Liminal Rebellion in Huckleberry Finn

This is a paper I wrote for class. If my professor finds it, please don’t mark me down for plagiarism, it is mine. Otherwise, please read it as a school paper and not an ordinary blog post.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a work written in the 1880s yet set in the antebellum period, occupies a peculiar place. It portrays a society where slavery remains the norm, yet by the time of writing, the practice had been abolished, at least in name. Essentially, the slaves portrayed in the novel occupy a uniquely liminal space; they are bound, yes, but bound within a context of real-world freedom. It’s fitting, then, that the book’s main character exists in an equally liminal position: that of adolescence. Both Huck and Jim stand between two periods in their lives and history, albeit very different ones, and in pairing the two and setting them on an adventure along the liminal space that is the Mississippi River, Twain explores the ways in which their conditions align, diverge, and give rise to a temporary solidarity in a society where such a thing is truly world-shaking.

Having come out of Twain’s previous novel with a large sum of money, Huck Finn stands between the worlds of youth and adulthood, “quality”(Twain, 60) society and ‘low-down’ society, a poor white whose position is dependent on the lower status of black people. At the start of the novel he is in the process of being, “sivilize[d]”(55), by Miss Watson. A fairly typical member of the wealthy, white Southern aristocracy—after all, she has multiple, “niggers”(58)—Watson’s goal, beyond merely educating Huck, is to bring him into the social standards of his time, raising him from the maligned class of ‘white trash’ into the caste she herself occupies. His education involves him being, “learned … about Moses”(56), with Watson going so far as to threaten him with, “the bad place”(57), for his ‘fidgets’; in other words, this schooling involves not just practical but moral concerns. Huck always has problems with this treatment—while he declares that, “by-and-by [he] got so [he] could stand it”(72), he quickly reverses course once Pap steals him away, saying that he, “didn’t see how he’d got to like it so well at the widow’s”(82). This is characteristic of Huck throughout the novel. In this liminal space he stands in, between ‘proper’ Southern civilization and the life of a bum like Pap, Huck is able to easily adapt to almost any situation he’s put in. Upon encountering the Grangerfords, he quickly grows to enjoy living with them, declaring them to be a, “mighty nice family”(164), with a, “mighty nice house, too”(ibid), and yet once he’s forced to leave, he declares that there, “warn’t no home like a raft, after all”(182). Huck makes peace with any living arrangement he’s put in and upon a change in circumstances is able to effortlessly rationalize why the new situation is preferable to the last, a trait that enables him to remain in this liminal space longer than others might.

Despite living in Southern society, Huck is, in many ways, apart from it at all times, a privilege of his liminality. Unlike Pap, who exists outside civil society and yet still despises the, “govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months”(85), Huck is able to transcend the mores of the South, working to free Jim even when he’s been conditioned to believe that doing so is, “wickedness”(285). Huck, as an adolescent, has not matured into either the aristocratic role of slave owners like Miss Watson or the spiteful role of poor whites like Pap. In this, he’s able to work towards the freedom of a slave, something unconscionable to the society he comes from. This change extends further into his psychology, as he comes to see Jim as a full person over the course of the story, starting at a point where it’s difficult for him to, “humble [himself] to a nigger”(151), growing to realized that Jim, “cared just as much for his people as white folks do for their’n”(223), and eventually reaching the point where he plays upon racist assumptions himself, as seen in this exchange with Aunt Sally,

“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

Even the ‘kind, ‘welcoming’ aristocrats maintain their lack of belief in black people as people, something Huck is able to use to his advantage. However, it must be remembered that he remains in this liminal space, never becoming a, “low down Abolitionist”(103), largely due to the novel’s deus ex machina. Traber sees this as being due to the society he comes from, claiming that he must, “create an identity that will not only free him from adhering to customs and laws but will also rationalize that rejection”(Traber, 30), in order to side with Jim, a process which is only partially successful. Huck never completes his transition in any direction and in the conclusion stays safely within Southern society despite his plans to escape to the “Territory” because he, “can’t stand” being “sivilize[d]”(Twain, 365). Even to the end, he refers to black people as, “niggers”(364), a sign that the empathy which springs from his liminality, radical though it may be, is not enough to rid him of the societal influence that surrounds him without a complete passage into the role of the abolitionist, a step he is either unwilling or unable to make.

