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Performing Friendship in Huck Finn

sky stegall

I don't know much about writing English papers. In fact, I'm pretty terrible at it. I'm tired of reading books and trying to act like a literary critic, which I most certainly am not. What I am is a theater kid actor, director, technician, writer, designer, you name it and I've done it. So now, in order to stay afloat in the wide river of a big book, I'm going to build a raft and call it performance. Specifically, performance of relationships and roles how do these characters relate to each other, how do they perform that relationship, and what can I learn from them to help myself? When reading a script for a show, the director, the dramaturg, and the actors must analyze the text to decipher the relationships between characters, and often all we have is their dialogue. Fortunately, in a novel we are given more information. Thoughts, reactions, emotions and descriptions are usually given directly to us, and too often we fail to analyze these signs to make up our own minds about the relationships being performed. In reading Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I was struck by the unusual relationship between Huck and Jim but who isn't? However, I don't feel comfortable with the commonly-held concept that Jim is a father-figure to Huck. It seems ludicrous to me from Huck's upbringing, temperament, behavior and language to say that he sees Jim as a kind of father. It is clear to me that Huck thinks of Jim as his friend and peer, and if anything else sometimes (and only sometimes, and only when he's lying to himself), as somewhat lower than himself. Jim, on the other hand, thinks of Huck as a son-figure as it were, and sometimes tries pretty unsuccessfully to treat him that way. So what's going on here? Each character has a set of ideas about their relationship, and a set of morals, conscious decisions, unconscious thoughts and instincts that lead their words and actions to a certain performance. In this case, each character also perceives the other's performance as something other than what it was meant to be. How's that again? Let's look at the performances, and the performers themselves, first. In the famous "trash scene" in Chapter 15, after spending a frightening night lost amongst snags and small islands unable to find each other, Jim wakes up to find Huck back safely on the raft and playing a trick on him Huck pretends he's been there the whole time and puts Jim through mental hoops trying to explain everything, until Jim comes right out and says he knows it's all a lie and a trick and he's not amused. What does this tell us about their relationship? Clearly Huck does not think of Jim as a father-figure; he plays the kind of trick on him that Tom Sawyer would play (and did, in Chapter 2) and talks down to him, saying "I think you're a tangle-headed old fool, Jim." (pg 94) These are the actions of one who feels friendship and superiority, even if only a little bit. Much is made of the line, in page 95, when Huck says "it was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger," as support for Huck's racism, but I think it's more important that Huck says only two lines later that "I wouldn't done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way." Huck realizes what he has done is mean and not funny, and is ashamed to have hurt his friend despite the cultural idea that Jim, being black, is not really a person. When I first read this I felt immediately that Tom would never have felt bad about playing a trick on Jim, even if it did hurt him (and I was right; later on, Tom puts Jim though hell by "rescuing" him and never once considers the other man's comfort or happiness or needs). Huck performs the role of a friend who thinks himself a little superior: he plays tricks, he talks down to Jim and calls him names, but when Jim calls him out on it he repents and is genuinely sorry for the pain he has caused his friend, saying "it made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back." (95) But is Jim playing the friend back? He speaks as from several different roles, calling Huck "honey" and "chile" when he's thrilled to see Huck alive (pg 93), speaking authoritatively a moment later: "Huck Finn, you look me in de eye," (94), then calling Huck "boss" (94), and finally laying it down like a man who knows he is above the insult he has been dealt, "Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed." (95) What do Jim's words tell us about his view of Huck? He definitely cares about Huck, since he is so glad to see him again and so willing to believe the crazy lie he tells. He does not really treat Huck as a child here, despite calling him "chile," until he realizes how immature Huck has been, and even then his chastisement is not that of a father but rather that of a friend. Jim performs the role of a friend who is concerned, relieved, confused and finally disappointed; he does not speak to Huck the way he would to his own children, as we see in his story about discovering his daughter's deafness. Huck is, in this scene, performing the role of a friend who feels