The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – A Racist Novel?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – A Racist Novel?
Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn depicts the story of a fourteen year old named Huckleberry Finn. Early in the novel, Huck is kidnapped by his own father; nevertheless, Huck escapes his father’s wrath and goes on to lead a new life of mystery and adventure in the woods. In Huck’s adventure, he overcomes unthinkable and bizarre obstacles, like falsifying his own death and encountering and surviving dangerous thieves on a steamship. Through the duration of his journey, he is accompanied by a runaway slave named Jim.
The book, told from Huck’s first person limited point of view, is a well-known masterpiece that illustrates many themes such as deceit, nature, and personal morals of the characters. However, it is argued if the work is a racist one. The author and humorist, Mark Twain, writes the novel in such a way that it is perceived to be racist through the eyes of his readers, even though it actually is not. Twain’s writing styles do not suggest racism through his diction and syntax. Jim, the escaped slave, is undermined throughout the novel.
Huck and Jim are perceived to be traveling partners, almost one in the same, since they are both on the run. There is no intention to purposely shadow Jim. He, being an African American slave during the time period in which the novel takes place, is an important character, in that he rebels to escape his slave life and acts as a foil pair with Huck, helping to develop Huck’s character. Twain stylistically writes and gives Jim the dialogue any uneducated slave would have. The narration and dialogue of the other characters do not detect any of Twain’s racial views.
Twain writes in such a way that perfectly fits with the time period. Huck, who promises not to tell anyone of Jim’s escape, explains his reasoning for keeping Jim’s secret when he says, “people would call me a low-down abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum” (Twain 43). This is an appropriate remark for Huck to make, considering the proslavery versus antislavery issue that plays a role in the novel. Allen Carey-Webb agrees and says Twain “later in life paid a black student’s way through college” and that “his wife was the daughter of a prominent abolitionist”.
(Carey-Webb 24). Carey-Webb goes on to say that Twain’s family had also owned slaves and he himself had fought in the confederate army for some time (Carey-Webb 24). However, the novel in no way is out of the ordinary when Twain dehumanizes Jim as a character because it fits the time period appropriately. The novel does not show any clear signs of the author’s racial views. There are different interpretations of the novel as perceived by students that can mistakenly accuse Twain of being a racist.
Huck describes a scene when him and his partner in crime, Tom Sawyer, are playing a prank on Jim. It can be interpreted two different ways when Huck narrates, “…Tom whispered to me, and wanted to tie Jim to the tree for fun. But then I said no” (Twain 7). Twain could mean that Huck didn’t want to pull the prank on Jim because he didn’t want to cause a scene and didn’t want anyone to know he wasn’t an home in bed. However, Twain could also mean without saying it obviously that Huck didn’t want to simply to spare Jim’s dignity.
Twain never makes clear what he could have meant, but it is assumed that because of the setting of the novel, he isn’t putting personal opinions and is using a logical situation. Students depict the author to be a racist because of Twain’s misleading diction. Twain’s ambiguous text is shown throughout the novel, especially towards this end. However, this just symbolizes Huck’s inner conflict with himself: he questions if he is doing wrong helping an escaped slave. Huck tells Tom not to pull anymore pranks on Jim, which makes Huck seem like a non-racist.
However, he continually repeats the ‘n-word’ in the novel. Twain even entitles a chapter in the novel ‘Trying to Help Jim’ (Twain 236). Carey-Webb describes an African American scholar’s point of view and says, “One student considered himself so isolated as the only black in the classroom that he was unable to share his reaction even privately with his teacher” (Carey-Webb 27). Though Twain’s stylistic word choice can be interpreted to be racist, the time period and slave situation during the time defends the opinion that Mark Twain ‘s racial views are not evident in the novel.
The text in the book emphasizes the overarching theme of race which can also misunderstand Twain himself to be a racist. Twain uses a specific dialect that captures and vividly illustrates the lifestyle, setting, and tone of the novel. This dialect, however, can be perceived to be offense and crude because it is written in an animalistic and improper way that includes extremely unjustified and racist terms. “The novel remains the only one in the common ‘canon’ to treat slavery, to represent a black dialect, and to have a significant role for an African American character” (Carey-Webb 23).
The subject of slavery and racism bring up the issue of sensitivity and censorship into the picture. Twain’s novel is written in such a way that does not cover up the facts. Jim speaks in such a way that really makes a bold statement, like when he says, “dat’s all right, den. I doan’ mine one er two kings, but dat’s enough” (Twain 130). The correct slave dialect is used, and this can be shocking to readers since there is no other novel that does so effectively. Twain really paints a picture with his words, and is able to infuse a realistic slave character in his novel.
This affects readers in different ways. Some could interpret the dialect as an informational source to see through the eyes of an enslaved African American during this time period. However, some could interpret the text otherwise. According to Carey-Webb, African American scholars who read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn saw the book as a loss for slave, Jim (Carey-Webb 25). Although he is at first perceived to have effectively ran away, it is later found out in the novel that Miss Watson, Jim’s ex-slave owner, had released him anyway.
It can be interpreted that “he never makes his way to his own freedom” which readers could use to accuse Twain of being racist, since the believed-to be victor of escaping slavery had in fact never escaped slavery at all, but given a chance to be free (Carey-Webb 25). This is a misrepresentation; Twain is a humorous and imaginative writer. Throughout the novel, Huck endures in many adventures that seem unrealistic, like being able to survive a deathly battle with thieves, and successfully faking his own death. Twain’s genre in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is fictional, and the entire novel is far-fetched.
Therefore, the victory of Jim’s escape is almost too good to be true, taking into account the novel is full of unexpected outcomes. Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, portrays the audacious adventures of Huck Finn and all of his encounters along the way. Twain’s writing style proposes the idea of him being a racist, and raises the question if the novel itself belittles and humiliates African Americans purposely. However, because of the setting and lifestyle of the story, Twain’s racial views are not evident through his writing.