The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Analysing its Racial Context and Reception

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has divided opinion since its publication. Although it’s a lively tale of Huckleberry Finn running away from home to experience memorable encounters, there have been claims of racism within the book’s narrative. Jim, Finn’s loyal companion, being referred to as “nigger” is a definitive example. Is referring to Jim by a derogatory term a reflection of Mark Twain’s racism or an analysis of late 19th century American society?

American Society during Huckleberry Finn’s publication

Even after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans still experienced harsh realities.
Even after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans still experienced harsh realities.

Racism is an important theme in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; therefore it is vital to understand American society circa 1885. The consequences of America’s Civil War and Reconstruction period put into perspective how Twain engages with issues of racism. A landmark event from the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This act freed African-Americans from slavery in the southern states. This, along with the Confederacies’ defeat, led to the end of African-American slavery. The Reconstruction period that followed gave African-Americans lawful rights, the ability to vote, and stand for political office. However, these progressive ideals were countered with repressive violence. Those who had supported the Confederacy expressed their outrage by forming groups like the Ku Klux Klan to regain white supremacy. This clash of racial tension was still fresh during The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’s release. Twain was determined to reflect sinister cultural undertones that white Americans saw as acceptable.

Twain was passionate within the racial equality debate, feeling that it was a moral right for America to allow African-Americans the same freedoms as whites. Twain’s statement that “Lincoln’s Proclamation … not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also” 1 clearly reflected his approval of the Reconstruction’s progressive ideals. It is unsurprising that Twain’s viewpoint was structured within a narrative dealing with race relations, as he felt American society must change 2. It gives credence to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aiming to critique American society and make readers understand its ills.

The Representation of Jim

huckleberry-finn
Jim is shown to be a loyal friend of Finn, an aspect of a respectable character.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been accused of racism in its usage of “nigger.” Jim is introduced as “Miss Watson’s big nigger” who is easily teased by Finn and seems simple-minded. Jim’s comical introduction can be interpreted as racial stereotyping yet Jim becomes increasingly sympathetic. When Finn runs away from home to escape his abusive father, Jim reveals that he has been in hiding for a number of days because Mrs Watson plans to sell him. Jim decides to solve his dilemma by escaping to Illinois (a slavery-free state). This scene lets readers see Finn and Jim as equals. They are portrayed as victims of abuse, though Jim’s situation is more profound considering America’s racial prejudice of the period. Slavery is shown as a despicable, social injustice.

Although readers can contemplate Jim’s plight, it becomes a prolonged problem for Finn. When they reach Illinois, Finn has mixed feelings about Jim’s quest for freedom, “I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him. My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever.” Finn’s conflicted emotions saw Jim as an inferior, due to his upbringing in the racially intolerant south, thinking Jim is over stepping his place in society by trying to be free. This invites the reader to observe Finn’s contrasting characteristics, to question his ‘superior’ racial identity. If readers acknowledge Twain’s views on Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, then they will understand that Finn should value Jim as a human being. Twain encourages readers to keep this thought in mind as Finn and Jim share experiences with the Duke and the King, unnamed swindlers traveling from town to town conning local residents. Their deviousness turns on Finn as the opportunistic duo sell Jim in order to gain a higher reward from Mrs Watson.

In a defining moment, Finn rejects his previous prejudice and decides to rescue Jim. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!” Finn explicitly states showing his transition towards tolerance, showing Jim to be an individual worthy of help. The rescue of Jim is not only shown to be a justified act, but Jim continues to be portrayed as a sympathetic character. Finn is accompanied by Tom Sawyer during the rescue attempt, in which the latter becomes wounded. Jim risks recapture by staying with Sawyer, which impresses Finn. “I doan’ budge a step out’n dis place ‘dout a doctor, bot if it’s forty year!” Jim tells Finn regarding his loyalty. Jim’s courageous act continues to represent his humanity rather than a racial stereotype.

Critical Reception of Jim

Huckleberry-Finn_Racial-Slurs
There has been heated debate as to Jim’s representation reflects racial prejudice or not.

As previously noted, there has been a constant debate wherever Jim’s representation enhances or critiques racism. One source noted that despite Jim’s success for freedom, racial hate and prejudice still remains the status quo 3. Another stated that the readers must understand that they should challenge the racial attitudes depicted in the narrative 4. Within this article’s analysis, the latter is a more reasonable argument. Since Finn is the narrative’s main protagonist, readers interpret his characteristics to the greatest degree. Finn’s transition from prejudice to tolerance makes readers understand racism as immoral and why Jim should be seen as a human being suffering through horrific circumstances. Jim’s representation shows Twain as a minority voice against racial segregation.

