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Death and Humor in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Death and Humor in Huckleberry Finn

Huckleberry Finn can be read as a boy’s adventure novel, as a work of serious literature, as a humorous historical account, as biting social satire . . . I’m sure I could go on. This is a book that has delighted generations of readers – it’s rollingly funny, rife with adventure – and hopelessly morbid. That’s right. I read Huckleberry Finn and it made me think of death. The novel has a strange way of dealing with death. There’s a pretty high body count, yet each individual demise becomes an opportunity for high comedy. We laugh, and the novel will laugh with us. But it won’t cry. Perhaps this was a nod to time and place. As far as the poetry of the time suggests, life in America in the late nineteenth century was not exactly cheerful. Take this poem, published less than a year before Huckleberry Finn, as just one example:

When I am gone –

Say! Will the glad wind wander, wander on;

Stooping with tenderest touches, yet

With frolic care beset,

Lifting the long gray rushes, where the Stream

And I so idly dream?

I feel its soft caress;

The toying of its wild-wood tenderness

On brow and lips and eyes and hair,

As if through love aware

That days must come when no fond wind shall creep

Down where my heart’s asleep!

Hast thou a sympathy,

A soul, O wandering Wind, that thou dost sigh?

Or is’t the heart within us still

That aches for good or ill,

And deems that Nature whispers, when alone

Our inner Self makes moan?

“Longing”, by Wi…

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…ems, amongst others, by Walter Blair’s Mark Twain and Huck Finn. (California: University of California Press, 1960).

[5] Mark Twain. Following the Equator. England: Dover Publications, 1988.

[6] Julia A. Moore. Mortal Refrains: The Complete Collected Poetry, Prose, and Songs of Julia A. Moore, The Sweet Singer of Michigan. Thomas J. Riedlinger, Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998 (5).

[7] Mark Twain. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999 (124).

[8] Mark Twain. “Post-Mortem Poetry”, The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider. New York: Doubleday, 1961 (156).

[9] Mark Twain. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999 (295).

[10] Mark Twain. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999 (194).

Connection in Forster’s Howards End

The epigraph of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End is just two words: “only connect”. As economical as this gesture seems, critics and interpreters have made much of this succinct epigraph and the theme of connection in Howards End. Stephen Land, for example, cites a:

demand for connection, in the sense of moving freely between the two Forsterian worlds – the two “sides of the hedge”, the everyday world of social norms and the arcadian or paradisal world of individual self-realization – has its roots in earlier stories…” [1]

He goes on to say that “each [character] must reconcile or connect for himself the range of conceptual polarities exposed by the story – prose and passion, seen and unseen, masculine and feminine, new and old” (Land, 165). Land reads the novel as some sort of compromise between these two worlds – the realm of social justice and the realm of the individual. Other critics have made similar gestures. James McConkey, for one, feels that “Margaret will reconcile the human and transcendent realms so that she may live in harmony with the human; the voice senses the connection through its remove from both.” [2] These critics seem to confuse “connection” with “reconciliation”, seem to read the novel as a triumph for humanism and social justice. I feel this is a little bit of . . . fudging. True, the characters in Howards End experience reconciliation at the close of the novel – but reconciliation occurs only when love passes out of the novel, when the narrative ceases to be a bridge between two worlds. The meaning of the word “connect” diminishes as the novel progresses, gradually loses its mythic, transcendent meaning.

The “only connect” moment referenced in the epigraph comes wh…

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…any remnant of the bridge between the paradisal world and the world of manners and civic duty. The concept of connection is so degraded as to be unrecognizable. This is what happens after love fails. The celestial omnibus will not stop at Howards End again.

[1] Stephen Land. Challenge and Conventionality in the Fiction of E.M. Forster. New York: AMS Press, 1990 (165). Hereafter cited parenthetically.

[2] James McConkey. The Novels of E.M. Forster. New York: Cornell University Press, 1957 (79).

[3] E.M. Forster. Howards End. New York: Penguin, 1986 (154). Hereafter cited parenthetically.

[4] E.M. Forster. “The Celestial Omnibus”. The Collected Tales of E.M. Forster. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952 (61). It seems prudent to note that this story was first published in 1911, one year after Howards End appeared.

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