Theoretical Knowledge vs Practical Experience
“Human beings can be awful cruel to each other” (Twain 294). Nobody understands the human condition better than Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Though he is just of boy of little education and lacking sophisticated culture, he gained his knowledge the hard way, through experience. On the opposite pole is Tom Sawyer, a minor character who plays a major role. He understands the world around him through one thing, books. His battle cry seems to be, “Because it ain’t in the books so—that’s why” (12). Understanding these two opposites at work is to appreciate why Twain ended the book the way he did. Tom is a focal character in the beginning, showing his bravado and how much Huck doesn’t know. In the end, he must return to show how much the experienced Huck has grown, and the consuming importance of experiencing life instead of just reading about it.
Mark Twain wrote from experience, and though he was not highly educated (he left school at age fourteen), he had a keen understanding of the true gem of intelligence. In writing Huckleberry Finn, he only wrote what he knew from his own experience, and he never embellished upon what he did not know. “Mark Twain was unfamiliar with the territory. He was searching for a plan to take them down the great river into territory that he knew from his days as a pilot” (Emerson, xxv). He stalled the flow of his tale until he could travel to the areas to have first hand knowledge of what he was writing about. He wanted to avoid the mistakes of the Tom Sawyers who wrote just to inflate their literary ego with pompous narration of ideas they did not truly know.
At the beginning of the tale, Huckleberry Finn is naïve and ignorant. He follows the antics of Tom Sawyer out of humility and emulation for one so cultured as the well educated Tom who could read many books. Thus, he follows him out of innocence in hopes of learning more about life as is expected of all “ignorant” folks, but all he ends up learning is that there is a difference between dream and reality, something Tom Sawyer lacks. When he joins the boy gang of robbers and murderers in search of adventure and finds only childish stories and fantasy, he cannot believe the waste of time and energy. “So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school” (Twain 19). Huck is too level headed for the likes of Tom, though he is young in age. He is the average boy or man in search of truth and finds it not in the almighty institutions of knowledge.
Most people believe that published books, fiction or non-fiction, contain the ultimate truths of the world, that books are the definitive authority in a field, and that what is written should be believed. However, even the most respected writers of yesterday have proved to be wrong or inaccurate from time to time. There is only so much practical knowledge a book can bestow upon everyday life. Tom is the firmest believer in the written word. In fact, his life didn’t call for much practical experience with life. His family had sheltered him with culture and money, so the life he lived became so constricting that he had to reach out and actually do something just to prove that he was alive. Tom represents the bookish experts who have read it all but lived none of it. People like Tom are akin to show off how much they know without doing a lot. The use of big words that no one understands and discussing obscure topics that have no relevance to the situation at hand is how Tom astounds those around him. At one time he even strikes up a conversation about heraldry just to show how much he has read (329). He may know the words, but he doesn’t know what they mean exactly so he uses them incorrectly. It is merely for show and by using big words that he doesn’t really understand inflates his ego to prove to himself that he does, in fact, have intelligence. When questioned about what he is talking about, he comfortably falls back upon the scholastic’s excuse, “but that’s what they do. I’ve seen it in books; and so of course that’s what we’ve got to do” or say (12).
At the very start of the novel, Tom Sawyer becomes victim to the scholastic’s quixotic way of thinking. Tom calls Huck ignorant because he has not read Cervantes Don Quixote, and reading such books as that, one acquires an imagination. But an imagination that goes unchecked is the very source of the irony in these picaresque novels. A Handbook to Literature defines such novels as “presenting the life story of a rascal of low degree engaged in menial tasks and making his living through his wits than his industry…and affords the author an opportunity for satire of the social classes” (“picaresque novel”). Thus, Tom shows his own ignorance in referring to the book Don Quixote by becoming exactly what the book satirizes, that of an impractical idealist. Tom, like Don Quixote, starts to believe that he is the hero or villain from the tales he reads, and thus sets off on ludicrous adventures that nobody else seems to understand but him.
