Mark Twain once said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect” (Sharma 120). Similarly, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn analyzes the prevalent societal prejudices bestowed upon the American community. Although author Julius Lester condemns Twain’s limited and deprecating interpretation of African Americans’ roles within the Southern community, the novel authentically and effectively examines three fundamental concepts in Southern society: slavery, through constant comparisons between African Americans and whites; ingrained racism, especially apparent through interactions between contending races; and ideal, bona fide freedom exemplified by Huck and Jim’s individual races towards a liberated lifestyle.
Twain suggests a resemblance in behavior between African Americans and whites, thus highlighting racial similarities and contrasting Lester’s own judgment of the novel. In Lester’s point of view, parental confinement, regardless of the guardian’s intemperance, cannot compare to slavery. One man’s control over a physically-equivalent mortal remains an ambiguous notion to Twain, who conveniently evades the alarming conception of slavery and in kind disregards the gravity of enslavement and those subjugated to its abuse (Lester 43). However, Twain sympathizes with slaves throughout much of the text, revealing that he in fact is aware of the hardships of forced labor. His words guide the reader to sympathize with runaway Jim’s cause rather than to criticize him for escaping. When Jim finds Huck for the first time after fleeing from enslavement, he confesses, “I-I run off that he has run away” (Twain 127).. Though Huck condemns Jim for leaving, the reader realizes a hypocrisy in Huck’s actions and words. Huck criticizes Jim’s escape, when he himself commits the same wrongdoing. Consequently, Twain leaves the reader wondering if Jim’s offense is really an offense at alll (Twain CHAPTER 8). Likewise, the racism within the novel does not signify Twain’s racism, but rather makes Huck’s character as a white southern boy more realistic. Referring to his relationship with his father, Huck claims, “By-and-by pap got too handy with his hick’ry, and I couldn’t stand it. I was all over welts” (Twain 115). Huck and pap’s relationship is similar to that of a slave and his master. In both cases, the authoritative one abuses the submissive laborer and uses him for labor and other material purposes. Similar to slave owners who treat blacks as property, pap assumes ownership over Huck. He believes he has full parental rights to his son and often forgets that Huck himself has feelings. As Huck recollects, “[Pap’s] lawyer reckoned he would win the law suit and get the money” (Twain 116CHAPTER SIX). Pap obviously considers Huck’s property as his own, to the point where he is willing to take his case to trial. His feeling of ownership over Huck also stems into his sense of dominancy and confidence, since he believes he will surely win at trial. In this regard, the relationship between Huck and pap corresponds to the relationship of, say, Jim and Miss Watson.
Huck formulates of a direct correlation between the way “nigger” and “white” children act, thereupon exemplifying the affinity in the two’s mutual humanity. He observes, “A nigger woman come…And behind the woman comes a little nigger girl and two little nigger boys…And here comes the white woman…and behind her comes her little white children, acting the same way the little niggers was doing” (Twain 243). Despite racial distinction between the two families, their actions precisely mirror one another. Twain draws the comparison between the two sets of children to demonstrate a similarity between blacks and whites, evoking sympathy from the readers by assisting the realization that those confined in slavery’s lockhold are human, just like everyone else. Moreover, Twain does in fact take slavery seriously by using such correlations to evoke feeling within the 1880’s white audience and to encourage them to produce their own final opinions on racism—he does not hand over his own objections to the readers, but rather allows them to form their own conclusions with the evidence he provides.
Contrary to Lester’s argument that Twain depicts the image of an idealistic and inferior African American, Twain promotes the idea of social unity between a pragmatic black who can think rationally for himself and a white lad who equalizes himself to the African American man. As illustrated in a myriad of literary works, as Lester suggests, the popularized quintessential black stands subserviently devoted to the superior whites with utter loyalty to his master. His own indifference and self-deprecation leave him with a taciturn and yielding identity. Concurring with this pervasive belief of sheer African American’s compliancy, the white society justifies its twisted sense of morality and yields to popularized assumptions (Lester 43). Yet, throughout the time spent on the raft, Jim stands up to Huck countless times within the span of various chapters. In fact, the two seem to have an equal status in their relationship, both stepping up to take care of and look out for one another. For instance, when Huck argues, “Why ain’t it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us?” Jim offers his own practicality to counter Huck’s debate. He asks Huck to explain why the Frenchman does not “talk like a man” when he is as much a man as they are (Twain 149). Even though Jim cannot comprehend the logic of multiple languages, his practical process of thought actually enhances his competence over Huck’s, who fails to see the rationale in Jim’s argument. Jim continuously defends his point rather than simply agreeing with Huck, therefore breaking the societal norm of a slave subordinating himself to a white man. Yet, Huck still loves Jim despite his impassivity and works to help set him free. This scene and its following response demonstrate that blacks do not need to always act submissively when confronting white men.
