The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain utilizes the Duke and the King, con men sailing the Mississippi River that try to make a quick buck, to demonstrate the people’s ignorance, stupidity, and hypocrisy.  The Duke and the King use these flaws to take advantage of the upper social classes.  Through the perversion of the values that are held in high esteem by the upper classes, Twain is able to demonstrate how the Duke and the King are a corruption of the upper classes that they try to take advantage. Toni Morrison contends “Twain’s conscious intentions should not play a decisive role in our understanding of the implications of his work” (Robinson 359).  Morrison holds that Twain seeks to force the reader to look beyond what he has written and take a closer look at the subtext that is contained in his work.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain is able to exploit the concept of slavery, a central theme in the novel, and depict the Duke and the King as social slaveholders while turning the upper class into social slaves.

The self-imposed rulers of Huck’s river raft, the King and the Duke, are frauds from the time they first meet Huck to the moment that they are caught, tarred, and feathered.  From the instant that the King and the Duke appear on the raft, they pose a threat to Huck and Jim although they might appear to give the reader a false sense of security.  While the reader may take delight in the Duke and the King’s debauchery and interpret their actions as being a sort of “moral revenge,” the people that are being taken advantage are should be more aware and not let themselves be taken advantage of so easily (Kastely 424).  Despite the fact that the King and the Duke are comic figures, they are able to gain “stature in their aggressive assault on society through exploiting false sentiments and false values” (424).  However, the King and the Duke are able to maintain their honesty by not denying the fact that they are criminals.  The King and the Duke never claim that their actions are acceptable and the only reason that they behave in this manner is to exploit their stupidity and their hypocrisy (Fetterly 74).

During the King and the Duke’s introduction, they con Huck and Jim into thinking that they are different people.  The King claims that he is of French Royal descent and tells Huck and Jim, “Your eyes is lookin’ at this very moment on the pore disappeared Dauphin, Looy the Seventeen, son of Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antonette” (Twain 304).  The reader is allowed to see how the King and the Duke exploit the values of upper class society as they spend time upon the river raft.  One of the instances where the King and the Duke exploit these values is through the corruption of their portrayals of Shakespeare and his soliloquies.  In a world where the knowledge of Shakespeare and his works was most likely a sign of being well educated, the King and the Duke are able to take this concept of being well educated and alter it to fit their needs.  The Duke’s soliloquy from Hamlet takes lines not only from Hamlet, but also from King Lear and Macbeth, but is also filled with frivolous boasts (Twain 312).  This crude understanding of Shakespeare’s works shows that though the King and the Duke have taken some time to memorize some Shakespearean literature, they do not understand what Shakespeare is trying to convey.  The Duke’s soliloquy is a corruption of the knowledge that has been given to the upper classes.  The corruption of Shakespeare criticizes how the upper classes utilize their education, or their ability to receive a good education, and how they use their “superior” reasoning to take advantage of the lower classes and of slaves.

Regardless of the King and the Duke’s ability to use their skills as orators and printers to promote their “plays,” they use these skills to take advantage of the communities that reside along the banks of the Mississippi River.  The King hypocritically claims to be a reformed pirate to try and convince others that he is a missionary that has set out to reform pirates.  “The King is a pirate; he takes money.  But the congregation has its illusion about religion’s power to reform pirates and its illusion about their own goodness” (Vales 424).  The people are too self-involved with their visions of what is good that they do not realize that the ways that they interact with each other are immoral and wrong.  Because of this, when the King gives a speech, he is able to convince his audience to donate money based upon the belief that they are helping in the reformation of pirates.  The Duke, on the other hand, uses the fact that he has access to the resources necessary to print papers and notices to steal money from those gullible to believe that he sells legitimate documents. The Duke goes around, claiming he is selling subscriptions to a newspaper, but rather than allow people to trade subscriptions for goods, he will lower the price as to make it affordable to the person so that he can be paid in cash, a medium that is guaranteed not to spoil or be worthless on their long journey (Twain 310).  Likewise, he prints a poster of Jim that he claims that will help Huck, Jim, the King, and himself to travel down the river more safely.  “But he has also bilked people and left them with an illusion which will eventually crumble.  It is the Duke’s poster, moreover, which later will enable the King to steal and sell Jim to Silas Phelps” and will continue to perpetuate the exploitation of slaves (Vales 424).

