On Reading Well
Karen Swallow Prior
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
By Mark Twain
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.
Chapter Four of Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well, examines the virtue of courage with examples drawn from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book is often criticized as the crude snapshot of a bygone era, but others find timeless truths in the tales of a growing young boy. Hemingway said “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.”
As Karen wrote
Huckleberry Finn is a boy who is all heart. And Huckleberry Finn is the story of that boy getting his heart in the right place as he learns to rightly order his desires.
Huck doesn’t start out courageous. In fact, poor Huck begins his story as a forlorn, neglected little fellow, a bit of a pushover to his strong-willed pal Tom Sawyer. When the novel opens, Huck has spent much of his short and unfortunate life running from the varied troubles that ceaselessly dog him. Having known only hardship, Huck has no sense of proportion and runs as determinedly from the Widow Douglas’s attempts at “sivilizing” him as from the brutal “lickings” he receives at the hands of his drunken and abusive father.
But by the story’s end, Huck finds his courage, albeit accidentally, through circumstances that come partly from his own doing and partly from sheer bad luck. In depicting this attainment of virtue through a combination of consequence and coincidence, Huckleberry Finn reflects the way life falls out for most of us most of the time: some choices we face are the result of our own doings, others completely outside of our control, most some combination of the two. How much nicer it would be not to face difficulties at all. Given the impossibility of that, the next best thing is to face hard circumstances with the virtue of courage.
What are the elements necessary for a risk taken to constitute the virtue of courage?