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Huckleberry Finn - Book Group discussion

Posted: Mon Apr 02, 2007 6:46 am
by Richard + Jela
I first read this book as a child and was pleased to have the opportunity to read it again for our book club discussion. As an adult I can naturally appreciate, far more, the themes running through the book, than I would have done at a much younger age.

The themes incorporate racism, slavery, abuse, friendship, superstition, morality and societal rules.

There are many questions that we could discuss and the first theme I’d like to raise is the issue of slavery. It has a particular resonance at this time because last week saw the bicentennial of the passing of the Act which abolished slavery in the UK. There have been a number of public commemorations that both the Queen and Prime Minister were involved in. Calls for the PM (mainly from church leaders) to apologise formally for Britain’s treatment of slaves have been made; he stopped short of a full apology but did express regret for the suffering which had been endured.

The book, it makes it clear how (badly) slaves were treated and the passage that really brought this home to me was in Chapter 16 (p115) when Jim talks about buying his wife and children and if he can’t he’ll get an Abolitionist to go and steal them. Huck is ‘froze to hear such talk’ and can’t understand why Jim would want to do such a thing – steal children that belonged to a man he didn’t even know, a man that had done him no harm.

I just cannot imagine what it must have been like to be considered a chattel and for your own children to ‘belong’ to somebody else by virtue of you their parent, being a slave. What a terrible state of affairs, yet it was common and accepted practice and not that many generations ago.

The character of Jim, the slave, is one of the really sympathetic characters in the book. He has a real sense of family, is a good friend (elder brother, surrogate father) to Huck and always seems to ‘know his place’ understanding his own situation, is very accepting and although in some ways, it might be too ‘neat’ an ending that he is granted his freedom by his former Mistress, I for one, rejoiced at that.

What are your thoughts about the depiction of slavery and the character of Jim?


Posted: Tue Apr 03, 2007 9:12 am
by KarenZ
What are your thoughts about the depiction of slavery and the character of Jim?

Thanks Jela for getting our 3rd book discussion going. This was yet another tough book for me to get through - not having previously read it. My thinking is that only a 12-year old boy would truly enjoy (as opposed to appreciate) this book. ;) I found the first-person narrative extremely boring.

Lots and lots and lots of issues to tackle. Thanks for boiling it down to one with which to start. Twain obviously was anti-slavery. Considering that Huck Finn was written a mere 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, I suspect Twain ruffled a few feathers with his depictions in the book. I think Twain used the character of Jim to demonstrate the humanity of slaves. As Huck and Jim are having one adventure after another, Jim cares for Huck and protects Huck - not as a servant but as Huck's friend. And the reader can see Huck's views on slavery changing as his interactions with Jim escalate - culminating in Huck's decision NOT to turn Jim in as a runaway slave....and eventually to set him free. At one point I remember when Huck is surprised to learn that Jim is as concerned about his family as a white person would be. I can't help but wonder if Huck thought that Jim was a better/more caring father than Pap was. Jim's telling of how he discovered his daughter's hearing loss demonstrated a father's love. And there was the time when Jim tells Huck that he is the best friend ever. Twain continually has the reader feeling empathy and sympathy for Jim and outrage at a society who would enslave him, keep him from his family, and treat him like an animal.

It was hard not to cringe at the continual use of the "N" word - although I understand that use of the word in 1885 did not have the negative connotation that's attached to it now.

That's a beginning. :-)


Posted: Wed Apr 04, 2007 11:53 am
by KarenZ

Did anyone else finish the book? There were 9 persons who voted in our book poll and 4 who voted for Huck Finn, so I hope at least a couple other persons can add to the discussion.


Posted: Wed Apr 04, 2007 12:04 pm
by paddyinthepub
I'll chime in to say, with no real expectations of reading whichever book was chosen the winner via poll, that I didn't vote. I will add that it's possible that those who did vote, and have kids in school, might be out on spring break, and therefore away from their computers and the forum this week......just a possible reason folks haven't chimed in . :?

