The Raft, the River, and The Weird Ending of Huckleberry Finn: Crash Course Literature 303


Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
Literature, and today we’re going to continue our discussion of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” But this time we get to talk about metaphors,
and the book’s extremely unpopular ending. So as Sigmund Freud probably never actually
said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but in Huckleberry Finn, the raft, the island, the river, they aren’t just rafts and islands and rivers. [Theme Music] So, I think the most significant metaphor
in the book is the Mississippi river itself. It was a river Twain knew well; he worked
in his youth as a steamboat pilot. And he communicates some of the beauty and the wonder of that river in a passage where he describes the approach of dawn: “Not a sound anywheres
– perfectly still – just like the whole world was asleep, only
sometimes the bullfrogs a-clattering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over
the water, was a kind of dull line – that was the woods on t’other side – you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around and you
see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river.” I mean, you read that, and you think, hey, I want to escape my alcoholic, abusive father and travel down the river, too! The sense of serenity, of possibility, of
benevolent nature is almost overwhelming. The river is seen to be in contrast with a lot of the violence and pettiness that Huck finds on land. That’s what some early critics noted, like
Lionel Trilling and T.S. Eliot. They argued that while the book doesn’t have a lot of time for conventional religious belief, it does make kind of a god of the river. “It is about a god,” Trilling wrote, “a power which seems to have a mind and a will of its own, and which, to men of moral imagination, appears
to embody a great moral idea.” He argued that while this god of the river isn’t necessarily good, love of it leads Huck toward goodness, which you can see in the way Huck’s voice is at its most beautiful and poetic when he’s describing the river. But some later critics have argued that this
view is maybe too rose-colored and limiting. Like, the river is a beautiful place in Huck Finn, but also a dangerous one, which Trilling only sort of acknowledges. I mean, it’s a place where dead bodies float
by, where a sudden fog separates the two friends, where a steamboat threatens to destroy the raft. But to that, I’d point out that gods aren’t
necessarily nice, as much as they’re powerful. And there’s also been a lot of scholarship around the idea that the river represents a great moral idea: Freedom. Like, early in the book, he says, “In two
seconds away we went a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us.” And throughout the book, there’s a strong opposition between life on the river and life onshore, where there are a bunch of nonsensical rules, and uncivilized civilizations, and absurd feuds. But that opposition is also an oversimplification
in the end, isn’t it? Because the river is often a threat to the
freedom that Huck and Jim want. I mean, Jim escapes in the first place because he’s learned he’s about to be sold “down the river.” I mean, it’s the river that sends bounty
hunters past them. That sticks them with two of the worst specimens of humanity ever known: the con men known as the King and the Duke. It’s the river that pushes them right past Cairo, where they were hoping to catch a steamboat up to the free states, and transports them deeper into slave territory. So, if we’re gonna see the river as a god,
and I think it’s helpful to, let’s see it as, like, one of the gods of Mount Olympus, a complicated, quasi-human god. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, I’m sorry, but you’re
always ruining books by overreading them. Like, why does the river have to be a god?
Why can’t it just be a river? A little late in the game for you to be rearing
your head me from the past, but OK. I would argue that you’re going to worship
something. Maybe it’ll be a god, maybe it’ll be money,
or power, or fame, but there’s going to be something that orients
your humanness in a particular direction. I think Twain is arguing against the pro-slavery,
quote unquote, civilized god of the widow. And arguing that love of this huge, intimidating,
beautiful river is a better way to worship. So I do think it matters whether you see it just as a river, because you’re going to worship something. All right, that’s the end of my rant. Let’s move on to the raft, which a lot of critics also romanticize and Huck does too, like when he says, “We said there warn’t no home like a raft,
after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery,
but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable
on a raft.” Or when he says, “It’s lovely to live
on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or
only just happened.” I just don’t think that living on a raft
would be like that at all. I mean, one of the things I love most about
sleeping in a bed is that when I roll over, I do not fall into the Mississippi River. So again the raft seems to represent a kind
of freedom, but on the other hand, the raft gets them off the island at the beginning
of the book, and the island is kind of a paradise. I mean, when they’re on the island. Huck even says to Jim, “I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here” So take that raft and river! But of course, there’s also a problem with
the island, which is that it’s too close to the past they’re trying to escape. This is often what Twain does. I mean, he was a satirist and an ironist,
and so there wasn’t much he held sacred, so if he showed something in a positive light, he was usually very aware of the negatives, too. So they do feel great freedom on the raft, but in some ways, of course, it restricts freedom. I mean, it sends them south. If there’s real freedom to be found in the book, it’s not going to be in a raft or on a river. It’s going to be inside the characters,
in a changed moral sense and a new idea of what true freedom, and loyalty, and friendship
