Last Updated on Friday, 17 January 2014 14:17
Written by Dr. Steve Garrison from the University of Central Oklahoma
An adventurous adolescent cut loose from parental supervision and a work-hardened adult, major characters in a celebrated novel, embark together on a dangerous quest through the wild and woolly landscape of 19th Century America, facing adventures both funny and harrowing that reveal their character, forge a bond of friendship between them, and crystallize a handful of facts about the early days of the nation. Quick, what novel did I just describe? It’s probably inevitable, when savoring the achievement of Charles Portis’s True Grit, one of the most successful American novels published in the Twentieth Century, to compare its features with those of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, perhaps the most famous of all American novels and a perennial contender for the frayed title of the Great American Novel.
Whatever else we can say about them, certainly both books owe much of their success to their authors’ inspired handling of point of view. A brief comparison of the perspectives dramatized in Huck Finn and in True Grit reveals something of the two books’ complementary goals.
Though children from slightly different moments in time, different social situations, and different genders, Huck Finn and Mattie Ross share the same mission: they are authors of their own stories. In the first paragraph of Huck Finn, Huck differentiates himself from “Mr. Mark Twain,” author of that earlier book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and embarks on what may be, for him, an even more arduous adventure than living his story, namely, writing it down. He does a bang-up job of it, of course, but in the book’s final paragraph pronounces himself “rotten glad” the task is finished, declaring that, had he known how difficult writing a book was going to be, he’d never have attempted it. He never spells out the reasons why he finds his task so difficult, but one of them must surely have been that Huck Finn’s story is basically a confession of guilt and shame, at least in the mind of its adolescent author. A stickler for accurate reporting, Huck is obliged to recount the moral “failing” that leads him, eventually, to a full-fledged commitment to the quest of freeing his friend Jim, an escaped slave. In his world, this is a moral and legal crime, and when he agrees to it, in one of the book’s most famous scenes, he resigns himself to perdition: “All right then,” he tells himself, tearing up the letter he has just written that would have guaranteed Jim’s return to slavery, “I’ll go to hell.”
Huck is a good boy who believes he’s bad, and much of our enjoyment of the book and our affection for its author come from the dramatic irony caused by our disagreement with his opinion of himself. He is simply too young, too passive to question society’s rejection of him. He accepts its verdict, unable to make the great leap it would take to declare the foundations of his world—its hypocrisy, its misplaced pride, its greed, its condoning of slavery—wrong. As he tells his story, Huck must confront the discrepancy between what he believes in his heart to be right and what his world tells him is right, and by the final page the struggle to reconcile these opposites, to arrive at any sense of order, have exhausted him. Though he has produced an unforgettable book, he feels himself a failed author, and he never plans to write again. He’ll light out for the territories, avoiding as best he can any more confrontations with irreconcilable opposites—or, as Huck himself would call it, “sivilization.”
Likewise Mattie Ross undertakes to tell her own story, though from a perspective different in crucial ways from the one Huck has used. For one thing, Mattie is not the social pariah that Huck is. The daughter of a model citizen of her community, Mattie is confident in her dealings with her neighbors and counts among her friends and mentors the influential Lawyer Daggett. While Huck is cautious and tentative in his dealings with elders, Mattie, fourteen-year-old though she is, is quick to criticize the behavior of her parents’ peers if it fails to meet with her approval. She is supremely confident in her world view, placing her faith in Presbyterian doctrine (Southern, not Cumberland Presbyterian) and the principles of the Democratic Party. Indeed, while our affection for Huck comes, in part, from our awareness of how he underestimates his own worth, our affection for Mattie comes from the amusement we feel as she reveals her sense of superiority, as in her description of a Fort Smith deputy whose conceit annoys her: “You can expect that out of Federal people and to make it worse this was a Republican gang that cared nothing for the opinion of the good people of Arkansas who are Democrats.”
Of course, our regard for Mattie would never take hold if she didn’t demonstrate, along with her arrogance, a maturity remarkable for someone her age. Her paragraphs are full of bits of information that cause us to marvel at her intelligence and practicality. It’s the mix of such precocity with other elements more in keeping with her age—her hero worship of her father, for example, but especially the callow overconfidence in her own opinions—that allow us to feel affection for her.
So Huck and Mattie write their narratives from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Both seem to be writing to set the record straight. Huck writes to confess his secret and to try to find some sense of order in his topsy-turvy world. At the beginning of her account Mattie does not seem to suffer the same sort of doubts that Huck has about the nature of things. She is proud of her youthful achievement and wants it to stand as public record: “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”
Unlike Huck, Mattie wants to be a writer. At some earlier moment she has produced a “good historical article” memorializing the achievements of Isaac C. Parker, the famous hanging judge of the border territory. With typically blithe self-confidence she reveals her aims and techniques as a writer: “Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a ‘graphic’ writing style combined with educational aims.” Hence the moral truisms inserted throughout the novel, usually in biblical imagery, and the remarkably blockish syntax, one of the book’s most commented-upon features. While Huck maintains a passive reportorial objectivity even in his syntax—Twain actually steps out from behind his young narrator in a prefatory paragraph claiming credit for reproducing, accurately and painstakingly, six distinct dialects throughout the novel—Mattie places the stamp of her personality, in the form of her idiosyncratic syntax, on every sentence of her account.
But there’s another important distinction between Huck’s perspective and Mattie’s. Huck is writing while still an adolescent, only a short time after the conclusion of the adventure he relates. Mattie, on the other hand, is telling her story twenty-five years after its events have occurred. And in the last pages of her book, we are given clues that, perhaps, the sense of superiority and moral rectitude that guided her fourteen-year-old self down a blood-soaked trail of revenge may have suffered wear. We hear it in the grumblings of contempt she expresses toward the townspeople who now whisper about her. “They say I love nothing but money and the Presbyterian Church and that is why I never married.” Speculation about her spinsterhood is particularly galling and calls out the sustained howl of derision on the novel’s last page. We realize that, although she is now rich, she has become, over the years, every bit the social outcast that Huck is, though at the other end of the economic scale. “Time,” she says in the book’s final paragraph, “just gets away from us.” So, it seems, does certainty. The softening of her stringent moral code, in particular, is evident in her re-entombment of Rooster, who in his later years was reduced to doing dirty work for stock owners in Wyoming in their war with homesteaders. The young Mattie was a stickler for nailing the truth as she saw it. She is still clearly known as an outspoken eccentric. But, by the last pages of the book, we see that she may have realized that the truth is a bit harder to pin down that she had once thought. Surely the nature of truth can be clouded by many things, one of them love. The legend Mattie has carved on Rooster’s tombstone, which lies next to her beloved father’s, sanitizes the old man’s career in a single terse line memorializing his tenure as a lawman of Judge Parker’s court.
Huck’s attempt to reconcile the impossible demands of his heart and his society—to find and formulate a truth he can live with--meet with failure. The picture that Mattie Ross gives us of herself in the early pages of True Grit is of a girl confident in her ability to recognize the truth of any circumstance, name it to her satisfaction, and then act on it to the best of her ability. Had they been able to meet, I doubt the fourteen-year-old Mattie would have thought much of Huck Finn. But the Mattie who has begun to reveal herself at the end of her account, who seems to have wrestled with the difficulties of always being certain, might have been able to view the boy with something like compassion.