Monday, September 14, 2009

Service Without Learning

No one can deny that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a particularly challenging book. Two essayists featured in the Norton Critical edition of the novel—Jane Smiley and Toni Morrison—seek to get at the heart of our discomfort. Though I find Smiley’s article, “Say It Ain’t So, Huck,” a bit too harsh—particularly regarding Mark Twain’s “failure” as a novelist—I do agree that much of the discomfort readers feel in reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn comes from Jim’s role as nothing more than a willing sidekick to Huck’s adventures. I think that her idea of a constantly cheated and subservient Jim—and an ignorantly racist Huck—fits, at least partially, with Morrison’s argument in “This Amazing, Troubling Book,” about Huck’s meaningful silence and Jim’s controllability. And, ultimately, I think that Huck’s role, even if we agree that it is an innocent one, is a simple result of a lack of the proper understanding we all receive today as part of our Jesuit education.

I entirely agree with Smiley that Jim is really handed the proverbial short-end of the stick; once he and Huck pick up the King and the Duke, he’s routinely stuck on the boat, hiding, fearing for his life in slave country. Huck still looks at him kind of affectionately, talking to him nicely when no one else is around. It seems, as Smiley puts it, “Twain thinks that Huck’s affection is a good enough reward for Jim” (Smiley 357). Maybe even Huck thinks that, as well; I think if we could ask Huck if he was doing right by Jim, he would certainly say that he was. But even though Huck seems to have true feelings for Jim, he is always coming up just a little too short for our comfort as readers. Part of this appearance of inhumanity—though I would make the argument that Huck is merely the product of his environment—is, as Morrison points out, do to his inability—or unwillingness—to speak up at emotionally appropriate times. This is no more apparent than in Huck’s complacency in regards to Jim’s life as Tom Sawyer concocts ridiculous, lengthy plans to help the slave escape. Here I disagree with Morrison; while she argues that it is in this instance that Huck finally becomes vocal for Jim, I think that it is a case of too little, too late. He has only a dim understanding that something is wrong with Tom’s plan, and the majority of his objections have little to do directly with Jim, but rather with his own convenience and safety. He is, after all, an antebellum boy with an entire society telling him that Jim is nothing more than a sidekick.

Fr. Kolvenbach’s essay, “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education,” is very interesting in conjunction with these essays in understanding Huck Finn. Fr. Kolvenbach says that, “Tomorrow’s whole person must have… a well educated solidarity.” That is to say, a whole person must have solidarity, learned through “contact” with the other. If this contact is sincere, if it touches one’s heart, he argues, pushes the mind to change. I would argue that Huck’s time with Jim is an example of this; the more time he spends with Jim, however subordinated he is, Huck if more and more affected by him. We are privy to the poignant moment in which Huck’s mind is starting to change—when he declares that if helping Jim escape slavery is going to damn him, then to Hell he’ll go.

However, Huck’s service is flawed; it is service without learning. He has no outlet or means to discuss the internal conflict he is experiencing, nor the implications of the “service” he is doing. I, too, have experienced something similar. I volunteered at a GED training facility in Baltiomore, the Caroline Center, but struggled to understand what I was doing. My experience was touching my heart, and my mind was being challenged, but without guidance and education working with my service, I was hard-pressed to understand many things: the “other,” the idea of “justice,” how my work was helpful. Luckily for me, I did find someone to help me understand my experiences; Huck has no such person. So he unknowingly continues to belittle Jim, his trusty sidekick, thinking that he help is kind and good this one time. But would Huck volunteer to help other slaves escape? No—he can’t understand that that would be just; after all, he does think his actions will lead him to Hell.

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