In other critical reception, Arthur G. Pettit went as far to note that “constant shuffling between sympathy, pathos, disinterest, and even hostility towards Jim suggest that he could not make his mind up to where the black man stood” 5. However Mark Egan noted that readers should realise that Jim is humanised as the narrative progresses 6. As seen with the previous conflicting sources, there is diverse subjectivity regarding Jim’s representation. This article has argued that despite the obvious racism within the culture shown in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain critiqued it by emphasising Jim’s humanity. While Jim’s experiences reflects Pettit’s comments, ultimately it should be understood that Twain lets readers sympathise rather than simply tolerate Jim.

Works Cited

  1. Philip S. Foner, Mark Twain: Social Critic, New York: International Publishers, 1958
  2. A Historical Guide to Mark Twain, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, 2002, Oxford University Press
  3. Thadious Davis, Satire Or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, Duke University Press, 1992
  4. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Oxford University Press, 1993
  5. Arthur G. Pettit, Mark Twain and American South, The University Press of Kentucky, 1974
  6. Mark Egan, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: Race, Class and Society, Humanities Pr, 1977

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37 Comments

  1. Every single person in the period that this book was written (1884) was VERY racist against African-Americans. but Twain knew what was goin on!

    • Ryan Errington

      That is a generalisation. There were Abolitionists long before the American Civil War who wanted racial equality. This continued after Lincoln’s Emancipation.

  2. One scene that I was kind of disturbed with was when Pap was talking about the free black man in Chapter 6 being allowed to vote, this is what he said,”but 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.” I believe Pap was being irrational by not voting just because a black man can vote also.It’s absurd!

  3. I can honestly say that I see no unintentionally placed racism in the Mark Twain novel that the author did not utilize as a satire on the general population of his era and location.

  4. The purpose of the story is to prove black equality.

  5. Blanton
    1

    Mark Twain a “racist”! Isn’t it about time we put this ridiculous notion to rest?

  6. As a high school teacher, the debate over whether or not this novel should be taught persists. But I think the debate is less about the level of racism inherent in the book, but rather about how students–who are all still learning how to read with critical judgement–process Twain’s subtle messages. To further complicate things, when this novel is taught by someone who is ill-equipped to address complex racial issues with their students (particularly students of color), the book can end up being quite damaging.

  7. Whitlock
    0

    The novel has been criticized, censored, and banned for an array of perceived failings.

  8. Susann Seay
    0

    “The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn” isn’t a racist novel, saying it is a racist pro slavery novel due to the fact it has the word ‘Nigger’ 212 times, means nothing. It is a great anti slavery and anti racist novel.

  9. I had the pleasure of enjoying “The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin” in my literature AP class the senior year of my high school education. The debate over this novel is increasingly apparent in how Twain uses the language, or rather lingo of the day to construct the reality and severity of the story. I feel that it is necessary to understand every aspect of our past. Yet, the novel in it’s essence is not in any way about racism, rather I feel it is fear. What we don’t know, or whom we have not come to understand sometimes can scare us. Making us lessor human and more monster in the acts we drive into the core of our society.
    A favorite part of mine is the dialogue of Colonel Sherburn against “the mob” of people that come to lynch him because his action against Boggs.
    There is so much to this novel that is inherently necessary for the education of understanding ourselves in Western Society and Culture.
    Above all the article on the subject of opinion is very interesting! If you have read the book and read this article it would be interesting to see how others correlate with there reaction.

  10. LauraJonson

    It’s a novel of two faces. From the first point of view, it’s very childish adventure story. But from another hand, it’s “adult” novel with multifarious meanings. I think today every adult should read it to find something new.

    • I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the seminal novels tackling racial tensions in America emphasise children (e.g. “Huck”, as well as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” etc.), particularly white children. This focus seems to manipulate the coming-of-age motif in order to encourage readers to align themselves with childlike discovery, in order to most effectively combat strongly held belief systems. This child/adult, character/reader doubling is a main source of the most disturbing affects of racial prejudice, strengthening each author’s racial commentary (i.e. it is more upsetting to contemplate the implications of Huck calling Jim the n word than the conmen in the novel, for example). Moreover, I think it can be safely assumed that, at the time, the intended audience was one of privilege (white, older readers who could afford books), and that these novels were intended and continue to affect audiences with well-established moral and ethical notions.

