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Huck Finn’s “Problematic” Ending

Though he referred to Huck Finn as “the best book we’ve ever had,” Ernest Hemingway advised readers to skip the ending entirely (Saunders xvii).  Most Twain scholars have similar reservations regarding how Twain chose to conclude his great novel.  The ending is indeed out of tune with the rest of the narrative.  Yet the ending is at least funny, so we must say that it succeeds on a comedic level.  

Furthermore, we cannot assume what Twain was trying “to do” with the novel anyway. There are certainly elements of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which have an anti-racist intent and effect; but it is not as though Twain explicitly stated a social justice goal for the novel.  Those who are disappointed in the ending of the book, then, should maybe learn to get a sense of humor and loosen up a bit. 

The Ending

There is an element to Twain delivering a message of civil rights with Huck Finn: he repeatedly shows the senselessness of Whites’ callous attitude towards Blacks.  Yet it isn’t necessarily the main purpose of the novel.  Again, a reader would be disabused of that notion when Twain spends an inordinately long portion of the novel, the ending, on the antics of Tom and Huck as they devise Jim’s escape.  It breaks the dramatic action of the novel abruptly in a manner that indicates that Twain’s main purpose with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to entertain rather than to morally instruct.  It doesn’t help that poor Jim is the butt of many of the jokes, which is to say that Tom Sawyer’s schemes end up prolonging Jim’s suffering and misery as a prisoner in Aunt Sally’s shed.  

Though Tom is willing to help Huck spring Jim from captivity at his Aunt Sally’s house, it quickly becomes apparent that Tom is more interested in the romantic adventure that this represents rather than any desire to give Jim freedom.  Tom contemplates unnecessarily sawing Jim’s leg off to free him from the chain on his leg (rather than simply lifting the bed to which the chain is attached).  It’s a comical exchange between Tom and Huck, in that it shows Tom’s boyish whimsy.  Yet it also shows that the moral question of slavery is a matter of supreme indifference to Tom, as perhaps it was to most in the South in the 1830s.  

Is Twain using Tom Sawyer as a symbol of Southern racism, which some have alleged?  It is a silly notion.  Tom Sawyer cannot be a symbol of anything except fun and boyish mischief, though he does appear callous to Jim’s plight, it is the regular type of callousness to which we can ascribe to boys in general. To conceptualize Tom Sawyer as some type of symbol rather than the boy that he is, I’m afraid, is too clever by half. 

Those literary critics and Twain scholars who lament the ending also note Tom’s indifference.  Whereas Huck is at least worried and anxious about Tom’s elaborate scheme for Jim’s escape, Tom is not concerned about Jim’s well-being.  It is quite the contrary, as Tom endeavors to put rats, snakes and spiders in Jim’s shed so as to more closely resemble the prisons in Tom’s books.  Jim protests, but ultimately accedes to the ridiculous schemes of “Mars Tom”: 

“...but what kind er time is Jim havin’? Blest if I kin see de pint.  But I’ll do it ef I got to” (219). 

Are we as readers supposed to feel indignant on Jim’s behalf?  Rather, Jim’s reaction only adds to the comedic scenario.  We see Tom’s silly schemes through Jim’s ingenuous eyes; Jim defers to Tom, yet it is Jim who has more common sense.  He weakly goes along with their schemes, but at least he passes comment that he finds it all quite unnecessary.  

Tom also conceals the small, relevant detail that Jim has already been set free by Miss Watson, making the entire escape plan superfluous.  Huck passively observes these shenanigans: 

“His clarity and moral resolve fade and he becomes, if anything, more of a passive Sawyer-lackey than he was at the beginning of the book” (Saunders xxi).  

For those that want to see meaning in Huck Finn, a meaning with Jim as the central focus, Tom comes to represent the antebellum status quo.  It’s not that Tom wants to actively harm Jim (after all, he agrees to help him “escape”), it’s just that Tom doesn’t particularly care about Jim as a human being.  Yet this seems to miss the mark: Tom is not an empathetic person.  He dreams of adventure, of being a pirate, of killing people like they do in his books.  His motivation is not a racist one, but rather his own fancy.  Instead, Tom is the essence of boyhood, yearning only for adventure; lacking in empathy, certainly, but only due to a lack of experience which builds empathy, not due to malice. 

