The Construction and Representation of Characters by Twain
In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” Mark Twain depicts various characters in the story according to his own moral and social beliefs. He portrays some characters as admirable or virtuous, and others as dislikeable or amoral. These portrayals reflect Twain’s own sociological, religious, and moral belief system.
Twain portrays the main character of the story, Huck Finn, in a very positive light. This is no surprise, but when you examine Huck’s traits you can see the values Twain sees as being desirable. For example, Huck is a very morally good person. This is evident when he helps the runaway slave, Jim, to escape slavery by taking a raft up the Mississippi river, and when he foils the con job by telling the eldest Wilks sister the truth.
Huck was a physically abused son of an alcoholic. This creates sympathy in the reader, which makes him more likeable. His charm, however, lies in his personality. Huck is the embodiment of youthful rebellion, and childish adventure. His freedom from everyday rules and regulations give him freedom that other boys his age can only dream about. His rugged adventurousness gives him naturalism.
These qualities go straight to the heart of any boy in Huck’s age group, which is why this book has always been so popular among young readers. These qualities could also imply that Twain has great appreciation for youth and a naturally adventurous spirit.
Another character Twain portrays in a positive light is Jim. Again Twain uses sympathy to get the reader to feel sorry for or take pity on Jim. He is a runaway slave, viewed to some as property but portrayed here in a very human perspective. Jim is shown as a person who befriends Huck, and greatly misses his wife and children. Jim is humanized in a book where he could very easily been objectified. In fact, it was a societal norm to treat blacks as objects in the setting of the book, and many other characters do so. This is relevant to Twain’s own views on slavery. Twain was known to have anti-slavery beliefs, and more openly gets this idea across in some of his other writings. According to Twain critic Jim Zwick, “First made public through the New York Times in 1985 after it was authenticated by Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Mark Twain’s letter to Francis Wayland is an important document. Unlike Huckleberry Finn, which masks the author’s views through both Huck’s first-person narration and the use of satire, the letter to Wayland directly expresses Twain’s thoughts on racism in American society and the responsibility of America’s white citizens. His conclusion that “the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it,” iscertainly far from David Horowitz’s assertions that centuries of slavery benefited African Americans and that calls for reparations are somehow “one more assaulton America” (Zwick). Twain was known for having anti-slavery views, and the humanization and sympathy for Jim are evidence of that.To give an example of a character that Twain looks down upon, we can examine the details of the Duke and the King. The Duke and the King are very upper class nobles from another country that take some very immoral action. They manipulate and lie to a small town, claiming to be benefactors of someone’sdeath. The con job is an attempt to steal a sum of money from the family of thedeceased man. The Duke and the King also show Twain’s anti-slavery views, because they are all right with slavery as long as it can make them some quick cash. This is shown when they try to turn Jim in to the slaveholders for a reward. These negative actions cast a shadow of doubt on the characters, causing them to be disliked by the reader. This reflects Twain’s attitudes towards foreigners and his anti-aristocratic views.
The Grangerfords and the Shepardsons are another example of Twain’s anti-aristocratic views. Twain portrays these two aristocratic families as having money, and being pro-slavery. In the story, the two families are in a heated dispute, ending in the deaths of both families. The two families killed each other by placing money ahead of human life.
Twain gives a very broad look into his views on civilization as a whole in this book. He does this by portraying characters in a good light if they have values he supports, and portraying them in a bad light if he disagrees with their qualities. Through the characters of Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas, Twain shows how he views maternal figures that are not biological mothers. Using this approach, the qualities of religion, education, rules, laws, and some money are good aspects of civilized life (represented to Huck as Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas).
However, Twain also has some negative views on society as a whole, as can be seen by examining other characters. The slave hunters, the Duke and the King, and the Grangersons and the Shepardsons all represent a part of society Twain does not agree with. Slavery. These characters are all portrayed by Twain as being amoral, criminal, and murderous. They all seem to have a common trait of excessive greed. Greed is a part of society represented by many of the characters in the story. The Duke and the King are some of the greediest characters in the book. Their lack of morality causes them to commit crimes and trick people in order to satisfy their greed. The slave hunters are out searching the river for a human being in order to trade him in for money. It is obvious Twain does not look highly upon these people. The Grangerfords and the Shepardsons are aristocratic and upper class slave owners in a murderous feud with each other. Not one side knows how the feud got started, but they continue to kill each other each year. This shows a lack of brotherly and neighborly love on the parts of these two families. It also implies that Twain believes in the value of loving one’s neighbor.There has been much controversy over this book in the past and some have gone so far as to call it racist. However, if one looks at the portrayal of Jim, it is possible to see Twain’s sympathy for blacks, and the struggle they have gone through. Otherwise, Jim would not have been depicted as a human being with sympathy for his feelings and emotions.Twain was not only a great writer, but also a great thinker with strong ethical and sociological beliefs. Twain lets these beliefs show through in the characters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Zwick, Jim. “Mark Twain’s Reparations for Slavery”. Essay. (2002): Online. Internet. Available: www.boondocksnet.com
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