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Huckleberry Finn – A Racist Novel?

There is a major argument among literary critics whether

Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is or is not a racist novel. The

question boils down to the depiction of Jim, the black slave, and to

the way he is treated by Huck and other characters. The use of the

word “nigger” is also a point raised by some critics, who feel that

Twain uses the word too much and too loosely.

Mark Twain never presents Jim in a negative light. He does not

show Jim as a drunkard, as a mean person or as a cheat. This is in

contrast to the way Huck’s (white) father is depicted, whom Twain

describes using all of the above characterizations and more. We see

Jim as a good friend, a man devoted to his family and loyal to his

companions.

He is, however, very naive and superstitious. Some critics say

that Twain is implying that all blacks have these qualities. When Jim

turns to his magic hairball for answers about the future, we see that

he does believe in some foolish things. But all the same, he is

visited by both blacks and whites to use the hairball’s powers. This

type of naivete was abundant at the time and found among all races-the

result of a lack of proper education. So the depiction of Jim is not

negative in the sense that Jim is stupid and inferior, and in this

aspect of the story clearly there is no racism intended.

It is next necessary to analyze the way white characters treat Jim

throughout the book. Note that what the author felt is not the way

most characters act around Jim, and his feelings are probably only

shown through Huck. In the South during that period, black people were

treated as less than humans, and Twain needed to portray this. The

examples of the way Jim is denigrated: by being locked up, having to

hide his face in the daytime and how he is generally derided, are

necessary for historical accuracy. So, Mark Twain had to display Jim’s

treatment in this manner, even if it is not the way he felt.

Huck, however, does not treat Jim as most whites do. Huck looks at

Jim as a friend, and by the end of their journey, disagrees with

society’s notion that blacks are inferior. There are two main examples

of this in the story. The first one is where Huck is disgusted by

Jim’s plans to steal his own children, who are “someone else’s

property.” While Huck is still racist here, Twain has written the

scene in a way that ridicules the notion that someone’s children can

actually be the property of a stranger because the father is black.

The second example is where Huck doesn’t tell Jim’s whereabouts, which

would return Jim to slavery, and instead chooses to “go to Hell” for

his decision. This is again Twain making a mockery of Southern values,

that it is a sin to be kind to black people.

Another reason that is given to say this novel is racist is the

use of the word “nigger.” This is not a good reason because this is

how blacks were referred to then. To have used the word Negro or

African-American would have taken away from the story’s impact and

make it sound stupid. If Twain wanted to write an historically

accurate book, as he did, then the inclusion of this word is totally

necessary.

These claims that Huckleberry Finn is racist are not simply

attempts to damage the image of a great novel. They come from people

who are hurt by racism and don’t like seeing it in any context.

However, they must realize that this novel and its author are not

racist, and the purpose of the story is to prove black equality.

Bibliography

Huckleberry Finn – A Racist Novel?

There is a major argument among literary critics whether

Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is or is not a racist novel. The

question boils down to the depiction of Jim, the black slave, and to

the way he is treated by Huck and other characters. The use of the

word “nigger” is also a point raised by some critics, who feel that

Twain uses the word too much and too loosely.

Mark Twain never presents Jim in a negative light. He does not

show Jim as a drunkard, as a mean person or as a cheat. This is in

contrast to the way Huck’s (white) father is depicted, whom Twain

describes using all of the above characterizations and more. We see

Jim as a good friend, a man devoted to his family and loyal to his

companions.

He is, however, very naive and superstitious. Some critics say

that Twain is implying that all blacks have these qualities. When Jim

turns to his magic hairball for answers about the future, we see that

he does believe in some foolish things. But all the same, he is

visited by both blacks and whites to use the hairball’s powers. This

type of naivete was abundant at the time and found among all races-the

result of a lack of proper education. So the depiction of Jim is not

negative in the sense that Jim is stupid and inferior, and in this

aspect of the story clearly there is no racism intended.

It is next necessary to analyze the way white characters treat Jim

throughout the book. Note that what the author felt is not the way

most characters act around Jim, and his feelings are probably only

shown through Huck. In the South during that period, black people were

treated as less than humans, and Twain needed to portray this. The

examples of the way Jim is denigrated: by being locked up, having to

hide his face in the daytime and how he is generally derided, are

necessary for historical accuracy. So, Mark Twain had to display Jim’s

treatment in this manner, even if it is not the way he felt.

Huck, however, does not treat Jim as most whites do. Huck looks at

Jim as a friend, and by the end of their journey, disagrees with

society’s notion that blacks are inferior. There are two main examples

of this in the story. The first one is where Huck is disgusted by

Jim’s plans to steal his own children, who are “someone else’s

property.” While Huck is still racist here, Twain has written the

scene in a way that ridicules the notion that someone’s children can

actually be the property of a stranger because the father is black.

The second example is where Huck doesn’t tell Jim’s whereabouts, which

would return Jim to slavery, and instead chooses to “go to Hell” for

his decision. This is again Twain making a mockery of Southern values,

that it is a sin to be kind to black people.

Another reason that is given to say this novel is racist is the

use of the word “nigger.” This is not a good reason because this is

how blacks were referred to then. To have used the word Negro or

African-American would have taken away from the story’s impact and

make it sound stupid. If Twain wanted to write an historically

accurate book, as he did, then the inclusion of this word is totally

necessary.

These claims that Huckleberry Finn is racist are not simply

attempts to damage the image of a great novel. They come from people

who are hurt by racism and don’t like seeing it in any context.

However, they must realize that this novel and its author are not

racist, and the purpose of the story is to prove black equality.


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