Sunday, August 02, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XXXIX & XL

In their zeal to complete Tom's set design for Jim's prison cell, the boys capture, then lose in the house, a healthy supply of rats and snakes which terrorize Aunt Sally. The boys collect more vermin for Jim's cell and it is soon enough teeming:

and you never see a cabin as blithesome as Jim's was when they'd all swarm out for music and go for him. Jim didn't like the spiders, and the spiders didn't like Jim; and so they'd lay for him, and make it mighty warm for him. And he said that between the rats and the snakes and the grindstone there warn't no room in bed for him, skasely; and when there was, a body couldn't sleep, it was so lively, and it was always lively, he said, because they never all slept at one time, but took turn about, so when the snakes was asleep the rats was on deck, and when the rats turned in the snakes come on watch, so he always had one gang under him, in his way, and t'other gang having a circus over him, and if he got up to hunt a new place the spiders would take a chance at him as he crossed over. He said if he ever got out this time he wouldn't ever be a prisoner again, not for a salary.

Uncle Silas has not heard from the non-existent Louisiana plantation regarding Jim and decides to advertise the runaway in the St. Louis papers, which Huck fears will quickly render the truth of Jim's case. All the props of Jim's great prisoner adventure are in place, so now to bring the escape fantasy to a needed end Tom sends a series of messages warning the Phelps of trouble. The first note Huck slips under the front door while the family is sleeping, dressed--as Tom insists--as a serving girl. The second is a drawn skull and crossbones which Tom pins to the front door the next night. The evening following Tom, in a repeat of the trick played on Jim in Chapter II, leaves a letter on the person of a sleeping slave, posted to guard duty, saying that a gang of cuttthroats is planning to come take Jim the night after, when the boys are planning to finally set Jim free and escape to the raft.

While this, and all the nonsense of the preceding chapters, are related in Huck's very entertaining vernacular, let us pause for a bit to consider how the cause of the imprisoned man plagues the family. Everyone, except Tom, is miserable and on edge. The living quarters of all are alive with pests. (Might this be Twain's version of a house divided against itself?) Domestic thefts are rife and now the household has been put in genuine fear of their lives. Why? Because of slavery, and a conniving boy with an overactive, nearly sick, imagination.

That night the boys find out that Tom's image of Jim's captivity is not a game after Huck, sneaking into the cellar for butter for their getaway meals, is discovered by Aunt Sally and made to wait in the parlor, which is full of armed men. Fifteen neighbors have come to protect the home from Tom's imaginary gang of desperadoes. (Though the word abolitionist is unspoken here, any such raiding party at the time would have been seen as such. The system of slavery, always in danger of going to pieces with escapes, raids, and uprisings required constant vigilance, and finally the Civil War, to defend.)

Tom is waiting in Jim's cabin when Huck is finally able to sneak away and warn him of the armed neighborhood watch. Tom is delighted:

His eyes just blazed; and he says:

"No! -- is that so? Ain't it bully! Why, Huck, if it was to do over again, I bet I could fetch two hundred! If we could put it off till -- "

"Hurry! Hurry!" I says. "Where's Jim?"

The blazing eyes are a common enough 19th century trope meant to signal insanity. I am pretty sure that Twain means us to see that Tom is crazy by now, one more white guy who's lost his mind in projecting a fantasy upon the body of a black man. Note too that Tom is about to say he wants more time to draw more men against them when Huck cuts him short, nearly in a panic, to recognize the seriousness of the moment.

They hear men talking outside who try the lock on the door. Quickly slipping under the wall and sneaking out of the lean-to, the three are almost away when Tom snaps a sliver on a fence rail. They are discovered. Men yell, bullets fly. Our heros take to their heels as the hounds are let loose.

Because they know the boys, the hounds pass by without bothering them and our three heros get to the canoe, push off into the river and soon gain the raft. Huck speaks:

"Now, old Jim, you're a free man again, and I bet you won't ever be a slave no more."

"En a mighty good job it wuz, too, Huck. It 'uz planned beautiful, en it 'uz done beautiful; en dey ain't nobody kin git up a plan dat's mo' mixed-up en splendid den what dat one wuz."

We was all glad as we could be, but Tom was the gladdest of all because he had a bullet in the calf of his leg.

The notion that Tom could have run through the woods with a ball in his leg is best given a pass. The novel's essential realism reasserts itself quickly, however. Tom begins to talk off his head in earnest now and Huck and Jim quickly decide he needs a doctor; Jim indeed insisting that he will not budge a step until one is found. This steadfastness calls up Huck's unfortunate observation that he knew Jim was white inside, meant as a compliment, though very much at odds with the novel's earlier depiction of the color as something indicating sickness (pap's skin), confusion (the fog), and overweening pride and arrogance (the dress suits of Colonels Grangerford and Sherburn.)

Invisible whiteness is, of course, not white at all, and Huck's stray comment--a vulgar, if sincere compliment in America well into the 20th Century--now serves to underline just how pointless such distinguishing characteristics are.

Tom, of course, protests the seeking of medical attention and, as Huck leaves, gives him very specific instructions as to how to bring the physician--a farrago of adventure novel mummery with paranoid overtones. Jim, for his part, says he will hide in the woods once he sees Huck return with the doctor.

Last week Chapts. XXXVII & XXXVIII
Next week Chapt. XLI

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

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