“Setting is a powerful vehicle of thematic concerns; in fact, it is one of the most powerful”. Using the two books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Siddhartha, by Mark Twain and Herman Hesse respectively, I can proudly state that to a very huge extent, this statement proves true for both novels and helps to carry across the author’s purpose in a clearer and more significant manner.
Firstly in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the true setting behind the novel affects how the story is brought across to readers, depicting the happenings just as they are during that time. This novel is set and written in the 1800s where it wasn’t considered immoral or erroneous to consider black people nothing more than property. People did not even consider mistreating blacks as racial, it was a social norm and everyone was okay with it. Slavery and racism did happen, and Twain did a great job in showing this ugly side of the world to the half of the world who had no idea at all.
It was a fact and still remains a fact that most people in the 1800s were racist and even the kindest of people, symbolized by the Phelps’, who was a family of God fearing, polite and kind people, still used the term nigger when they referred to their slaves. The words written and the actions and thoughts spoken aloud were very necessary to give the story its structure. Thus it can be said that there is not an inch of racism in Twain’s voice, but a mere depiction of the truth, and the theme of whites mistreating blacks can be clearly observed by readers.
Secondly, I will be discussing on the dualism of Night and Day in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Besides furnishing an appropriate backdrop for the racial conflicts in the novel, it constitutes a structural principle that is pervasive and significant.
There are several apparent reasons for Mark Twain’s choice of a nighttime setting for most of Huckleberry Finn. First, and most obviously, the plot, as well as historical accuracy, demanded it: a runaway boy and a fugitive slave had to travel under the cover of darkness and lie low during the day.
Then, too, night is indispensable to the variably Gothic and mock-Gothic moods of the novel, with its haunted structures and titillating graveyard scene; its sleeve-clutching tales of mayhem, murder, and misrule; its heroes’ hairbreadth escapes from disaster and their superstitions about snakes and witches.
Thirdly, darkness-because of its inherent associations with the unknown, the forbidden, and the irrational-helps to define Mark Twain’s metaphysics of evil as well as his sociology of evil and his concern for the “deeper psychology.”
Lastly, the nighttime setting, in juxtaposition with the day, serves to convey the fundamental doubleness, the Manicheanism, of Mark Twain’s mind and to illuminate his ambivalence on a variety of issues, especially the irksome one raised by the novel’s ending.
Underlying these four reasons is Mark Twain’s preoccupation with freedom and its limits, the principal theme of Huckleberry Finn. Here, too, the nighttime setting has a significant function, for darkness promises license to all who wish to act out the repressed desires or wicked schemes, the bright dreams or dim mysteries that are within. Whenever the light of day reveals that evil is the consequence of acting on such an inner prompting, Huck Finn comes to make a “judgment of regret,” that argues for the need to observe moral constraints. Indeed, that Huck has made a significant step toward maturity during his adventures is revealed in the famous climactic scene when he stops to anticipate the consequences of his actions, while deciding whether to turn in Jim, and thus tries to avoid having to make a judgment of regret in the future.
Next, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is set in essentially two different places: on and off the river. What occurs in each of these two settings contrasts in content and nature, bringing out different aspects of Twain’s writing. On the river, Twain emphasizes the free and easy nature of Huck, while introducing society and its conformity in Huck’s time off the river.
When Huck is traveling on the river, he can be and do whatever he wants. It’s a completely informal situation, and he doesn’t have to change to fit anyone else’s rules. He can choose what he does without having to conform to an acceptable practice, even going so far sometimes as to travel on the raft naked because that’s what’s most comfortable for him. Because of the complete freedom that the river gives Huck, it represents his individuality. It’s a place where he can be himself and not have to abide by society’s rules. He also doesn’t have to accept society’s treatment of Jim and other slaves; as long as Huck and Jim are by themselves, they can live without the ideals of civilization.
Huck’s treatment of Jim on the river is just as it would be toward any good friends, and so without the watchful eye of society, Huck lives the way his true feelings dictate. He doesn’t have to grapple with what society thinks he should do until he is faced with having to deal with its views. Before that, Huck helps Jim to run away and does only what comes naturally to him. Huck also associates freely with people without the constraints of society and its influences. The king and the duke, whom townspeople are running out of town, become Huck and Jim’s companions on their way down the river. These are people with whom Huck would normally not have associated with; if for instance he were still with the widow, she would have tried to discourage him from befriending such rascally people in her efforts to civilize him.
Huck’s experiences off the river and among society are completely different, forcing him to change his actions to become part of society. He frequently must adopt another identity, such as George Jackson, to be accepted by the people he meets, and must adapt to their ways of living. For instance, in the episode with the Grangers and the Sheperdsons, Huck becomes a part of the Granger family and adopts their customs, some of which he normally would object to as too stiff and formal. He is also exposed to the cruelty of society in this episode, witnessing the savageness of the feud between the two families. Huck must change who he is as well when he is with the king and the duke, almost involuntarily taking part in their fraud and being exposed to the dark side of human nature.
In their experiences with the deceased Peter Wilks’ family and town, Huck sees how very evil they are as they unscrupulously try to rob the girls out of everything they have, and he decides he must get rid of the king and duke the first chance he gets. While they traveled with Huck, the king and the duke consistently showed their utter lack of morals, thus further exposing Huck to the evils of man. Huck also has to find ways to explain Jim’s presence when he is on land, an example of how he must conform to society’s views. Because of the changes Huck must make and the darker sides of man that Huck must deal with when he is on land, being off the river symbolizes Huck’s search for identity. When the evil and good sides of man are shown to Huck, he is exploring human nature in a search for what’s inside of himself. As he frequently changes his name, for instance, once becoming a girl, and once Tom Sawyer, Huck is searching for himself and trying to become someone.
Huck’s experiences on the river, where he is free to do what he wants and lives in innocence, contrast greatly with his experiences on land, where he is faced with conformity to society and its cruel nature. This enhances the meaning of the work because it brings out Huck’s need to find himself. Everything that he encounters is merely a step in his journey toward finding his identity, and this, the true meaning of the novel, is played out with all of Huck’s discoveries about man and the decisions that he makes.
Now moving on to the book of Siddhartha, Herman Hesse makes use of the setting to depict the main themes in the novel. The river is the main symbol of completeness in the novel. Siddhartha and Vasudeva venerate it as a cosmic teacher, who binds the two sides of the universe together and links earth to eternity. The great river marks the center of the imaginary geography in Hesse’s novel. Siddhartha crosses it several times. At first, when he is still a wandering ascetic (samana), he learns from the river that everything passes away in an endless flow that links life to death in the cosmic cycle of reincarnations. Later on, when he returns to the river as a ferryman, he experiences the revelation that the river has simultaneously contained, since time immemorial, all the nurturing energies and “images” of the world.
Thus in conclusion, I can proudly state that through the implementations of an appropriate setting, both Mark Twain as well as Herman Hesse depict their themes in a clearer and more effective manner.