How Twain viewed home through Huck's eyes
Americans idealize the nuclear family, but not every American fits into the nuclear mold. Somewhere deep in our consciousness we know this, but many of us fail to recognize it. Most literary discussions of home focus on idealistic circumstances and don’t examine what it means to not have a home at all. What do home and family mean to an orphan? In specific, what does it mean to someone like Huckleberry Finn and what does that mean for the rest of us?
Huck leaves behind one family—an abusive, drunken one—to encounter family after family as he travels down the Mississippi River, from the feuding Grangerfords to the grieving sisters to the cozy Aunt Sally. He also invents fake families, one after another, whenever he needs a good tall tale to spin. In the end, Huck leaves behind both his potential new family with Aunt Sally and his family-like bond with Jim and Tom to become a true orphan, setting out for the territories.
The novel begs the question: why would Huck Finn aspire to be and remain an orphan? In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain shows us the kinds of broken homes that drive Huck to decide that being an orphan is the best option out there.
Huck’s own family is a broken one. His drunken father, Pap, sends him on the run looking for a better life. It turns out that the wider world is not much better than the home Huck left. People treat him as an outcast and fail to protect him from abuse, all while believing themselves to be moral people. The hypocrites that Huck encounters on his journey encourage him to become an orphan.
So, in a broader sense, what is Twain telling us through Huckleberry Finn about family and home in our society? Through Huck’s encounters, Twain indirectly voices his concerns and beliefs about the family values of the time period and his ideal home.
Huck’s life with his drunken father mirrors societal problems in the Gilded age. It was common during this time for some men of working-class families to pursue their desires at the expense of their families, contributing to the ballooning number of fatherless families. Huck is obviously a result of such a family and therefore represents the problem of societal fatherlessness. The rest of polite society does not make up for Huck’s lack, but instead compounds it through its judgment and hypocrisy. Because of this response, Huck ultimately decides to follow in the footsteps of his father, yearning for freedom and detaching himself from the obligations and responsibilities of the home or family, further compounding the societal problem.
Can we decipher Twain’s idea of a good family so that we don’t end up like Huck, or at least avoid the world of Huck Finn? Twain grew up in a stable family with responsible, caring parents. His household exemplified values such as loyalty, responsibility, honesty, courage, and sacrifice. Throughout the novel, Twain introduces us to families such as his own, but they were too few and far between to convince Huck that family life is worthwhile. Twain focuses on families that illustrate qualities that he disapproved of who drive Huck to keep moving on as a vagrant himself, ultimately embracing everything he despised about his father. The families he met only increased his distrust of families and home. That made his vagabond lifestyle an easy choice.
Every culture contains divided and struggling households that leave broken people in their wake. Although difficult to address, Twain’s message is resoundingly clear: without kindness, selflessness, courage, sacrifice, love, and honesty in family life, an orphan’s life can be preferable to family life. These virtues sustain families and the larger society. If we employ these principles we have the best chance at having a happy home. We need to listen to him now.
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