Picaresque, Romance, Bildungsroman
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an example of a picaresque in that it follows the adventures of a lower-class, rough-around-the-edges protagonist who exposes the hypocrisies of the society he lives in. The genre takes its name from the Spanish word picaro, meaning rogue, and originated in Spain in the sixteenth century. Cervante’s episodic and satiric knight’s tale Don Quixote, which Tom Sawyer references in Huck Finn, incorporates many elements of the Spanish picaresque. Huck is a naïve, innately moral character navigating a racist and hypocritical society, making him a model picaro. Picaresque stories also typically have an episodic structure that follows the hero through a series of discrete events. The story of Huck and Jim’s journey down the Mississippi River develops over the course of a loosely connected series of adventures, beginning with the pair’s time on Jackson’s Island. However, Huck Finn deviates from the genre in that Huck evolves over the course of the novel as he wrestles with his conscience and develops empathy for Jim, making him a more complex character than many traditional picaros.
Because it tells the story of a hero navigating the wilderness and follows a narrative sequence of pursuit, capture, and escape, Huckleberry Finn can also be considered a romance, though Twain also mocks many conventions of the genre. While today we think of romances as being primarily concerned with romantic love, the genre dates back to medieval Europe, when narratives of knights going on fantastic quests flourished. These stories are the inspiration for Tom’s “romantical” schemes. In the nineteenth century James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe updated the romantic genre to comment on the conflict between civilization and the wild. Their novels featured characters navigating the wilderness, experiencing high adventure and reversals in fortune. Similarly, Huck and Jim journey from civilization to wilderness and have many adventures in their pursuit of freedom. At the same time, Twain critiques the genre by having Tom Sawyer’s love of romances and insistence on following their model get him and his friends into unnecessary trouble. One source of tension in the book is Tom’s romanticism versus Huck’s pragmatism, representing the literary genres of romance and realism.
In exploring Huck’s moral development as he grapples with the ethics of slavery and the occasional necessity of dishonesty for a greater truth, Huckleberry Finn adopts some elements of the bildungsroman. A German word meaning “novel of education,” a bildungsroman traces a young protagonist’s journey from innocence to knowledge of the world. In Huck Finn, Huck initially doesn’t question the institution of slavery, and sees Jim as a pathetically superstitious character worthy of mockery, as when Tom hangs Jim’s hat from a tree. Once Huck and Jim meet up on Jackson’s Island, Huck begins to experience empathy for Jim. Through their adventures and conversations, Huck comes to understand the moral stakes of helping Jim run away in a deeply racist society where slavery still thrives. As his compassion grows for Jim, he learns to recognize suffering in all people, and feel remorse for causing pain, though he doesn’t explicitly challenge the institution of slavery itself. In seeing the world more clearly, he loses his innocence, and ends the book wiser but also more aware of the flaws in his society.