really mean. And that is what makes the ending of the book
so confounding to many critics, because the ending seems to go against a lot of the great stuff that the novel has already established. OK, let’s Go To the Thought Bubble. So, Huck escapes the King and Duke only to
learn that they have sold Jim away and that Jim is being held on the Phelps farm
until his owner can claim him. So he goes to the Phelps farm where is very
conveniently mistaken for Tom Sawyer, who was scheduled to arrive for a visit. When Tom does arrive, pretending to be his brother Sid, he and Huck discuss plans to free Jim. Huck comes up with a simple no-nonsense scheme
– steal the key and sneak Jim out. But Tom wants a plan that’s a lot more elaborate, that borrows from every adventure and romance
novel he’s ever read. Now Twain was no big fan of romance. “Huckleberry Finn” is one of the first proper
attempts at American realism and he names a wrecked steamboat the Walter
Scott, just to show what he thinks of Ivanhoe and
all those lords and ladies and unlikely coincidences. You know, like Tom Sawyer being previously
scheduled to visit a random farm? But even if Twain is obviously satirizing
Tom and his harebrained schemes, there’s no ignoring the fact that these
schemes hurt Jim, both physically and emotionally, though he endures them all with a willingness
that is actually pretty heartbreaking. He lets the boys put snakes and rats and spiders into the hut where he is held and when the rats bite him, he writes messages in his own blood on a shirt
that Tom provides. Jim can’t actually write, but he scrawls
on the shirt just to please Tom. Then Tom gets the bright idea to announce
the escape plan in a series of anonymous letters, which complicates things even more and gets Tom shot in the leg while running away with Jim. And Jim jeopardizes his freedom to get a doctor
for Tom and is captured again, only to have Tom announce that Jim has been
free all this time. His mistress freed him on her deathbed. So everything Tom put him through, with Huck’s
agreement, was just for show. Just for fun. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, of course, that’s a pretty messed up idea of fun. And yes, the ending ties up the loose ends
of the plot pretty neatly and it restores to the book some of the feel of “Adventures
of Tom Sawyer.” But as previously noted: Tom Sawyer isn’t
that great of a book. So going back to its tone isn’t necessarily
a great call. Huck has matured tremendously over the course
of this journey, and he’s developed a relationship with Jim
that relies on mutual affection and mutual trust. And while Huck takes a dim view of most people
– he tricks them, he lies to them – he comes to believe that cruelty is unworthy of him and that he doesn’t want others to suffer. Like, when the Duke and the King, men who
have abused Huck and sold Jim away, are finally caught and tarred and feathered,
we might expect Huck to be happy, but he isn’t. “Well, it made me sick to see it,” he says,
“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… Human beings CAN be awful cruel to one another.” But if he’s able to summon that kind of sympathy for his enemies, if he doesn’t feel any hardness toward them, how can he allow the cruelty to Jim? How can he let himself be reduced to the role
of Tom’s sidekick again? And how can Twain encourage Jim to bear it
all so complacently? I don’t have good answers to those questions,
although some of it may lie in Huck’s upbringing. Huck is very conscious of having not been raised in respectable circumstances and he believes that Tom – with all of his reading and all of his
education – must know better. In fact, he can barely get it through his
head that a boy as educated and civilized as Tom would consent to help free a runaway
slave. Now, of course Tom knows that Jim is free
all the time, so he’s not taking a moral risk. But even so, for many readers, this ending
sequence is a betrayal of what has come before. I mean, out on the river, when they weren’t being threatened by steamboats or menaced by con men, Huck and Jim could almost believe that a new
and better world was possible. They could even look up at the stars and wonder
if they were made or just happened, which is a pretty sacreligious thing to wonder. But on the Phelps farm the story falls back
into stereotype and caricature, and to return to the boys’ adventure mood
of the beginning is a kind of defeat. It’s giving up on what Huck and Jim have forged
on the river. Why did Twain do this?
Could he not think of a better ending? Or had he seen too much of how racial injustice continued even after the Civil War to believe that Huck and Jim could escape its indignities? Therin lies my half-hearted defense of the
ending. It’s a big pivot from the rest of the novel,
but it might be an honest one. Two friends on a river can accomplish a lot, but they cannot escape the deep systemic racism in America. We get a taste of this when Jim risks his
freedom to save Tom, and Huck says approvingly, “I knowed he was white inside.” Huck means that Jim is brave and honorable
and loyal, but those are qualities that most of the white people he has met throughout the book have not exhibited. But the fact that he uses “white” as a mark of approval shows that neither Huck nor Jim has become somehow magically free from racism. And so in the end, the book concludes, not
comically or tragically, but on a note of uncertainty, as Huck realizes that he’ll have to leave again, have to seek out a new place in which to feel at home. “I reckon I got to light out for the territory
ahead of the rest,” he says, “because Aunt Sally says she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” We can only hope for Huck,
as for America, that his time on the river becomes part of a much larger journey toward acceptance and understanding and compassion. Safe travels, Huck.
Godspeed. Crash Course is produced with the help of
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42 thoughts on “The Raft, the River, and The Weird Ending of Huckleberry Finn: Crash Course Literature 303

