University High School
Instructor: Jim Garrett
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Redemptive or Racist?
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Redemptive or Racist?
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a controversial novel whose moral goodness has been debated by critics for at least a century. Reading the novel in English class has made me aware of why the novel is so controversial, as from the perspective of some, the book perpetuates racism, while from the perspective of others, the book is a strong critique of racism. Because Huck Finn contains many moments of moral ambiguity, it creates an essential if sometimes uncomfortable discussion, as was evident throughout my English class discussions. As I first read the novel, I thought that Huck Finn was a literary masterpiece that promoted racial development, as the main character, Huckleberry Finn, goes through moral turmoil as his sound heart battles his deformed conscience. However, many in my English class had conflicting opinions, and these meaningful discussions made me reconsider my first reactions to the book's goodness. While I came to doubt the book's goodness at times, especially in light of its problematic ending, I still came away with the idea that Huck makes significant moral development. While attitudes toward Twain's novel can vary both between and even within any given English class, Huck Finn creates necessary discussion about a sometimes neglected topic of how to achieve a morally sound perspective on race in America. Thus, the novel's moral ambiguity might be what makes it so compelling. The principal argument of racism goes beyond just my English class to the entire United States. Despite or perhaps because of its moral confusion, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a good novel, as it takes a satirical and ironic approach to the institution of slavery through Twain's use of the n-word, makes amusing and powerful critiques of Southern conformity, and highlights the bond created between a black man and a white boy as a metaphor for a racially divided America.
The main source of controversy and a primary reason why some argue that Huck Finn is a racist novel is the frequent use of the n-word. The complaint against Twain's use of the word is that it degrades blacks. Defenders of the novel's goodness cite the word as being the operative term for blacks by southern whites at the time the novel is set. However, beyond its historical accuracy, Twain also uses the word against racists, as in the often cited conversation between Huck and Aunt Sally. Huck, who is attempting to rescue Jim from the Phelps plantation, has a conversation with Aunt Sally where he says, "It wasn't the grounding- that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder head" (Twain, 230), to which Aunt Sally, responds, "Good gracious! Anybody hurt"? (Twain, 230). At this point, Huck has grown to respect Jim and to treat him as a friend and perhaps even a surrogate father, so it comes as a surprise that he would then say what he does: "No'm. Killed an n--" (Twain, 230). The shock value seems deliberate, but what is also deliberate is that it sets up Aunt Sally's racism, as she replies, "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt" (Twain, 230). The fact that Aunt Sally does not acknowledge that a black person was killed, that she does not see blacks as "people," makes Twain's point about the racists in the South that Huck has to get around to get Jim free. Twain is satirizing southern racism with this exchange, humorously using the word to highlight southern ignorance. David Smith, in his essay, "Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse", explains what Twain is up to here: "Huck has never met Aunt Sally prior to this scene, and in spinning a lie which this stranger will find unobjectionable, he correctly assumes the common notion of Negro subhumanity will be appropriate. Huck's offhand remark is intended to exploit Aunt Sally's attitudes, not to express Huck's own" (Smith, 365). Huck's racist remarks are thus not truly racist; he is trying to show the irony and stupidity of southern dehumanization of blacks. Smith sees the word as just part of Huck's acting the role of whoever Aunt Sally is expecting, the part of a racist Southern white, and that "The conception of the n-word is a socially constituted and sanctioned fiction, and it is just as false and absurd as Huck's explicit fabrication, which Aunt Sally also swallows whole" (Smith, 366). Although not immediately apparent, Huck Finn takes a clear stance through Twain's ironic approach to the institution of slavery. The objection of many readers to Twain's use of the n-word in the novel does not take into account the irony with which Twain uses it, and is therefore not sufficient grounds for accusing Twain of racism in Huck Finn.
