Moral Huckleberry Finn
Research Paper written for AP English III: Language and Composition
Ever since its first publication in 1884, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or better known as Mark Twain, has been the source of negative criticism and has been attacked on many occasions. Some critics have succeeded—many others have tried—to denounce the novel due to its usage of "racially disparaging epithets" and the way it depicts blacks. These critics fail to see Twain's satire, or the morality of these characters (Edwards 30).
Throughout the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain develops the theme that good exists within every human being, independent of the individual's social, intellectual, or racial status. Although it has been the source of controversy due to its depiction of blacks, and had been banned from many public libraries on its first appearance for being "trash," Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a very moral novel (James 1). When beginning to discuss a novel which is narrated by the son of a drunk and a very immoral man, Pap Finn, and one in which the word "nigger" appears over 200 times, many people face difficulty. On the other hand, many embrace this novel because it promotes images of multicultural education (Quirke 151).
More than any other reason, the major discontent among critics is the way in which Twain depicts blacks, especially the slave, Jim, in his novel. This is mainly due to the belief that Twain depicts blacks as an inferior race, such as when he writes "you can't learn a nigger to argue" (60). Whereas many critics take statements such as these as racist remarks, they do not see the role of Jim—that of a moral catalyst and a very important figure in the depiction of the character of Huck. The novel depends on the actions of Jim (the runaway slave), giving the double search for freedom, which by Professor Branch is labeled as the central theme of the book (Brownell 1).
Hence, Huck learns humanity from Jim, whereas without him, Huck would be restricted to stealing, lying, etc. Jim makes Huck's rebellion more than a reaction to the accepted manners of the time. The central theme of the novel is the feeling of heart and expression of conscience which is shown by a black man and equaled by a white boy (Pettit 109). Mark Twain clearly shows this throughout Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—he shows that Jim is very moralistic, and inferior in no way. "Jim's primary function is to further the characterization of Huckleberry Finn: by his presence, his personality, his action, his words, to call forth from Huckleberry Finn a depth of tenderness and moral strength that could not otherwise have been fully and convincingly revealed to the reader" (Brownell 2).
Mark Twain created the character of Jim to act as a guide for Huck in becoming enlightened. Twain then surrounded Jim with other slaves and surface men. The character of Jim is based on three men to whom Twain was close to. These men were Uncle Daniel, a slave owned by Twain's uncle; John Lewis, a free-born African American who rescued Twain's brother-in-law's family from injury in a run-away carriage; and George Griffin, Twain's butler (Chadwick-Joshua 18). "Jim's humanity makes him the novel's most appealing character. Jim fills a gap in Huck's life: he is the father that Pap is not; he teaches Huck about the world and how it works, and about friendship" (James 3). Many critics agree Jim, a black slave, takes a role of a father figure to Huck, a white boy growing up in a racist society. This situation shows the novel to be a very moralistic one. Nat Hentoff writes that the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an excellent and brilliant novel because Twain allows the 14-year old to find in the slave Jim, a father figure. He adds that the novel is one of the least racist he has ever read, and Jim's character is one that has a reclaiming hope for the future of society (Chadwick-Joshua 7).
According to June Edwards, there is no more virtuous character in literature than Nigger Jim. Far from demeaning blacks, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn attacks the cruelty of some people owning other people, and for the color of ones skin being the basis of determining the content of one's character (33). Jim is the one who lays the basis for a solid relationship. He mends, advises, teaches, and more. Hence, he is Huck's natural superior. He is also superior to Huck in affection and loyalty. For example, after finding that Huck's Pap is dead, he takes on the role of Huck's foster father (Pettit 110). Twain shows how a black slave can actually be superior to a white, which at the time went against the standards set by society. "Nigger Jim is the conscience of Huckleberry Finn. More than Huck he is the moral standard by which other characters in the novel are measured and found wanting. This black man is a new kind of character in American fiction, a highly complex and original creation" (Pettit 109).
At a time when blacks were treated as "trash" and thought to be one-dimensional, Twain creates a round character for Jim as opposed to the customary flat character. This shows that Nigger Jim, the black individual, is a real person after all. Mark Twain, as well as the character of Huck Finn know that Jim is not only a slave, but a human being as well. He is someone who expresses his humanity through his desire for freedom, his will to have his own labor, his loyalty in his friendship, and his love for his child and his wife (Ellison 18). Mark Twain achieves realism with the creation of Jim through "averaging." If Jim believes in witches and other sorts of superstition, he has a superior understanding of man and nature. If he is obedient, he also gives Huck a scolding which makes him "humble" himself to a nigger. If Jim has compassion, as in the case of Tom Sawyer, he can also be heartless, as in the case of his deaf daughter. If he is a hero when helping the doctor, he is cowardly aboard the "Walter Scott." Due to all this, Jim is a fully humanized character (Quirke 74).