  1. I just realized at 1:51 the "picture" of a sunset is moving on the bottom. I'm a failure.

  2. What many animes and comics have taught me is that sometimes you gotta almost die and get a few of your friends killed…just for a bit of fun

  3. I’ve never found the ending odd. I guess as an adult, I can see where the thematic differences lie, but when I read this as a kid, I just saw an adventure ending and reality starting again. Which makes sense to kid’s brain. The river was a pipe dream and almost a fantastical adventure that had to end sometime. The end of the book was just reality setting back in, adventure time over.

  4. But is Huck actually aware of what’s happening? To do something might be different from understanding what you’re doing.
    And so maybe he wouldn’t just change suddenly in all different aspect of his communication because what was hasn’t yet hit the other aspects of his characteristics?
    He is just a kid with his own understandings.

  5. I like your thoughts on the book; however, you need to cite your sources by telling your audience what version of the book you are quoting from, and the page numbers. It is difficult to follow along when you do not provide us with these basic things.

  6. Tom is like my college friends who still go clubbing at age 28… like.. come on guys, you're almost 30. I think it's time to move on from that scene.

  7. Honestly I've always taken the ending of the novel, and Huck's almost acceptance of returning to the status quo (of racism) to be a critique of the United States as a whole. By the time the novel was published, Reconstruction had ended. Jim Crow laws reigned, and though slavery had been ended, the political control of the South had returned to that old status quo once again. And thus then, Huck's decision to go back to the river, was perhaps an optimistic view that America, will not stay idle, and will also look for a higher goal than just "sivilization" .

  8. The "Safe travels, Huck godspeed" gave me the feels because reading it is one of my fondest childhood memories.

  9. I never liked Tom Sawyer. He always came off as spoiled and selfish to me. Huck had more humanity than Tom. The ending was funny in some ways though. Like the racist townsfolk who thought Jim's scribblings were some kind of African language, It showed how ignorant they were.

