What is the deal with the Grangerford and Shepherdson episode?

by Mr. Sheehy

Yesterday in class students asked what the deal was with Emmeline in the Grangerford and Sheperdson epidsode in The Adventures in Huckleberry Finn.It’s a good question and I’m glad they asked it; it indicates to me that they’re wondering about the book in ways that will lend them insight. Simply asking why a writer includes something in a book admits that the writer has crafted the work intentionally and that the book has a purpose deeper than just to narrate a series of events.Grangerford

Our main way of approaching the text for an answer is to explore the crazy cycle of the feud. We need to notice how Huck, our ever adaptable straight man, wants to adapt to his new setting and fit in with the Grangerford family. He admires them all but admires Colonel Grangerford in particular, as he is a “gentleman” who is “well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse” (117). I find it helpful to realize how this might bring to mind Aunt Alexandra from To Kill a Mockingbird–the idea of being from a good family is an important thing once again, and Huck explains that even Pap had always realized this, even though “he warn’t no more quality than a mud-cat, himself” (117).

So this high class, well bred family is one we should admire, as far as Huck is concerned, and he gives us a detailed description of their house to prove his point–all high class belongings, showing the Grangerfords are rich folk. Then we slowly learn how things work for the Grangerfords with the feud. Along with Huck, we learn the definitions of cowardice and honor: honor is what Buck explains, that you pick of one of theirs when they pick off one of yours. Cowardice is shooting from behind a bush where your victim can’t see you. A grown man shooting an unarmed child is not cowardice, because the child should have known better than to be unarmed, and that man was willing to face his own pursuers with courage.

On the one hand, as we discussed in class, we can see the reasoning behind all this. Buck’s shooting at a man from behind a bush does strike us as dishonorable. But the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons are locked into their own special crazy cycle, as we mapped out on the board with something like this:

You kill one of ours, we kill one of yours, and it can’t end unless it ends as Buck describes–with everyone being dead. Yet Huck doesn’t understand this fully, and he feels responsible for all the killing that takes place after Miss Sophia runs off. As we pointed out, however, Huck’s actions are not the cause on a broader level; the larger problem is that rationale the two families use for continuing their feud–the crazy cyle. Tied up in the middle of that, insulated from outside explanations of reality, masked by their high-class status, are the Grangerfords’ ideas about honor and courage. For us as readers, it’s like we are moving along a line above that cycle and can see it all as lunacy; but for Huck, he’s trapped in the middle and in his adaptability he’s been drawn slightly into the circle.

What about Emmeline? I am convinced Emmeline is a kind of clue to us as readers or a display of the family’s inability to see beyond their insular crazy cycle. They live this sick life of revenge and death, a life so dramatically twisted that it generates the kinds of moments Huck experiences when he first arrives at the house, having guns pointed at him and having to creep inside with his hands up. All that life is capable of producing, it seems, is death. Even in life, death is the dominant theme, as we see with Emmeline and her pictures and poems–the pictures amusingly (and darkly) all ending with “alas” and Emmeline rushing to beat the undertaker to anyone’s death. The family mourns her passing (more than it mourns the death of other children, a couple students pointed out) but doesn’t see how they have caused the morbid preoccupation of this potentially talented girl. They don’t see anything strange about Emmeline’s art work, just like they don’t see anything strange about listening to a preacher talk forcefully about brotherly love while keeping a gun handy in case they have to shoot folks on the other side of the aisle. They are well bred and low class, blind to their own faults, a picture of hypocrisy.

We as readers recognize their inconsistencies and blindness, however, and by now my class is probably getting wary about what Twain wants us to think and wondering if he’s mocking us. Is he mocking us? I think the answer is, sort of; if in our own lives we grow too serious about the rationale behind revenge and honor codes, we are his satirical target. I plan on sharing an article with the class in a couple weeks that will help us examine something called the honor codes of the South, and we’ll see that Twain had a serious disagreement with the line of thinking such codes engendered. I haven’t shared the article with my class yet, as it discusses a lot of material we haven’t read, but I think it will shed some light on this particular episode.

Ultimately, I am convinced the scene is a sharp indicator of Twain’s focus in the second half of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: with satirical scorn, he chastises what he sees as wrong with the world, and most particularly with the South. He’ll make us laugh but if we are his targets, we likely won’t be laughing all that much . . .

Thanks for reading.

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