Posted: Thu Apr 05, 2007 7:01 pm
by Sue Ellen
My apologies for not jumping in sooner; I've read this book twice, once in high school English, and once for a college American Lit class. The minutia of my day-to-day life, as well as my dislike for the book itself, interfered with a third journey through it.

It is not that it is a poorly told story, or a bad one, I just had tremendous difficulty motivating the energy to read yet again another Odyssey-type book with a young male protagonist journeying out into the world to find meaning in life, and to find himself. So my thoughts and opinions must be taken with a grain of salt.

Although I strongly disagree with those who say this is the greatest piece of American literature ever written (If I had to pin it down, I'd say "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Haper Lee), Twain was a brilliant writer. In speaking through Huck, he is able to speak to the people of the time, because Huck holds the wide-spread, unquestioned beliefs of that time. Twain, through Jim, is able to express higher moral ground, and through the relationship between the two, is able to explore "man's inhumanity to man," without preaching.

I also wonder if Huck has insight into the fact that Jim is so much more of a man and father than his own Pap. Are his thoughts on the matter made explicit in the book? College was a lifetime ago.

I think too, that the language of the time is difficult to hear. The language is salt in unhealed wounds that still rip through this nation, if not though Great Britain. I think the wounds of slavery, particularly the brand of slavery practiced in the United States, were deeper and uglier, and still have not been cleansed and dressed in a way that leads to true healing. So the language is difficult to tolerate, even though we must be honest with ourselves about very painful past and continuing realities.

Sue Ellen

Posted: Fri Apr 06, 2007 7:56 am
by Richard + Jela
Thanks for chiming in Sue Ellen.

I'm going to wait a little while before posting any more on this thread in the hope that we get some more contributions - as Paddy points out, its holiday time so some might be away.

I do hope that at least all those who voted to read 'Huck Finn' this time around will contribute to the discussion.

Happy Easter to all.


Posted: Fri Apr 06, 2007 9:05 pm
by Patti
I didn't vote in this book club, I didn't think I'd have time to read the book, (though I did get copy of it at Borders). My copy of the book has group discusion questions in it...I was hoping to squeeze this read in..
hopefully next time.
I do participate in a mother daughter book club , we'll meet this Monday..I'm almost done with that book.!!

Posted: Sat Apr 07, 2007 10:41 am
by EllisPaul
hey y'all--
this book was banned for a great time in the early twentieth century. which is crazy. twain pushed buttons, offending some open minded and closed minded people with this. I see the language as dated, he was trying to have the characters speak with authentic American voices, so he phonetically spelled out the accents, which sometimes was humorous and sometimes difficult to read. In this context, the word "nigger" has no problem with me. It's in perfect keeping with the characters who use it, and the time period and region they lived in.

What makes this book great in my mind--
It's a truly American tale, with American styled writing, not a high fallutin' english narrative, with wealthy chracters, it's from the boys perspective, it's a social criticism, it's humorous, it's dark, and because it tackles such a broad swath of these things so effectively, it's survived as the first truely American masterpiece.

Posted: Mon Apr 09, 2007 9:57 am
by wendy
Sorry, I was going to post here last week but the storm got in the way.

This book can be read from so many different angles - I think that's what makes it perplexing for some, inspiring or enchanting for others. As Ellis pointed out, some of the greatest impact comes from knowing the audience it was aimed at; it's historic place. And it certainly had a significant one.

I'll leave it at that. There's too much flitting around in my mind to make much clear sense.

Posted: Tue Apr 10, 2007 2:44 am
by Richard + Jela
Thanks for the responses over the holiday weekend, Patti, Ellis and Wendy. This book sure seems to impact in very different ways upon people doesn't it? That's what makes it what it is - a great American novel which is still in print and being read so long after original publication. It is very much 'of its time' but Twain covered so many issues that it continues, to this day, to create interesting debates.

One of the overiding themes Twain covered is that of friendship, certainly between Huck and Jim and to a lesser extent between the Duke and the King.

