Essay, Research Paper
In recent years, there has been increasing discussion of the seemingly racist ideas expressed by Mark Twain in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . In some extreme cases, the novel has even been banned by public school systems and censored by public libraries. The basis for these censorship campaigns has been the depiction of Jim, a black slave. Before one begins to censor a novel, it is important to separate the ideas of the author from the ideas’ of his characters. It is also important not to take a novel at face value and to “read between the lines” in order to capture the underlying themes. If one were to truly look for the underlying themes in Twain s writing, he would realize that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not racist and is even anti-slavery.
On a superficial level, Huckleberry Finn might appear to be racist. The first time the reader meets Jim, he is given a very negative description of him. The reader is told that Jim is illiterate, childlike, not very bright, and extremely superstitious. However, it is important not to lose sight of who is giving this description and of whom it is being given. Although Huck is not a racist child, extremely racist individuals who have raised him even if only subconsciously, ingrained some feelings of bigotry into his mind. It is also important to remember that this description, although it is quite saddening, was probably accurate. Jim and the millions of other slaves in the South were not permitted any formal education, were never allowed any independent thought, and were constantly mistreated and abused. Twain is merely portraying by way of Jim, a very realistic slave raised in the South during that time period. To say that Twain is racist because of his desire for historical accuracy is absurd.
Despite the few incidents in which Jim’s description might be misconstrued as racist, there are many points in the novel where Twain voices his extreme opposition to the slave trade and racism through Huck. When Huck first meets Jim on the island, he makes a monumental decision not to turn Jim in. Two opposing forces confront him: the force of society and the force of friendship. Huck enters into a crisis of conscience and decides to keep Jim s secret to himself. In chapter six, Huck’s father fervently objects to the governments granting of suffrage to an educated black professor. Twain wants the reader to see the absurdity in this statement. Huck’s father believes that he is superior to this black professor simply because of the color of his skin. Huck s father says, when they told me there was a State in this country where they d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I ll never vote again. (223). He then goes on to say that the government has got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take ahold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger (223). Jim Finn s depiction of a black slave was one that many had in the time period given. Twain does, however portray Jim Finn as a foolish drunkard. This takes all verifiability away from his asinine statements of blacks. In Chapter 15, the reader is told of an incident that contradicts the original “childlike” description of Jim. The reader is presented with a very caring and father-like Jim who becomes very worried when he loses his best friend Huck in a deep fog. Twain is pointing out the connection that has been made between Huck and Jim, a connection that does not exist between a man and his property. Jim often refers to Huck as honey, an endearing term one only uses for a person he cares about. As the novel progresses, Jim and Huck s bond becomes only stronger and such an important part of both of their lives.
Many times throughout the novel, Huck comes very close to rationalizing Jim’s slavery. However, he is never able to see a reason why this man, who has become one of his only friends, should be a slave. Through this internal struggle, Twain expresses his opinions of the senselessness of slavery and the importance of following one’s personal conscience before the laws of society. Huck does not treat Jim as most whites do. Huck looks at Jim as a friend, and by the end of their journey, disagrees with society’s notion that blacks are inferior. There are two main examples of this in the story. The first one is where Huck is disgusted by Jim’s plans to steal his own children, who are “someone else’s property.” While Huck is still racist here, Twain has written the scene in a way that ridicules the notion that someone’s children can actually be the property of a stranger because the father is black. The second example is where Huck is trying to decide on whether or not he should tell Jim’s whereabouts, which would return Jim to slavery. After debating to himself, he tears up his letter to tell Miss Watson where Jim is and says to himself, All right, then, I ll go to hell. (328). This is Twain making a mockery of Southern values once again, that it is a sin to be kind to a black person and to aid him in his escape. As if God would ever look down upon a person for helping a fellow man just because of his skin color. By the end of the novel, Huck and the reader have come to understand that Jim is not someone’s property nor an inferior man, but an equal.
Throughout the novel, society’s voice is heard through Huck. The racist and hateful contempt that existed at the time is at many times present. But, it is vital for the reader to recognize these ideas as society’s and to recognize that Twain throughout the novel disputes these ideas. Twain brings out into the open the ugliness of society and causes the reader to challenge the original description of Jim. In his subtle manner, he creates not an apology for slavery, but a challenge to it.