Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is recognized as one of the greatest novels in the United States and the most frequently read classic book in American schools (Levy 15). It depicts American society in the middle of the nineteenth century, showing its low and middle class, and discussing the problem of slavery. This paper studies how Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Jim represent different segments of “civilized” American society of that time.
Segments of American Society Represented by Tom, Huck, and Jim
To understand how Twain’s characters reflect nineteenth-century America, one needs to take a look at American society and its struggles of that time. Some of the main features of the nineteenth century were, on the one hand, anti-slavery movements and, on the other hand, pro-slavery supporters’ activities (Rogalo 2). In his novel, Twain introduced several acute topics relevant to pre-war America. Some of them are slavery, rebellion, and violence against children. The author created his characters according to what problems of different segments of American society he wanted to discuss. Twain used children as his main characters because their perspectives are different from adults’ points of view and are not influenced by social rules and regulations. His work is highly satirical; slavery and violence are its primary targets.
How Huckleberry Finn Represents the Lower Levels of Society
Huckleberry Finn represents the lowest levels of white American society. However, he does not show features of “mainstream” society the way Tom does. Huck comes from a troubled family; social values and religious views are not rooted in him. His voyage down the river makes him reflect on the things he had learned from society and question them. In the novel, Huck faces a moral dilemma because, on the one hand, Jim considers him his only friend, but, on the other hand, society’s rules do not allow him to help a slave. His character represents one of the types of upbringing in the pre-war period. He does not know how to respect rules, he cannot distinguish between right and wrong and ignores societal norms. Huckleberry enjoys practical and simple things, like spending time by the river; he has a rational mind. The boy can relate to social problems because his life is also difficult. This trait can be traced in his friendship with Jim when Huck decides to help him, knowing that it is illegal, but having compassion for the runaway slave. Huckleberry’s character represents the lowest segment of American society, disclosing its struggles and the way the norms of nineteenth-century America shaped people’s personalities.
How Jim’s Character Reflects American Society
In the novel, Jim represents slavery that was an acute problem of American society in the nineteenth century. People’s attitude towards slaves is reflected in the way Huck and Tom interact with the man. At first, even his closest friend, Huckleberry, does not realize that Jim is a human being just as he is. Racist tendencies and white supremacy within the society are shown in the way Huck and Tom refer to the man, approvingly calling him white inside because he is as intelligent as they are. Jim shows a high level of faith and trust in his friends. The society had taught him to place others’ interests before his own, and he cannot distance himself from it, even being a free man. Jim is ready to risk his life for his friends. He is loyal and compassionate, which discloses him as a heroic character. Jim’s example shows the reader that regardless of struggles, people of color took their circumstances with dignity and did not want to be violent in response to the sufferings they were exposed to.
Tom Sawyer as the Middle-Class Level of Society
Tom represents the middle-class segment of society. He was raised in comfort, and his character is formed by a society dominated by violence and racial inequality (Castilho 64). Tom has everything he wants; his family is supportive and provides him with home and access to proper education. His personality is shaped by what he had learned from the society, as well as books. The boy is manipulative and socially insensitive; many of his actions are driven by his narcissism and selfishness. He knows that Jim is a free man, but decides to conceal this fact. Instead, the boy uses the former slave’s position for his interest. The boy also thinks that he comes from the more intelligent level of society than his friends do. He says to Huck that “Jim is a nigger and would not understand the reasons for it”, when he wants to hurt Jim (Twain 300). It proves that Tom represents the segment of society that is brutal, racist and tolerant of other people’s discomfort (Rogalo 20).
Nineteenth-century America had a distinct social division. In his novel, Twain depicts the segments of the society through three different characters. The author intends to show the way social norms shaped people’s personalities. The way his characters interact with each other reveals the problems of pre-war America, some of which are violence, slavery, and racism. Twain’s work is a significant contribution to the knowledge of the American society of that time.
Castilho, Maria Teresa. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Looking for “America.” Spaces of Utopia, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013, pp. 61-67.
Levy, Andrew. Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
Rogalo, Morena. The Influence of Social Factors on Characterization: Comparison of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Dissertation, Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek, 2014.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Chatto & Windus, 1884.