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ELH 70.1 (2003) 267-300

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Can We Learn to Argue?
Huckleberry Finn and Literary Discipline

Howard Horwitz

I. Blame It, It's a Riddle

Soon after a steamboat plows over the raft carrying Huckleberry Finn and Jim down the Mississippi, separating the two runaways, Huck meets up with the Grangerfords. The Grangerfords assure themselves that Huck is no Shepardson, and then assign him to the care of their son Buck. The boys retire to Buck's room, whereupon Buck promptly asks Huck "where Moses was when the candle went out." When Huck says he doesn't know, Buck insists that he guess.

"How'm I going to guess," says I, "when I never heard tell about it before?"

"But you can guess, can't you? It's just as easy."

"Which candle?" I says.

"Why, any candle," he says.

"I don't know where he was," says I; "where was he?"

"Why he was in the dark! That's where he was!"

"Well, if you knowed where he was, what did you ask me for?"

"Why, blame it, it's a riddle, don't you see?" 1

As do many scenes in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this exchange displays Huck's ignorance of his culture's conventions. Huck understandably believes that Buck's question concerns Moses's whereabouts when the candle goes out, not lighting conditions. In thus mistaking the context of Buck's question, Huck is like anyone stumped by a riddle until hearing the punchline. Huck, however, is unfamiliar with the category of the riddle and does not realize he has heard one even when Buck delivers the punchline. Huck therefore cannot fathom the point of Buck's question. Why would Buck inquire where Moses was if he already knows?

Well blame it Huck, it's a riddle! Riddles are not meant to elicit information. Although having the form of a question, riddles are a different kind of speech act: a demonstration, a claim, a reassurance. [End Page 267] Riddles (like most jokes) are signs that the speaker is able to manipulate the contexts in which specific words refer. Telling this riddle, which silently shifts the reference of the adverb "where" from a place to a condition, displays to Buck his command of linguistic conventions. The act reminds him that he is culturally literate.

No doubt Huck's ignorance is necessary to this effect, as the audience's response to a riddle always is. Were I to figure out one of my eight-year old son's riddles, he would feel diminished. The audience's pleasure at the punchline is really its admiration for the teller's cultural literacy; understanding how riddles work, the audience appreciates the competence required to tell one. Therefore the audience's pleasure at the riddle confirms not just the teller's literacy but also its own. The audience shares the joke, even though (or perhaps because) it did not guess the specific punchline, for the joke really concerns the ability of members of a community to negotiate and adapt its conventions.

Huck, of course, is a frustrating audience. He is irritated by Buck's riddle because he cannot conceive of a question not meant to elicit information; to him, a speech act taking the form of a question can function only as a question. Buck is, in turn, initially irritated by Huck's response, but he straightway sees in Huck's bafflement an opportunity to instruct Huck in how to be a boy. Buck teaches by displaying his own competence in adolescence. He insists that Huck stay forever and join him in not attending school, in appreciating how well he has trained his dog to fetch, in not "combing up" (109) on Sundays, and in finding ways to avoid wearing britches. Huck's apparent ignorance makes him, finally, an ideal audience for Buck's self-performance.

The relations between Buck and Huck in this episode are invidious and didactic. They are indeed disciplinary, as we now use the word following Michel Foucault, meaning "procedures of individualization," the "modes by which . . . human beings are...


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pp. 267-300
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