University High School
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
Analysis of Huck Finn
Analysis of Huck Finn
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a novel that is very important in the history of the United States in the way that it discusses racism. The excessive use of the n-word throughout the book was seen as racist by many people and was even banned by some libraries when the book was published. A critic from the Boston Transcript wrote, "It contains but little humour, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The librarian and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people" (Twain 308). This is just one instance of bitter regards that were made towards the novel; however, many others had the same views. Others believed that the book was a "trashy" book that was meant for those who were uneducated and not respectable. This is due to the uncivilized language, since Huck is an uneducated Southern boy, as well as the use of the n-word. However, although many people view this novel as racist and think that it should not be taught in schools, this novel is actually a critique of racism, including the white supremacy that characterized Southern antebellum culture.
The way in which Mark Twain characterizes certain characters shows a clear critique of racism and other Southern ideals. This can be seen as early as when Pap has a tirade on the African American professor from Ohio. In this rant, Pap is drunk, ill dressed and looks unrespectable. He says a slew of racist insults towards the professor as well. On the other hand, however, the African American professor is described as well dressed, smart and elegant. This is clearly a critique of Southern society as a whole and the racist views of those Southerners. Twain portrays the Southern people as undereducated and essentially "white trash". With this portrayal it is shown that a Southern man is not what someone should aspire to be or act like. In contrast, one should try and be like the African American professor who is a civilized man that is well dressed and elegant. Another example of a similar situation is towards the end of the novel and the way in which Twain characterizes Tom Sawyer. In this instance, Tom Sawyer says he will help Huck try to free Jim, even though he knows that Jim has already been freed by Miss Watson in her will. Huck even questions why Tom would help him free Jim, before he knows that Jim is actually a free man. Tom does this for the "adventure", as he is always looking for action and fun. Tom views Jim as a source of entertainment essentially and uses him in order to have a thrill for himself. He tortures Jim by not telling him that he is a free man and puts him in even more danger by risking the chance of Jim getting caught by slave catchers and being put back into slavery. Twain uses this portrayal to once again show that people should not act like Tom Sawyer, who is a typical Southern boy.
The way in which Jim is characterized shows how African Americans are actually portrayed in a non-racist way throughout the novel. Jim is portrayed as a smart and clever character. However, most Southerners during the nineteenth century believed that slaves and other people of color were subhuman and unintelligent and they were often treated like animals because of it. One instance of Twain portraying Jim as clever is during the hairball incident. Jim uses his cleverness in order to get some money from Huck, when he actually has no right to gain money since he is a slave. Another instance in which Jim uses his smarts is when they come across the small shack on the river and he finds Pap's dead body inside. Jim tells Huck to look away and refrains from telling him that his father has died until Jim realizes that he has been freed at the end of the novel. This is because Jim realized if he told Huck that his father had died earlier when they found the body, Huck would have no more incentive to try and help Jim to freedom. Huck would have no incentive because the reason that he was running from his home was because of his abusive and drunk father, and since he was dead, Huck could return to his home with no fear. Since Jim is characterized as a clever and witty person, it furthers the claim that the novel is not racist.
The relationship between Huck and Jim is also a way in which Twain enforces the claim that the novel is not racist. Huck effectively grows up as an orphan, since he does not have a mother and his father is a drunkard who abuses him. He is a troubled child who does not have a real father figure to look up to, which is a very important thing to have when growing up. However, when Huck meets Jim, Jim acts as that father figure to him. This is very unusual in Southern society as normally, a young white boy would act as a slave master or a superior to Jim, who is a slave. However, with this special father-son relationship between Huck and Jim, Jim is almost portrayed as equal to or even as a superior to Huck. We can visually see this in a number of illustrations throughout the novel. A particular illustration that depicts equality between Jim and Huck is the illustration on page 66 captioned "A fair fit". In this illustration you can visually see that Jim is kneeling down and he is literally on the same level as Huck. This could symbolize equality between the two characters. Additionally, the caption of the picture is "A fair fit", which could symbolize fairness between the two characters. In other words, the caption could be saying that Jim and Huck should both be treated equally and fairly. Since Jim is portrayed as a father figure, or as an equal to Huck, it further supports the claim that the novel is not racist.
The main reason that people claim that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a racist novel is because of its use of the n-word. It was counted that the n-word is used over 200 times throughout the novel. Although this shows that racist language is being used a significant amount throughout the book, it is not in a racist manner. According to David Smith, the n-word is used to "promulgate a conception of 'the Negro' as a subhuman and expendable creature who is by definition feeble-minded, immoral, lazy, and superstitious" (Twain 366). He shows this through the incident that occurs between Huck and Aunt Sally. Aunt Sally asks if anyone was hurt during the raft accident in which Huck responds with "No'm. Killed an 'n' ". Aunt Sally responds with "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt". At the surface level, one would believe that Huck is being racist and is saying that Jim is not considered human since he is a slave, in which Aunt Sally agrees with him. However, Smith argues that Huck is merely assuming that Aunt Sally believes in the common Southern idea of "Negro subhumanity", and he says this in order to "exploit Aunt Sally's attitudes" and not to express his own. Smith later solidifies this point by saying that we obviously know that Huck does not actually believe that Jim is subhuman, as we have seen through their relationship through the course of the novel. As shown in this specific example, the n-word, and other racial stereotypes, are used not to be racist, rather to expose the racist ideals of the racist Southern characters in the novel.
Since this novel is so important when addressing racism in the United States, it is important to show that this book is not racist in itself, rather it is a critique of racism, in contrast to the belief of many. It is shown that the novel is not racist in a number of ways including, the characterization of white Southerners, the characterization of Jim and the special relationship between Jim and Huck. We also see that the use of the n-word throughout the novel, which could be seen as very racist, is rather a way in which Twain is showing the reader that white Southerners during that time period saw slaves and African-Americans as inferior and subhuman. We see that after looking deeper into the novel, Mark Twain is actually making a bold statement and questioning the ideals of Southern antebellum culture in the nineteenth century.