The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a novel about a boy and a runaway slave’s quest for freedom. Although these two continue their journey together, their view of freedom is each separate. While Huck Finn is searching for freedom from society, Jim joins him in his own search for freedom from slavery. Within this paper I would like to take a look at some of the racial controversy behind this novel. I will attempt to uncover the racism behind and within the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by looking to the language and profanity, comedic events, and the relationship between Huck and Jim while considering Guerin’s formalistic approach to literature.
One perceived notion of the book is that the profanity within it is too racist to be taken seriously within the classroom. The profanity within the book adheres to the common misconception that Mark Twain, himself, is racist. He uses the word “nigger” 213 times within the book itself (Carey-Webb 24), although his use of the word is most denotative of people with dark skin. Twain projects the view of slaves by other characters as lower than human life forms compared with the general white society. Twain is writing about a time when slavery was a common practice and those were the collective views of the southern white public. The use of the word is necessary because it puts the reader into the correct time frame: 30 years before Emancipation. This makes the setting more historically accurate.
The story takes place in Missouri in the 1840s when the south was an Abolitionist society. It is only natural for the voices of his characters to have a southern drawl and ungrammatical vernacular voice (Smith). “Although the antebellum slave narratives had
vanished from general attention before Huckleberry Finn was written, Twain was well acquainted with them,” (Mensh 36). Twain studied and knew these slave narratives before he started writing his novel. He knew the slaves’ “common languages” which helped him develop his characters’ voices. Twain’s father was a slave trader several times while he grew up in Missouri (Smith). This does not state that he, himself, is a racist man, but supports the notion that he is qualified to write about such issues because he grew up within the kind of society he has written about. He heard stories from the slaves he grew up with and learned from them. The characters’ different dialects and the stories and superstitions that Jim tells were created in part from his upbringing. Twain had a rich familiarity and strong interest in the subject of slavery.
Since slavery was abolished in 1865, more than 140 years ago, many generations have passed that dealt with slavery firsthand. The time period is not common knowledge to teachers and they may have difficulty teaching from this text. The concerns of the language and profanity within the novel led to the removal of the text from some schools. In 1995 at Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the “African American students felt too ashamed to speak up,” (Schulten 11) because they were embarrassed and humiliated by the use of the word “nigger” during class and the depiction of black characters within the text. After much discussion of controversy over the following year it was reinstated, but this left teachers nervous about how to teach it to students as to not offend. Our schools tend to view this novel as difficult to teach because of the contents, but Twain’s approach to society is correct for the time period. “The novel remains the only one in common ‘canon’ to treat slavery, to represent a black dialect, and to have a significant role for an African American,” (Carey-Webb 23). The readers come to know Jim’s quest for freedom and view his relationship with Huck as positive. Jim and Huck are placed in this world where slavery is a common practice, a normal way of life and classrooms tend to misinterpret this when only taking the novel at face value.
Taking a look at the humor in this novel, it is suggested that Twain is teasing African American slaves. For example, Huck and Jim begin to go north along the Mississippi River to the free territory and end up turning around and traveling south instead. Why would a slave run even further south? “To understand Mark Twain’s use of humor is, at least partly, to put oneself in tune with the early frontier and western humor of America,” (Covici 3). One must refer to history to find out what was part of normal, everyday life for the people of the Abolitionist South while also looking to other novels or texts written during that time period.
One example of humor in the text is when Aunt Sally hears of a steamboat explosion and asks if anyone was hurt. The answer she received back was that a “nigger” was killed. She calmly replies that it was lucky that no one got hurt while ignoring the fact that an African American is a human. “Twain is using this casual dialogue ironically, as a way to underscore the chilling truth about the old south, that it was a society where perfectly “nice” people didn’t consider the death of a black person worth their notice,” (Salwen). Twain’s white characters are all bluntly racist in this novel. He is challenging the reader to see his humor in how the south used to be before slavery ended. He grew up with a society similar to this. He takes a firm, anti-racist stand in this novel and uses his humor to ridicule that society.
Another example in Chapter Two Tom hangs Jim’s hat on a tree while he’s sleeping. Jim proceeds to tell other slaves about having been hexed by witch during his sleep. As he continues telling his story it soon grows into a tall tale and he becomes a celebrity for it among other slaves. Twain’s humor in this is to show that the reader needs “to challenge our habit of seeing stereotypes,” (Smith 8). The reader views Jim as formally uneducated and thus, in turn, only views the other formally uneducated slaves to believe in such things as witchcraft because Tom was the culprit in the first place. The reader has to decide for themselves if they choose to believe that Jim believes in his own superstitions or not. This lack of serious qualities is the humor in his character. But “Jim is for the most part more articulate: he directly argues for the elimination of slavery,” (Carey-Webb 26). As the reader gets to know Jim’s character they see that he has been educated to some degree by the society in which he lives. Jim has knowledge enough to refuse his position of a slave and run away. When getting to know Jim the “reader experiences sensations of humor and sorrow,” (Mandia 31). Readers laugh at the continuous superstitious attitude he portrays throughout the novel and then can sympathize for the cruelty he receives from his surrounding society for his status as a slave.
