David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Mark Twain’s Cynicism and That Last Part of Huck Finn

When I was in high school, I read Huck Finn, and like so many others, I thought the book fell into a hole for its last third, when the Jim-Huck adventures end and Tom Sawyer takes over with some juvenile antics. I had recently read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and so I recall thinking and saying that even the first two-thirds of Huck Finn weren’t as good as Invisible Man (either as a treatment of race or as literature period; I still rate Invisible Man higher!).

But still, the last third of Huck Finn was bafflingly bad compared to what went before. I know that a long time had elapsed before Twain had written that last third, but that didn’t seem to explain the drastic shift in tone and content. As Thomas Powers says in Incandescent Memory:

The last third of Huckleberry Finn is stage-managed for laughs by Tom Sawyer, dropped into the story by authorial fiat. Tom masterminds Jim’s escape from the Phelps plantation according to all the ‘best authorities’ of boys’ literature. Any evening after dark Jim might have walked out of the cabin where he was being held prisoner, but no, Tom insists they must dig him out, and secret letters must be written, and Jim the lonely prisoner must be friends with spiders and snakes, and a whole lot of other nonsensical stuff which we may as well concede is funny in its way and funny to a point. But it is no longer Huckleberry Finn; it is no longer an unflinching tale of the cruelty and wrong of human bondage.

Except it is. It took me many years to go back and reread it because I drifted toward European literature and resided there for quite a while, but when I did, Huck Finn read a bit differently than it had when I was 15. Tom Sawyer becomes the cruel master in a pantomime of slavery and exploitation. Here’s a passage from when Tom is working out a coat of arms and inscription for “Jim the lonely prisoner”:

Tom’d got all that coat of arms business fixed, so now he started in to finish up the rest of that part of the work, which was to plan out a mournful inscription — said Jim got to have one, like they all done. He made up a lot, and wrote them out on a paper, and read them off, so:

1. Here a captive heart busted.
2. Here a poor prisoner, forsook by the world and friends,
fretted out his sorrowful life.
3. Here a lonely heart broke, and a worn spirit went to
its rest, after thirty-seven years of solitary captivity.
4. Here, homeless and friendless, after thirty-seven years
of bitter captivity, perished a noble stranger, natural son of
Louis XIV.

Tom’s voice trembled whilst he was reading them, and he most broke down. When he got done he couldn’t no way make up his mind which one for Jim to scrabble on to the wall, they was all so good; but at last he allowed he would let him scrabble them all on. Jim said it would take him a year to scrabble such a lot of truck on to the logs with a nail, and he didn’t know how to make letters, besides; but Tom said he would block them out for him, and then he wouldn’t have nothing to do but just follow the lines. Then pretty soon he says:

“Come to think, the logs ain’t a-going to do; they don’t have log walls in a dungeon: we got to dig the inscriptions into a rock. We’ll fetch a rock.”

Jim said the rock was worse than the logs; he said it would take him such a pison long time to dig them into a rock he wouldn’t ever get out. But Tom said he would let me help him do it. Then he took a look to see how me and Jim was getting along with the pens.

This is a sick variation on Tom Sawyer’s bad boy antics from the earlier book. He gives Jim what is tantamount to slave labor, and then allows the inefficacious Huck to “help” Jim with it. He has more sympathy for his imagined royal prisoner in his fantasy than for Jim. Tom here is a shallow privileged brat who treats slaves like his own private playthings.

Huck, for his part, quietly goes along with all of Tom’s maneuvers, having lost whatever self-respect and moral uprightness he might have gained earlier in the book. What is life and death to Jim is fanciful, unreal fun and games to Tom.

An ensuing scene in which Tom tries to sell Jim on “making friends” with a rattlesnake is even more disturbing:

Tom: “Yes — easy enough. Every animal is grateful for kindness and petting, and they wouldn’t think of hurting a person that pets them. Any book will tell you that. You try — that’s all I ask; just try for two or three days. Why, you can get him so in a little while that he’ll love you; and sleep with you; and won’t stay away from you a minute; and will let you wrap him round your neck and put his head in your mouth.”

Jim: “Please, Mars Tom — doan’ talk so! I can’t stan’ it! He’d let me shove his head in my mouf — fer a favor, hain’t it? I lay he’d wait a pow’ful long time ‘fo’ I ast him. En mo’ en dat, I doan’ want him to sleep wid me.”

“Jim, don’t act so foolish. A prisoner’s got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain’t ever been tried, why, there’s more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it than any other way you could ever think of to save your life.”

“Why, Mars Tom, I doan’ want no sich glory. Snake take ‘n bite Jim’s chin off, den whah is de glory? No, sah, I doan’ want no sich doin’s.”

“Blame it, can’t you try? I only want you to try — you needn’t keep it up if it don’t work.”

Tom condescends to Jim and is disbelieving at Jim’s lack of gratitude. “Can’t you try?” he says, patronizingly. He also has Jim dress up as a woman in order to escape, in case the humiliation wasn’t already apparent enough. And Jim calls him “Mars Tom” the whole way through.

The heartwarming friendship between Jim and Huck looks awfully hollow by this point. Tom, of course, proves utterly useless during the real escape from the angry mob, when Huck finally has latitude to act on Jim’s behalf once again. Seen in this light, the end is a lot closer to ghastly works like The Mysterious Stranger, in which Twain abandoned all hope for humanity and virtue.

The Mysterious Stranger was adapted rather too closely in The Adventures of Mark Twain, which I’m really glad I missed as a kid (“What’s your name?” “Satan.”):

Returning to Huck Finn: I didn’t realize any of the implications of the last part in high school. I was young and naive. I wish someone had told me. Now it seems obvious.

Update: I have to add this even more grotesque display of Tom’s callousness, when he tells Jim to play music for the rats in his cell and Jim says he doesn’t think the rats will be interested:

They don’t care what kind of music ’tis. A jews-harp’s plenty good enough for a rat. All animals like music — in a prison they dote on it. Specially, painful music; and you can’t get no other kind out of a jews-harp. It always interests them; they come out to see what’s the matter with you. Yes, you’re all right; you’re fixed very well. You want to set on your bed nights before you go to sleep, and early in the mornings, and play your jews-harp; play ‘The Last Link is Broken’ — that’s the thing that ‘ll scoop a rat quicker ‘n anything else; and when you’ve played about two minutes you’ll see all the rats, and the snakes, and spiders, and things begin to feel worried about you, and come. And they’ll just fairly swarm over you, and have a noble good time.”

Yes, dey will, I reck’n, Mars Tom, but what kine er time is Jim havin’? Blest if I kin see de pint. But I’ll do it ef I got to. I reck’n I better keep de animals satisfied, en not have no trouble in de house.”



  1. Argh! Not that clip again! I swear that’s the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life! Although I can’t remember how I first came across it…

  2. I had nearly an identical experience. My high school teacher (who was great, by the way) encouraged the ‘last third sucks’ interpretation. I reread Huck Finn just recently as we are podcasting it for our book club at stuff you should read. You still don’t see much critical analysis that views the final third of the book as resolution of the themes Twain started – which is odd, given the pantomime of slavery occurring post-Reconstruction at the time the book was being written.

    • A question about, “final third as resolution of the themes Twain started.” I don’t understand what that would be. Are you suggesting a very different interpretation than that given here by David Auerbach? If so, I especially want to understand what you are suggesting, because as things stand, Auerbach’s point seems “obvious.”

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