Dunlap High School
Instructor: Chris Friedman
Huck Finn v. Player Piano-Theme
Is it not normal that one might be looking forward to a day off from work, lay back, and enjoy some free time. Are there not some people so lazy that they will do anything to avoid work? In Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he has the main character, Huckleberry, be ready to give up work for some free time. What might it be like if a person is given as much free time as he/she can have and paying them at the same time? Some might refer to it as living in heaven, but Kurt Vonnegut may respond to this question differently. In fact, he discusses this matter in his novel Player Piano. The themes of the two novels are in a way both similar, and different since the theme of the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deals with being free from work, while the theme of the novel Player Piano deals with being willing to do work.
Freedom, a theme of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, can mean seeking happiness, as can the desire to be needed, a theme of Player Piano. Huckleberry Finn, or Huck, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, lives with the widow Douglas who puts strict disciplines on Huck. He, being an “orphan”, wishes to get away from the strict rulings and be free. He mentions going and living in a place that the widow’s sister considers bad so he can be liberated from such rulings: “then she told me all about the bad place, and I said I whished I was there…all I wanted was a change.” Huckleberry wishes to go somewhere he can be free, in other words, he is seeking happiness. Later in the novel, Huck travels with Jim, a runaway slave, on a raft down the Mississippi. The two go to many places and discover new things. However, of all places, they conclude that they can be completely free on the raft: “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” Unlike any other places, Huck and Jim can be themselves in the raft and they can also do anything they want without any sort of fear: they are perfectly happy on the raft. It is in the future that the novel Player Piano takes place. In this novel, the world, especially America, has developed to such extant that machines have taken over most of the professions and jobs that people once had done. And the reason for this is that machines are much more effective for the economy than humans ever were: better results at lower cost. Even though as a result most people are jobless, the effectiveness of the advanced technologies allows no one to suffer any living expanses. Engineers in the novel state that citizens “have a social insurance package that paid all of…medical bills…dentist bills, and provided for food, housing, clothes, and pocket money in…old age.” So it is not that the lack of jobs threats the lives of the citizens. It is however, causing people to feel useless. A barber in the novel comments on this fact: “And, oh, I guess machines have made things a lot better…though there’s plenty who say they haven’t, and I can see what they mean, all right. It does seem like the machines took all the good jobs, where a man could be true to himself and false to nobody else.” The barber is saying that the more effective machines have taken over jobs that people once loved. People had enjoyed doing their jobs, they felt needed, useful. But now, even though they are at a better condition, people feel useless, and woeful. “Men, by their nature, seemingly, cannot be happy unless engaged in enterprises that make them feel useful.” It can be concluded that many of the citizens are longing to be needed, which is apparently the key to their happiness in the current situation. Both the themes for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, freedom, and for Player Piano, the desire to feel useful, express the seeking for happiness.
The theme of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn expresses the desire to get away from work while the theme of Player Piano shows the desire to do work. Huckleberry Finn in the novel is taken away by his brutal and drunk father and kept in a secret place so that the widow cannot take back Huck. Here is what Huck states about this experience:
I was used to being where I was, and liked it | It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books nor study. Two months or more run along, and my clothes got to be all rags and dirt, and I didn’t see how I’d ever got to like it so well at the widow’s, where you had to wash, and eat on a plate and comb up, and go to bed and get up regular, and be forever bothering over a book.
It is clear from the quote that Huck is happy to be free from the widow for he is free from all the jobs that he has to do and all the strict regulations he has to follow. In the novel Player Piano, people wish to feel useful, from which its theme came to be. By contrast to the theme freedom, this theme expresses the wish to be needed and do work. The following excerpt from the novel shows a foreigner interviewing an average man and his wife Wanda, about the daily life. It is important to recall that the setting of the story takes place in the future where machines have taken over most professions and jobs, and also that most citizens now feel useless.
‘The Shah would like to know why she has to do everything so quickly—this in a matter of seconds, that in a matter of seconds. What is it she is in such a hurry to get at? What is it she has to do, that she mustn’t waste any time on these things?’…‘Live! Get a little fun out of life’ ‘I see,…And how is it you live and get so much fun out of life?’…Wanda blushed…‘Oh, television’ she murmured…the ultrasonic washer…out of commission…been doing the washing in a tub for a month now…Oh, I don’t mind…Really, I like doin’ ’em that way. It’s kind of a relief…Gives me something to do.’
In this excerpt, the foreigner questions why is it that the machines need to do every house chores so quickly. Though the answer to the question is that machines can do everything so one can have all the free time needed to enjoy life, Wanda cannot really find anything to do but watch television during these free times. She thus explains that she likes the fact that she is recently dong the dishes manually because the ultrasonic washer is not working. While the theme freedom from The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn shows one’s desire to be free from work, the theme of Player Piano shows one’s desperate will to do work.
The two novels have a theme that compares and contrasts with each other. The theme of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn relates to the fact people want to be free from things they do not like, and the theme of Player Piano deals with the fact that people want to feel useful and do work again. While both themes have character seek happiness, one is having the characters avoid work, while the other is having the characters long for work.