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Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield Comparison Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 27th, 2021

The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are two very popular literary works of this day and age. The former was written by J. D. Salinger; its story was set in the 1950s, and narrated by Holden Caulfield. Mark Twain was the literary genius behind The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is also among his masterpieces. The story is told in a first person narrative by Huckleberry, or as he is popularly known Huck, Finn, in the late nineteenth century. While Salinger tells the story of Caulfield, a seventeen year old who fails out of school time and again, Twain takes us on Huck’s journey down the Mississippi river, and both present to us different people, places and societal attitudes of the time (Carpenter, 1957).

Kaplan (1956) calls both works “fine comic novels” which present a variety of incidents, and are rich in meaning because of this combined with their depth of characterization. The lead character in both is an adolescent “whose remarkable language is both a reflection and criticism of his education, his environment, and his times.” And both, Caulfield and Finn, are young people on a quest, as they try to understand and find their way in an adult world they can not fully come to terms with. They are outcasts, even though for the sake of principle they do have family and friends, but they free themselves from the “restraints of the civilization which would make him (them) its victim” and tries to attain freedom and an understanding of the circumstances which prevail.

Society considers them both as rogues, good-for-nothings whose only claim to fame is the numerous scrapes they get into, time and again. Both are badly “mixed up” but are intellectually honest and as Kaplan (1956) points out, their continuous battle with the powers-that-be is representative of their independent mind and freedom of spirit.

Both are realists, intelligent and intuitive, especially when it comes to unearthing the pretense and fakeness from the people and society around them, and they experience immense amounts of such shams the more they interact with the adult world. They have strong ethical standards which they apply not just to everyone, but also, “mercilessly” to themselves. They believe that there are a lot many more “phony” (as Holden referred to them) people in the world than there are nice. Both novels stand out from the myriad of literary works because both young realists pass judgments on society’s “false ideals and romanticized versions of life” as they travel through the adult world (Kaplan, 1956).

Salinger reveals to us during the narrative that Holden is telling this story from an institution of some sort, in most probability psychiatric, where he is trapped by others who want to “sivilize him.” It “depresses” and “kills” him to be there. Huck on the other hand, is trapped by a society whose flaws he is very much aware of, and he “can’t stand it.” An example of Holden’s aversion to the “phonies” he was surrounded with is given when he talks about getting expelled from Elkton Hills School, which was just one of the schools he has been dismissed from and there were quite a few. The reason he “left” was because “I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window. I can’t stand that stuff. It drives me crazy. It makes me so depressed I go crazy” (Salinger, 1996).

Holden lives in the post-World War II New York City, and during Christmas holiday season, he experiences incidents which show him the hypocrisy, materialism, apathy, ignorance, absolute deterioration of moral values and what is a recurring theme in Holden’s encounters, “phoniness.” He has an older brother, who used to be a writer with great potential, but is now a scene writer in Hollywood, and this “corruption” of promise and talent is analogous for Holden to the general demeaning influence of the movies as he believes they can actually ruin people.

This for him is the phoniest aspect of the world as they present a completely false version of reality, and corrupt their audiences. In fact, Holden is so sensitive to the concept of sham that he immediately notices it wherever he goes, even in the “pseudo-religious Christmas spectacle” at Radio City, in the stories in magazines and in a talented pianist’s performance. Both Huck, and Holden, the former when he makes his regular trips to the river, often encounter things which delight their senses and make them feel better but they also serve as stark contrasts to the general sham and fakery of the world which they are constantly at war with (Moore, 1965).

This constant search for integrity and a deep hatred of hypocrisy is what makes Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield very similar characters. While Huck may have been the quintessential American democrat and Holden a snob, and while Huck lived in the rich American heartland and Holden belonged to the “exclusive” New York City, their search for genuine values is what makes them blood brothers. As most members of youth, they also like to play-act: Huck goes along with Tom Sawyer’s mad hatter schemes and unwittingly admires how the Duke and Dauphin deceive each other; Holden talks about his roommate Stradlater, who has a distinct, fake-sincere way of talking and who concocts up stories on the drop of a hat. Yet, their main bone of contention remains with the phonies they encounter, and they only truly admire the genuine people they meet, such as Holden’s sister Phoebe (Salinger, 1996; Twain, n.d.).

