The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a Picaresque Novel

Dr. Dipen Bezbaruah

Before terming “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as a picaresque novel one has to understand what a picaresque novel is. The word ‘picaresque’ is a derivative of the Spanish word ‘picaro’, which means a ‘rogue’ or a tale of adventures or misadventures of the rogue or a picaro. Salient features of a typical picaresque novel are as follows.

  1. A picaresque novel has a picaro as its central figure. He has to wander from one place to the other to earn his living. In the way of his wanderings, he is compelled to make adventures in different social settings
  2. Usually, the picaro is born of a very poor or degraded parents or is illegitimate. Therefore, in the early life he has to wander for his survival.
  3. The plot in a picaresque novel consists of a series of loosely connected thrilling events. Hence the plot in a picaresque novel is very loose, rather it is a combination of some thrilling and sensational incidents.
  4. The characters in a picaresque novel belong to various strata of the society.
  5. Satire is an indispensable ingredient of a picaresque novel. Often the novelist takes the opportunity to satirize the corruption and hypocrisy in the existing social system or what is distraught in a society.
  6. The purpose of the novelist in a picaresque novel is not to prescribe any sense of morality.
  7. Picaresque novel has an epic vastness, breadth and range.

If we look into “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” we will see that the novel is an amalgam of all the qualities that establishes it as a typical picaresque novel. In the novel the central figure, Huckleberry Finn, is a low born child. He is almost an orphan. His father Pap is a drunkard. He beats him and takes money from him. With the help of Tom Sawyer, he forms a gang of children for ransoming people. Huck is a hater of all the conventions that educate and civilize a person. Hence, all the effort of aunt Douglas proves futile and he accompanies the run-away slave, Jim. Both undergo many adventures and misadventures on river and in the woods.

Like any picaresque novel the plot of “Huckleberry Finn” is very loose. The novel is devoid of any scheme and design. It has so many incidents, but all these are loosely pinned together. In other words, the novel is episodic. In fact Mark Twain’s warning in his ‘Notice’ is quite meaningful.

‘Persons attempting to find a motif will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot.’

Huckleberry Finn has a variety of characters who represent various strata of the society. Huck and his father are very poor. Huck’s father is a drunkard, a production of the society. Jim is a run-away slave. Tom is an adventurer. Widow Douglas is the widow of a justice, who represents a civilized class. The Granger fords and the Shepherdsons are rich, but quarrelsome. The Phelps are the farmers and the Wilks sisters are mild girls.

Like any other picaresque novel this novel is also realistic. The autobiographical touch in this novel has made it more realistic. The issues like slavery, presentation of characters like Pap as a drunkard, physical settings in the novel, such as Ohio and Mississippi rivers are all real. The Huck’s experiences since his childhood in different social setting are some of the real issues that engulfed America in the time of Mark Twain.

As has already been mentioned, one of the key elements in a picaresque novel is the element of satire.  The novel in the way of unveiling Huck’s experiences in various societies actually satirizes these societies. Because, these societies are filled with moral corruption, hypocrisy, exploitation of the poor and so on.

Like a true picaresque novel, Huckleberry Finn is very vast or epic-like. The novel not only deals with stories of Huck’s life, but it also explains of other characters like the Granger fords and the Shepherdsons, the Duke, Dauphin and Wilks sisters. Though inclusion of these stories may be explained as digressions, they contribute to the novel’s vastness.

Thus, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a good example of picaresque novel. However, though the novel is described as a picaresque novel, one may also find many qualities which may be termed as non-picaresque elements. The novel is a very good combination of style and content. The satiric mode of the novel has also indirectly expressed Twain’s concern with the social issues which need to be addressed. Use of dialects has contributed not only to its style, but also his linguistic concern.

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