shepherdsons. Though the two clans are in constant battle, they seem to follow an unspoken chivalric-like code. At home, when Buck describes how he shot at Harney Shepherdson, his brothers appear solemn and quiet. The Colonel chides his son, saying, "I don’t like that shooting from behind a bush. Why didn’t you step into the road, my boy?" (144). He takes the matter quite seriously; Col. Grangerford clearly believes that his family should deal with their enemies honorably and respectfully, just as they do with one another. We learn that the last Grangerford killed in the 30 year feud was Bud, who ran from his pursuer on the open road rather than through the woods: once he had given up the chase, Bud "faced around so as to have the bullet holes in front" (147).

Like the Tom Sawyer’s Gang oath, this code of honor unites those who follow it into a community. The code, like Col. Grangerford’s manners, sets these families apart from the rest of common society. Twain asks the reader to respect the Grangerfords for the attitude that has produced the code. The men feel shame when Buck acts dishonorably because it is behavior that distinguishes the family. Every man has an equal say in government; property alone does not win a family merit. The tradition of aristocratic breeding and behavior carry importance in American culture for this reason.

Unlike Tom Sawyer’s Gang, the feuding families are unwilling to cast off the tradition despite the fact that it has become wholly unpractical. Buck does not have a good understanding of how the two families began feuding in the first place, and he does not care. Just as Tom grants too much authority to the stories of robbers he has read, the Grangerfords let the system of the aristocratic honor feud gain great authority over themselves. Huck rejects the system because he sees no point in it. Unfortunately, this tradition is not "just pretend", and much of the family ends up dead.

The concept of an all powerful monarch has the same appeal of aristocracy, if not more. Huck reads to Jim books about kings and earls, and remarks that kings "just set around" (94) all the time. Neither Huck nor Jim seem to long for such power, or to be at all "above’ others. Jim does not want to be revered, he rather wants to meet a man whom he must revere himself. When the two men who hop the raft "confess" their royalty, Jim grows wide-eyed and serves them gladly. Huck tells us that "a body could see it was mighty pleasing to him" (163). The men do not fool Huck for long, but he does share his companions delight initially.

The king and the duke are the exact opposite of the Grangerfords: they refuse to cling to any kind of tradition concerning work or conduct. They do not fear abandoning one project to begin another. Like true royalty, each sits in control of his own world, but without a moral tradition—a code of conduct—and each reigns with selfishness. Huck rejects the mode of life of these men more strongly than he does the feuding families because he cannot stand to see undeserving people hurt or swindled. By including the "royal" men, Twain does not intend to critique monarchy, but rather point out the potential windfalls of democracy: if, as time passes we abandon all traditions, and if no codes of community remain, the rise of individualism will allow for a new breed of self-indulgence. Jim casually joins Huck in disapproval when he asks "does you reck’n we gwyne to run acrost any mo’ kings on dis trip?" (176).

During the last chapters of the novel, Tom and Huck plan and scheme to "free" the already free Jim from the Phelps’ shed. They are guided not by Huck’s good sense, however, but rather by some of Tom’s "best authorities" (300) in text. The efforts to help Jim escape last for over a month, and at times become difficult to read because of the amount of authority the boys grant the texts. For Tom, the plan remains no more than an extension of the "Tom Sawyer’s Gang" pretending, but we recognize that the situation is no mere game. As with the oath, Tom’s texts rule; when Huck objects, he becomes upset or frustrated. Tom insists on playing by what he has deemed to be the rules, and eventually Huck becomes so enchanted by the game that he doesn’t see the effects their actions have on Jim.

Here, the boys suffer the faults of the Grangerfords—since they refuse to abandon the traditional rules—as well as the faults of the King and Duke, since their actions to don remain properly moral. Their treatment of Jim is downright awful. But they play the game for the fun and style, and are not culpable because they remain ignorant of these faults. The game becomes a full-blown dangerous situation when the anonymous note that Tom writes results in the arrival of twenty armed men, prepared to defend the captured Jim against ‘Ingeans’.

Twain seems to give the best expression of his own position concerning the authority of traditions during these last chapters. More than once Huck admires Tom for his Principles as they continuously make simple jobs more complex according to the rules, though at times the boys allow themselves to fudge and "let on" that they did otherwise. Unsurprisingly, the rules cannot always be followed perfectly. And at one point when Huck makes a suggestion, Tom retorts, "Huck, you don’t ever seem to want to do anything that’s regular: you want to be starting something fresh all the time" (300).

Twain doesn’t give a damn for these sort of principles; he loathes them, in fact. According to Huckleberry Finn, Americans seek tradition and cling to it in an unhealthy way; to dwell on the past merely for the sake of tradition is of no service. For men to submit themselves to any authority blindly, whether a text, monarch, or law, shows a refuse to take responsibility or to imagine a better possibility. Huck has that kind of imagination until the end of the novel, when it becomes squelched without his knowing. Twain wants us to constantly try "starting something fresh", and to abandon what needs to be abandoned, as long as these choices are made within a moral code—with respect and honor for the other people affected by such choices. If that freshness can somehow be understood, and taught, then we can keep from losing other boys the way we have Tom and Huck.