himself a little superior, perhaps for cultural reasons and perhaps because that is the way his own best friend, Tom Sawyer, treats him. Jim is performing the role of a friend who cares very much but is not willing to be insulted for the amusement of his friend. Huck's understanding of a father-performances comes from his own Pap, who does none of the things Jim does, speaks very differently, and treats Huck as an inflated inferior (calling his education "hifalut'n foolishness" pg 31), so Huck would never perceive Jim's behavior here as father-like. Now, no one who cares for and about his friend wants to be tricked and insulted and made fun of so how do Jim and Huck resolve this discrepancy in relationship? Huck apologizes to Jim right at the end of the scene, and says to us that he "warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither." (95) Their relationship works out because Huck matures a little here; he makes the conscious decision to treat Jim better. This is why, later in the book, he goes through his well-known "crisis of conscience" about turning Jim in; the regular culture he thinks he is supposed to be part of only brings him trouble and pain, whereas Jim's friendship and continued trust bring him joy and survival. Huck remembers "how glad he was when I come back out of the fog...and such-like times" (223) and cannot go through with his plan to do the "right" thing. In a novel, as in a play and as usually happens in real life, a character's actions and decisions are based on his or her previous decisions and the performance pattern that is set up thereby. Huck's and Jim's behavior towards each other is determined in this famous scene, when Jim first broaches the subject of their friendship and partnership, as opposed to the traditional master-slave situation, and when Huck first makes the decision to treat Jim as a human being and a friend, rather than as a slave or as a protector or even just as an inferior mind (the way we may assume Tom would have). This is perhaps why they survive so much neither one will let the other come to too much harm. Jim lets Huck pretend he is Jim's master so they can get through several scrapes, but Huck certainly never expects Jim to act as his slave. Huck takes Jim's advice and looks to him for plans sometimes, as well, rather than trying to lead the expedition as Tom would have done. It is clear to me that their relationship matures into a deeper and more useful kind of friendship in the end of this scene, and that this sustains them. Ok, so their friend-performances have to match up or at least be compatible for the two of them to survive; how is that useful to me? I am not currently floating down a big river with only one friend in all the world, battling convention and con men and the massive weight of slavery. I am, however, going through college, which is a big enough river for me, and I am consciously performing for and with my friends. Reading the book in this way, as a scene being performed by two characters, has given me a little insight to the way I treat my friends, and speak to them, and more generally perform to them. For example, I had a pretty heated discussion with a friend recently about education, and when I later mentioned to her the "fight" we'd had, she said she did not remember any such thing. Was I performing a fight that she did not consciously participate in? Was I reading into her words and actions an antagonism that she had not meant to be there? I realized that not only had I not picked up on her performance of a friendly discussion, she had not picked up on my performance of a fight and that what really got dropped in the middle what the fact that the topic meant a lot more to me personally than it did to her. Having made that realization, and remembering that it is Huck's decision and apology that maintain their friendship, I explained the misunderstanding, and why the conversation had been so emotional for me, to my friend and we "made up," as it were. It's a good thing, too, because I realize, also with this book in mind, that I cannot get through college on my own and it is in my best interest to take care of my friendships by keeping an eye on my performances and the ones I encounter, and to make sure they stay compatible. So I frankly do not know if that counts as a "critical question" from the standpoint of literary criticism (which I know nothing about), but it's pretty critical for me to think about and understand. Incidentally, I've decided that that's what book-reading is for, not to give me adventures (I can find those on my own, thank you very much, Mr. Melville) or to convince me of anything (look, Mrs. Stowe, I'm already on your side), but to poke awake the parts of my brain I turn off when I get to comfortable to make me think about things from someone else's eyes, or to examine my own actions more critically when I find myself criticizing a character, or to simply remind me that things are not always as they seem to me. Quotations and references from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Norton Critical Edition (3rd) 1999, etc.


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