Yesterday in class students asked what the deal was with Emmeline in the Grangerford and Sheperdson epidsode in The Adventures in Huckleberry Finn.It’s a good question and I’m glad they asked it; it indicates to me that they’re wondering about the book in ways that will lend them insight. Simply asking why a writer includes something in a book admits that the writer has crafted the work intentionally and that the book has a purpose deeper than just to narrate a series of events.
Our main way of approaching the text for an answer is to explore the crazy cycle of the feud. We need to notice how Huck, our ever adaptable straight man, wants to adapt to his new setting and fit in with the Grangerford family. He admires them all but admires Colonel Grangerford in particular, as he is a “gentleman” who is “well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse” (117). I find it helpful to realize how this might bring to mind Aunt Alexandra from To Kill a Mockingbird–the idea of being from a good family is an important thing once again, and Huck explains that even Pap had always realized this, even though “he warn’t no more quality than a mud-cat, himself” (117).
So this high class, well bred family is one we should admire, as far as Huck is concerned, and he gives us a detailed description of their house to prove his point–all high class belongings, showing the Grangerfords are rich folk. Then we slowly learn how things work for the Grangerfords with the feud. Along with Huck, we learn the definitions of cowardice and honor: honor is what Buck explains, that you pick of one of theirs when they pick off one of yours. Cowardice is shooting from behind a bush where your victim can’t see you. A grown man shooting an unarmed child is not cowardice, because the child should have known better than to be unarmed, and that man was willing to face his own pursuers with courage.
On the one hand, as we discussed in class, we can see the reasoning behind all this. Buck’s shooting at a man from behind a bush does strike us as dishonorable. But the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons are locked into their own special crazy cycle, as we mapped out on the board with something like this:
You kill one of ours, we kill one of yours, and it can’t end unless it ends as Buck describes–with everyone being dead. Yet Huck doesn’t understand this fully, and he feels responsible for all the killing that takes place after Miss Sophia runs off. As we pointed out, however, Huck’s actions are not the cause on a broader level; the larger problem is that rationale the two families use for continuing their feud–the crazy cyle. Tied up in the middle of that, insulated from outside explanations of reality, masked by their high-class status, are the Grangerfords’ ideas about honor and courage. For us as readers, it’s like we are moving along a line above that cycle and can see it all as lunacy; but for Huck, he’s trapped in the middle and in his adaptability he’s been drawn slightly into the circle.
What about Emmeline? I am convinced Emmeline is a kind of clue to us as readers or a display of the family’s inability to see beyond their insular crazy cycle. They live this sick life of revenge and death, a life so dramatically twisted that it generates the kinds of moments Huck experiences when he first arrives at the house, having guns pointed at him and having to creep inside with his hands up. All that life is capable of producing, it seems, is death. Even in life, death is the dominant theme, as we see with Emmeline and her pictures and poems–the pictures amusingly (and darkly) all ending with “alas” and Emmeline rushing to beat the undertaker to anyone’s death. The family mourns her passing (more than it mourns the death of other children, a couple students pointed out) but doesn’t see how they have caused the morbid preoccupation of this potentially talented girl. They don’t see anything strange about Emmeline’s art work, just like they don’t see anything strange about listening to a preacher talk forcefully about brotherly love while keeping a gun handy in case they have to shoot folks on the other side of the aisle. They are well bred and low class, blind to their own faults, a picture of hypocrisy.
We as readers recognize their inconsistencies and blindness, however, and by now my class is probably getting wary about what Twain wants us to think and wondering if he’s mocking us. Is he mocking us? I think the answer is, sort of; if in our own lives we grow too serious about the rationale behind revenge and honor codes, we are his satirical target. I plan on sharing an article with the class in a couple weeks that will help us examine something called the honor codes of the South, and we’ll see that Twain had a serious disagreement with the line of thinking such codes engendered. I haven’t shared the article with my class yet, as it discusses a lot of material we haven’t read, but I think it will shed some light on this particular episode.
Ultimately, I am convinced the scene is a sharp indicator of Twain’s focus in the second half of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: with satirical scorn, he chastises what he sees as wrong with the world, and most particularly with the South. He’ll make us laugh but if we are his targets, we likely won’t be laughing all that much . . .
Thanks for reading.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is set in an idyllic town of St. Petersburg, but the glaring social ills it satirizes by deftly using irony, offer a candid glimpse of the drawbacks the society suffered post-American Civil War (1865).
Growing up in a white slaveholding Southern society, Twain was habituated with hearing the word, “nigger” being used for African Americans. And, probably it is for the same reason that the word is used such abundantly in the novel. However, Twain disapproved slavery, racism and thus, though his novel exposes the blacks as ignorant or unfeeling, it is done solely to depict the hollowness ingrained in his society. And to fulfill this purpose, he employs both the Horatian and the Juvenalian style of satirizing.
