Huck and the Problem of Slavery
“But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody” (Twain 95). As is epitomized by the preceding quote, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain one of the central conflicts is that of the character of Huck’s battle with his conscience in regard to the question of slavery. Throughout the novel the author slowly changes Huck’s mind about the ethics of slavery by introducing him into situations where black people are taken out of their stereotypical roles. To a great extent, Huck’s revelations about slavery are due to his friendship with Jim, a runaway slave who used to belong to Miss Watson, the Widow Douglas’ sister. As a young boy, Huck does not have all the prejudices of the older members of the Southern community, yet he does know that aiding a runaway slave is legally wrong. Thus, it is a pivotal moment indeed when Huck first discovers Jim on Jackson Island, as his decision to “spare” Jim drastically changes the direction in which the novel is proceeding and sets the stage for much of Huck’s maturation and development as a character.
After having staged his own death Huck goes to Jackson Island to lie low for a while. When he stumbles upon a smoking campfire he is afraid, but the next day he goes to find out whom his mysterious neighbor is, and encounters Jim. Admitting to be a runaway after having been reassured that Huck was not a ghost, Jim recounts the tale of how he had to flee to escape being sold down South by Miss Watson. It is at this point when the reader first sees Jim as more of a three-dimensional character, rather than the big black buck who thought he had been ridden around the world by witches when Tom Sawyer played a prank on him. This is because one can empathize with the fact that Jim does not want to split his family up, although at the same time he take pride in the fact that he is worth $800.
Upon his discovery of Jim, Huck is immediately faced with the responsibility of protecting Jim. As he is a runaway himself, it could be argued that Huck could not turn Jim in without risk of exposing himself. However, it is more logical to argue that the main reason Huck “spares” Jim when he first comes across him is that he hungers for human companionship. Throughout the first few chapters the reader’s impression of Huck is as an extremely self-reliant character. Yet, he often complains that he is “lonesome,” as well a young boy left to his own devices would be. Jim is a part of his old, safe home with the Widow Douglas, one that Huck can bring with him as he embarks upon his adventures. Although Jim is extremely superstitious and illogical, he also has some practical skills. For example, when Jim sees some young birds flying strangely he warns that there will be rain, and lo and behold, a torrential downpour which would have soaked them to the skin if they had not taken shelter in a cave arrives. In this way Jim starts to become somewhat of a father figure; definitely a better father for Huck than that embodied by Pap.
The strength of character that allows Huck to harbor Jim is tested continually during the course of their travels. At first Huck acts as master and Jim as servant in their relationship, as they have apparently continued their societal roles even in isolation from society. This probably makes Huck feel important, as he has never had a slave of his own. At this juncture in the novel Huck is not yet willing to make big sacrifices for Jim as is shown later on in the Walter Scott incident as well as when they are lost in the fog. As the story progresses though, Jim and Huck face many conflicts together and so the gap between them grows narrower. However, even as friends, it is clear that Huck’s relationship with Jim is very different from the one he has with Tom Sawyer. While Tom is a playmate and Huck allows himself to become a follower and to participate in wild fantasies, Jim is a person who will actually take care of him. Jim’s steadfast loyalty to Huck at first could be interpreted as mainly for protection, but in the end a bond of love has grown between them. This bond is what convinces Huck to say, “all right, I’ll go to Hell,” when he tears up the letter that he has written to Miss Watson. Thus, as a result of his first decision to make a companion of Jim in chapter seven, a paradigm shift of moral values from what society deems is correct to what Huck in his heart knows is the right path has been effected.
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