Don Quixote and the Enchantment of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain used Miguel de Cervantes’ early seventeenth-century novel, Don Quixote as an inspiration for both his Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Quixote’s purpose was to go on quests, hoping that he could restore the lost values of chivalry. That Knight saw the world the way he believed it should be and not as it existed. His sidekick, Sancho Panza was a common man, who had a deep reverence for his master and accompanied him on their many comic and farcical adventures. In the first half of the novel, Quixote is confident about his mission, and Panza was absorbed in his master’s teaching. However, as the story advanced, the apprentice gained confidence, questioning and advising his master on matters of life and philosophy. Similarly, in the first half of The Aventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom went on several comic quests, and Huckleberry Finn learned from him. But by the end of the story, Huck, like Panza, was ready to question some of the logic and assumptions of his teacher. Finn’s maturity and wisdom begin to emerge as Twain winds down the novel Tom Sawyer and then continues into its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. By that time, the story becomes Huck’s more than Tom’s.

As the two boys enter the cave, Tom shows Huck the spot where he believes once dreaded Injun’ Joe’s treasure was buried. They pass a “Cross” that stood on 20- foot high mound. Huck is most “certain” that the Injun’s ghost is hanging around the cave and waiting to haunt them since he had recently died in the cave of entrapment and starvation. “Huck stared at the mystic sign awhile, and then said in a shaky voice, Tom let’s get out of here.”  What is most revealing about this dialogue is that Tom uses his knowledge about Huck’s beliefs and core values to convince him to stay in the cave and dig for the treasure. Tom’s realm of expertise, which Huck knew very little about, involved the world of books, pirates, and heroic journeys modeled after the escapades of chivalrous knights from far-distant literary history, like Robin Hood and Don Quixote. Tom’s goal throughout his story is to find a treasure and become rich and famous for the rest of his life—despite any danger he might encounter. As a supporting, but counter-balancing character, Huck is more practical and only willing to go along with Tom into the cave to experience the thrill of an adventure. According to Sawyer’s thinking, Injun’ Joe’s ghost wouldn’t haunt them at the spot they were standing but would be more likely be hovering around the spot where he died—about five miles on the opposite side of the cave. Huck, who was the accepted expert between the two boys on superstition, disputes Tom’s thinking by saying that the ghost would more likely hang around where the money was buried. To add to the validity of Huck’s claim, he argues, “I know the ways of ghosts, and so do you.” The assumptions of both boys are, of course, equally valid or equally invalid. Not to dispute Huck’s area of expertise, Tom rationalizes that “Injun Joe’s ghost ain’t a going to come around where there’s a cross!” According to Mark Twain, the narrator, “His point was well taken. It had its effect.” Though neither Tom, Huck, nor Twain, had much faith in religion, the protective symbols of angels, Holy Ghosts, and crosses had solidly worked their way into commonly accepted nineteenth-century folk beliefs, so that both boys could easily accept that the symbol of a Cross could easily overpower even the evilest ghost. At least, that’s how Tom sold the idea to Huck and got him to believe it. We can see from the above banter, that though Huck questions Tom, he still comes around to his mentor’s point a view when Sawyer puts up his best argument. It is lucky for Tom that Huck was able to see it his way, as the treasure box they ultimately dug-up was worth about $12,000. At that time, this was an exorbitant amount of money for most adults, let alone for two teenagers. As the boys return home with their treasure, the Widow Douglas agrees to adopt Huck and tries to sivilize him by cleaning him up and sending him regularly to school and church.  As readers might expect, Huck eventually resists most of becoming sivilized and wishes to go back to his old ways of smoking and living freely in the woods. Watson attempts to scare Huck by warning him that if he didn’t behave he would go to the “bad place.” But Huck asks her if she thought that Tom Sawyer would also go there. When she answers that he certainly would not go to the “good place,” Huck responds that he was glad not be going there either, “because I wanted him and me to be together.”

From these experiences, we see Huck’s character beginning to branch out and become more mature. Initially, Huck let Tom talk him into becoming civilized so he could be part of Tom’s gang and their chivalrous adventures. However, he learns more and becomes more discriminating, he begins to get tired of Tom’s games and “resigned from his gang. He notes to himself, “We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them.” Tom had suggested that he had received “secret news” that a whole troop of Spanish merchants and Arabs was going to descend on the town with “two hundred elephants, six hundred camels, and over a thousand mules” and warns his gang that they better be ready to take up arms against them.  However, Huck demonstrates a strong level of doubt about Tom’s story when he considers, “I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that.” Huck confronts Tom directly and verbally when he asserts that he didn’t see any Arabs, elephants or diamonds. But, Tom counters that “there were loads of them.” He argues that if Huck had read a book called Don Quixote, he would have understood that the spectacle of turning the Arabs and animals into a Sunday school troupe was “all done by enchantment.” Though Tom continued to press Huck into believing his fantastic tales of imagination, Huck concluded that Tom’s tall-tales were no more credible to him than Sunday school stories. Huck’s ability to argue and stand his ground with Tom showed that he was ready to move away from Sawyer’s fantasy-based world and to begin interacting with the stark issues of the nineteenth-century adult world on his own terms.

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Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is the Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator for the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER, Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond; is the organizer and coördinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club; and is a co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at ellisonms2@vcu.edu, or leave a note at the bottom of the post.

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