The Story of a Boy with a Big Heart
Meghan WalshHonors American Literature
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has been called both a brilliant piece of satire and a piece of racist trash. The premise of this “American Classic” is that two socially outcasted characters, an abused boy escaping his drunken father and an escaped slave, come together to escape the Southern states and create a new life in the free states. They attempt this by building a raft and floating down the Mississippi River, then floating back up a different river to get to free territory. Apparently unbeknownst to them, they could have just crossed the river to get to free territory instead. Their journey is brought to a halt many times. They join forces with two characters known as “the King” and “the Duke”, who make money scamming people. They get caught up in a deadly family feud. They even almost encounter a lynching. By just skimming over the book you may be lead to believe that it is nothing more then an adventure novel, but under the surface, there are many more forces at work underneath the surface. The novel is narrated through the main character Huckleberry Finn’s voice, a young white boy who grew up in the South during the 1830s and 40s.
Especially at the beginning of the novel, Huck’s attitudes and language reflect the time and place of his upbringing. He uses the N-word as a synonym for African Americans and equates “white” with “good” or “nice”, despite most of the white characters in his life being far from perfect: his father was a drunken abusive mess who locked him in a cabin for days on end, he was taken in by an affluent, “christian” family stuck in a multi-generational feud (which no one really knows why it started) that ends in the death multiple people, including a child. Undeniably, this book is controversial in its language, in its characterization, and in its plot points, it pulls no punches. Since its publication in 1884, it has been the subject of intense debate. The debate today is no less sensitive or controversial; it has been both banned in various high schools and put on the required reading list in others. Just as race-relations have changed in the country over the last century, so have the reasons for controversy and debate surrounding Huck Finn. Today, most agree that characterizing an African American character as a good person is not enough to prove a book is not racist; today’s controversy lies in the characterization of the main black character Jim and other African American characters and whether or not the book is an effective satire of white supremacy.While it may not be outwardly racist and would have made an effective satire in a Jim Crow era society, today, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serves only to reinforce unconscious racial attitudes by making the central African American character, Jim, emotionally unrealistic, stereotyping black people as minstrel characters, and failing to take slavery and its atrocities seriously. It is therefore unsuitable for a school environment, lest we introduce the harmful stereotypes that are present in the novel and enable damaging stereotype-based humor on school grounds.
Jim and African American characters, in order to appear more humorous to a white audience, are characterized more as minstrel caricatures than believable human beings. An example of Jim’s characterization being sacrificed for the sake humor can be found in Chapter 2 when Huck and Tom Sawyer put Jim’s hat a the tree when he’s sleeping and watch as Jim comes to the conclusion he has been visited by a ghost. Soon Jim becomes a local celebrity as other black people come to hear his story. The boys take advantage of his stereotypical superstition for their and the reader’s amusement just as minstrel shows often did. In this scene, Jim and the southern African American population is reduced to your stereotypical superstitious group of black people simply to amuse a white audience. You are expected to laugh at Jim’s superstitiousness the same way you would laugh at a minstrel show. However, when you reduce a character to a caricature, you also lose your empathy for them; we see Jim, in this scene and others, as less than fully human because he is characterized as less than fully human. Forcing black characters, especially Jim, into the molds of minstrel darky keeps them from being whole, fully characterized, human beings who we are capable of empathizing with.
While the middle section is, for the most part, refreshingly free from these caricatures, the evasion sequence, in the words of Peaches Henry in her essay, “The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn”, “constitutes an absolute betrayal”. From writing with blood on t-shirts and allowing himself to live with rats and other vermin because a little white boy told him to, the evasion sequence completely reverses Jim’s character development and invalidates what the book attempts to disprove in the middle chapters. What use was it to go through all of the work of developing Jim’s character if you are just going to completely disregard it at the climax of the novel? Fritz Oeschlaeger’s “‘Gwyne to Git Hung’,: The Conclusion of Huckleberry Finn”, as featured in Henry’s essay, outlines this failure to retain a developing character from the middle chapters, writing that “… Jim becomes again the stereotyped, minstrel-show ‘n*gger’ of the novel’s first section, a figure to be manipulated, tricked, and ridiculed by the boys.” Much like characters in a minstrel show, this reduction from human to caricature makes the audience less empathetic to the pain and injustice they suffer.Jim is passive and docile; he is created to be likable through compliance.
Jim is what Julius Lester calls a “black hero”, the only type of black character white people really care for: “faithful, tending to sick whites, not speaking, not causing trouble, and totally passive”. He is exactly the character we see in books, movies, and tv shows to appeal to a white audience- not confrontational, not upstanding. He is passive and faithful. This passivity is painfully obvious in the Evasion sequence. One such example of Jim’s ridiculous passiveness was when Tom said Jim must allow rats and other vermin to live with him in his cell. With very little objection, Jim allows the boys to put rats into his cell. Jim is compliant to Huck and later Tom, and just as outrageously, he’s happy to be this way- all Jim needs to be completely compliant to Huck is Huck’s compassion. Jane Smiley, in her essay, “Say It Ain’t So, Huck” writes about Jim’s affection towards often oppressive or dismissive characters, saying, “If Huck feels positive towards Jim, and loves him, and thinks of him as a man, then that’s enough. He doesn’t actually have to act in accordance with his feelings.” Those who write in favor of Huck Finn often talk about how Huck feels about Jim. They often ignore his actions, which much of the time completely contradict how he feels toward Jim; Huck goes along with Tom’s elaborate plan to free Jim, which ends in Jim almost being put back into slavery, in order to impress Tom and get his approval. He puts Jim’s need to escape slavery in the back of his mind and focuses on his own adventures. Huck does not treat Jim with compassion but Huck feelings toward Jim is enough, and Huck’s “compassion” shouldn’t be enough for an escaped slave to sacrifice all that he’s earned. (Smiley 3) This passivity and complete compliance, brought on because a white boy thinks he is “white inside”, reduces him in the Evasion sequence, and much of the book, to a plaything and a joke.