I have insisted that the ending of Huck Finn is meant as comedy, and that it is indeed funny.  Why exactly is it funny then?  It’s really a question of irony.  Tom Sawyer’s chief concern is that it will be too easy to break Jim out of the shed where he is being held, awaiting his return to whom Aunt Sally believes are his rightful owners.  Tom wants the escape to be dramatic and convoluted, like in his books.  In order to create such a dramatic scenario, Tom wants to post a warning that they would spring Jim from captivity.  He explains to Huck the purpose of “nonnamous letters”: 

“Warnings to the people that something is up.  Sometimes it’s done one way; sometimes another.  But there’s always somebody spying around, that gives notice to the governor of the castle.” (223)  

When Huck gently expresses a preference for no one interfering with Jim’s escape, Tom just utters a disgusted “Shucks.”  This warning letter ultimately leads to an armed guard of locals and gun fire, of which Tom is a victim (a wound to his calf).  At this point, presumably, Tom realizes that his antics went too far. 

The Critical Response to the Ending 

As it happens, critics at the time of publication (1885) likewise so the ending as a weakness in the novel: 

“It is possible to feel, however, that the fun in the long account of Tom Sawyer’s artificial imitation of escapes from prison is somewhat forced; everywhere simplicity is a good rule […] the caricature of books of adventure leaves us cold […] Mark Twain is demolishing something that has no place in the book” (Sergeant 262).  

Critics have continued to find the ending of the novel problematic, seeing as that the events at Phelps place comprise 1/5 of the novel.  Twain confuses readers by such an ending, which is so disconnected thematically from the rest of the novel: 

“His problem, though it may never have occurred to him, was to invent an action capable of placing in focus the meaning of the journey down the Mississippi”  (Marx 270). 

Author George Saunders considers it to be a problem of Twain not fully committing to an “Apparent Narrative Rationale” (xi).  This is to say that Twain didn’t know if he wanted to write a comic novel, or a novel with a great moral purpose.  His approach and his resolve ebbed and flowed, hence the seemingly contradictory thematic and stylistic choices which he made. 

This adds some great context to our understanding of Twain’s intentions vis-a-vis the ending of the book.  

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It may be a matter of wishful thinking.  Might we want to add an element of “social justice” to the book (though it has been “canceled” anyway for the n-word, of course).  The one thing the critics have not considered in their evaluation of the problematic ending, though, is that perhaps Twain did not see the meaning of the novel in the same terms as them.  

In that sense, perhaps we tend to fall into two camps with regards to Huck Finn: those of us who think of it as not racist, and those who claim it is racist. Those of us who think of it as not racist fall into the trap of lamenting any element of the novel that does not assist us in our “not racist” argument.  That is obviously an impoverished way to analyze a great work of art such as Huck Finn, that we should only view it through the prism of our own tired arguments. 

Maybe the message about Jim’s humanity was important to Twain, but not his primary motive.  After all, Huck Finn was originally conceived as a kind of companion novel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  The difference was simply shifting the point-of-view to first person, from Huck’s perspective.  Of course, Huck Finn is much more than that; but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is what some want it to be.  Twain wrote of Huck Finn in a letter in 1875: 

“I shall take a boy of twelve & run him through real life (in the first person)” (quted in Saunders xii). 

With the novel’s ending in mind, my deduction is that Twain’s purpose was not primarily to proselytize against slavery and the mistreatment of blacks.  That theme is in the novel, to be sure.  But ultimately, the novel is meant to entertain and simply to be. A great novel has no other need to justify its existence.   

Finally, the fact that the ending seems incongruent thematically and doesn’t really flow with the rest of the novel may be related to the manner of the release of the novel.  Namely, Huck Finn was serialized in the magazine The Century upon its initial release.  Given that the story came out in drips and drabs, it makes more sense to have this extended comical sequence at the end of the novel.  The installments would have been entertaining to readers of The Century– merely that. 

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