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