University High School
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
Huck, Jim, and Southern Norms
Huck, Jim, and Southern Norms
In Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the protagonist, Huck Finn, spends much of the novel accompanied by Jim, a runaway slave. Their relationship can seem inscrutable and occasionally paradoxical; Jim is a black slave, but nonetheless grows close to Huck, a white boy, in the Antebellum South. They are united by one factor: they are both fleeing something. Jim runs from slave masters, while Huck runs from his abusive father, Pap. These circumstances help to illuminate the nature of their relationship: though Huck is biologically related to Pap, Huck's "real" father is Jim, as Jim is kind, seen as a protector by Huck, and helps Huck grow.
Throughout Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim is presented as kind and loving, specifically in contrast to the cold, callous nature of Southern society at large, becoming the benevolent father figure Huck needs. The first white relationship Huck experiences is one with Miss Watson, which he's quickly dragged away from by Pap. However, he quickly embraces life outside the "civilized" ways of Miss Watson: "I didn't see how I'd ever got to like it so well at the widow's, where you had to wash, and eat on a plate, and comb up, and go to bed and get up regular, and be forever bothering over a book and have old Miss Watson pecking at you all the time. I didn't want to go back no more" (Twain 37). Huck rejects wider Southern society, and instead embraces a sort of "state of nature" — one he continues to embrace with Jim. Though the reader is first introduced to Huck's "state of nature" by Pap, Jim is kinder, and thus better able to give Huck the freedom he desires: while on the raft with the Duke and the King, Huck wakes to find Jim "setting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself…He was thinking about his wife and children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick…I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for theirn" (Twain 170). However, contrary to Huck's assertion, all evidence points to Jim's love of family as unlike white familial relationships. Pap, for instance, repeatedly abuses and takes advantage of Huck, only reentering his life after he hears of the fortune Huck and Tom discovered. Jim, however, genuinely cares for his family.
Huck's rejection of Southern society and Jim's unusual kindness collide at the end of the novel, when Tom Sawyer is shot while he, Huck, and Jim flee slave catchers. They bring in a doctor, and Jim, after seeing the struggle getting the bullet out without help, emerges from hiding and helps the doctor save Tom, though he knows it will cost him his freedom. His kindness is immediately juxtaposed with the coldness of the South: after hearing of his kindness, the Southerners decide to repay him, not by freeing him or even providing him with any form of comfort, but by choosing to stop beating him. This seems to be the final straw for Huck, as at the end of the novel, after Tom reveals that Jim was free the entire time, Huck decides to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before" (Twain 296). Jim is kind, like any good father, and his kindness is juxtaposed with the callousness of a Southern society hated by Huck, indicating the necessity and the effectiveness of Jim as a father figure.
Jim is also a father figure from Huck's perspective, as Huck repeatedly finds solace and protection in his presence. First, Huck flees to Jim after hearing of Pap's return and asks him to use a hairball to augur his father's actions (Twain 29). This action — simple as it is — indicates Huck's perception of Jim to be one of reverence, or at least respect, as he sees him as a source of wisdom and benevolence. The safety and comfort he feels with Jim during this "hairball episode" only further reinforces that Jim is an effective father figure to Huck. Further, Jim is literally depicted as a father figure in the book's illustrations: while on the island, find shelter from a storm in a cave. On page 60, there's an illustration of their conversation in the cave, in which Huck lies on his side, listening attentively, much as a child would, while Jim talks. Darkness envelops them, accentuating both Jim and Huck, and emphasizing the solitude of the scene, but also its solace and serenity. As Huck tells Jim, "'I wouldn't want to be nowhere else but here'" (Twain 60).
Jim's status as a bastion of peace and tranquility is most obvious after Huck comes to live with the Grangerford family, a traditional, Southern white family. But this relationship is quickly destroyed by a feud the Grangerfords have with another family, the Shepherdsons, which quickly turns violent as one of the Grangerford daughters tries to run away with a Shepherson son. Buck, the youngest Grangerford and a friend to Huck, is killed in the crossfire. Huck finds his body, drags it away from the river, covers his face, and returns to Jim and the river, where he finds comfort; as Huck explains, "we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water and talked about all kinds of things — we was always naked, day and night" (Twain 136). This passage has dual significance: first, it evokes imagery similar to that of the Bible, or specifically, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who were unaware of their nudity until losing their innocence. Here, with Jim, on the river, Huck is regaining his innocence, finding comfort in Jim's presence. Second, this scene of peace is juxtaposed with the extreme violence Huck has just witnessed. Jim and the river are coupled together as symbols of serenity, the implication being that, once again, Jim's presence provides solace for Huck. Thus, Jim is a father figure as he's seen as a protector by Huck, whether it be when Huck runs to him after learning of his father's return, their depiction in the cave, or their trips on the river.
