“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain: Injustice of Slavery and Racism

Introduction

The American Civil War that ended in 1865 did not bring about the expected quick and complete eradication of racism and slavery. Fifteen years later the Reconstruction, specially intended to reconstruct the country, introduce and merge blacks into American society, did not make much headway. Although Mark Twain’s novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was written 4 years after the Reconstruction, it is based on a period several years earlier, when slavery still prominently existed.

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Considering the on-the-ground situation that existed in 1884 vis-à-vis racism, the period was not much different as compared to the background of Twain’s novel (Martin et al.). By portraying the relationship between a young white boy {Huck} and a black slave {Jim} – a relationship that sees the racially prejudiced suspicion of the former dissolve and replaced by a warm friendship with the black slave – Twain does well to depict the gross injustice of slavery and racism.

Main text

Huck is a 15-year old boy who has originated from the lowest rungs of white American society. Although he is reasonably well informed about the existing societal norms, his poor background does not permit much schooling or religious training {he is not overly enthusiastic about religion, often resorting to derisive comments such as dubbing prayer before meals as “grumbling over the victuals” (Twain, 50)}.

However, his poor background brings about constant conflicts with white society, causing him to view societal norms with suspicion. It is this instinctive distrust of societal traditions that leads Huck into a relationship with Jim. While white society’s rules indicate Jim is the property of Miss Watson, such a possession right seems neither logical nor fair to Huck (Martin et al.). It is this primary perception that becomes greatly instrumental in changing Huck’s impression of Jim from someone who is just a slave to a person who is his genuine friend.

Huck first encounters Jim when Tom and he are stealthily passing through Miss Watson’s garden. “Miss Watson’s big nigger Jim” (Twain 53) emerges to investigate suspicious sounds made by Huck tripping over a root; the boys however manage to escape without detection. The first stage in the evolution of Jim from just a slave to a genuine friend in the eyes of Huck occurs when the two meet on Jackson Island. Both are in hiding.

Huck is hiding from his cruel father, having cleverly succeeded in convincing everyone he has been murdered. Jim explains he ran away on overhearing Miss Watson’s plans to sell him for $ 800 to a slave trader bent on separating Jim from his family and taking him to faraway New Orleans. At this stage, although Huck considers Jim a slave, he does not possess a prudish mentality that would normally cause any other white person to distance himself from the black. Moreover, they are in a unique situation where they are both in isolation, both hiding from society and have no one else but the other to interact with.

The first stage of their relationship is steeped with lively interaction. Their first topic of conversation is about Jim’s decidedly bad luck in investments due to his high susceptibility to scams. The next talk about superstitions and Huck is pleasantly surprised to note the black man is particularly articulate on the subject (Martin et al.). Jim’s favorite superstition is that a hirsute torso such as his would one day bring him wealth {“Ef you’s got hairy arms en a hairy breas,’ it’s a sign dat you’s a-gwyne to be rich” (Twain, 99)}. Another superstition explained by Jim is that handling a snake’s shed skin brings “the worst of bad luck” (Twain, 106).

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The second stage of their relationship takes place as they settle down comfortably and contentedly in Jackson Island {“a heavy-timbered” location that stood “out of the middle of the river” (Twain, 88)}. After enduring a society characterized by hypocrisy and injustice, Jackson Island appears to be the proverbial Garden of Eden to Huck and Jim, a peaceful place where they can smoke a pipe in calm leisure while idly gazing at the serene river, filling their bellies with the abundantly available wild berries and catfish {“I catched a good big catfish, and Jim cleaned him with his knife, and fried him” (Twain, 95)}, and relaxing {“We lolled on the grass” (Twain, 95)}.

Their camaraderie intensifies as they set up a relatively safer dwelling place in a big cave located in the center of Jackson Island, adding to it items they confiscate from a washed-out house that comes their way during a river flood. Jim prevents Huck from seeing the face of the murdered man in the washed-out house {it was Huck’s father}, feeling it would sadden the boy and add to his already existing burden of being a runaway from society.