When viewing the relationship between Jim and Huck, one will notice that they are not much different besides the color of their skin. Society views them both as outcasts; Jim because he is black and Huck because he is part of the lowest levels of white society. “[Jim] is the moral center of the book, a man of courage and nobility, who risks his freedom — risks his life — for the sake of his friend Huck,” (Salwen). Jim has more at stake than Huck ever will because of his skin color. Since Huck is a white citizen, he has more of a chance to fit in. This is why Miss Watson feels the need to civilize him and incorporate his being into normal white society.
Huck and Jim are both on a quest for freedom throughout the novel. Jim is searching for freedom from slavery while Huck is searching for freedom from civilized society. Jim’s character is viewed as good, deeply-loving, and anxious for freedom. Huck ignores the law in that he is legally obligated to turn in Jim because he is a runaway. He knows that if they were caught that there would be death consequences, yet he helps Jim anyways. “Huck is too innocent and ignorant to understand what’s wrong with his society and what’s right about his own transgressive behavior,” (Schulten 32). He fights for what is morally correct and defies the norms of the society; a society that he wants nothing to do with. This may be another humorous anecdote because Huck actually has a chance in his lifetime to change his status in society as poor. Miss Watson offers him this chance and he directly refuses it because he is determined to do as he pleases.
Huck and Jim’s relationship grows as they travel down the river. One example is when Jim stays up all night to keep watch so that Huck can get some sleep. He deprives himself of sleep to be able to protect Huck. While they are on Jackson’s Island, Jim also cooks and creates shelter for Huck. Huck’s oath to Jim about keeping his hideout on the island a secret is the foundation of their friendship. Another example is when a boat passes them along the river, Jim hides, and Huck is quick to declare that Jim is white to the passersby so they don’t come closer. He knows he has to shield Jim’s identity to keep them from being caught. Jim views Huck as a trustworthy companion.
Jim becomes not only a friend to Huck but a father-figure as well. This is apparent when Jim doesn’t tell Huck that the man lying dead on the floor of the house is his father. He is shielding Huck from the shocking site and shows protective qualities in their blooming relationship. Twain promotes a message of unconditional love between these two characters because of the situations they have gotten themselves into and must overcome them to attain their goals. Instinct proves to have a better ending than doing as society demands.
A reader must understand many things about Mark Twain before being skeptical towards anything in his text. Twain was a man who was clearly against slavery when the world he lived in was abolitionist. This explains the massive amount of racism because this was what he was accustomed to. Twain, obviously, is ironic and satiric in many ways. Huck “must not be allowed to know more than a young boy such as he would know,” (Guerin 88). Huck is consistently reporting naïve information that must be maturely interpreted by the reader. Twain gives us this unreliable narrator and forces the reader to distinguish for himself the real meanings behind the text. As for the relationship between Jim and Huck, Twain shows two sides of himself. Jim is for humanity and always accepting major responsibilities whenever necessary. He was willing to risk his life when Tom was seriously injured towards the end. Twain portrays Huck as a childish version of himself. This way the reader can view Twain’s anti-racist position in society and how he chooses to follow his heart rather than society. Huck has more of Twain’s childhood qualities in that he grew up in a time of slavery whereas Jim’s character really shows that Twain grew up and has invested himself in humanity. Twain teaches his audience that there is no difference between black and white besides color and that humor is always a relevant part to any story.
Covici, Pascal. Mark Twain’s Humor: the Image of a World. Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1962.
Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Guerin, Wilfred L. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Mandia, Patricia M. Comedic Pathos: Black Humor in Twain’s Fiction. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc, 1991.
Mensh, Elaine. Black, White, and Huckleberry Finn: Reimagining the American Dream. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2000.
Roberts, Gregory. Huck Finn a Masterpiece – or an Insult. 26 November 2003. 12 November 2008. <http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/149979_huck26.html>
Schulten, Katherine. “Huck Finn” in Context: A Teaching Guide. Boston, Massachusetts: WGBH, 1999.
Salwen, Peter. Is Huck Finn Racist? 1996. 5 December 2008. <http://www.salwen.com/mtrace.html>
Smith, Russell. The Legend of Mark Twain. 1994. 12 November 2008. <http://www.twainweb.net/filelist/legend.html>
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.