Jim, on the other hand, occupies a markedly different place, in spite of the fact that the stage he’s in is equally liminal. Where Huck has the option to fit within Southern society to some degree, albeit in a manner which is less-than-satisfactory to him, Jim possesses no such ability. While owned by Miss Watson, he’s treated, “pooty rough”(103), and yet he only decides to escape after hearing that she plans to, “sell [him] down to Orleans”(ibid). Even in attempting to be loyal, slaves are ultimately property, and if their owners are offered, “sich a big stack o’ money”(ibid), they’ll sell them away from their spouse and children in a heartbeat. In essence, both Huck and Jim enter and remain in their liminal spaces due to their shared distaste for the situations they’re put in. However, while Huck is able to grow comfortable in most of these spaces, rebelling more out of principle than of necessity, Jim is forced to leave the space of slavery lest he be sold off, while unable to enter the new space of freedom until he makes it to a free state. John Alberti discusses this, claiming that, “While Huck’s goal may seem simply escapist, Jim’s escape is inherently political and social”(Alberti, 925), emphasizing the fact that Jim’s attempt is both necessary and characteristic of a broader political shift. The two are united, however, in their shared need to leave St. Petersburg if they’re to move beyond liminality into a space where they feel comfortable; it’s this unity which allows Huck to slowly recognize Jim’s humanity, if in a tempered way. As Alberti says, “social and political solidarity with Jim would threaten Huck’s status as ‘white,’ a position particularly vulnerable because of Huck’s own marginal class status. In helping Jim, Huck at the same time is trying to avoid becoming a ‘nigger’ himself”(ibid), a state which explains Huck’s continued use of ‘nigger’ alongside his eventual willingness to go with Tom’s schemes rather than prioritize a safe and speedy escape for Jim. At the same time, it makes the political statement of Huck’s initial escape clear; it is the union of whites with their black comrades, a broader, revolutionary allegiance formed by all of Southern society’s lower classes.

The Mississippi River should be understood as a unique spatial ground for liminality. The river factors prominently throughout the novel, with most of the leads’ time being spent on or along it. In focusing on the translation of nautical terms, Jenn explores the ways in which the river is vital to our understanding of the work, describing it as, “a line of communication and a sorta giant pre-industrial conveyor belt for the handling of wood”(Jenn, 59). This establishes the river’s place as a liminal site in all respects: it becomes a conduit for travel, for transmission, and for production. Travelling all the way up and down the country, it serves as the natural route for a potential slave to take, though not one without difficulties, and in the novel it becomes a space through which Huck and Jim can communicate, recognize their mutual struggle, and as a result, form their allegiance. The Mississippi as a site of production is particularly important here as a sort of proto-factory, where the workers whose roles are divided can come together against those who exploit them. However, what is initially a fairly straightforward route quickly becomes labyrinthine, as the pair lose their way, going “by Cairo in the fog that night”(Twain, 158). After this, their route becomes confused, to the point that they eventually end up back in St. Petersburg after all. Wells claims that, “We must therefore think of Mark Twain as having manipulated the length of the river”(Wells, 85), proceeding to describe how the distances mentioned don’t make geographical sense, a necessary part of frustrating Huck and Jim’s communication; after all, the river as proto-factory remains controlled by the white owning class, and a political union between poor blacks and poor whites is that group’s greatest fear. Over the course of the novel, the Mississippi goes from a conduit space between the South and the North, ‘civilization’ and freedom, to a river which actively hinders the process of transition and communication — it’s unsurprising, then, when the novel ends without a proper break from liminality for either character, with Huck and Jim both returning to their former places, albeit slightly more free, with neither ultimately reaching the potential result of their union.

What, then is the ultimate outcome? Segal claims that, “the difficulties of the novel’s ending may be explained as a reaction to the depth of its beginning”(Segal, 20), emphasizing that the confused conclusion comes about due to an inability to resolve the anxieties expressed earlier. Essentially, Huck and Jim are simply too close early on, with Segal describing Jim as, “the better father”(30), a relationship which leads Huck to inadvertently enter the liminal space between whiteness and blackness as their relationship develops. For as radical as Huck’s empathetic rebellion is, this is one space that ultimately can’t be crossed without a full-throated commitment to revolutionary action, and as a result, the abortive ending is forced to occur. Huck may claim that he’ll, “go to hell”(Twain, 285), in order to save Jim but he ultimately fails to go anywhere, never able to fully escape from the hegemonic standards which have reared him and forge a truly impactful solidarity, largely due to Tom’s frustrations. Jim, meanwhile, is set free, but returns to St. Petersburg with Huck, still embedded within the Southern slave society he attempted to escape from. As a result, by the end of Huckleberry Finn, there’s been no revolutionary rupture; neither of the characters is able to step into a fundamentally new space, and neither are the politics of the land.

 

Alberti, John. “The Nigger Huck: Race, Identity, and the Teaching of Huckleberry Finn.” College English, vol. 57, no. 8, 1995, pp. 919–937. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/378621.

Jenn, Ronald. “Transferring the Mississippi: Lexical, Literary and Cultural Aspects in Translations of ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’” Revue Française D’études Américaines, no. 98, 2003, pp. 57–68. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20874929.

Segal, Harry G. “Life without Father : The Role of the Paternal in the Opening Chapters of Huckleberry Finn.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 1993, pp. 19–33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40464075.

Traber, Daniel S. “Hegemony and the Politics of Twain’s Protagonist/Narrator Division in ‘Huckleberry Finn.’” South Central Review, vol. 17, no. 2, 2000, pp. 24–46. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3190010.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Broadview Press, 2011.

Wells, David M. “More on the Geography of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’” South Atlantic Bulletin, vol. 38, no. 4, 1973, pp. 82–86. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3197088.

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