Perhaps the most effective way of indicating Mark Twain’s search for identity along with Huckleberry Finn’s similar quest, would be to compare the two figures. Of course the former was a real person, whose actual name was Samuel Longhorne Clemens, and the latter is Twain’s fictional creation. There are several themes running through the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain). These themes are as follows: civilization versus individual freedom; the quest for freedom; the problem of religion; birth and rebirth; and man’s feeling of loneliness and alienation. All of these themes involve a search for identity.
The quest for identity has archetypal implications. We are all searching (most of us) for some kind of meaning to life, and Mark Twain was no exception. As is true of every human life, Mark Twain had to endure various crises. It is paradoxical that Twain, even though he was a humorist, faced many depressing moments in his life. Twain made the following comment: “The resulting periodical and sudden changes of mood in me, from deep melancholy to half-insane tempests and cyclones of humor, are among the curiosities of my life” (Kaplan 123). In many ways, Mark Twain the humorist had very little humor in his own life. This was also true of Huck Finn, who took everything literally, which caused his life to have very little humor on the surface. However, Huck’s literal interpretation of things was purposely used very effectively by Twain to create humor.
Civi]ization versus individual freedom is not a new problem. Twain was very much aware of the dehumanizing effect of the civilized world. There is a loss of one’s sense of worth and dignity as a human being. It is as if the individual were swallowed up in the herd. Huck Finn knows what this feeling is like because the Widow Douglas, his unofficial guardian, has been trying to civilize him. However, Huck enjoys being close to nature. In a sense, this is like the concept of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who developed the doctrine of primitivism, which holds that man is far more noble in his natural state than in so-called civilization. Thus, Rousseau stated: “Europe is the unhappiest Continent, because it has the most grain and the most iron. To undo the evil, it is only necessary to abandon civilization, for man is naturally good, and savage man, when he has dined, is at peace with all nature and the friend of all his fellow creatures” (Russell 688).
And so to escape civilization, Huck runs away and goes on his quest for freedom and personal identity down the Mississippi River, which symbolically is the Great Stream of Life in all of its archetypal significance.
Mark Twain, through humor, was on a continual quest for meaning in life far away from the civilized world. Twain looked upon civilized society with bitterness and cynicism. Thoroughly appalled by what he observed as an unholy alliance of Christianity, cash, and colonialism going under the collective title of civilization, Twain published in the New York Herald a salutation to the future: “I bring you the stately matron named Christiandom, returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philippines, with her soul full of meaness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking glass” (Kaplan 362-363).
Hypocrisy is one of the fundamental problems of civilization. Huck Finn prefers to be free and fulfilled than be restricted by the rules and regulations of society. The Widow Douglas means well, but Miss Watson is more than Huck can bear. Also, Miss Watson’s concept of religion is something that Huck does not wish to accept: “Now she had got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it” (Twain 27). Nor did Mark Twain think much of the standard views of Christianity. It was most of all extremely difficult for Twain to understand God, because of the tragic deaths of his two daughters, as well as the many misfortunes which confront the human condition.
At one time in his life, Twain felt that there might be some validity to Christian Science, and he wanted his daughter Susy to have some Christian Science treatments because of her chest condition. Twain, however, began to dislike Mary Baker Eddy as he had more contact with her beliefs.
Perhaps the many tragedies in his life, including the death of Susy from meningitis at the age of 24 and the drowning in her bath of his other daughter Jean, made it difficult for Twain to believe that he lived in a positive, benevolent universe created by a loving God. Twain said about Susy’s death: “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live” (Kaplan 335). And Twain remarked about Mary Baker Eddy: “When we contemplate her and what she has achieved, it is blasphemy to longer deny to the Supreme Being the possession of a sense of humor” (Kaplan 366).
Twain would very often escape from the gloom of life by retreating to his writing projects. Through his writing, it can be said that Twain was born and reborn again or at least for awhile. Huck Finn would experience rebirth whenever society made him feel stifled and bored. Throughout the novel, Huck loses his identity, takes on different names, plots his own murder, and as he grows in wisdom from these many situations, he develops new values that provide him with a fresh perspective on life. Twain and Huck are on a quest for which there is no end. The search for identity is a never ending task that can never be completed.
Both Mark Twain and Huck Finn experience gloom, loneliness, and alienation from society. This theme is ever present in the creative efforts of Twain. In Huckleberry Finn, loneliness and isolation are demonstrated by Huck’s encounter with the overpowering spread of the frontier, with the majesty and size of the Mississippi River, and with the huge, deep forests that surrounded the settlements.
Mark Twain found nuch of his identity in humor. Much of this humor was based on Twain’s anger at the foolishness of the human race, and it took the form of cynicism. Considering Twain’s view of the world, it was remarkable that he could be a humorist at all. Humor sometimes helps to put even the worse things bf life in the proper perspective.
Twain once wrote in his notebook: “I think we are only the microscopic trichina concealed in the blood of some vast creature’s veins, and it is this vast creature that God concerns himself about and not us” (kaplan 259). Twain expresses a kind of cosmic loneliness in that statement. There is no doubt that Twain was most successful as a writer and humorist, but he still felt that he had never found satisfying values in the face of life’s many stresses.
Huck Finn sought his values by going down the Mississippi River in a raft. Yet, because the raft was going south, Huck and his friend Jim were not headed for anything but more trouble.
There is an existential problem in the situation of both Mark Twain and Huck Finn. It is as if there is an existential neurosis, which is characterized by chronic alienation, aimlessness and meaninglessness. Twain’s fantasies of pluralities of universes, of intolerable disparities in time and size and distance, of a dark region where dream and reality meet and shatter each other, embraced a growing despair and confusion and prefigured the decline of Twain’s powers as a writer. The microscope, the dream, and the voyage became dominant symbols of a great hopelessness that existed side by side with his faith in the great century. This does not sound like something relating to one of America’s greatest humorists, but it was.
Huckleberry Finn is one of America’s outstanding classics. The deeper philosophical problems which confronted Twain are all there. These include the following: Huck’s strange captivity in his father’s cabin; the odyssey down the river; the mysteries of fog and night and current; the colloquy on King Sollermun; the incidental masterpiece concerning the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud; the appealing devotion and affectionateness of Jim; and Huck’s case of conscience. All of these things are shown with the peculiar comment of Huck’s earthy, callous, but not insensitive soul. Twain has created a thoroughly accurate account of a whole civilization.
Mark Twain is one of the great American humorists and writers. He is a fulfilled promise of American life. He proves the virtues of the land and the society in which he was born and fostered. Twain incarnates the spirit of an age in American history when the nation, territorially and spiritually enlarged, entered vigorously upon new adventures.
Twain was once asked if it was a dream or reality that he had been a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi. He answered: “This dream goes on and on and on, and sometimes seems so real that I almost believe it is real. I wish I knew whether it is a dream or real” (Kaplan 341).
Thus, as if in a dream, Huck Finn continues to journey down the Mississippi River in a quest that is never ending and forever a part of the American imagination. It is appropriate to use the term “forever” because the River is indeed larger than life, as is Mark Twain.