Huck and Jim developed a real friendship which I think was probably a suprise to them both given the usual type of relationship between people in their respective positions. Despite the 'rules of the time' Huck didn't once think about turning Jim in for the reward he would have received had he done so, and in fact went to great lengths to protect him from others who would not have hesitated to turn him over to the authorities. We do things out of genuine friendship that may not be what 'society' expects but we feel is the right thing to do for that friend.

To a lesser extent, the Duke and the King, were united in friendship but with less honourable activities in mind - partners in crime - but it bound them together. I loved the word 'rapscallions' to describe them - it fitted so well and made me smile. They were an untrustworthy pair but did have some redeeming features (again a lot to do with Jim) and whilst not condoning their activities I couldn't help but laugh at some of their antics.

Huck and Tom Sawyer were childhood friends, with Huck looking up to Tom and really following everything he said/did. He seemed very much in awe of Tom, yet presumably they were similar in age.

Where do we begin when discussing friendship? It is such a huge and complex subject and the nature of it changes over time. At the end of the book when Jim is a free man, I wonder how/if the friendship between him and Huck would have continued to develop???


Posted: Tue Apr 10, 2007 8:26 am
by Sue Ellen
I too appreciate the thoughts from the weekend, and the friendship themes are complex. Friendships are so important in a full, rich life, especially when they conquer the precarious balance of equality in fondness, respect, and "give-and-take." I think the friendship between Jim and Huck vs. the friendship between Huck and Tom is a deeper, more balanced one, in spite of the differences in age, background, and place in the society of the time. It demonstrates how two people can move beyond the external facades and limits based on appearance, class, and age to the hearts and souls of people involved.

Perhaps this friendship was one of the things that so frightened people, frightened them enough to ban the book, over and over (it was the fifth most banned book in the United States between 1990 and 2000, following "To Kill a Mockingbird" in the number three spot). The friendship challenges the subconcious but almost automatic response, especially in the U.S. to the "denigrated other:" the tendancy to project onto the ones who don't look like us, all the qualities we fear and hate in ourselves. Huck and Jim move beyond all that and connect at that deep, soul level, buried under appearances and expectations and roles. Reminds me of a song I've listened to more than a couple of times, I think it's called "Translucent Soul?"

Sue Ellen

Posted: Tue Apr 10, 2007 9:08 am
by Sue Ellen
And let's keep discussing the language. Twain spoke in the language of the time. Language is so powerful in expressing what people really think, and without knowing what they think and feel, you can not really know them. For instance, the phrase "Nappy headed ho's," tells us a great deal. Not only of what one white man thinks, but what is an underlying sentiment of alot of people. Alot of men think women are nothing more than whores and alot of white people continue to place themselves above Blacks. Rather than focusing on whether this man should be censored, the conversation should center around the continued denigration, demeaning, and lowering of status of others to empower one's self or group, the continuing inequality and inhumanity that pervades this country.

Sue Ellen

P.S. I am referring to the comment made by American shock jock Don Imus, in describing the Rutgers Women's Championship Basketball team. Powerful women, physically and mentally, classy and feminine, and he cuts them down with common language. The question we need to be asking is what is inserted in the psyche that the phrase "nappy headed ho's" would be thought of as "funny."

Posted: Tue Apr 10, 2007 12:04 pm
by KarenZ
Having experienced a summer of adventures away from home when I was about the same age as Huck, I sure can identify with the various friendships he made along the way in our story. Childhood friendships are often so all-encompassing.....and our closest friends are often closer than family....and are so important to us! Adulthood usually gives us a nice retrospective of the friends who were important to us in our youth...and sometimes, although rarely I think, those friendships carry over to adulthood.

Besides Huck's "translucent soul" (I like that Sue Ellen!) friendship with Jim, which I think was a bit of surprise to both of them, he had friendships on many other levels. If we could look into the future, even if he and Jim parted after the summer of their adventures, it would be a friendship that would forever leave its having taught him many of life's lessons. His friendship with Mary Jane was short-lived but intense....and sparks his first feelings of romantic love. Another life lesson there....the consequences of being deceitful. His friendship (maybe relationship is a better word) with the King and the Duke was a friendship that he didn't want....and had a hard time ending. A tough lesson about being trapped in a negative relationship. His friendship with Buck Grangerford was strong but ended prematurely when Buck is tragically killed. And of course there's his friendship with his best friend, Tom Sawyer, who he admires so much and has such fun with.

