Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lenses of Literary Discovery on Huckleberry Finn

In the three readings for today, we learn of Toni Morrison’s and Jane Smiley’s varying perspectives of Huckleberry Finn as well as transcription of speech made by Fr. Kolvenbach on active justice in Jesuit higher education.
In her essay “This Amazing, Troubling Book”, Toni Morrison points to the fact that Huck’s emotional state was encumbered by thoughts of suicide and entrapment by a false and unloving society and that it is only when he escapes the shore to be in the river, especially with Jim, that he finally gets to feel safe and even more than that, loved by the “affectionate” nature of Jim. Jim you could say distracts and detracts Huck from contemplating suicide. She further discusses how Jim’s father figure status in the novel is clouded by the minstrelsy applied to the character. This point is well taken in that I felt in my reading that Jim certainly was the best and only positive father figure and yet he never is taken too seriously. He perhaps is emotional to a fault in that we never get to hear him really discuss the pain of slavery and the novel lacks a real definitive moment where he expresses a real desire for freedom. I think that Twain should have given him more of a voice, instead of masking his voice in a cruelly comical portrayal. Jim’s voice isn’t the only part of the novel that is silenced, Morrison points to the pervading silences in the text especially in regard to the white father-white son dynamic. We don’t hear Huck get angry about his father or curse him when he opens up to Jim on the raft. She points to the fact that Huck has this non-reaction to his father’s death that really should be fleshed out. I would agree that the ending was a bit too vague for me, there were so many unanswered questions and a part of me just wanted someone, especially Huck or Jim to just speak up! Morrison feels that the novel should not be banned which is another talking point that I would second.
Jane Smiley’s essay argues against the “greatness” of Huck Finn with her central thesis being, “…The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has little to offer in the way of greatness. There is more to be learned about the American character from its canonization than through its canonization” (Smiley, 355-356). She finds the second half of the novel to be a failure especially when Jim is pushed to the fringes of the narrative and Huck goes to town with the Duke and Dauphin. She finds that these entire plot points shift the novel away from its true focus being “Huck’s affection for and responsibility to Jim” (356). She also finds the ending and the preceding Tom Sawyer chapters to be an artistic failure and that the characterization of Jim as a mere sidekick to be a disgrace. She then digresses into the lost slavery narrative, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which she finds to be the superior text and the one she would rather have her child read. I agree with the fact that the first half of the novel holds more truth and much better characterization than the second and I find the ending to be far too ambiguous and a bit disappointing. Huck has had all of these life-changing events occur on the river and he has nothing to say about it! And then he just wants to ignore everything that happened and head back out on the road! He had the only father figure of his life and rather than embracing it he seems to want to just run away from that. I, however disagree that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the miracle work that she in my opinion romanticizes to the point of nauseam. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a wonderful abolitionist but she never experienced slavery first-hand so she cannot be the go-to person on the social narrative of slavery, I would suggest Frederick Douglass whose speeches and autobiography tell the tale of a man who lived through slavery and became such a powerful and poignant voice of that experience.
Kolvenbach’s essay certainly relates to the Loyola environment in that he is discussing the Jesuit mission in higher education which is defined as the union of justice and faith wherein justice is an action rather than just a thought. A central quote in his essay reads, “We give thanks for our Jesuit university awareness of the world in its entirety and in its ultimate depth, created yet abused, sinful yet redeemed, and we take up our Jesuit university responsibility for human society that is so scandalously unjust, so complex to understand, and so hard to change” (Kolvenbach, 40). These virtues are more than present at Loyola as a majority of the students are involved in community service and the department is aptly titled the Center for Community Service and Justice. I came to this school as a Protestant that was unfamiliar with the Catholic church and even more so, the Jesuit tradition. But when I consider the amount of faith and the commitment to the community that is at the core of this campus, I know that no one is truly an outsider here.

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