Originally published here in April 2016, and by far the most popular post I’ve ever written, with over 1,500 hits upon its first appearance. Go figure.
If, as Ron Powers suggests in his exemplary biography of the writer, Mark Twain is America’s Shakespeare (and this coming Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is his Hamlet. Comparisons are odious, of course, but that never stopped people like myself from stinking the place up a little.
At first glance, there couldn’t be two works of literature more different in genre, style, and voice. Hamlet is tragedy, Huck Finn comedy; Hamlet is set in 14th or 15th century Denmark, Huck Finn in the 19th century American South; Hamlet’s a play confined to the locality of Elsinore, Huck Finn a picaresque novel. And I could go on. But to lay out only their differences is to obscure the continuing appeal of both works to a 21st century international readership. The similarities are more telling.
For a comic novel, Huck Finn has a large body count, nearly as large as Hamlet’s. Indeed, violent death weaves through the novel like a black thread. Before one reaches page 150, Pap Finn, three men on the Walter Scott, and Buck Grangerford (as well as others of the Grangerford clan) have already met violent ends, via a knife in the back, drowning, and shooting; that’s more than three deaths against the two deaths of Ophelia (drowning) and Polonius (stabbing). And there’s more to come, not least a gunshot that leaves Tom Sawyer near death.
There’s more to come in Hamlet, too, which leads to another interesting similarity, and that’s the controversial and, to some, unsatisfying conclusions of both Huck Finn and Hamlet. There are two schools of thought in Twain scholarship about the last fifth of the novel. The first believes that it represents a falling off of Twain’s talent and the book’s appeal, a cowardly repudiation of what had gone before; the second argues that the book is far more subtly crafted and deliberately structured than that, and the conclusion confirms all the satire that has gone before. I am of the latter opinion myself, but even so, Hamlet’s conclusion also suggests that Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and resorted to the Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck. The End school of narrative closure that Michael O’Donoghue identified many years ago.
Both Shakespeare and Twain were working in a period of great linguistic transformations. Elizabethan English was in considerable flux in 1600, and the plays written and performed from Marlowe to Ford demonstrate the white-hot development of both written and spoken English in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similarly, written and spoken American English, both vernacular and literary, were just beginning to mature in the 19th century. Twain’s appropriation of Southwestern American dialects as he defined them in the author’s note that precedes the book revolutionized American literature (although, it must be said, many Southwestern literary journalists, including Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby as well as Twain himself, had already started integrating this vernacular into stories written for newspapers and magazines).
Finally there is the question of theme, and Hamlet and Huck Finn share one particular thematic concern, that of guilt and conscience. The title characters of both experience confusion, doubt, and moral quandaries as they make their way through the stories that bear their names. Hamlet is tragic in that his search leads to a death-wish; Huck Finn is comic in that his leads to a desire for freedom. But in both works, individual morality in conflict with cultural morality is a central, if not the central, theme.
I picked up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a reprieve from the dour imaginings of Shakespearean tragedy, but it was less a reprieve than I thought. Huck’s story is just as complex as Hamlet’s, and like Hamlet you can’t get a firm grasp of Huck Finn on a single reading. Perhaps it is this that has led to its remarkable endurance, and not only in America. Like Hamlet, Huck Finn has been translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies around the world, and its popularity does not appear to be waning. (Except, that is, in the United States, where there’s far more Shakespeare than Twain sitting on the shelves of serious readers and critics, in the columns of literary and cultural journals, and in my Twitter and Facebook feeds though Huck Finn like Hamlet has generated entire shelves of critical response.)
Perhaps in part this is because, despite the book’s setting in the American South, there are children, temptation, corruption, violence, rivers, the wonders of friendship, and nostalgic longings for a seemingly more innocent past in every country (not to mention guilt and conscience). It may also be because it’s so funny, and remains so. If we’re going to be honest about it, there are more real laughs in Huckleberry Finn than in any three or four Shakespearean comedies combined. There are also a few in Twain’s own parody of the Hamlet soliloquy embedded in Huck Finn, and for a few laughs here, it’s posted below:
To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin That makes calamity of so long life; For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane, But that the fear of something after death Murders the innocent sleep, Great nature’s second course, And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune Than fly to others that we know not of. There’s the respect must give us pause: Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst; For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take. In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn In customary suits of solemn black, But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns, Breathes forth contagion on the world, And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i’ the adage, Is sicklied o’er with care. And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops, With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. But soft you, the fair Ophelia: Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws. But get thee to a nunnery—go!