Huck’s willingness to stray from societal expectations in his relationship with Jim establishes a sense of acceptance and equality between the pair. After playing a prank on Jim and bruising his friendship with him, Huck declares, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it” (Twain 153). Huck’s apparent guilt and humility initiate a closer personal relationship with Jim, and he begins to understand more about himself and the value of his friendship’s morals, allowing him to open himself up to understanding Jim as well. Although the typical southern man would never “humble” himself to a black man, Huck disregards societal standards and submits himself to Jim. Hence, he establishes a sense of unity and equality between him and Jim, ignoring their respective social statuses. He breaks societal chains by formulating a common, not separate, sense of self between the two.
Unlike Lester’s assertion of Twain’s blindness towards the true meaning of freedom, Twain constantly emphasizes the paradigm of independence and the surrender of oneself to the natural world. Lester perceives Twain’s idea of freedom as an “adolescent vision of life” and “an exercise in nostalgia for the paradise that never was” through modest liberation from disciple and duty (Lester 45). Huck does not want to escape from responsibility, but rather from confinement. If Huck had set out to seek life away from responsibility, then he surely has failed, considering he takes responsibility over Jim multiple times throughout the text. For instance, when Jim is imprisoned by the Phelps family, Huck takes it upon himself to assist his friend out of captivity. He risks his own privilege to freedom and thence places his sense of responsibility over personal ambitions. Contrary to Lester’s belief, Huck does not search for paradise, but rather for adventure and the chance to live the way he wants to. This universal desire of living one’s own life rather than dealing with societal burdens of expectation validates Huck’s character and allows the reader to sympathize with his very real emotions. In his desire for freedom, Huck reflects upon his time with Jim and recalls, “It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars…We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next” (Twain 140). Twain’s romantic depiction of life on the river evokes a kind of heavenly image. Not only does Huck’s rumination evoke a peaceful, “solemn” representation the river, but his language also produces a boundless sense of serenity and freedom, one night after another. Even the “mighty good weather” echoes the pair’s tranquil state of mind. Rather than literal “paradise,” the river simply provides a place where Huck is liberated from corruption on land. For example, when Aunt Sally asks Huck if anyone on his boat was hurt on his way over, he states that only a “nigger” was killed. Huck commits two offenses in this scene—firstly, he conceals his true identity and lies about who he is, and secondly, he belittles his sense of morality in face of social conformity. Hence, the river is portrayed as a shield from the sinful world. Huck does not find paradise in the traditional sense but rather through morality and friendship, two attributes that he often forgets about on land.
The same natural freedom is exemplified through Huck’s continuous crave for an unrestrained life. He establishes this preference when he claims, “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (Twain 287). Although by escaping Aunt Sally’s control Huck relieves himself from responsibility and restraint, he yearns for much more than the “adolescent” vision of life. Huck’s hunger for freedom lies in his ultimate desire to break apart from societal norms and expectations. He does not want to break out of Aunt Sally’s care necessarily, but rather wants to take charge of his own life and his own actions. Though he does not mind staying with the Phelps family, but he cannot stand the idea of civilization and having to act differently than he would with no limitations. Huck’s ambitions exemplify those of the common man in that he yearns for the independent control of his life. On that account, he lives not an adolescent dream, but universal one that is very much real and possible in his eyes. His search is not “an exercise in nostalgia for the paradise that never was,” as Lester claims, but the paradise that will be in time—the paradise which he hopes to find in an unrestricted environment where no one can direct him in any path other than his own (Lester 45).
Twain successfully disregards separate racial spheres and draws similarities between characters’ actions and their collective thirst for independence, ultimately unshackling them from societal expectations. The novel, therefore, defies Lester’s opposition to Twain’s interpretation of slavery, racism, and freedom. However, whether it is Twain who does not truly grasp the severity of injustice or Lester who critiques Twain a bit too harshly, the pair fray for a common cause—blowing down societal bridges and firing a blaze upon racial prejudice. At least, in Huck’s own words, “There was things which [Twain] stretched, but mainly he told the truth” (Twain 101). What else could be asked of any man?
Lester, Julius. “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Mark Twain
Journal 22.2 (1984): 43-46. JSTOR. Web. 27 Mar. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/ stable/41641252?origin=JSTOR-pdf>.
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Twain, Mark. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” 1884. Shorter Seventh
Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton & Co., 2008. 101-287. Print.
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