Huck is the exact opposite; he has the desire to pursue knowledge for the sake of growth not amusement. “Huck has not imagination, in the sense in which Tom has it: he has, instead, vision. He sees the real world; and he does not judge it—he allows it to judge itself” (Eliot 74). Often in just living life, he grows in maturity and knowledge without even knowing it. This is the way of experience as the classroom instead of books. All know the amount of time it takes to read books, and how simple it is compared to real life. This is why Tom is dropped suddenly from the narrative, and Huck continues on in the classroom of life. The reader watches Huck grow as he takes his journey on down the river. It is not until Tom returns at the end of the book that the reader sees how much Huck has grown as a real person. Sure he is the same old Huck, ignorant and far from civilized, but he has what counts, morality and humanity; whereas, Tom is still stagnant as a human being, living life only through the eyes of others.
The change in Huck is shown when he confesses to Tom that he wants to steal Jim from the slave owners. Tom jumps at the idea and chooses to do so for the adventure of it; he thirsts for the life in his books without knowing the true consequences of his actions. To him there is only the hero and the villain, and no morals outside of his adventures. Huck wants to steal Jim because it is the right thing to do; he has learned that much from his travels. Through his real experiences outside of the literary world, he has grown and sees things as they really are; colored and not just black and white.
Huck’s humanity is further illustrated when he sees the King and Duke finally caught. Though they did some atrocious things to Jim and him, Huck gives good words of wisdom learned from life in the real world. “It made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another” (Twain 294). Huck has developed a conscience in his experiences and knows right from wrong even though those older and more intelligent than him do not appear so. Whether we are human or animal is what Twain satirizes, and how much inhumanity must one endure and suffer before he or she realizes the truth is not what those in authority say, but what is in the heart, as the conscience dictates.
This is why Huck is in awe that someone in Tom’s standing would face the shame of stealing a slave. He just doesn’t realize Tom’s motives. For Huck, he is doing it out of love and respect for a friend, and Jim is no friend of Tom’s; he is merely an acquaintance. Tom steals Jim out of glory for adventure. This is the main difference. Huck lives and has adventure through reality. Tom seeks adventure so that he can live outside of reality. That is why he must create his own exploits, to find his challenge. Adventure creates Huck and challenges him to a higher level. Tom is the opposite, however. He tries to create the great escape to fit exactly with the books for the glory of it. Huck then comes up with a levelheaded plan for an escape that would give them freedom and no worry. On the other hand, Tom wants the romantic rescue that is befitting of his books, but that will also create more work and possible detection. One who lacks real life skills, and is only book learned, seeks the need for outlandish recognition because they only have the knowledge but not the lifestyle to carry out such bold moves.
Is one who is educated necessarily more intelligent than one who isn’t? Tom likes to think so, but the mere stupidity and rote of his actions speaks of his lack of real world knowledge. “It might answer for you to dig Jim out with a pick, without any letting on, because you don’t know better; but it wouldn’t for me, because I do know better” (314). He asks for a case-knife to dig the hole with and when Huck give him one he states it again, wanting the ignorant one to make a blunder of mistaking a pick for a case knife for him. Although he can’t make any mistakes in the endeavor, the uneducated one can, for they are the fools. Huck becomes the scapegoat for Tom’s own bumbling pride, and if an uneducated man who has experience in the world doesn’t find what the educated say to make sense, it goes against all natural thinking, and the whole experience is considered a waste. Never mind that the uneducated can actually teach the educated through the experience they have had. But even if they do not understand, they are still to conform as if what is said is truth and not merely opinion. When Jim complains about all the things he must do as a prisoner according to the romantic books, “Tom most lost all patience with him; and said he was just loadened down with more gaudier chances than a prisoner ever had in the world to make a name for himself, and yet he didn’t know enough to appreciate them, and they was just about wasted on him. So Jim he was sorry, and said he wouldn’t behave so no more” (336). It is a shame that so much practical knowledge has been lost over the ages because the “civilized” deem the uneducated as stupid.
