Huckleberry Finn and the American Journey to Equality
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain creates a sense that Huck and Jim grow close and Huck perhaps begins to see Jim not as a slave, but as a human being. In accordance with his reputation for cynicism, though, Twain forgoes the expected ending—which would perhaps include Jim being elevated in the eyes of Huck and others to the status of an actual human being—to a more anticlimactic and problematic ending in which Jim remains a superstitious bumpkin and the people of Pikesville only grant him freedom through a legal technicality. Ultimately, no great moral journey is made to match the great physical journey down the Mississippi River. Subtly, Twain nevertheless inserts hints that in spite of the lack of moral progress that has been made, hope exists for such future progress. With this ending, Twain mimics the state of the nation at the time of the novel’s 1885 publication. Essentially, Twain indicates in the ending that while he is unpretentious about the progress that has been made toward racial equality as of yet, he is still optimistic about the potential for future growth.
To understand the ending, one must understand that, through a series of separate episodes that clearly satirize elements of society, Twain makes the whole journey of Jim and Huckleberry a comment on ideological and moral extremes throughout the nation. Pap’s rant in which he refuses to participate in the government of a country “where they’d let [a] nigger vote” (Twain 20) is Twain’s comment on the ignorance of die-hard southerners and other dissenters who attack the government, but lack the desire to actually change anything. Misguided political and ideological conviction, though, is equally detrimental as illustrated by the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud in which nobody knows “what the row was about in the first place” (Twain 82). With these two examples, Twain attacks the apathetic Americans who care nothing for the country as well as the fierce nationalists who caused the Mexican and Civil Wars. He also attacks the moral extremes of Americans, such as those who only come to the King and Duke’s show only when “Ladies and children are not admitted” (Twain 114) due to the graphic content. Conversely, he attacks those who believe that the nation can be turned into an almost utopian state based on Christian ethics as exemplified by what the new judge tries to do with Pap when he “said he would make a man out of [Pap]” (Twain 16), but Pap responds by “trading his new coat for a jug of forty-rod” and getting “drunk as a fiddler” (Twain 17). These and other episodes in the novel reveal the social corruption of the nation at the time and how many efforts of reform failed or even enabled this corruption to continue due to its pretentious understanding of human nature. Overall, Twain attacks any extreme belief that was prevalent in the nation at the time and points to these beliefs as a root of many of the nation’s woes.
While the novel confronts a variety of American issues, the key topic Twain addresses is racism, which is accomplished by emphasizing the degree to which Huck ponders the morality of Jim’s enslavement. No in depth reading of Huckleberry Finn is required to understand that on some level, it is a story about a slave trying to escape to freedom. Where Twain reveals that the story’s deeper meaning involves slavery is where Huck begins to ponder moral issues in regards to Jim. When approaching Cairo, Huck seriously contemplates the implications of freeing Jim and “feels so low down and miserable he wishes he was dead” (Twain 66). Later, when Jim is captured by the Phelps family and Huck decides to free him, Huck thought about Jim as a friend and “couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden [himself] against [Jim]” (Twain 161). Essentially, Huck faces a developing sense of morality in regards to Jim throughout the novel. The moral progression may not live up to Huck’s early decisions to help Jim escape, as reflected by his belief “He’ll go to hell” (Twain 162) for freeing Jim from the Phelps family, yet the simple fact that any moral thought is put forth by Huck indicates that slavery is the central issue of the book. Throughout the novel, Huck lies, participates in schemes, and steals, yet virtually all his moral dilemmas revolve around slavery. Even when Huck has uncertainties about what to do for Mary Jane when the King and Duke try to steal the inheritance, slavery becomes involved after Mary Jane reveals her concerns to Huck about the sold slaves in that “she didn’t know how she could ever be happy… knowing the mother and children warn’t ever going to see each other no more” (Twain 140). The extent to which Huck morally progresses is fairly unimportant; simply the fact that he shows a moral interest in the issue of slavery when he cares little about any other societal aspect discloses the importance of slavery to the meaning of the novel. Twain, however, does not have Huck ponder widespread issues such as the justice of the national practice of slavery. Instead, before Huck tries to save Jim from the Phelps, Huck thinks of Jim as someone who stood before him “sometimes [in] moonlight, sometimes [in] storms…talking, and singing, and laughing” (Twain 161). By emphasizing the human aspect instead of the political aspect, Twain shifts attention from the widespread issue of slavery to racism which individuals are subjected to.
The anticlimactic nature of the ending to a novel that is about the moral and ideological state of the nation reveals that the author remains unimpressed with the nation’s progress in regards to race. One would expect that a book written about race relations at the height of the Jim Crow laws should be fairly critical, and in the case of Huckleberry Finn, the reader is not disappointed in that regard. Jim has in fact obtained freedom by the end of the book just as slaves were freed by the Thirteenth Amendment. He has not however gained the full respect of society because even after the doctor recounts the heroism shown by rescuing Tom, he is still referred to as “no bad nigger” (Twain 215) instead of an actual person and the only reward he receives is that the townspeople “promised, right out and hearty, that they wouldn’t cuss him no more” (Twain 215). Furthermore, Twain ridicules the erroneous belief that simple freedom will elevate the former slave to equality by revealing to the reader that Jim still has his primitive superstitions. At the beginning of the novel, while still a slave, Jim “had a hairball as big as your fist… and he used to do magic with it” (Twain 13). After obtaining freedom and forty dollars from Tom–which is perhaps an allusion to the forty dollars and mule promised, but never delivered, to free slaves– his basic position has not changed as indicated by his belief that a hairy chest led to his newfound wealth. In essence, Jim gained physical freedom but failed to obtain intellectual and social freedom. Mark Twain uses the treatment of Jim in Huckleberry Finn to tell readers that the nation has granted freedom to slaves, yet has done little to actually enable slaves beyond passing simple legislation, such as acknowledging their humanity.
In spite of Mark Twain’s characteristic cynicism, he ends The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on a note of cautious optimism, which offers a hope for future redemption through the change in circumstances of Huck Finn. By having Pap die and let Huck keep his six thousand dollars, Twain reveals that the political dissenters, especially the intransigent former Confederates, are dying off, leaving the nation in the hands of a younger generation that is accustomed to a free, if not yet equal, black race. Additionally, at the very end of the novel, Huck decides to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” (Twain 220). In having Huck do this, Twain points out that the nation still has much room to progress and that the coming years offer the possibility of the nation moving on and finding opportunities to at least partially atone and move past its previous acceptance of slavery. Perhaps Twain, like many other Americans, saw hope for new beginnings in the west and was inspired by black “exodusters” who fled white oppression in the south by fleeing to Kansas. While not exceptionally flattering to the nation in terms of what has been accomplished, Mark Twain reveals a faith in the Republic by emphasizing that the potential for change exists and the time may arrive when racial equality can in fact be realized.
The ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may be a letdown, yet it is also where the purpose of the story can be truly understood. Twain does not write the story of Huck Finn simply as a hilarious adventure, although it can certainly be read at that level. He instead writes it to serve as a commentary on American society as he saw it in the “Gilded Age” (a sarcastic term originated by Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today). If the story had a happy ending that left the reader satisfied with the life of Huck and Jim, Twain would blatantly betray the purpose of the novel and the book may still be entertaining and contain moral lessons, but the lessons would ring hollow. Instead, he is able to punctuate his story about the nation with an ending that serves as both a report card and a road map for the American journey to equality.
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