      • Francesca Turauskis

        Indeed, the child characters emphasise the fact that nobody is born racist – racism is something that is taught in some families/cultures etc.

  11. Twain does humanize Jim, but sadly the racism that we see in his novel still has not disappeared. We see it reflected in the need to change the term of reference in order to make it fit with current levels of political correctness. Witness the changes in acceptable language from Negro, to Black, to African-American.

    • I agree that the racism in the novel has not disappeared– it is indisputably written in despite the argument as to whether it’s satire or not. But I’m not sure I agree with the second half of your comment. The term used to refer to Jim is, like the present racism of the novel, indisputably outdated and carries with it a violent and hateful history, but I don’t believe it needs to be changed and therefore erased. Speaking broadly: political correctness should not be the reason for the censorship of past texts. This doesn’t validate the use of the word, or make it okay, but that’s the point. ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ exists as a product of its time socially, politically, ideologically. It’s so much more than a reflection of Mark Twain, but it a reflection of the society in which he lived. Changing “the term of reference in order to make it fit with current levels of political correctness” erases the context in which the book was written and published. Changing the term erases our ability to see into that time and understand why that term was used. That word is hateful, violent, derogatory, yes, but ignoring that word, erasing it from literature erases an aspect of its history. Removing or changing the term of gets rid of any chance for dialogue, any chance to learn and understand how far we’ve come from that time and how far we have to go. Removing the word doesn’t make it’s history go away.

  12. Although the story of Huck Finn touched upon the racial issues of that time; possibly, in hopes of bringing attention to social problems, it also became part of the problem. Packaging racism in a story of childhood adventures doesn’t cause discomfort that often cause change. The story just underscored the belief of “that’s just the way it is and some things don’t change”. Huck Finn was a great story that was written at a time when it was posh to be offended at social ills without having to do anything to bring about change.

  13. He wrote essays disputing the injustice of slavery and racism.

  14. It seems to me that you answer your introductory question within the first paragraph or two of your article. Yes, the language and character constructions within “Huckleberry Finn” are racist by today’s standards but as you show in the article, Twain’s writing reflects not his personal racism, but that of 19th century American society, and serves as a social critique of a culture he saw as deeply flawed.

  15. As I am studying this book during my first term of university, I’d love to re-read this article once I have a full understanding of the history and novel itself! But very interesting thoughts.

  16. Twain is the ultimate anti-racist and with humor and grace.

  17. I agree. Twain was certainly paying attention to his audience so Jim may have started out as a tolerable character in order to keep the reader’s attention. As the narrative progresses, readers become invested in the lives and adventures of the characters and Twain showed it was possible for a friendship between Finn and Jim to develop. The target audience’s perception of Jim, and perhaps other colored people, may have also shifted. Twain substitutes the racial stereotype for an actual human being and illustrates that there is and should be no difference of how people are treated. Like many other abolitionist works, Twain’s narrative seems to have targeted an “American society and make readers understand its ills.”

  18. Context is everything. Removing the “n” word or replacing it with something less objectionable is intellectually dishonest, attempting to deny the word was commonly used during the period in which the novel is set. Trying to apply political correctness to works of art simply doesn’t work. Not only does it change the tone and meaning of creative works, it runs the risk of putting a damper on the act of creation. We can wring our hands over the words used in a historical novel, or we can direct our attention toward actual wrongs against minorities in the real world. To me, arguing about the “n” word in Mark Twain’s novel is just a distraction from the real issues facing minorities in society.

  19. danielle577

    If Twain were to remove the offensive slurs prominent throughout the novel he would not be representing the south, during that time, in a truthful manner. Jim is in many ways the “heart,” of the novel, or even the “moral compass.” He is the one that implicitly evokes Finn to act in a humanistic manner toward Jim, regardless of all that he had been taught regarding black people his entire life. What is reflected as a moment in the “life” of Finn should be balanced against the entirety of his life that revolved around conceptualizing black people as lesser beings.
    At first, Finn does treat Jim like a piece of property, but slowly engages him in a more humanistic manner. This is a story that aptly reflects racial tensions alongside a coming-of-age tale that describes the young protagonist as creating his own system of beliefs. Due to this pivotal point in Twain’s book, I adamantly disagree with Arthur G. Pettit’s commentary regarding Twain as unknowing of the role he wanted Jim to play in the book. As quoted in the above article: “constant shuffling between sympathy, pathos, disinterest, and even hostility towards Jim suggest that he could not make his mind up to where the black man stood,”–I believe this to be a very rash comment, portraying Pettit’s inability to miss the point of Twain’s story. What took place in the South was ugly, and prejudices were common. If there is a moment of back and forth in where “Jim stands,” this is eloquently executed through the view point of the young man attempting to decide where jim fits in his world that has equated black people as lesser people. This difficulty in discerning what Finn has been taught to believe, and what he sees with his own eyes, and feels in his conscience, is the aspect that makes this work beautiful and poignant.