This reveals Jim’s protective attitude towards Huck, a sign of their increasingly close relationship. Huck resorts to a boyish prank, placing a dead rattlesnake nearby where Jim sleeps. The joke backfires when the snake’s mate comes along and bites Jim (Twain, 107); Jim luckily recovers soon from the bite, much to the relief of Huck. During their overall stay on Jackson Island, Huck and Jim form a sort of substitute family in a substitute place away from the reach of an oppressive society that has done nothing but harm to them (Martin et al.).

The third stage of their relationship begins when Huck forces Jim to escape with him on a raft when he learns of Loftus’ plans to search the island for a suspected runaway slave (Twain, 112). They build a wigwam on the raft and stealthily row downriver, taking care to conceal themselves during daytime and travel only during nights. Their raft turns into a shelter steeped in brotherhood and equality that keeps them safe from an ever-encroaching society.

They support each other well, obtaining food by buying or hunting while sometimes resorting to robbery. They share pleasant moments exploring literary treasures in books that they appropriate from the robbers’ raid of Walter Scott. Jim is enthralled to hear Huck read stories of famous kings like Solomon and the Dauphin {son of French king Louis XVI}.

Huck’s reading activities frequently end in light bantering arguments with Huck humorously giving up hopes of convincing a skeptical Jim about matters like the French do not speak English, and that the threat of King Solomon to cut a child in half was not a foolish way to solve a dispute “’bout a whole child wid a half a chile” (Twain, 134), but the clever ploy of a wise man to identify the guilty party. Jim never tries to advise Huck even though he recognizes the latter’s foolhardiness in several actions, because of an underlying fear that Huck, being a white, can easily turn him into the authorities and get a substantial reward.

To his credit, such a thought never enters the mind of Huck as not only was deviousness absent in his character but by that time he had developed a genuine affection for his black companion. The extent of Huck’s affection for Jim is revealed as they near the Ohio River. While taking a ride in the canoe, Huck loses his bearings in the dense fog, finally managing to get back to the raft and Jim after a long time. While Jim shows great relief at their reunion, Huck jokes with him, saying he {Jim} was only dreaming that Huck was lost. When Jim rightly becomes indignant at being made the butt of a joke after all the time he spent worrying about the white boy, Huck genuinely regrets his foolishness, relents at once, and apologizes to Jim (Martin et al.).

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The fourth stage in their relationship begins as their raft nears Cairo on the Ohio River. A group of white men suddenly materialize and demand to search the raft, suspecting it of concealing runaway slaves. Huck quickly and cleverly spins a lie, nonchalantly saying they are welcome to search the raft as it only contained his family members who were stricken by smallpox. As his lie works and the men hurriedly depart, Huck experiences two feelings.

First, he realizes he did wrong by deliberately hiding Jim from the white men. Secondly, he realizes he would have felt very guilty had he given Jim up. The greater intensity of the second feeling makes him resolve never to trust the suspicious conventional ‘seemingly moral’ facts he has learned from white society, but follow the dictates of his conscience and “always do whichever come handiest at the time” (Twain, 149).

His new resolve is greatly strengthened when he hears Jim’s heartfelt thankful remark that Huck is not only his only friend but the only white person who has ever kept his word to him, broadly implying Huck perceives him as a human being and not a slave. After Huck’s brief but eventful interlude with the Grangerfords, he is delighted to be reunited with Jim and they resume their travel downriver in the raft (Martin et al.).

The fifth stage in their relationship occurs when they encounter two con artists, the duke, and the dauphin. Recognizing them for what they are {a runaway slave and a runaway slave protector}, the conmen indulge in cruel taunting, even trying to use their predicament to their benefit by drawing up a fictitious leaflet {“the reading was all about Jim, and just described him to a dot” }offering a reward of $ 200 for Jim (Twain, 195).

Although Huck soon recognizes the two con artists as fakes, he does not reveal this to Jim. He goes along with the two rogues so that Jim, in his new role as captured runaway slave safeguarded by the prominent leaflet, can accompany them without drawing undue suspicion. After the 3 nightly performances of the Royal Nonesuch plays, Jim is struck by a bout of homesickness whereby he resorts to “moaning and mourning” (Twain, 218) for his estranged family.