The King and the Duke easily exploit the flaws of the upper class.  It is the upper class’ naïveté about what they are doing to each other that allows the King and the Duke to defraud them so easily and thereby perpetuates the cycle of slavery. James L. Kastely states that:

Fraud is the one crime that explicitly trades on and violates trust.  It is a radically exploitative crime, for it sees others only as a means to an end.  Fraud undermines the possibility of community because it makes all meetings into false meetings by proclaiming that the only significant being is the private self and that he is in no way bound to another.  Like slavery, it denies the humanity of its victims because it only conceives of them as a means to an end and not as ends in themselves. (Kastely 426)

In addition to defrauding the communities residing along the Mississippi, the King and the Duke also manage to defraud a family in mourning because they have not kept in touch with other members of their family. The con begins along the Mississippi when the King and the Duke pick up Reverend Elexander Blodgett and begin to question him about Peter Wilks’s life and family.  Blodgett is overly eager to talk about the Wilks family history, unknowingly enabling the King and the Duke to defraud the Wilks family (Twain 326).  The King and the Duke, hearing that Mr. Peter Wilks has died, take advantage of his grieving daughters Mary Jane, Joanna, and Susan.  Blodgett had informed the King and the Duke that the only surviving members of Wilks’s family include his daughters and two other brothers whom he had lost contact with a long time ago.  Because the young Wilks girls are ignorant as to whom their uncles may be the King is able to pose as Harvey Wilks, while the Duke takes on the role of his other brother, William.  To add credibility to their stories, the King, as Harvey, goes around town spreading the word of his missionary work in far off England to as many people that will listen to him.  They are able to deceive the sisters who entrusted them with the Wilks fortune, erroneously believing that the money will be invested properly (330).  Their con is revealed when Wilks’s legitimate brothers appear, completely destroying the King and the Duke’s plan.  At this point, the community, angry at the King and the Duke for deceiving them, and possibly angry with themselves for being so easily deceived, take matters into their own hands and tar and feather the perpetrators (369).

It is after the King and the Duke’s cover is blown that the reader is aware of Twain’s usage of the King and the Duke as being representative of an immoral society.  The community is able to find closure through the persecution of the conning duo; if the slave community were to have an uprising, the consequences would be much worse because they have been denied the freedom to do anything, while the community has only been denied the freedom to think for themselves.  While Huck has realized that what the King and the Duke are doing is wrong, he cannot see that their les subtle actions are mirrored in society.  Huck’s willingness to help the King and the Duke enables the reader to see that Huck has formed his independent thoughts regarding what is right and what is wrong, yet the inability to express these beliefs to the King and the Duke is a statement against society. Huck’s statement against a corrupt society is overlooked because, whereas the King and the Duke admit that they are criminals, the rest of society will not admit to their faults. By failing to help the King and the Duke, Huck is fighting back against society, but he only has the power to let the King and the Duke punished while the rest of society goes unpunished for doing the exact same things that they, the King and the Duke, have done.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn help to demonstrate how Huck was “sivilized” by his observations and interactions with the injustices of the South.  Furthermore, Twain insists that Huck’s “sivilization” is not complete and sets out to explore “Indian Territory,” which contains another group of people that has long been persecuted due to no fault of their own.  It is important for Huck to rely on his instinct to determine what is right and what is wrong because he has not been able to ascertain a definitive response on the concepts from his social circles. Twain defines instinct as a “blind, unreasoning instinct, which cannot and does not distinguish between good morals and bad ones, and cares nothing for results to the man provided its own contentment be secured; and it will ALWAYS secure that” (Kaufman 464).  By exploring how society viewed themselves and how other viewed society, Twain was able to create a successful argument for the hypocrisy and ignorance that was found in the upper classes of the time.

Works Cited

Fetterly, Judith. “Disenchantment: Tom Sawyer in Huckleberry FinnPMLA. Vol. 87, No. 1 (January 1972), 69-74. JSTOR. Web. 19 November 2011.

Kastely, James L. “The Ethics of Self Interest: Narrative Logic in Huckleberry Finn”.Nineteenth Century Literature. Vol. 40, No. 4 (March 1986), 412-437. JSTOR. Web. 19 November 2011.

Kaufman, Will. “Mark Twain’s Deformed Conscience.” American Imago, 63.4 (Winter 2006), 463-478. Project MUSE. Web. 19 November 2011.

Robinson, Forrest G. “An ‘Unconscious and Profitable Cerebration:’ Mark Twain and Literary Intentionality.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, 50.3, (December 1995). pp. 357-380. JSTOR. Web. 19 November 2011.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 219-407. Print.

Vales, Robert L., “Thief and Theft in Huckleberry Finn.” American Literature, 37.4, (January 1966). pp. 420-429. JSTOR. Web. 19 November 2011.

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