If one is able to see beyond the offensive n-word to other targets of Twain's satire than just racist attitudes, one may perceive Twain's attacks on the antebellum South, particularly its backwardness and mob mentality. As an angry mob tries to punish Sherburn for the murder of Boggs, Sherburn calls them out for their crowd bravery and individual cowardice: "Do I know you? I know you clear through. I was born and raised in the South, and I've lived in the north; so I know the average all around . . . Your newspapers call you a brave people so much that you think you are braver than other people whereas you're just as brave, and no braver" (Twain, 162). Twain here calls out the unjustified belief in southern superiority. However, he goes on to suggest that beyond just thinking that they are better than any other region of the country they are in fact cowards and criminals, asking:
Why don't your juries hang murderers? Because they're afraid the man's friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark- and it's just what they would do. So, they always acquit; and then a man goes in the night, with a hundred masked cowards at his back, and lynches the rascal . . . The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that's what an army is-a mob; they don't fight with courage that's born in them, but with courage that's borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. (Twain, 162).
Sherburn's assault on the false sense of superiority and accusation of cowardice through the character of Sherburn makes clear that the South is not some culturally advanced society, but in fact one that is corrupt and conformist in almost every fashion. In contrast to the mob mentality of the white South, Twain holds up Huck and Jim's isolation aboard the raft as the ideal, almost Emersonian alternative, as Huck states, "We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft" (Twain, 134). Twain contrasts Emersonian isolation and freedom from corrupt and conformist society as a rejection of Southern morals and attitudes. Thus, Twain does take a stance against the South and what he sees as its corruption, further making the case for the novel's ultimate goodness.
Many critics have cited the relationship between Huck and Jim as a very problematic one and one that is especially unlikely, given the time period of the novel's action. In particular, some critics have complained that Twain makes Jim ridiculously dependent on Huck, who is in no way in as great a danger as Jim, a runaway slave. Many critics and readers find it a strain on their belief that Jim would not have left Huck as early as the Grangerford episode in order to make his way North to freedom. As Julius Lester points out in his essay, "Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,""The novel plays with black reality from the moment Jim runs away and does not immediately seek his freedom. It defies logic that Jim did not know Illinois was a free state" (Lester, 2-3). Lester finds the book's focus on the relationship between Jim and Huck as unrealistic and an insult to the intelligence of blacks. Jane Smiley agrees with Lester's assessment of Twain underestimating Jim when, in her essay "Say It Ain't So, Huck," she writes, "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). These critics take the stance that this relationship is just not plausible and was really an insult to the intelligence of blacks. However, Smiley and Lester's criticism of Twain's representation of Jim and his subordinate status do not necessarily make the novel any less great as a work of literature. The problem with the second part of their argument is that they seem to fail to realize the significant moral influence that Jim has on Huck. Jim seemingly takes on an avuncular role in his relationship with Huck. Despite what the critics say about Huck's indifference to Jim's plight, Huck does care for Jim, as he vows that he will go hell in order to save Jim when Jim is enslaved once again on the Phelps plantation. Huck proclaims that he will be forever damned rather than abandon Jim, declaring "All right, then, I'll go to hell- and tore it up" (Twain, 233). To show that he cares deeply for Jim, Huck decides not only not to send the letter to Ms. Watson, but to actually conduct Jim's rescue himself, continuing, "I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog" (Twain, 233). Huck's decision to rescue Jim from slavery sums up his relationship with Jim perfectly and raises the novel to the level of great literature with Huck's morally righteous decision. What humanizes this decision, and makes the novel great, is that Huck hesitates, as any white boy in the 1830s South would, as this rescue amounts to a crime. His decision seems criminal to him, but highly moral to the reader. Thus, the relationship between Jim and Huck is one of care and love; even though Huck makes many mistakes, it shows moral development. Huck's gradual awakening reflects America's, as the country too has come a long way in terms of racial understanding. America may not be perfect, but it has taken past mistakes and made significant moral improvements. Huck and Jim's relationship is a metaphor for white America's relationship with its black population; it is rocky and sometimes painful but can be improved when the lessons from the mistakes of the past are learned.
Just as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn creates so much division among readers, there is also much division on race throughout America. Even though there will always be inherent racial problems within society with only gradual change, this change can only happen when we learn, like Huck, from past wrongs and decide to make amends, whatever the cost. Of course, the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn cannot take direct action to fix these problems, and it's unlikely Twain meant it to, but what the novel can do is inspire conversation about race in America and possibly spur readers to take action outside their classrooms to unite their country. Just as the country continues to sort through its racial attitudes, so too do Huck Finn's critics continue to sort through their feelings about the greatness of this American novel.