To think that education is intelligence when in practical terms it is only written foolishness and chicanery has become the “civilized” world’s folly. Jim, being the most uneducated of them all, proved to be the most intelligent throughout the novel because he has knowledge of experience instead of books. “And [Tom] told him how to keep a journal on the shirt with his blood, and all that. He told him everything. Jim, he couldn’t see no sense in the most of it, but he allowed we was white folks and knowed better than him; so he was satisfied, and said he would do it all just as Tom said” (316). How much culture and knowledge have been destroyed by the civilized countries that know nothing more than what a man and a book tell them? An educated person can be the burden on any person, and it would be better to suffer in ignorance than to be caught in the whiles of an individual who thinks he knows everything. Many a nation mourns their wondrous days before the empires came to “civilize” them and create more problems than they ever had before. “I never knowed b’of’ ‘twas so much bother and trouble to be a prisoner” (334). To Jim, because a book says it, it must be true. If a book says snakes can be tamed, then anyone can do it. The first rule of the intellect is to do it for glory of showing one’s own intelligence, to be the first to do something no matter how foolish it may seem. “‘Why, Mars Tom, I doan’ want no sich glory. Snake take ‘n bit Jim’s chin off, den, whah is deh glory?’” (333-334). Again the most uneducated can hold the most common sense, proving that education isn’t the only mode for intelligence.
Anybody who has gone out and experienced the world knows that life doesn’t follow any rules. Usually, if the same situation is repeated, another outcome will result. For real knowledge, truth comes from experience, yet for those of high education, who study just books in their ivory towers, truth is not essential as long as the rules are met. A highly ordered life requires rules, and rules do not always follow the truth. If something doesn’t quite fit, or isn’t understood, then they may create a new idea with lots of fresh jargon to explain what cannot be and call it truth. Black men are inferior because of the color of their skin only because educated men told the world so! Furthermore, other educated men will believe this because it is published and then teach it in schools. Only the educated will call superstition fact. Education is the illusion of truth and that is what separates the educated from the uneducated. “‘And don’t call it mullen, call it Pitchiola—that’s its right name when it’s in a prison. And you want to water it with your tears.’ ‘Why, I got plenty spring water, Mars Tom.’ ‘You don’t want spring water; you want to water it with your tears. It’s the way they always do’” (336). This is the typical classroom setting where the educated buffoons of yesterday unteach the common sense out of the youth of tomorrow.
Many critics have criticized the ending of the book, when Tom comes in and takes away the glory that Huck deserves. Nevertheless, this is exactly the point Twain wanted to illustrate. By the end, it is Huck who has learned the true meaning of life, and is sensitive to others feelings. When he wants to go visit Tom after getting shot, he wanted to escape in the middle of the night, but seeing his surrogate Aunt sitting up all night waiting for Tom to return, makes him reconsider. He feels the true error of what they did. “I wished I could do something for her, but I couldn’t, only to swear that I wouldn’t never do nothing to grieve her any more (360). In contrast, Tom has gone through an adventure of his own and learns nothing new. Even when he is shot, he is the happiest of everyone because he has a war wound, some trophy to talk about, and never mind that his life was at stake and Jim almost got caught and later does get caught. The innocent must continue to suffer at the hands of bookish intellects who actually know nothing more than what another writer tells them is truth. Nonetheless, it was not the learned antics of Tom that actually saved Jim, it was Jim’s own humanity and caring for Tom more than freedom that allowed him to be viewed as an equal. This was the person who was the most influential to Huck: Jim, an uneducated, black man and not Tom, the educated, cultured white boy. Even on his deathbed, Tom still insists on the doctor being brought according to the rules of the book. He still cannot differentiate between dream and reality.
The book starts with Tom. It is only natural to end it with Tom. The reason why it stirred up such a controversy as to why its ending is unconventional is what Twain was trying to point out. Educated intellectuals would argue that Twain made a mistake “because it ain’t in the books so—that’s why. Now […] do you want to do things regular, or don’t you?—that’s the idea. Don’t you reckon that people that made the books knows what’s the correct thing to do? Do you reckon you can learn ‘em anything? Not by a good deal” (12). Truth is experience and not another’s convention. A humble experience deserves a humble ending; let the bookish intellects have the glory of a heroic ending that is just as gaudy as Tom Sawyer’s rescue.
Emerson, Everett. Introduction. Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. By Mark Twain. Ed. Everett Emerson. Revised ed. New York: Washington Square Press, 1994. ix-xxix.
Eliot, T.S. Introduction. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. London: The Cresset Press, 1950.
“Picaresque Novel.” A Handbook to Literature. Ed. C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon. Sixth ed. New York. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Everett Emerson. Revised ed. New York: Washington Square Press, 1994.
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