These friendships and others in the book are to me a microcosm of the variety and types of friendships one continues to experience throughout life. For some reason I especially identified with Huck's being stuck in the friendship with the King and the Duke....sometimes through no seemingly fault of our own we get sucked into the power of others....and maybe the lesson is to being able to recognize it when it we can make necessary changes.

It would be nice to see what friendships lasted in Huck's life....say 20 years after our story ends. What I've learned about friendships is that friends come and go....and accepting that we will walk along the path with many different friends in our lifetime, some a short distance, some a long distance, opens us up to receive the blessings that accompany those friendships.

More later...


Posted: Tue Apr 10, 2007 12:53 pm
by KarenZ
Sue Ellen,

Legislators have made a mockery of First Amendment rights. Our founding fathers would roll over in their graves if they knew how our freedom of speech was being used (or I should say abused) when, in fact, the goal was to make it legal for folks to speak about how they were being governed (without having their heads chopped off). I don't think they ever intended freedom of speech to be used to sling mud, permit foul language and denigrate another human is especially prevalent on the shock jock radio and TV shows. IMHO, those shows are an embarrassment to our country.


Sue Ellen wrote:P.S. I am referring to the comment made by American shock jock Don Imus, in describing the Rutgers Women's Championship Basketball team. Powerful women, physically and mentally, classy and feminine, and he cuts them down with common language. The question we need to be asking is what is inserted in the psyche that the phrase "nappy headed ho's" would be thought of as "funny."

Posted: Tue Apr 10, 2007 2:05 pm
by Sue Ellen
Karen wrote:I don't think they ever intended freedom of speech to be used to sling mud, permit foul language and denigrate another human is especially prevalent on the shock jock radio and TV shows. IMHO, those shows are an embarrassment to our country.

Dirty laundry certainly is an embarassment, but hiding it under the bed is not the same as washing it and hanging it out to dry.

Such speech opens the door to dialogue about deep issues that ground the patriarchal system on which our society is built. A dialogue that is well-begun by the intelligent, articulate, graciously and very righteously angry women of the Rutgers' Basketball team. Imus spoke not only his own psyche, but the psyche of many, that pervasively lessens women, denigrates us, and degrades us to subordinate positions. The subconcious must come to light, repressing and denying it does not make it go away.

Twain began a dialogue by bringing the subconcious into the light for examination. Our powers of repression and denial have buried so many of the issues brought to the light in Huck Finn. Discourse on race and gender inequalities are minimized and not fully aired, often because "so much has changed." Well so much hasn't changed.

Sue Ellen

Posted: Wed Apr 11, 2007 6:00 am
by Richard + Jela
I imagine that when the book was published and people read about the positive relationship/friendship between Huck and Jim, many found it disturbing at the time because it challenged society's views about slavery, racial issues and of behaviour towards slaves even though it was published after the end of the Civil War and the freeing of slaves.

I can imagine that many were extremely uncomfortable, to say the least, at Twain's depiction of this friendship but I hope that by challenging what had been commonly held assumptions, Twain's work continued the dialogue started by the Civil War and previously unspoken issues were brought out in open debate.

I don't know enough about the history of the aftermath of the Civil War to be able to comment in any detail about what influences this book had and how it might have changed perceptions particulary on racial issues but it is sad to note that some 120+ years later we are still facing some of the same challenges with racism rearing its ugly head all too often.

Perhaps some good will come from the Imus situation...what he said is unforgiveable but it has stirred up a debate and last night made the national TV news here in Britain.

More later...........


Posted: Thu Apr 12, 2007 7:11 am
by Richard + Jela
There has been a discourse in the press and other media over here, about the public reaction to events in the past two months - six black youths have been fatally stabbed or shot in London and there hasn't really been the sort of public outcry there was when a white youth was stabbed to death in 2003.