Both characters think through things and then come to conclusions in different ways. For Holden, passing judgments on people seems to be a favorite past time. He not only categorizes fakeness but insincerity and convention also into his broad bracket of phony. However, it often appears to the reader that he perceives things on a very superficial level himself and is almost too quick to pass judgments. It is as if this is a protective mechanism for him, because of which he doesn’t face his fears of venturing into adulthood, where he is often confused and overwhelmed by his experiences. Due to this he often passes overly simplified judgments but the point to note is that his observations are not completely untrue. He has a powerful intuition and insight into the hypocrisy and superficiality which surrounds him, and there are many characters in this book who he does judge accurately, such as Carl Luce, Mr. Spencer, Sally Hayes, Maurice and Sunny (Kaplan, 1956).

Huck on the other hand, unlike Holden, belongs to the lowest rungs of white society with a father who is an alcoholic, and who often disappears without a trace for extended periods of time. Even though Widow Douglas (similar to a mother figure in the story) tries to provide him some religious and academic training, he frequently renders her efforts useless. He has virtually no social upbringing, unlike Tom Sawyer, and because he is completely alienated from the mainstream world, he is very skeptical of society and its ideas and attitudes.

While Holden may be very quick to judge people, Huck has a lack of trust which stems from his gut, and his voyages down the Mississippi River lead him to have experiences which further force him to question society. Jim is Miss Watson’s slave by law, but Huck wants to help him out because he thinks it would be right to do so. Huck is intelligent, and analyses situations in a logical manner, but the conclusions he reaches would probably not sit well with the Southern white society. According to him, this society has treated him like an outcast, and has not been able to protect him from his abusive father, which is why he doesn’t trust society and the morals it preaches. Race and slavery are prominent themes in the book, and as Huck befriends Jim, he starts becoming more and more distrustful about the attitudes and behaviors of seemingly “good” people (Kaplan, 1956).

At many times in the book, Twain shows how Huck thinks logically, learns from his experiences and listens to his conscience, and decides that he would rather “go to hell” than adhere to the rules and teachings of society. At the end of the story, when Huck makes a plan to go west so that he doesn’t have to face more attempts to “sivilize” him, but also because he wants to escape society, which has been depicted through the entire novel as a mouthpiece of illogical rules and demeaning precepts. In the very initial stages of the novel, Huck’s abusive father, Pap, is allowed to be the Huck’s legal custodian by the Judge, and this decision is against what is right for Huck’s welfare. In a broader context, Twain compares this decision to the slaves which are the “properties” of white people, and is reflective of a society and a legal system which privileges a white man’s rights over a black man’s rights to freedom. Huck comes across people who preach moral codes and ethical values, but are racist slave owners, such as Sally Phelps. This faulty logic and failed justice which Huck encounters at various moments throughout the novel, where petty acts are punished with execution and appalling criminals go scot-free, instills in him the view that society does not want to perpetuate welfare for all, instead it comprises of selfish, illogical and cowardly people (Kaplan, 1956).

Both characters present to us insightful critiques of American life, and while they themselves are not without flaws, the picture they paint does ring true, even today, decades after the time period these novels were based in. Both want to revolt against the adult world because they do not want to live by rules they do not agree with. Huck revolts against what his supposed duty to society was because he follows what his inherent humanity and morality is telling him to do. Holden is a misfit in society, as he views it, and is fighting a constant battle with society. Both are nonconformists who have a difficult time dealing with the hypocrisy around them.

References

Carpenter, Frederic. The Adolescent in American Youth. The English Journal 46.6 (1957): 313-319.

Kaplan, Charles. Holden and Huck: The Odysseys of Youth. College English 18.2 (1956): 76-80.

Moore, Robert P. The World of Holden. The English Journal 54.3 (1965): 159-165.

Salinger, Jerome David. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Penguin Readers.

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