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For education to serve its purpose of helping students develop an understanding of themselves and the world around them, it must provide uncensored information and ideas. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn undoubtedly supports that goal of education. The classic novel discusses issues regarding society’s greed and cowardice through a young boy’s, Huck Finn, perspective. Huck Finn is born into the American, white south during the mid 1800s when slavery and racism towards blacks was the norm.
He is influenced by his surroundings to believe that slavery is right. The “civilized” adults dictate to him the nature of blacks as property. However, as a rebellious adolescent, Huck runs away from his home and journeys down the Mississippi river with a black slave named Jim. Across this adventure, Huck develops a different set of morals from his culture and slowly comes to view Jim as a person and a friend. America’s past white, southern culture is a testament to the gruesome reality of society’s ability to institutionalize its selfish nature.
Mark Twain emphasizes in a genuine manner the ignorance of America’s slave-holding past and the importance of questioning the morals of society and as such, the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is worthy of belonging in compulsory education. Unlike many other novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn delivers an unromanticized depiction of the racist, white south and slavery in the early part of American history. As seen through his characters, Mark Twain is not afraid to show the true nature of racism present in the 1800s.
One of the most unsympathetic characters in the book is Pap, Huck Finn’s drunkard and abusive father.
Pap’s dialogue contains the image of the thoughts of the average racist southern man in America during that era. In one instance, Pap says: “Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio – a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane – the awful- est old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to?”(35)
Pap’s words clearly show the hatred he has towards blacks and his belief of white supremacy. He finds the idea of a black man, even a half black man, having the right to vote, a stable job, and an education, absolutely repulsive. This prejudicial perspective of Africa Americans was as common as the modern belief that slavery is wrong. In fact, though slavery in the United States was abolished after the Civil War, the intrinsic racism in America would not be truly called to question until the mid to late 1900s, more than a century later. The inability of white Americans to come to terms with black rights is a portrayal of the wrongs of society. Society is not perfect and young members of society should understand that in order to later on change society for the better. Education in America should provide insight to the hardships of African Americans, and the struggle of Jim living in a society filled with minds like Pap exemplifies the struggle and history of Black Americans.
Furthermore, in Pap’s statement is the word “nigger”. Throughout the entire novel, Mark Twain controversially used the derogatory term over 200 times. Many feel that the use of “nigger” causes the book to be unacceptable in compulsory education. However, a more accurate view would be that the word “nigger” is not used in the novel for the purpose of demeaning blacks; rather the word is used to make the story accurate to the time. Words get their meaning from the intent of the speaker. Twain’s intent was not for the word to criticize blacks as it is well known that Mark Twain was an advocate against slavery and racism. He used the word because back in the 1800s, the normal word for slaves was “nigger”. By using the word, Twain painted a realistic picture of the southern culture of America.
Although other books exist that discuss the nature of slavery without the term, for example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin are not as effective of delivering a view of the past. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the slave Uncle Tom is unrealistic for a slave of the time period. He speaks in an educated manner, and his obsession with religion turns him into an allegorical religious figure. Uncle Tom’s characterization takes away from the true battle of slavery in the south. On the other hand, Jim in Huck Finn is characterized more realistically. He speaks in a lower class way, and his journey with Huck for freedom depicts slavery and racism in that era. The book does not hide the sad truth of bigotry and the dehumanization of African Americans. Instead the book highlights it and educates students the history of American slavery.
Moreover, the character of Huck Finn goes through a journey that expresses the important idea of an individual going against society’s rules to act on an unhindered set of morals in order to do what is right and good. Young teens often end up conforming to society in order to fit in. This conformity creates a loss of new and innovative ideas. Twain poses an important lesson of individuality and questioning society. Huck Finn is a boy living in a world where all his adult guides would tell him that befriending a black man and helping free a slave would be completely immoral. Born in such a culture, Huck accepts the view as the truth. Black people are bad. His conformity can be seen when he says: “Conscience says to me ‘What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?…’ I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead” (91).
Instead of pitying Jim’s status as a slave, Huck pities Miss Watson for losing a slave. This illustrates slavery’s prominence and integration into society, along with Huck’s own ignorance and inability to shake off society’s influence. Society’s strong grasp on Huck is similar to modern pop culture’s grasp on teens. Every day, the media bombards the youth of America images of what is right and wrong. Sometimes society gives off the wrong message. For example, the attitude towards rape in America is society being wrong and the youth following the rape culture without questioning. Students should learn from this novel to stand up for their conscience as Huck does as the story progresses.
Through involvement with Jim, Huck discovers Jim’s humanity. This discovery of blacks being human just like whites leads Huck to a higher moral understanding. Huck writes: “It was a close place. I took . . . up [the letter I’d written to Miss Watson], and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming”(207).
When Huck tears the letter up, he is actively going against society and the white southern culture. This change is a depiction of not only the message of fighting society’s corruption, but also of Twain writing his opposition to slavery and racism. He calls out from his narrative for people to strip away their cultural influences. The influence of society can be harmful and slavery is a prime example. The whole of the south fought to uphold slavery, when today, the thought of legal slavery in the US is unthinkable. Mark Twain’s novel educates people to stand up for freedom from societal influences. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic American piece of literature that should be part of compulsory education. The book contains a strong message and a realistic portrait of the time era. Mark Twain does not cover up information. He narrates it in a compelling story. Students learn from this novel the flaws of society and the importance of questioning ideas through a young boy and slaves’ adventure away from slavery and societal rules.
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