One of the leading supporters of Huck Finn is David L Smith, who his essay, “Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse”, addresses none of the points made by those who reference Jim’s lack of character development and his fall back to a minstrel character stock-types as proof of the evasion sequence’s (and thus the book’s) failure. Smith frequently references how the characterization of Jim contradicts that of the expected characterization of black people in white eyes, but does not give reference any such incident of this from the Evasion Sequence. This avoidance of the evasion sequence by Huck Finn supporters is not uncommon nor is it surprising; proponents of the evasion sequence just can’t seem to disprove that fact that, while at some points during the middle section of the novel we see an attempt at creating a fully developed character, any progress made in Jim’s characterization is completely abolished during the infamous evasion sequence. Many admit that the novel would be better off without the last twenty-five percent of the novel. But it is important to recognize that this section is in the novel, and it therefore completely delegitimizes the entire book and nullifies any character development worked towards in the middle chapters. Smith defends this section by calling Jim morally superior for his actions in the evasion sequence. He writes that “Twain… contrasts Jim’s self-sacrificing compassion with the cruel and mean-spirited behavior of his captors, emphasizing that white skin does not justify claims of superior virtue.” Smith ultimately claims that since a black man is doing the right thing and a white man is not, the book automatically is not racist. Such logic is horribly outdated.
In the twenty-first century, we are far past the days where any tv show, movie, or book is deemed not racist merely if the black character is not horrible and a white character is. We cannot just brush aside all of the stereotypes and characterization-based fallacies peppered throughout the book because in the end Jim is a good person- today, we have higher standards. Because it fails to create a fully emotionally capable human being in Jim, the book itself also fails to take Jim’s needs, escaping slavery, seriously. Like Huck, the book and storyline itself inexplicably does not prioritize Jim’s escape from slavery over Huck and Tom’s adventures. Not only are we expected to abandon our sense of logic and intelligence by accepting that Jim did not know the pair could simply cross the river to escape to free territory, choosing instead to go deep into the heart of slave territory, we also are expected to lose our empathy for Jim’s condition at this point. It is in this moment, when the book completely writes off that they could simply cross over the river to free territory, that we learn slavery will not be an issue brought to the forefront of the novel. When Jim and Huck are forced down the river completely illogically into slave territory, we should realize Jim’s escape from enslavement will not be a deep and philosophical plot point, but instead, an excuse for adventure. And “adventure” should not be the first word that comes to your mind when you think of escaping slavery. This completely illogical behavior is prevalent throughout the book. Most outrageously, he allows Tom to impede and seemingly foil his escape completely through a series of meaningless and harmful tasks for Tom’s own amusement. He scribbles on t-shirts with his own blood and is repeatedly bitten by the rats he allowed Tom to put in his cell. And most outrageously, he sacrifices his escape simply to please a boy he undeservingly gave his compassion.
The evasion sequence doesn’t prove the morality of black people, it delegitimizes and brushes aside African American’s systematic maltreatment and abuse at the hands of slavery.To the impressionable teenage mind, such stereotypes and generalizations can be extremely harmful. While the book may help blatant racists realize that black people are not, in fact, the worst, in today’s society, making teenagers read Huck Finn will only reinforce biases that can serve to create racial tensions in a school environment. In short, I discourage Wayland High School from putting Huck Finn in the required reading list. Even if you think that Twain had some “deeper meaning” in his characterization of Jim (which would directly contradict Twain’s personal beliefs), you cannot expect your average teenager, at their age and ability level, to understand it.
Whether you believe if the novel is a brilliant satire or racist trash, the stereotyping of African Americans and the disregard for their needs, no matter the purpose, is more likely to resonate with a teenager than with any “deeper meaning”. Henry voiced similar concerns about giving such a book to teens, saying that for adolescents, “… the more obvious negative aspects of Jim’s depiction may overshadow the more subtle uses to which they are put.” Even the most wholehearted and determined supporters of Huckleberry Finn must admit that there is indeed scenes in which African Americans are characterized in stereotypical ways for comedic effect- that is undeniable. Smith himself wrote that, “could be excused as a characteristic of the genre of humor within which Twain works.” Justin Kaplan, another determined Huck Finn supporter, justified this comedic stereotyping as a way of healing race relations in America. To Kaplan, I ask: how did the stereotypical humor of the minstrel shows help race-relations in the nineteenth century? How does blackface help race-relations today? The results for both were that of even more oppression and greater strain on race relations. Now imagine if Kaplan’s and Smith’s logic was applied to schools.
No doubt, the results would be catastrophic. If we hand out and actively support such a book, one that stereotypes for the sake of humor, into the hands of adolescents, are we not enabling if not encouraging teens to do the same in the school hallways and on social media? Are teachers to teach students that they should make stereotypical jokes to laugh their way to the end of racism as Kaplan suggests? What social repercussions would be a result of these teachings? Especially in the environment of a high school, we cannot risk reinforcing and encouraging stereotypes by making students read such a book. Indeed, due to its rampant stereotyping of black characters, characterization of Jim, it’s failure to take slavery seriously, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn simply has no place as an American Classic in the 21st century and certainly no place in the classrooms of Wayland High School.
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