  20. Yes, there’s racism within Huckleberry Fin. That doesn’t need to be debated, it’s a fact. But I completely agree with you that throughout the narrative Jim is humanized more and more as Huck begins to see him as an equal. That’s a huge aspect of Huck’s character development, and it’s a critical aspect of Twain’s intentions behind the novel. Huck’s whole adventure is a giant social commentary on the United States at this time. Jim is just one of the many topics Twain’s commenting on. Jim’s character is meant to criticize racism, not enable it.

  21. In Twain’s time, the word “nigger” did not have the same emotional content that it does today. It makes no sense to see racist implications in his usage of a word that was acceptable in his day.

    • kalyraman,

      Be careful of hasty generalizations. That word certainly had emotional impact to the population it affected. Many slave songs and early blues songs reflect people’s emotions connected to that word (Use “Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy” for further reading. It was also not a proper word in public discourse. But, you are right in that Twain did not intend to reinforce the racism. His use draws attention to the dehumanization.

  22. Agreed! Those are thoughtful words, Michael.

  23. it irritates me when people don’t take this book seriously. MT wrote from a sociological perspective and one from a very vivid reality.

  24. When I was younger I tried reading Huckleberry Finn and couldn’t get past the language that Twain wrote for Jim. Today I appreciate diverse styles of writing. Still don’t like the portrayal of African-Americans, but it was typical for those times; look at Harriet Beecher Stowe. Twain is a natural storyteller.

  25. I find much of what Mark Twain is “implying,” whether intentionally or not, is appropriate to his time and perhaps a reality of what the thinking was during the time the book as written. As a teacher, I find these genres of books to be great ways to teach themes and history.

  26. itskaella

    I love Mark Twain and I love The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Aside from the racist overtones, Huck Finn has never been in my favorites among his other works. The reason that I don’t like this book has everything to do with the fact that I enjoyed Tom Sawyer so much more, and in comparison it falls short for me.

  27. JLaurenceCohen

    Twain satirizes the racism of his time throughout the novel. Yet, the doesn’t make him totally immune from racialized thinking. Twain’s portrayal of Jim does draw on minstrel stereotypes, but Twain’s overarching concern is to expose the racist ideology of the post-Reconstruction South.

  28. Emily Deibler

    Interesting. In high school, I recall reading Finn by Jon Clinch, which was essentially an extremely dark story from the POV of Huck’s dad. Notably, it perceived Huck as biracial, with a white father and black mother. I find analyzing Jim’s character to be fascinating, and it is definitely important to mention Huck’s “I’ll go to hell!” moment because it is a defining event of autonomy. He was raised to equate vying for the abolition of slavery with eternal damnation, and this is a pivotal moment where his recognition of Jim’s humanity exceeds, in the context of the period’s beliefs, the alleged salvation of his soul.

  29. Aine

    Your article is quite interesting! I’m also glad to see your use of the original illustrations, available in the Berkeley version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Do you think Twain provides subtle agency for Jim by pairing him with Huck, a character of a similar socio-economic and societal background? The only reason Huck would be (potentially) more viable in society is his race, especially after turning over his found fortune to the Judge before embarking on the journey with Jim. Twain seems to put two very similar male characters together, letting them grow and feed off each other, but asking the reader to decide if they’re equal.

    Great article. Enjoyed it! Thanks!

  30. I enjoyed your article a great deal and I am planning on sharing it with my high school students!

  31. Good article. I read this book when I was very young & loved it. Never considered it racist or derogatory back then to refer to someone as a N but referring to them as Black was…that was in the 60’s. Likewise Twain’s use of the N word was merely a reflection of society during his life. Throughout time, authors were merely a reflection of society, often opening our eyes to the wrongs of society. Twain himself supported equal rights for everyone. Because of the racial slurs, this book is probably not appropriate today for an elementary school library bc of the immaturity & impressionability of that age group. Other than that, it remains a literary masterpiece.

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