Examples of Satire in the Novel
Slavery and Racism
Huck, in the beginning, is just a vagabond, a passive follower of an irrational belief that black people are simply properties – devoid of feelings. It is only through close association with Jim that he realizes how wrong he is, that Jim too is like him, has emotions and “an uncommon level head.” And, by illuminating the mistaken notions of his central character, Twain ridicules slavery and the typical manner in which the whites patronized it.
Faulty Educational System
The fact that Huck’s moral sensibilities towards the injustice suffered by Jim are in no way influenced by education is perhaps one of the primary ways in which Twain satirizes the education system of his time. In fact, the ideas that Huck declare of learning at school are erroneous. Interestingly, just as Huck abhors going to school, his father, Pap simultaneously disapproves of making him learn anything. Thus, when he comes to know of Huck’s learning, he threatens him by saying,
“…You lemme catch you fooling around that school again, you hear? Your mother couldn’t read, and she couldn’t write…I can’t; and here you’re a-swelling yourself up like this.”
That the entire society was uneducated in the truest meaning of the term, is also revealed in other two vital ways; the rampant manner in which the con-artists, the Duke and King, fool a majority of the characters and the feud of the Feud of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons. The cause of this everlasting feud remains unknown, but unfortunately, it propels many deaths. By inculcating this dispute, Twain criticizes the foolishness of educated people and highlights the utter uselessness of the endeavor. He also gives an ironic twist to this contemporary “Romeo and Juliet” family-drama, by making the lovers, the only ones to survive.
Hollow Religious Beliefs
If Huck feels that he would go to hell by constantly helping Jim, it’s because they are the religious beliefs he has been told to follow. He also erringly contends that he would get everything by praying. By projecting Huck as one of those, who blindly accept whatever the priest says, without once taking the pains to read the Bible, Twain pokes at one of the key problems concerning religion – the truth that religion ultimately remains just as a set of rules to be memorized.
Another way in which Twain satirizes religion, is by involving an unusual funeral scene. He mocks at the lack of respect shown by the Christians of his day, by narrating how a dog constantly barks during the funeral procession of Peter Wilk, thereby upholding the essential truth that ceremonies are after all useless if a man is not given true worth. The ample use of superstitions by both Huck and Jim also highlight the faulty interpretation of religion.
Twain never liked romantic details, and thus the wrecked steamboat boarded by Huck and Jim is named as Walter Scott, suggesting the disintegration of romance in Twain’s time.
Twain next attacks the hypocrisy of his society through the untruthfulness of “a good Christian woman,” Miss Watson. Professing honesty to Huck, she makes the false promise of never selling Jim, and though she repents at the end of attempting to sell him, it is only Huck’s and his friend, Tom Sawyer’s schemes that help Jim to avoid his misfortune.
Weakness of Human Nature
Twain satirizes the typical habit of the whites to blame others for their flaws through the comments made by Pap Finn. Pap accuses the government several times in the novel by saying, “Call this a govment” and “this is a wonderful govment, wonderful.” The undeniable fact is that he never can go against the norms dictated by society and thus passively suffers.
The episode of Colonel Sherburn and Boggs on the other hand, reveals Twain’s lampooning of the idea of lynching and the frailty of human nature to judge by general opinion. The wealthy shop owner, Colonel Sherburn, on being taunted by a local drunk, Boggs, kills him. As an enraged crowd resolves to lynch Sherburn, he confronts them saying,
“Why, a man’s safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind—as long as it’s daytime and you’re not behind him,”
thereby referring to their cowardice, their inability to judge impartially.
Examples of Irony in Huckleberry Finn
Twain’s use of irony helps him to satirize what he feels wrong, but it also serves as an important factor in rendering the plot more vibrant and realistic.
Huck’s Moral Struggle
The mental dilemma encountered by Huck of whether to help Jim in escaping or not, is an instance of dramatic irony, for, though unknown to him, the reader knows that he is actually doing the right thing by not being repulsive to Jim.
The Phony Church Mannerisms of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons
The manner in which the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons follow the church practices serves as situational irony. It is ironical that these two families, observing the underlying message of sharing brotherly love, enjoy the sermon, but at the same time, keep their guns “between their knees.”
Huck’s inability to completely understand things make him comment in such a way that it results in a lot of verbal as well as Socratic irony. Thus, when he reveals his disinterestedness in living with the Widow Douglas by saying,
“The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways,”
the way he uses the word, “decent” points out that though Huck never considers himself honorable, in reality, he shows more concern, more understanding than all the proclaimed civilized characters and this fact is acknowledged both by the author and the reader.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reigns as one of the most controversial books in American literature; it was banned after its publication in 1885 for containing “little humor and that of a very coarse type.” Nonetheless, the novel’s praising by notable black authors like Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, reflects its triumph in authentically exposing the hypocrisy of his age in accurate details.