Rolling On The River: A Plot Hole That Creates Plot

Plot holes are, by and large, something more readily discussed when it comes to movies. Not only are movies generally more widespread and heavily consumed than books, it’s easier to point out something you believe to be a mistake when visual evidence is readily available. However, that’s not to say that books never get the “Plot Hole” treatment. The Harry Potter series, for example, has been pored over and picked apart to an almost obsessive degree, as has Twilight. Older novels (and ones that haven’t turned into blockbusters) don’t get this attention as often, but over the years people have pointed fingers at certain ones, in particular an interesting scene involving some silly decision-making in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the novel, the initial plan of Huck and Jim is to stop their cruise down the river at the American city of Cairo, where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet, then raft their way North and bring Jim to freedom. However, they pass the city in the night when the two of them are sleeping, so Huck formulates a new plan: the two of them will take a steamboat north from New Orleans… one of the largest slave trading cities in the country. This is, clearly, an utterly foolish and unnecessary plan on Huck’s part. So is this, as those who run to judgment claim, some kind of egregious mistake made by Twain in telling his tale? Well, maybe not.

To start, let’s think about this in terms of logic. Those who are criticizing this moment as some kind of titanic mistake are actually correct about one thing: this decision doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Or rather, it doesn’t make any rational, adult sense. If this novel was about a coldly rational human being, or even one who’s fully grown, this would be a much worse moment for the story. But what we’re talking about here is a young boy, and one who’s somewhat given to telling tall tales and what would be known today as “talking out of his own ass.” In this scenario, do we really expect Huck Finn to really sit down and puzzle out the most logical solution that takes into account the economic situation of an Antebellum New Orleans? After all, how many of us stubbornly made absurdly poor choices when we were young with the complete surety that it was not only a perfectly good decision, but the best possible one we could have made? That Huck Makes a poor choice is just about as real to his character as any choice ever could be.

In fact, that’s probably the way of reading this scene that gives the story the least credit. After all, it’s important to consider that Huckleberry is a young white boy in the Antebellum south, meaning that he’s had very little experience with or chance to consider things from another person’s point of view, especially the point of view of a black man. He’s also not exactly a good person when he first starts out on the journey with Jim, displaying a remarkable callousness toward’s Jim’s feeling and treating him rather poorly in the beginning of their acquaintance. In this set of circumstances, is it really unsurprising that Huck makes a plan that works for him, without any thought of the possible consequences that plan might have for Jim? Indeed, one could argue that a young white boy placing his own convenience above the safety and freedom of a black man by devising a plan that requires him to do as little work as possible while also putting that black man at great risk is not just the most likely course of action a young boy would take in the antebellum south, it’s also a powerful exploration of the way we can so often do violence to others just as much through carelessness and a lack of thoughtfulness as through cruel premeditation as well as a lesson that feels just as relevant today.

However, neither of these is really the reason this moment isn’t a plot hole or serious problem with the story, and to learn why we can actually turn to Alfred Hitchcock. As a famous director of thrillers, he was once asked why characters in films like his never go to the police. His response? “They don’t go to the police because it’s dull.” In other words, logic is simply not the most important consideration when it comes to telling a story. At the end of the day, no audiences, whether of a film or of a novel, are ever drawn in by tight logical and reasonable thought processes. They’re drawn in by character, theme, story, and emotion above all. The best filmmakers understand that, and Mark Twain understood it too. That’s why he forwent a logical plot progression and made a choice that would allow us to watch two engaging characters bond and interact in ways that are endlessly entertaining, while also furthering the themes of this novel. How could you ever call that a plot hole?

In short, Huck making a poor choice in this moment is a plot hole in exactly zero ways. It makes sense when it comes to his psychology, it doesn’t contradict any of the established rules of the story, and doesn’t mess with any of the important themes and discussions of the novel. Most importantly, though, it shows us something important when it comes to this endless discussion of plot holes: the difference between a contrivance and a true plot hole. Make no bones about it: this plot point is somewhat contrived. Mark Twain probably realized while writing that the story was better served if Huck and Finn were forced to go deeper into the south, and so settled on “bah, they just passed the river junction in their sleep.” However, the contrivance wasn’t unrealistic or impossible, and what unfolds from it is both natural and good for the story. In other words, Mark Twain here prioritizes the tale told over adult rational reasoning. This isn’t a plot hole. That’s a story.

Next week, we leave the water - and the earth - behind altogether, and zip off into space.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex