Huck’s emerging understanding of Jim’s humanity and their friendship is a central theme of Huck Finn. As such, many argue that Huck Finn is in fact an anti-racist novel. Yet Twain is not especially committed to this theme, and there are points in which Jim is an object of ridicule.
If Huck accepts Jim as a true friend, it must follow logically that Huck rejects the institution of slavery. Though Huck feels this sentiment is wrong, ultimately he resolves to side with Jim over the mores of his society.
Huck and Jim’s Friendship
Sometimes two people who otherwise have little in common form a bond due to circumstances throwing them together for a time. This is what occurs with Huck and Jim. If it were not for the fact that they were both fleeing civilization, perched on their raft floating peacefully on the Mississippi River, it is doubtful they would have otherwise had much to discuss.
Jim is a charming fellow, whose ingenuousness and superstition put him on an even playing field with Huck, who is also superstitious. Huck explains just one of his superstitious beliefs:
“...I’ve always reckoned that looking at the new moon over your left shoulder is one of the carelessest and foolishest things a body could do” (46).
Huck casually refers to Jim as an n-word. It might be shocking, certainly to modern readers. Even at the time of publication (1885), n*gger was known to be a derogatory term. It wasn’t exactly a compliment.
In the context of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim is a character like any other, who is allowed to have faults as well as noble qualities…
As the narrative unfolds, Huck develops a building respect and appreciation for Jim. Jim works hard and shows good teamwork in their experience together on the raft. When Huck uses the N-word to refer to Jim, Twain is showing a jarring contrast between Huck’s perception of Jim’s humanity and Huck’s engrained prejudice.
For example, when Huck notes Jim’s late night vigils in which he mourns his lost wife and children, Huck reflects, “He was a mighty good n*gger, he was” (131). The more Jim is fully human, the less appropriate the n-word becomes, though that is Huck’s only frame of reference through which to regard Jim. Hence with the contrast between the word/ label and the man, Twain illustrates a disparity between Jim’s humanity and Southerners’ perception of Blacks in that society.
Like Huck, Jim has a naïve understanding of the world, yet he has his own brand of common sense observations. This creates moments of humor and irony when common sense and the existing world don’t quite match. For example, in considering that the Biblical King Solomon had a harem, Jim proffers:
“Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nursery. En I reck’n the wives quarrel considable. En dat ‘crease da racket. Yit dey say Sollerman da wises man dat ever live’. I doan take no stock en dat” (66).
Jim and Huck dialogue in order to make sense of a world which strikes them as baffling and contradictory. “I reck’n I knows what I knows” (66) says Jim defiantly. There is an internal logic to Jim’s mode of thinking as he discusses King Solomon and other subjects. He is clever in his own way, though he is illiterate and has been a slave all his life.
Yet at times we also feel as though Twain is making fun of Jim. By today’s standards, of course, this would be considered deeply racist and problematic. In the context of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim is a character like any other, who is allowed to have faults as well as noble qualities, who is allowed to sound stupid and ridiculous sometimes. A modern novel would not be permitted to treat its characters in such a manner in our hyper-politically correct environment.
Keep in mind, though, that Twain personally observed slaves in his Uncle’s farm who spoke of witches, ghosts, and magic spells (Powers 30). It wasn’t from prejudice that Twain imputes superstitious beliefs to slaves in Huck Finn; it was from personal experience (and of course Huck isn’t much less superstitious than Jim).
When Huck plays a joke on Jim, he has to again reevaluate their relationship. Huck and Jim are separated, Jim on the raft and Huck on the canoe. They try to find each other through the fog. When Huck finally finds Jim asleep on the raft, Huck pretends the entire incident was Jim’s dream. But when he sees how deeply Jim lamented their separation, Huck realizes that he violated Jim’s trust, and that Jim’s trust is worth something. Thus, Huck has to “humble himself to a n***er” (73), as he crudely puts it, to repair the friendship.
Huck Considers Slavery
His collaboration in Jim’s escape shows Huck for the first time rejecting the regional antebellum morality on slavery and instead trusting his intuition on what constitutes right and wrong. Huck and Jim mutually assist one another on the island. For his part, Jim, who refers to his fellow slaves as “servants,” wanted to escape because he overheard information that he would be sold to another master, and wishes that he had the cash, 600 dollars, his supposed market value as a slave.
When Jim and Huck are approaching the free states, Huck has an attack of conscience. He feels that he is betraying Miss Watson and his Southern community by helping Jim to freedom. Jim’s talk of buying back his wife and even stealing their children strikes Huck as brazen. He resolves to turn Jim in; that is until Jim expresses his heartfelt gratitude towards Huck, at which point of course Huck just can’t do it:
“...it seemed to kind of take the tuck all out of me” (76).
Soon after, Huck manages to save Jim from some slave hunters on the river thanks to his preternatural ability to lie.
The moral system of Huck’s world tugs at him. It is in his superego, and despite their bond, he feels it is wrong to help Jim. Yet Twain seems to be telling us that in betraying his conscience (or superego), Huck is ascending to a higher moral order.
The entire journey up the river in the raft is a quest to bring Jim to freedom. It was not a mission that Huck chose deliberately; it is simply how the journey evolved by virtue of his companion. Whatever Huck was running from becomes an afterthought; the memory of his father is not particularly malevolent, more amusing if anything; and that of Miss Watson, a benevolent force not missed too bitterly, but thought upon with consideration. In fact, he remembers his father’s witticisms, though they are not particularly eloquent:
“If I never learnt nothing else out of pap, I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way” (106).
The pronoun “his” here is ambiguous. Whose kind of people? It could refer to pap himself, or it may refer to the fraudsters, the King or the Duke, with whom Huck was presently sharing a raft.
Another example of Huck’s growing unease with slavery is when the Duke and the King sell off Mary Jane’s slaves, separating the two sons from their mother:
“The thing made a big stir in town, too, and a good many came out flatfooted and said it was scandalous to separate the mother and the children that way.” (153)
Apparently even for the slaveholders the King’s sale of the slaves crossed a line, suggesting there was a certain ethical code even within the unethical institution of slavery. The poignancy of this scene is mitigated, however, because Huck believes the sale will be null and void once it is realized that the Kind and Duke are frauds. Mary Jane cries hysterically, explaining that the separation of the sons from their mother will ruin her (expected) trip to England.
This doesn’t fit into the current dichotomous paradigm of slave-holders being devoid of moral feeling. Mary Jane is a part of the institution of slavery, and yet she feels deeply for the humanity of her slaves. One wouldn’t find this type of depiction in modern portrayals of slaves and slaveholder in fiction or film.
Like most people, Tom Sawyer simply accepts the mores of the society he lives in without much further reflection.
Huck’s transgression against Southern norms of slavery come to a crisis point when he learns that the King has sold Jim. He considers alerting Miss Watson, but then reasons that doing so would reflect badly on him. He felt “wicked and low down and ornery” (178), believing that he was at fault, that he should have gone to Sunday school so as to be “good” whereas he had been “bad” by helping Jim. As such, he has painted himself into a corner.
Finally, and famously Huck declares to himself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (179).
Here he decides to shut out that voice of conscience telling him to do right by his society (because this is also his conscience, though it isn’t “right” by our standards).
The conscience is a theme in Huck Finn, and it isn’t always in relation to slavery. Huck finds himself feeling guilty to see the King and the Duke tarred and feathered. Despite their misdeeds (to make an understatement), Huck still feels bad for them. He concludes that the conscience is an arbitrary thing which ultimately tortures us for no good reason. His idol, Tom Sawyer, agrees.
Huck has a fairly deep moral feeling. It just so happens that slavery is the most pressing ethical issue of his time, and therefore this is the theme which troubles him throughout the novel. It is his superego telling him that helping a runaway slave is bad; yet it is his conscience telling him it is right. He is surprised that Tom Sawyer is also willing to help him free Jim:
“Here was a boy that was respectable, and well brung up; and had a character to lose; and folks at home that had characters; and he was bright and not leather-headed; and knowing and not ignorant; and not mean, but kind; and yet here was was, without any more pride, or rightness, or feeling, than to stoop to this business, and make himself a shame, and his family a shame, before everybody” (195).
In some ways, Huck holds himself in low regard. Part of it is because his father is a drunk and a loser, and after all those are “his people.” Furthermore, he’s a collaborator in Jim’s escape. He holds Tom Sawyer in a high regard, so it’s hard for him to understand Tom “stooping” to his level. Yet Tom Sawyer is not a deeply moral thinker. To him, helping Jim escape just seems like a fun caper, and he is not particularly concerned by the deeper moral implications. Tom isn’t troubled by slavery, but he’s also not troubled by acting (in this particular instance) in a way that is against the institution. Like most people, he simply accepts the mores of the society he lives in without much further reflection.
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Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NY: Random House, 2001.