Huck Finn: Social Injustice Essay, Research Paper
In Mark Twain s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he develops the plot of the story alongside the adventures of Huck and Jim, the main characters, allowing him to discretely criticize society. The two main characters both run from social injustice and both are distrustful of the civilization around them.
Huck is considered an uneducated, backwards boy, constantly under pressure to conform to the “humanized” surroundings of society. Jim, a slave, is not even considered as a real person, but rather he is seen as property. As they run from civilization on the river, they ponder the social injustices forced upon them when they are on land. There are many times in the story when Twain shows these social injustices, but there is no point more evident than when Huck and Jim have to make landfall. This provides Twain with the chance to satirize the socially correct injustices that Huck and Jim encounter on land. The satire that Twain uses to expose the hypocrisy, racism, greed and injustice of society develops along with the adventures that Huck and Jim have. The ugly reflection of society we see should make us question the world we live in, and only the journey down the river provides us with that chance.
Throughout the book we see the hypocrisy of society. The first character we come across with that trait is Miss Watson. She constantly corrects Huck for his unacceptable behavior, but be does not understand why because Huck never bothers anyone about their behavior, so why should they bother him. Later when Miss Watson tries to teach Huck about Heaven, he decides against trying to go there, “…she was going to live so as to go the good place. Well, I couldn t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn t try for it” (Twain 1237). The comments made by Huck clearly show Miss Watson as a hypocrite, because the whole time she was scolding Huck for wanting to smoke, she was using snuff and she firmly believed that she would be in heaven. Twain, through the character of Huck, that disreputable, illiterate little boy was licensed to let himself go (Van Wyck Brooks 299). In Huck, Twain could take on a new persona, and he was free to slander society and its hypocrisies. Adding to this idea, Twain made Huck disreputable so that he could go out on the limb with his criticisms, and still be stealthy about his accusations. The story is full of situations where Twain repeats this theme of using Huck as a shield , to get his message across to the reader. Huck s style both because of its apparent simplicity and because of the way in which it contrasts with the hypocrisy comes to represent honesty in a dishonest world (McKay 419). Janet McKay says this in order to help the reader understand why Twain made Huck the narrator. He wants the reader to picture a simple boy who talks with laid-back jargon so that they get a sense of who Huck really is, not who he is portrayed to be by the townspeople. Twain uses this idea so that the audience can see Huck as a good guy, and not what people perceive him to be.
Another example of Twain satirizing events in the story is when Huck encounters the feuding Grangerford and Shepardson families. He describes Colonel Grangerford as, “…a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse” (Twain 1301). You can almost hear the sarcasm from Twain in Huck s description of Colonel Grangerford. Later Huck is becoming aware of the hypocrisy of the family and its feud with the Shepardsons when Huck attends church. He is amazed that while the minister preaches about brotherly love both the Grangerfords and Shepardsons are carrying weapons. Later, when the feud erupts into a gunfight, Huck sits in a tree, disgusted by the waste and cruelty of the feud, “It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree…I wished I hadn t ever come ashore that night to see such things”(Twain 1308). The tone of what Huck is saying here really drives home the point that these two feuding families are no better than outlaws. T.S Eliot said in an essay that [Huck] is the impassive observer: he does not interfere he does not judge (Eliot 330). Unlike his counterparts in his society, Huck does not get involved with others business and for the main part he keeps to himself, and lets the other people in society do the judging . This society can look at Huck and Jim and say that they are uneducated and backwards, but they first may want to take a look at who they, themselves, really are.
Although Twain mainly uses Huck as his outlet of speech against the evilness of society, there are other good examples throughout the work. Nowhere else is Twain s voice heard more clearly than as a mob gathers at the house of Colonel Sherburn to lynch him. Here we hear the full force of Twain s thoughts, through the speech of Sherburn, on the hypocrisy and cowardice of society:
The idea of you lynching anybody! It s amusing. The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a man!…The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that s what an army is- a mob; they don t fight with courage that s born in them, but with courage that s borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any man at the head of it is beneath pitifulness (Twain 1328).
Twain is saying through the Colonel that the only reason that the public is up in arms is because they have an excuse. An example I can think of were the riots in L.A. over the Rodney King verdict. All of those people may have had the right to be upset but they did not have the right to take justice into their own hands. The mob is feeding off of the aggression of the whole group, and not out of pure courage. Twain reacted, through Sherburn, by setting the group straight about what the South is really about and they all left the scene.