Some groups are suggesting that the public and media response has been muted because the perpertrators and victims are predominantly black.

There are some searching questions that need to be asked 'why have the responses been so low key?' and I guess that answers given will make for uncomfortable reading.

So sad that after all this time, as Sue Ellen said 'nothing much has changed' Race and to a lesser extent, gender, are still at the root of so much prejudice in society.


Posted: Mon Apr 16, 2007 3:47 am
by Richard + Jela
As not many read the 'Huck Finn' book and we haven't had a great deal of discussion about it so far I guess that the sensible thing to do is to wind down this particular discussion but I need to ask the question

'Do you still want to continue with a book group on the board?'


Posted: Mon Apr 16, 2007 8:31 am
by paddyinthepub
Before this thread comes to a close....and possibly book discussions on this forum altogether, allow me to chime in with a few thoughts. I know I have little ground to stand on since I didn't read a single book discussed here. But here goes.

I enjoy the discussions at hand, and find they have significant value to the many readers here. Since so few have chimed in, it's understandable that those in the current book talks might feel as though it's not active enough. I know well the feeling of pouring energy into something and feeling like it's not all that well participation.

I for one hope they continue...and cast my vote, should it come to that, that they do. I'm sure this thread will someday be read by others not yet on board here at Ellis' site. It will be food for thought for many of them.

One thing that might help.....crazy as it to welcome feedback from folks who happened not to read the book. I always feel like I should hang back and not chime in since I did not read the book. Not that it should have - but it easily could have - turned into a Don Imus news of late thread. I felt like chiming in there with my thoughts on the matter, but held back feeling that since I was not in the thick of the discussion about the book, I had no right diving into the middle of the Don Imus aspect of the discussion, although I had some things to say.

Apologies for not reading the books at hand....and helping out more with the discussions at hand. Thanks from someone who enjoys them nonetheless.

Posted: Mon Apr 16, 2007 9:07 am
by KarenZ
paddyinthepub wrote:I enjoy the discussions at hand, and find they have significant value to the many readers here. Since so few have chimed in, it's understandable that those in the current book talks might feel as though it's not active enough. I know well the feeling of pouring energy into something and feeling like it's not all that well participation.


Thanks for saying that you think the book discussions have value to many readers, even those who haven't read the book and/or participated in the discussions. You're right about pouring energy into something for very little return - it's been disappointing to me. I do feel strongly, however, that the book discussions must be limited to folks who have read the book. It makes no sense to me otherwise.

richard+jela wrote: 'Do you still want to continue with a book group on the board?'

My initial response to your question is "no". As I said above it's been disappointing to me. I'm sure some folks who read the board probably think I have no life outside of this online community, but I can assure everyone that I do have a life and am as busy as everyone else. We all lead busy lives. I work fulltime, maintain a home by myself, take care of 2 elderly parents, have all my EP comittments, etc. I'm not whining - just making a point that I do have a life outside of this board....and I understand that everyone leads busy lives.

That said....I want to make this work. Right now, however, there is nothing left on Ellis' book list that I care to read. So, here are some thought/suggestions:

1. Perhaps folks would feel more comfortable if the discussions weren't public. There could be a Book Club sub-group on the board that only members of the group could read and post. The members of this sub-group would agree to read the chosen book.

2. We have to open up the discussions to more book choices while still keeping a manageable list. Two ways to do that would be: 1) using the NY Times Bestseller list as our list to choose from or 2) allow each member of the Book Group to nominate one title then have a poll.

If there's not enough feedback the discussion at hand - to continue or not - then definitely the answer is "no".


Posted: Mon Apr 16, 2007 9:17 am
by Sue Ellen
I agree with Karen. With such full lives, there is very little left in the energy budget to put into this endeavor. This medium is difficult enough for such a discussion, and the challenge becomes greater with so few participants. In addition, my interest is not overly stimulated by the remaining books on the list. So, for now, I think the book club should be given a bit of a rest. I like Karen's suggestion of additional options.

Sue Ellen