Mark Twain's Shots at Society in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Ernest Hemingway once said of Mark Twain's novel, Huckleberry Finn, "All modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn." Mark Twain is perhaps one of the greatest American writers and is known as a pioneer for the American novel. His books during his time were immensely popular among rich and poor. He introduced the "adventure" style, where the main characters travel around having interesting experiences together. But during his life, Twain saw many injustices of society and his writing reflected these injustices. His most acclaimed novel, Huckleberry Finn has many criticisms of society in it. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain denounces the attitude of the Gilded Age, human greed, and religious hypocrisy.
In the middle of the novel, Huck comes across the Grangerfords, the highest aristocratic family Huck has ever seen. Huck thinks they are the best people he has encountered. They take him in and make him one of the family, feeding him and treating him as an honored guest. While staying in their house, however, he comes across the trappings of the house and makes a true observation about what material possessions the Grangerfords have. On the outside, their house is beautiful, and Huck says that he never "seen no house so nice and had so much style"(99). It has real brass doorknobs, a brick fireplace, and an extraordinary clock on the mantelpiece that has a painting of the town on it. The inside decorations look good at first glance but are really fake and worthless inside, much like the age that Twain lived in. Huck comes across a gaudy parrot made out of chalk and a crockery dog and cat(100). These are totally worthless to Huck, and he cannot understand why the Grangerfords have them beside the clock. The reader can only imagine how excited and amazed Huck would have been to discover a real parrot, dog or cat. After examining these fake animals, he comes across a table in that has a "lovely crockery basket that had apples and oranges and peaches and grapes piled up in it, which was much redder and yellower and prettier than the real ones"(100). These fruits look gorgeous and ready to eat, but in reality they are made out of chalk, not fit to eat by anyone. On the same table that has the fruit, there are thick, scholarly books piled up perfectly on each corner. From Huck's observations it is obvious that no one reads these books and they are merely for show, like the rest of the ornaments in the house. Through the Grangerford house, Twain shows his contempt for the Gilded Age and the pretentiousness that was so common during that time.
After the Grangerford feud, Huck's raft is taken over by two "rapscallions", the self proclaimed King and Duke. These two con men are greedy and selfish beyond belief. In their first scam, they pose themselves as Royal Shakespearean actors from England, and trick the whole town into coming to their show, because ladies and children are not admitted. They collect the ticket money and skip town, leaving Jim and Huck amazed at how bad these royals act. In the next few chapters they come across the Wilk's sisters, and tell them they are their uncles, because the uncles are left a huge sum of gold to inherit. They are not content with this money and plan to sell all the property Peter Wilk has left, because the king says to the duke, "What! And not sell out the rest o' the property? March off like a passel of fools and leave eight or nine thous'n' dollars' worth o' property layin' around jest sufferen' to be scooped in?"(177). These two rascals are the worst kind Huck has ever seen, and because he can't stand the robbery of the girls, he steals the money from the king and duke and gives it back to the girls. After the king and duke are proved as frauds, they show even more greediness and selfishness by selling Jim for forty dollars, a fraction of what he is worth. The king and duke has so much money, yet they still crave more, and betray Jim, who has treated them like royalty on the raft. In the end, though, the two con men get their punishment by being tarred and feathered by a town. The King and Duke are two perfect examples of the human greediness the Twain hated, and he shows this in Huckleberry Finn.
Perhaps the most recurring theme of Huckleberry Finn is Twain's criticisms of religion, and religious hypocrisy. In the very beginning of the book, the Widow Douglas, a religious woman, tells Huck not to smoke but yet she takes snuff. Huck asks, how can a person preach godliness and purification of the body, and then take snuff the next minute? Right after this lesson, Miss Watson, another religious woman explains to Huck about heaven and hell, but Huck responds he would prefer hell, because it would be better than just sitting where he was(3). Tom Sawyer is going to hell, so it can't be all that bad. Later on in the novel, Huck goes to the Grangerfords and they hear a sermon about brotherly love, and the whole family agrees what a good sermon it was(109). Yet the Grangerfords are right in the midst of killing their brothers in the feud with the Sheperdsons. Twain further ridicules church by saying that only the pigs, not the people truly desire to go to church, if only to cool themselves down(110). When Huck meets Aunt Sally, he tells of a steamboat accident, and says a nigger was hurt. To this, Aunt Sally, another typical religious woman, says "It's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt"(221). This hypocrisy is common in Huckleberry Finn. The self-proclaimed righteous person is godly, but yet sees black people as not even human. Huck himself is portrayed as being the least religious of the characters in the book, but his actions are the most noble. In the actions of the wrecked Walter Scott, Huck saves the murderers from drowning. And his whole quest for helping a runaway slave escape is noble in this age's eyes, if not when Twain wrote this book. Twain offers the greatest criticism on society's religious hypocrisies by having the main character, the least religious, be the most good-hearted person in the book. Through Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain points out the shallow display of righteousness that was so common in that age.
Mark Twain was a brilliant social critic and writer, and in Huckleberry Finn he criticizes the Gilded Age, human greediness and religious hypocrisy. What he did do, was perhaps change the habits of the people who had read this book. He probably changed their attitudes on what they did everyday. In writing a masterpiece of an adventure novel, he also provides an insight into the times that America was living in. Huckleberry Finn truly is the first American novel, and it deserves to be read by all ages in order to learn more about that time period and this nation.