Over Their Heads: In defense of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as an anti-racist novel

April 20, 2022 by Essay Writer

Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has long been regarded as both a literary masterpiece and a source of extreme controversy. With its central themes of race and the development of morals, Huck Finn brought to light the most uncomfortable elements of the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War, daring its readers of all ages and backgrounds to confront their own negative opinions of race and accept people for who they are regardless of situation and skin color.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an anti-racist novel that identifies the problem of racism through Twain’s language and racist characters. Twain is a satirist, using subtle humor as a vehicle to criticize the bigoted members of his audience. The dialects in which his characters speak and the manners in which they treat others are all very carefully established by the author for the purpose of mocking racism and characterizing it as a negative element of society. His intention is not to praise it, though this is often misconstrued. Twain’s casual writing actually has a gravity to it that is often misunderstood by readers who become distracted by the alleged ignorance of protagonist Huck and get caught up in superficial issues, such as Twain’s use of the now-derogatory term “nigger” and his establishment of the character Jim as an uncomfortably simple man. They are not able to comprehend that Twain is offering a realistic image of the times; it is this that makes the novel upsetting, not the author’s intent, which is, in fact, quite the opposite. That the novel causes such controversy and makes readers feel awkward proves that it successfully offers a brutally honest look at the faults of racists.

Huck Finn can be characterized as a satirical piece of literature because of the subtlety with which Twain addresses the themes of racism and identity development. By intentionally including a sense of lightheartedness, he masks the seriousness of the novel. His review of current social issues makes the text relevant and powerful; the manner with which he addresses them is not powerful in theory, but is successful because it is not so straightforward as to offend his audience. His underhanded inclusion of major societal issues allows for his story to gain readership while educating, rather than gaining notoriety for preaching correctness.

The novel begins with a notice from Twain, explaining that the novel lacks motive, a moral, and a plot. Any readers who attempt to finder a deeper meaning, according to Twain, will be punished accordingly. This notice is the first example of satire in the novel. Should readers remain unaware that he is writing in a humorous manner and is not actually threatening anyone, the notice is likely to be misunderstood. This embodies the entire purpose of using satire: by masking a point behind ridiculously grand pretenses, it actually becomes more evident and meaningful. The novel’s survey of racist culture may not be spoken of overtly, but it successfully serves as a warning: if Americans continue to behave as the characters of Huck Finn, discomfort and disruption are inevitable.

Twain’s subsequent explanatory further describes his use of certain rhetorical strategies, including the use of “a number of dialogues” (Twain 130). The realistic usage of language increases the authenticity of the novel as well as Twain’s credibility of the topics of which he writes. The satire thus becomes more effective; as the novel becomes more realistic, so do its underlying matters.

However, such themes may be too hidden for the average reader to ever glean from the text. Though Huck Finn is regarded as a literary classic, it is also considered a literary controversy. This is because Twain’s use of satire is so effective that readers can easily miss the irony with which he writes, mistaking his criticism of racism for encouragement of it. He does not intend to perpetuate it in speaking of the controversial topic but masks this so well in his review of differences in various members of society that some readers consider his work offensive. This, ironically, marks the success of his satirical style of writing.

In fact, fourteen-year-old country boy narrator Huckleberry “Huck” Finn speaks in a way that can very easily be considered humorous to readers. His lack of refinement marks him as ignorant, though in fact his budding awareness is used as a channel through which Twain is able to identify the wrongs associated with harboring racist tendencies.

Other characters correctly representing the role of racism in American life in the 1830s and 1840s include slaveholders and affluent white people, such as Miss Watson. She is a hypocritical character; while she is supposedly a lady who strives to perform perfectly according to society, she is a slave-owner. Doing the right thing is not truly feasible for her while she is the owner of other human beings, who she considers to be inferior. This ironic development of her character is used by Twain to demonstrate that one cannot be morally and ethically correct while acting as such.

The time period plays a large role in public acceptance of the satire simply because, when forming opinions, audience members can forget to consider that societal norms are constantly changing. While it was considered ‘normal’ to have slaves in the antebellum south, it was not necessarily morally correct. Readers today recognize this point and oppose it with more zeal than even Twain because their views are skewed by their present surroundings. This should especially be taken into consideration when scanning the text for satirical elements.