While many believe that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel with many racist remarks, the truth of the matter is that it is not racist at all, but expresses the belief of collaboration between blacks and whites.
Twain's irony complicates the question of race and racism in the world of Huckleberry Finn. What the novel makes clear, though, as their journey continually separates and reunites Huck and Jim—white and black—is that their fate is intertwined. Their destinies must be worked out in relation to each other. For Twain, that is the great, and greatly troubled, American adventure (James 4).
Many censors regard Huck Finn as a poor role model for teenage readers because his speech and manners are crude by civilized standards. But Huck's compassion and willingness to change the prejudiced behavior of the time are excellent qualities (Edwards 32). Throughout the novel, the character of Huckleberry Finn matures, which is an inner growth. He learns kindness which leads him to act good towards others. This is shown in his decision to save the Wilkes girls from the Duke and the Dauphin (Cummings 4). His relation to Jim and his involvement in his freedom take him out of his childish world into one of higher humanity. His antislavery sentiment is a "moral yardstick by which to measure other values" (Cox 96).
According to Jonathan Arac, "Liberal white American opinion identifies with the wonderful boy Huck. Even though his society was racist, he was not, and so 'we' are not" (Bérubé 695). Huckleberry Finn, having grown up in a racist society, did not know that slaves had feelings also, so after playing a mean trick to the slave Jim, Huck realized the wrong he had done.
It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwords, neither. I didn't do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way (Twain 65).
Here, Twain shows the morality in the character of Huck. Even after growing up in a society where he has been taught the inferiority of blacks, he still "humbled" himself to a nigger.
"The dynamic theme throughout Huckleberry Finn is the unresolved dialectic between the moral responsibility of the individual and the morality of the society in which he moves and against which he must function" (Hoffman 32). Huck has the courage to act morally even though it defies the rules of his society. But Huck sees his act in freeing Jim as the victory of his natural evil over the good teaching of society (Miller 29). Huck believes he is breaking the rules when freeing the Nigger Jim. He thinks he is committing an evil deed against his moralistic society, but in reality, he is doing none of these things—he is doing the exact opposite. For example, when Huck is writing the letter to report the runaway slave Jim, his conscience gets to him, and he rips up the letter. Believing he has just committed a major sin, Huck responds, "All right, then, I'll go to hell" (Twain 162). Huck's rejection of the teachings of society is not an evil deed on his part, but is a path to the knowledge of himself and his duties to others. "Away from the community's thou-shalt-nots and alone on the river with Jim he learns to love his neighbor as himself" (Cummings 4).
One major source of discontent among critics is the novels repeated use of the word "nigger" and Twain's depiction of slavery. "The novel's treatment of slavery came as an unwelcome reminder that the Civil War and Reconstruction had failed utterly to ease racial prejudice and to reduce its attendant hatred and violence" (Robinson 169).
In the years since the 1960's there has been an argument where black readers protest to the word "nigger" and Jim, while white readers argue that those people are overlooking the political condition of the post Civil War United States, the narrative irony of Mark Twain, the critique on slavery in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the kindness of Jim, and the fact that in slave states, "nigger" was just a common term for a slave and was not meant to be offensive (Bérubé 694). Many believe that Twain used the word "nigger" to emphasize the irony. Nigger Jim, who is more moral than the other characters in the novel, is known by the name which society used for its most hated. Contrary to what others believed, Twain does not defame blacks, but points out the foolishness of the Caucasian belief in inferiority due to race. Twain shows a difference between the Nigger Jim, and the white man, Pap. After Pap drinks too much, he screams about snakes, and runs around his son with a knife, it is clearly shown that Jim is the more superior and the more moral character (Edwards 33).
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been the source of controversy, criticism, and censorship since 1884, when it first appeared. Early on, the Concord, Massachusetts, Library Committee prohibited the book because it was "rough, coarse, and inelegant...It is the veriest trash." Then in Springfield, Illinois many people charged that Twain has no sense of manners. Responses such as these are based on the novel going against the accepted standards of morality and taste, and that Huck Finn is a poor moral example of the youth (Robinson 169). These critics fail to examine and notice Twain's satire, irony, and the actual morality of these characters. Twain depicts his belief that there is good within every human being, regardless of the person's social, intellectual, or racial status. "Twain does not denigrate blacks in this book. On the contrary, the theme is the stupidity and inhumanity of the Caucasian belief in genetic superiority" (Edwards 33).
Some people still manage to find Adventures of Huckleberry Finn offensive due to their narrow views and biased behavior. Not only did Twain write an excellent novel, full of wit and humor, but he also made it an "assault on absolute values, racial prejudice, and authoritarian arrogance" (Edwards 33). Due to its theme that goodness of heart may exist in any human being, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain, is one of the most moral novels in American literature.
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