Huck and Jim s journey begins as Huck fights within himself about turning Jim over to the authorities. Finally he decides not to turn Jim in. This is a monumental decision for Huck to make, even though he makes it on the spot. Everything his culture in the South had taught him, he was now going against, and this did not seem to sit well with his conscience. This is not just a boy running away from home. It is someone who has decided to turn his back on everything “home” stands for, even one of its most cherished beliefs. In this way Twain also allows to let us leave our thoughts of bigotry behind also and start to see Jim for who he really is, a man. Eliot also wrote that, Huck in fact would be incomplete without Jim Huck is the passive observer Jim is the submissive sufferer (Eliot 331). Eliot is saying that even though Huck was skeptical about Jim at first, they were destined to become friends and partners. Huck was the one that stood back and was constantly questioning himself (conscience), while Jim was sure of himself but because he was black he often suffered emotionally and physically. Huck becomes very caring and protective for Jim, this reaches a climax when Huck saves Jim from two slave catchers by tricking them to think Jim is Huck s small pox ridden father. The dialogue between Huck and Jim also illustrates that Jim is more than someone s property. He is a human being with feelings, and hopes for a better future. He is not some ignorant, uncaring sub-human, but plainly the opposite. Twain does not necessarily come out and say that slavery is evil, that is far above Huck s understanding, but he gives us the information needed to make that decision for ourselves.
It is somewhat surprising that Huck s traveling companion is Jim. As anti-society that Huck is, you would think that he would have no reservations about helping Jim. But Huck has feelings that slavery is correct so we can see the ignorance of racial bigotry. Huck gets this feeling from the Old South s belief system that has been instilled into his life; society has set his moral agenda. James Cox describes in, Mark Twain: The Fact of Humor, the social conscience, represented in the book by slaveholding society of the Old South, is easily seen and exposed. It is false conscience (Cox 176). Mr. Cox is saying that Huck feels pressure by society to conform to what they say is right. He feels this way because of the culture he lives in has corrupted what he truly feels inside. His society by being cheats, liars, and gun-wielding outlaws is worse than Huck will ever be, yet they regard him as disreputable.
Huck and Jim s adventures give us a chance to examine the society they live in. It also gives us a chance to examine ourselves as well as the society today. The story is over a hundred years old, but many of the social stereotypes then, sadly, pertain to our society now. There are more examples of human failings in this book, the trickery and cheating of the King and Duke, the lack of caring by the townspeople for Boggs, the naivet of the Wilks sisters and the lack of common sense in Tom Sawyer. There is cruelty, greed, murder, trickery, hypocrisy, racism, and a general lack of morality, all the ingredients of society. Huck in describing such scenes he speaks as a moral man viewing an immoral society (Smith 76). Henry Smith, an essayist in Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Adventures of Huck Finn, says this because Huck usually stands back as an observer when chaos is all around him. An example of this would be when the Grangerfords and the Shepardsons were gun-fighting, Huck hid in a tree and was absolutely disgusted at what he saw. Twain is showing the reader that Huck is not nearly as bad as others in the story, yet he still maintains the bad reputation. After most scenes such as this one Jim and Huck try to find the one thing they can only find on the river, freedom, but a person can only stay on the river for so long, and so you have to go on land to face the injustices of society. Quite a contrast, the freedom of being without authority, being able to think for yourself, running right next to the constraints made upon you by society. The very fact that Jim and Huck go to the river to find peace, and freedom relates to me as the reader that these are not the characters most of their society makes them out to be.
Somewhere deep within the story Twain is making a powerful statement, a wish for all humanity, that we can be brave enough to break with what others assume is correct and just, and make decisions for ourselves and the ability to stand on our own and do something about it. I believe that Delaney Ferguson in Huck Finn Aborning wraps up what I tried to portray in this essay, For here [in this story], if Mark Twain had anymore to say about the damned human race that he admitted to print, is where he would have said it (Ferguson 310). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a release for Mark Twain and in my estimation one of the most classic pieces of literature ever written.
Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Eliot, T.S. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huck Finn. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice Hall, 1968.
Ferguson, Delaney. Huck Finn Aborning. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: An Authoritative Text: Backgrounds and Sources Criticism. New York, NY. W.W. Norton & Co., 1977.
McMichael, George, et. al. Concise Anthology of American Literature. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Prentice Hall, 1998.
Smith, Henry. Critical Essays on Mark Twain: 1910- 1980. Boston, MA. G.K. Hall & Co., 1983.