  10. I loved the ending. Endings are supposed to solve or at least address all the conflicts in the story, and this one does that not only for the plot issues but for the one conflict that people seem to ignore (you did it less so, but I feel this deserves more emphasis). The book begins with Huck in Tom's gang where they act out robber stories, with Tom as the charismatic leader with all the plans. Every boy in town seems to follow his lead on these adventures, and Huck not only admires Tom's education and privilege but also the fact that he always has a plan, a way to get out of trouble so when Huck goes on his quest and encounters actual trouble he constantly wishes Tom were there or that he was Tom both inwardly and out-loud so the smart but woefully ignorant Jim ends up believing the praise Huck gives Tom, so I understood Huck's relief to see Tom and get his input on the break out, and I am happy to point out that it says in the book Huck was horrified by Tom's ideas, and Jim recognized the impracticality, yet both believed wholeheartedly that Tom knew best because he is the alpha personality ideas man so they went along with it. I saw the bit with Tom as Huck's final ascension, Huck only started trying to be civilized in the beginning because he wanted to be like Tom, and realizing Tom's sociopathic betrayal was the final straw that finally inspired Huck to reject civilization "I been there before." Therefore, Tom is civilization itself and Huck finally sees how overrated and below him it is, and at the same time the audience is shown how far Huck has come because Tom is a stupid kid as well as a sociopath while Huck has become a Man.

  11. what happens to jim on the end? the last thing i heard about him, is that he was held captive again

  12. this is the video you watch when you don't read the book and you have a paper due on it that night

  13. We discussed this book (and its ending) in class, and the professor made this remarkable comment about the relationship between Huck and Tom being closely related to that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Tom, like Don Quixote, loses himself through reading these adventurous novels while Huck/Sancho Panza is the guy who stays more down to earth and proposes more simple approaches to life, instead of losing himself in a fantasy. It's so cool when you think about it this way!

  14. It's good that there's cliff-notes like this, so that I can get a glimpse of what society finds important about literature.
    Most of the time I try to read fiction, I'll be like, "Wait, that's the end already? What happened? I saw people who went places and said things to other people, but I didn't really get the plot."
    When I tried this title at age 11, I think I might have gotten hung up on the vernacular speech. And my comprehension for fiction hasn't improved much since then.
    So I get my Lit credits on YouTube now.

  15. The ending is the Civil War. The Civil War was the "adventure" to free Jim, AKA the slaves.
    Remember, Mark Twain fought in the Civil War for two weeks before deserting. Tom knowing that Jim was already free was a basic Northerner knowledge, however Mark Twain decides to satirize the "escape." The disruption in Aunt Sally's house, the missing sheets and the missing spoons, represents the damage done to the South during the war, and Tom being shot by the mob was representing how brothers, neighbors and friends were turned against each other.
    You may think that Mark Twain, the man who criticized his own homeland, wouldn't do the same to the North, but you have to remember that Mark Twain was a satirist and he would have criticized anyone, mostly if he went against his own region.
    Another thing worth noting is Huck lighting out for Indian Territory, which would be Oklahoma. He would be going west, which coincides with Mark Twain deserting the Confederate army after serving for two weeks and going west to his brother. It took Twain only two weeks in the war to unveil the hypocrisy of the North and South, and realizing how he didn't want to be "sivilized."
    This is my theory of the ending. I based most of it off of Mark Twain's life himself.

  16. Can anyone please tell me the practical joke in huckleberry finn

  17. Think of it as a parable on slavery, with Tom and Huck representing what we would now call the left and the right.

  18. The ending is so funny to me because Tom sees Huck when he gets to the farm and is like "oh no it's a ghost!" but if I remember correctly aunt Polly gets to the farm and sees Huck and she's just like "I should have freaking known."

  19. As someone from Cairo, you pronounced Cairo incorrectly. Cairo in Egypt is pronounced Kai-Ro, Cairo in Illinois is pronounced Kae-Ro.

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