In a sudden outburst of frankness, Jim sadly tells Huck about an incident when he beat his daughter although she did not merit that punishment – something that still has the power to make him feel guilty and ashamed. The two incidents spawn mixed feelings in Huck. When he hears Jim loudly pining for his family, he is still not convinced that blacks can naturally be as capable as whites of close familial ties. But Jim’s emotional outburst about his family not only dispels that doubt in Huck’s mind but also adds a fresh dimension of humanity to Jim’s character. At this point, Huck concludes that Jim {and blacks} are no different from whites in any aspect (Martin et al.).

The friendly relationship which has already been established between Huck and Jim is confronted by the ruthlessness of the duke and dauphin in the sixth stage. Hopelessly exposed by the Wilks fiasco {the con artists, posing as Wilks family members, are exposed as fakes when the real Wilks brothers – Peter and Harvey – show up (Twain, 263)}, the duke and dauphin turn on Huck and Jim. When Huck is away, the rogues sell Jim as a captured runaway slave to a farmer called Silas Phelps. Huck is extremely upset. He realizes he cares too much for his newfound black friend to leave him in his predicament.

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The dictates of his conscience, coupled with the fond memories of the close friendship forged with Jim {he constantly visualizes Jim: “And I see Jim before me” (Twain, 283)} makes him determined to undertake any action that can save the black man, no matter how great a moral and physical price he {Huck} would be called upon to pay. By arriving at this decision, even though he does not realize it, Huck links his destiny with that of his black friend, in effect acknowledging that both their lives – one black and one white – are equally important (Martin et al.). Huck teams up with his old friend Tom Sawyer to rescue Jim just as a group of white farmers attacks the shed in which Jim is imprisoned.

In the process, Tom sustains a bullet wound in the leg. Jim immediately understands the gravity of the situation and urges Huck to summon a doctor while he {Jim} stayed behind to look after Tom. His unselfish gesture that would certainly end in his capture serves to exacerbate the already high esteem Huck has for Jim, leading him to praise the black man – “I knowed he was white inside” (Twain, 349). When the doctor’s treatment is found to be insufficient, Jim gives himself up to save Tom, helping the doctor carry the wounded boy into the Phelps house for proper medical care, thereby effectively sacrificing his freedom to help save the life of a white boy (Martin et al.).

This act is the final manifestation of Jim’s character that reinforces Huck’s earlier conviction that Jim is as good as any human being, there is nothing whatsoever lacking in him, and he {Huck} is happy and privileged to have developed a strong bond of friendship with such a man.

The story ends on a happy note with Jim being declared a free man on the strength of the will be written by his owner Miss Watson before she died two months ago (“She set him free in her will” (Twain, 365)}. While Jim was in reality a free man the entire time, all the ordeals that he and Huck experienced were unnecessary (Martin et al.). However, their joint experience and the close relationship that developed between them made Huck {representing the white race}recognize and appreciate the genuine character and humane feelings that exist in Jim {representing the blacks} that does not differentiate them at all from one another in any aspect.

Summary

Twain does well to illustrate that, as life is riddled with false perceptions and ambiguous situations, the best way to prevail is to follow one’s conscience. By publishing his novel two decades after the American Civil War, Twain implies that while black Americans were deemed to be technically free at that time, in reality, they continued being chained in a society that was unwilling to accept their rightful and equal stature as individuals. As the novel draws to a close, the author masterfully moves beyond slavery to matters of a wider scope – morality, and race, both of which have always posed more questions than answers (Martin et al.).

While it drew a fair amount of criticism for its ‘racist’ content, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has been widely acknowledged by scholars and critics as arguably the greatest work of American art. The greatest tribute to it is undoubtedly the sage description by renowned author Earnest Hemmingway as the “one book” that has spawned “all modern American literature” (Virginia.edu).

References

“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Virginia edu. (N.d). 2007. Web.

Martin, Melissa and Stephanie. “Sparknote on ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’” Sparknotes.com. 2007. Web.

Twain, Mark. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” U.K: Penguin Books. 2003.

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