Monday, January 16, 2012

Is Huck Finn an Archetypal Hero?

In a Goodreads discussion on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one thread asks the question "Is Huck Finn a hero?"

I quickly realized that the comments were from students and that the question had been posed by a teacher. Wonderful assignment! Here are the assignment's specifics:
In your opinion, is Huck an Epic Hero (or Archetypal Hero) based on Joseph Campbell's definition? Use at least two citations (from the worksheet, movie, critical paper, or class discussion) in your answer.
In the thread, student Kristy mentions that Huck does not meet the archetype's guidelines of supernatural assistance or having a sacred marriage. Good points, although because Twain wrote in the realistic style popular in his time, one could place the river in that "supernatural assistance" category; it certainly is described as a timeless, powerful presence by Twain. As for a "sacred marriage," Twain, staying true to his contrary vision as a writer, could have ended the novel with a "sacred divorce" with his characterization of Tom Sawyer and the antebellum South. When Huck decides to not be "sivilized" and to "light off for the territory ahead of the rest," he is divorcing himself from the strictures of Southern slave-owning morality.

Stephanie, another student, mentions that Huck doesn't meet the guidelines for apotheosis, "which tells of how the hero is idealized in some way after completing a difficult challenge." She says the following: "In a sense that is true for Huck because it happens for him from the reader but not from the society that he rejects. Huck isn't worshiped in any way by his society." This is a scholarly insight. One might say, though, that Huck is "worshipped" as a negative example by his society. He is the ultimate prodigal son, destined to be eternally welcomed back into the fold of civilization. Twain, of course, is revealing there is nothing prodigal about Huck; he is the archetypal Green Man, not to be contained by the boundaries of society.

I found the assignment and the students' responses quite interesting and insightful, and I congratulate the teacher, "Kristin, of Reading MA," and her students.

Below are the thoughts I wrote for the discussion thread after reading the comments.

Of course, Twain wrote before Joseph Campbell, but since the archetypal hero is a manifestation of mankind's collective consciousness, it certainly doesn't need Campbell's articulation to be lively.

I think it's typical of Twain to find something true or universal and enduring and then tweak it so that the truth is seen in a unique and original way. That was his genius.

If Huck Finn doesn't meet all the "official" criteria of the archetypal hero, he certainly meets the spirit of the concept.

He chooses a journey (and if the river is not an archetypal presence in the novel, then what is?)

He has that stimulus to action--his father--accepts the challenge; he even has a second stimulus to action and guide--Jim--and accepts the greater challenge of freeing him.

He meets the challenges of his journey not only on the survival level but also on the moral level.

He gains gifts from his journey, the greatest being knowledge that allows him to see his world in a new light and gives him the strength to make better, more enlightened choices.

Coming back to the everyday world, his gift to humanity is the testimony of his growth--the first person narrative of his trip down the river. It is not the Father that speaks to him from the burning bush; it is the Mother that speaks to him through the eternal and omnipresent river.

Archetypal means transcending the specific limitations of any time or culture and being rooted in the universal psyche that makes us human. I think that Campbell would say that Huck Finn deserves to be one of those "faces" of the thousand heroes.

Actually, in many ways, the "Mark Twain" persona that Samuel Langhorne Clemens adopted is another "face" of the archetypal hero. Iconoclast, soothsayer, individualist--Mark Twain is the symbol of the human dream to be independent, self-sufficient, and to fully express one's inner bliss and potential.

May we all find ourselves on our journey down the river.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


  1. Thank you for posting this! Your analysis of Huck Finn as an archetypal hero helped my with my college literature essay on tracing Huck Finn's heroic journey.

    1. You're welcome. Writing isn't just about sharing what we know; it's also about discovery. I learned a lot by writing the review.

  2. At whatever time a novel manages a questionable topic, the recieving wires of blue pencils the nation over go up, and the work might banned in the event that they consider there is even the scarcest prospect of somebody being irritated. Such was the situation with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, one of Mark Twain's most cherished works of art. Huck, to Tom