Further, Jim's identity as a father figure is reinforced by his aid in Huck's growth, though the distribution of the responsibility between the two makes that dynamic unique. Jim first begins to affect change in Huck while they hide out on the island, and Huck decides to re-enter society, disguised as a girl (Twain 66). Though not explicitly stated, by helping Huck disguise himself this way, Jim is teaching Huck about social constructs (gender being a social construct) — particularly, that they can be learned. This helps Huck begin to reject other social constructs, like the institution of slavery. Jim furthers Huck's rejection of social constructs while on the raft; Huck, having returned to the raft after being separated from Jim, tries to lie to Jim, and act as if he had never left. Jim, angry that Huck would try to lie to him, taking away the only freedom that Jim could reliably access (the freedom of imagination), berates Huck. Huck responds: "It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back. It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a n- - but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither" (Twain 95). Here, Jim has reversed the traditional master and slave relationship, with Huck in the subordinate position. Huck realizes his mistake, as well as his moral inferiority, and apologizes. In this way, Jim has effectively turned the relationship into one of a father and son; rather than violently punishing Huck, as a slave's master might, he allows Huck to realize his mistake and grow from it, as a good father would.
Huck's realization of moral inferiority also causes an integral change in him, that manifests when Huck struggles between turning Jim in and saving him from bondage. Huck comes across two slave catchers on the river, but when he tries to turn Jim in, "the words wouldn't come. I tried, for a second or two, to brace up and out with it, but I warn't man enough" (Twain 111). Huck ultimately decides against turning Jim in, learning greater moral agency in the process. This also highlights an important part of Jim and Huck's relationship — although Huck is often forced to care for Jim, rather than the other way around, their relationship is still one of a father and son — Huck cares for Jim much as one might care for a sick, or elderly, parent. Further, this unique distribution of responsibility allows Huck his greatest moral growth: after the Duke and the King sell Jim, Huck struggles with saving him. Though he initially fears "damnation" (slavery was often justified with religion in the antebellum South), he finally gives in, saying, "'All right then, I'll go to hell'" (Twain 223). This is Huck's most succinct rejection of society and its norms, one that only Jim could teach him to do. Thus, Jim is ultimately a father figure to Huck because he does what all fathers must: teach and help their children to grow, even in unconventional circumstances.
However, though Huck and Jim's relationship is one of a father and son, some might describe it as one of master and slave. As Jane Smiley explains in "Say It Ain't So, Huck," "for all his lip service to real attachment between white boy and black man, Twain really saw Jim as no more than Huck's sidekick…Jim is never autonomous, never has a vote, always finds his purposes subordinate to Huck's, and, like every good sidekick, he never minds" (Smiley 357). Smiley points to Twain's omission of discussion of crossing the Mississippi to Illinois or traveling up the Ohio river rather than down the Mississippi as evidence. Further evidence could also be found in the novel's illustrations, which often depict Jim as subordinate to Huck; take, for example, the illustration of when Jim first sees Huck on the island. Jim, fearing Huck is a ghost, is on his knees, hands clasped together, while Huck stands before him, gun in hand. But Smiley's claim — that the relationship between Huck and Jim is one of master and slave — is flawed on every level. Smiley's first claim — that Jim lacks autonomy — is demonstrably false: for instance, early in the novel, Huck describes a time Tom tried to prank Jim by hanging his hat on a branch. Jim twists this to his favor, however, and concocts a tale that increases in incredulity every time he tells it. As David L. Smith explains in "Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse," "Jim's darky performance here subverts the fundamental definition of 'darky.' For 'the Negro' is defined to be an object, not a subject. But does an object construct its own narrative?" (Smith 369). Jim is not depicted as a subservient object, as Smiley claims, but rather a subject that cleverly subverts racial stereotypes.
Smiley goes on to claim that Jim "never minds" — and thus, must be a sidekick, or slave, archetype. And though it may be true that Jim "never minds," this trait primarily exists to contrast with Pap. If Jim was angry or vindictive, the contrast between him and Pap would be less explicit, and thus Huck would be unable to grow or reject Southern society the way he does: much of the reason he rejects it is that contrast drawn between Jim and white society. Further, the evidence for Smiley's claims is thin at best. The illustrations are just that: illustrations, and they don't reflect the content of the novel effectively. Smiley's argument about omission also fundamentally misinterprets the novel. The omission is necessary for the novel to discuss racism and Southern society in a frank, uncompromising way. If the novel was set in the north, the discussion of racism and society would be didactic and simple, and it's unlikely any real growth would be affected in Huck. It would also neuter the uncompromising horror that Huck sees in society and make the tacit argument against racism less convincing. Thus, though one could argue that the relationship between Jim and Huck is one of slave and master, the evidence for this claim is flawed, and the counterevidence repeatedly indicates an anti-racist undertone for the novel.
Ultimately, the relationship between Huck and Jim is one of a father and son. Jim exhibits every important characteristic of a father: he is kind (especially compared to wider Southern society), seen as a protector by Huck, and helps Huck grow. This relationship, which exists in defiance of oppression, exposes the larger significance of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Twain seems to want the reader to interrogate societal norms. Whether it be the racist, abusive, and oppressive norms of Southern society, or the common malaise and indifference of many fathers, the reader is meant to understand that Jim's relationship to Huck is one that defies these norms, both implicitly and explicitly. The modern reader should consider this lesson seriously: if one was free from the coercion of society, would they act in the same way? Would the reader reject the norms of society in favor of their own morality, as Huck does? Maybe one would, maybe one wouldn't — but at the very least, one ought to consider it.