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The Chiasmus of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain (1835-1910)The standard image of Mark Twain’s masterwork, Huckleberry Finn is of Huck and Jim alone on the raft, making their way down the Mississippi. In reality, the raft sequence makes up only about half of the novel and the portion of that half during which Huck and Jim are alone on the raft is considerably more brief. In order to get a handle on this novel, it might be useful to consider the overall structure of Twain’s narrative.

One of the more obvious elements of the book’s structure can be found at the beginning and end. In the opening chapters, Huck is in “St. Petersburg,” the fictitious version of Hannibal, Missouri, under the care of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. A prominent part of this section is the adventurous aspirations of Tom Sawyer, all drawn from his reading of swashbuckling books. As the St Petersburg portion continues, we find Huck spirited out of town by his father and imprisoned in a remote cabin. Only by a good deal of genuine ingenuity and hard work does the boy make an escape that he believes will prevent his father from hunting him down.

Fast forward now to the last quarter of the novel when Huck discovers that the “Kings” have betrayed Jim as a runaway. Through the most implausible coincidence in the entire work, Huck finds that Jim is being held on a farm owned by Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle, who are presently expecting Tom to arrive for a visit. This portion again features Tom’s romantic imaginings and quest for adventure as he ridiculously complicates the efforts to spring Jim from his captivity.

Between these two passages located several hundred miles apart in towns along the Mississippi, we find Huck and Jim drifting down the river.

Chiasmus, traditionally a Hebrew poetical technique, requires an arrangement of elements that mirror each other from a shared center. Symbolically, a chiasmus might take this form: A-B-C-D-E-D-C-B-A. In a more practical sense, it could be presented in a single sentence worthy of Tom Sawyer’s imagination. “My life, an adventure to be explored, against a backdrop of pirates and bandits, demands honor, to combat the buccaneers and highwaymen in unending adventure, throughout my life.”

In this example, you can trace the elements away from that central term of “honor.” If Huckleberry Finn is indeed a chiasmus, with the town-captivity segments as the bookends or “A” elements, then we should be able to find other mirrored elements in the intervening chapters. Further, if this is a chiasmus by design, then we should be able to locate a central element on which the entire story turns. Lawrence Howe argues that this central point is to be found in “Huck and Jim’s slipping past the fog-shrouded town of Cairo, Illinois.” He goes on to insist that the “final effect of the chiasmus in Huckleberry Finn is not . . . a redemtive typology” effecting Christian redemption. Frankly, I find Howe’s arguments forced in this matter, but Huck Finn can scarcely be considered a “Christian” novel. It is, I think, a novel written by a man interested in and concerned with Christianity and its effects on individuals and society.

If Howe is correct in siting the axis of the Huck chiasmus at Cairo, then we should be able to arrange elements out from there in matched pairs. Unfortunately, I think, for his theory, the lengthy encounters with the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud and the “Kings” both come after Cairo. Do these balance against the encounter with the wrecked steamboat, the most prominent raft episode above Cairo? And what do we do with the two on Jackson Island? Can their existence of utter independence there be paired against their lives being manipulated by the con men?

This theory deserves a great deal more working out that I can offer here. Perhaps I will return to it later. Or perhaps you will.


Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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