In the next section of dialogue in Chapter 14, Huck Finn continues his struggle to set Jim straight on some of the finer points of history and culture. As we saw, though, in the previous King Solomon story, Jim rejects Huck’s pre-packaged lessons. Instead, he has own life experiences and ways of explaining why things are the way they are and why he thinks they should be different. The dialogue between these two characters about Frenchmen illustrates some of Mark Twain’s most unique and humorous writing achievements. They depict the difficulty that characters can have when trying to communicate to each other about abstract concepts when they have no commonly shared experiences. Huck wants to “let the discussion on king’s slide,” but Jim still has a question:
Dey ain’ no kings here, is dey, Huck?”
“Den he cain’t git no situation. What he gwyne to do?”
“Well, I don’t know… Some of them learns people how to talk French.”
“Why, Huck, doan’ de French people talk de same way we does?”
Jim’s question is a good one. In order to answer it though, Huck would need to be an expert linguistic expert and a scholar of history, so he leaves, at first, without commentary.
“No, Jim; you couldn’t understand a word they said — not a single word.”
“Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?”
Jim is asking again for a deeper probing a very complex historical fact. Huck, who only has had years of exposure to Tom Sawyer’s fractured explanations and about a year of grade school education, comes up with a bunch of words intended to cloud the question and impress Jim. He responds:
“I don’t know; but it’s so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. S’pose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy — what would you think?”
Since Jim is unfamiliar with Huck’s misleading verbal patter and with the French language, he concludes that a man talking to him in such unfamiliar terms would be speaking to him with disrespect. He retorts that “if he warn’t white” he would “bust him over de head.” Huck explains that such a response wouldn’t be a threat, it would just be the Frenchmen’s way of asking, “Do you speak French.” From Jim’s point of view, the Frenchmen should just ask (in English), do you speak French? He concludes:
“Well, it’s a blame ridicklous way, en I doan’ want to hear no mo’ ’bout it. Dey ain’ no sense in it.”
Huck digs deep and tries to use a standard line of deductive reasoning with Jim to set him straight on the subject:
“Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?”
“No, a cat don’t.”
“Well, does a cow?”
“No, a cow don’t, nuther.”
“Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?”
“No, dey don’t.”
So far, so good for Huck’s line of rhetoric. He continues:
“It’s natural and right for ’em to talk different from each other, ain’t.
“And ain’t it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from us?”
“Why, mos’ sholy it is.”
It appears that Huck is helping Jim to see the wisdom of his thinking, so he continues:
“Well, then, why ain’t it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? You answer me that.”
It appears that Huck’s way of logical thinking on language is making some headway with Jim when he compares differences in animal communications with the different ways that people of different cultures speak. However, Jim picks up the central flaw in Huck’s analogies, i.e. that animals and men are in different categories. His response reveals that he is clever enough to cut through Huck’s conventional debate techniques and form his own original analogies. Jim asks:
“Is a cat a man, Huck?”
“Well, den, dey ain’t no sense in a cat talkin’ like a man. Is a cow a man? — er is a cow a cat?”
“No, she ain’t either of them.”
Notice how Huck falls right into Jim’s linguistic trap.
“Well, den, she ain’t got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of ’em.”
Jim continues to continue constructing an impenetrable argument, as he asks Huck:
“Is a Frenchman a man?” Huck has no other choice but to respond:
Jim takes the game, set, and match when he Aces his final point with a Grand Slam:
“WELL, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man? You answer me dat!”
In this dialogue and the previous section on King Solomon, Twain does not intend to illustrate any disrespect to Jim or to the black race. Instead, they demonstrate the limited ways that Huck had, as a representative of the educated white race, to argue on an equal plane with Jim’s unconventional, but effective logic patterns. Huck is so threatened by the black slave’s ability to mount a counter-argument against his stock-teaching that he minimizes what Jim said by using a racist taunt:
“I see it warn’t no use wasting words…– you can’t learn a nigger to argue. So I quit.”
Regardless of what Huck said, it is clear that Jim won both of those arguments. Although I can think of many other topics to write about from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I plan to “quit” for now and move on to discussing some other books I have read in my various book clubs. The most interesting of these have been The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Do any of those appeal to you? Or, do you have other books you would like me to write about on Litchatte? If so, please send a comment to me in a dialogue box below this post. You can also give your email below and receive automatic postings of Litchatte.
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 Co-Editor of the 2017 Poetry Book, Mystic Verses by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, and the Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, VA, and writes a monthly column for the Museum website, thepoeblog.org. He has taught literature classes on Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and F.Scott Fitzgerald (thus far) at the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond. He is the organizer and Coördinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club, and is the co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a Comment at the bottom of any post.