The moral code of Huck’s time period especially affects readers’ opinions during the scene in which Huck decides to spare Jim, owned by Miss Watson, from further enslavement. Though Huck believes that he is doing the “wrong thing” and offending God by sinning, he ultimately ignores that sentiments in favor of letting Jim remain free (262). He is so engrained in the morals of his time that Huck, as explained in Barabara Apstein’s ‘Masterpiece or Racist Trash?,’ genuinely feels as though he is doing wrong when, in fact, he is acting as he humanly should. “This is a wonderfully ironic scene: at the very moment when Huck is fully convinced of his wickedness, the reader knows that his good impulses have prevailed” (38). Apstein’s review of the text recognizes the need of readers to “think critically about offensive ideas” (39). Importantly, Justin Kaplan explains in his essay “‘Born to Trouble’: One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn” that there is a significant amount of heart involved, as “[Huck] follows the dictates of his sound heart and commits a sin as well as a crime by helping Jim run away from his legal owner” (315). This genuineness is not void of any underhanded themes from Twain; because the true moral conflict is more evident in this scene than many others, the author is able to remind readers of his purpose and pair it alongside the ridiculousness of Huck’s internal conflict to make it even more significant.

Considering possibly insulting concepts forces many members of Twain’s audience into denial; since what appears to be a simple novel that claims to have no plot actually delivers a swift slap in the face in terms of behaviors towards race, many readers are surprised, allowing themselves to become susceptible to believing the facade instead of understanding clearly Twain’s anti-racist message. For this reason, Twain’s use of the word “nigger” is often misunderstood, mistaken to be a term ridiculing blacks instead of describing them using time period-appropriate language. However, Twain used the term to provide readers with an even more accurate depiction of the era, and to help establish the characters that are most affected by racism.

The word “nigger” is primarily used in reference to Jim, a slave who accompanies Huck on his adventures up the river. Twain uses his character as a catalyst to reveal the racist tendencies of the white characters in the novel. In addition to the rhetorical strategies used by Twain, his development of Jim—most notably the way he defies the black stereotype while simultaneously embodying it—establishes Huck Finn as an anti-racist novel.

Jim is a happy-go-lucky, complacent man. He is helpful, considerate, and a true friend to Huck despite Huck’s inconsistent attitudes towards him. Most notably, Jim keeps the truth of Pap’s death from Huck until the very end of the novel. His main concern is hurting the young boy, and so he protects him from a potentially brutal truth, only breaking when Huck pesters him about his father’s absence: “He ain’t a comin’ back no mo’, Huck” (309). Sheltering Huck from the pain of losing a parent, Jim harbors the secret. His kindness shines through his dark skin; despite his circumstance Jim does not act out.

It is important to remember—but easy to forget—that Jim is a slave. He is a human being owned by another human being. He is ignorant, uneducated, and reveals to the audience that slaves at the time, no matter how ethically good they are, cannot express themselves fully; they are very literally limited by law. However, Twain incorporates Jim into the lesson he attempts to teach the audience because of the irony of the truly good situations in which he is a part: A man considered so foul by society at the time (simply because of the color of his skin) acts with such benevolence towards a young white boy. Twain’s dramatic situations including Jim support African American rights by offering readers a view of black culture that is not sugarcoated. In fact, it is more like white culture than most readers recognize.

This being said, Twain enhances what Julius Lester refers to in his essay “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as the “feelings of superiority with which whites are burdened” (314). While Lester determines that Twain is anti-black because he “doesn’t care about the lives the slaves actually lived” and subsequently “devalues the world,” it cannot be denied that Twain gives compassionate qualities to Jim to prove that blacks really do have hearts and human feelings, despite popular belief (315). Lester fails to recognize that Twain makes Jim a good man to intentionally show that blacks are just as capable—if not more capable—than whites to maintain positivity and an attitude of growth and appreciation in light of difficult situations. Jim is goodness personified, and Twain, as argued by David L. Smith in “Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse” dramatizes the inadequacy of readers thinking otherwise: He uses the term “nigger,” and he shows Jim engaging in superstitious behavior. Yet he portrays Jim as a compassionate, shrewd, thoughtful, self-sacrificing, and even wise man. Indeed, his portrayal of Jim contradicts every claim presented in [Thomas] Jefferson’s description of “the Negro.” Jim is cautious, he gives excellent advice, he suffers persistent anguish over separation from his wife and children, and even sacrifices his own sleep so that Huck may rest. Jim, in short, exhibits all the qualities that “the Negro” supposedly lacks. (318) Twain’s exposé of Jim sheds light upon the fact that skin color is irrelevant when determining the goodness of one’s character.

Jim and Huck are not the only characters in the novel severely affected by racism. While Jim is the only slave the audience meets and Huck faces major moral conflict, they are not alone in demonstrating the effect of racist tendencies in and on the South both before and after the American Civil War. For one, Aunt Sally embodies the typical well-to-do white woman of the South. Her entire demeanor promotes racism because she believes that blacks are worthless and disposable. In fact, she considers it “lucky” that Huck’s fictional riverboat accident only resulted in the loss of one life: that of a black man (266). Her cruel attitude is an accurate reflection of what Smith describes as “obtuse racial notions” (319).

Additionally, Miss Watson is very susceptible to racist tendencies. She is a wealthy, slave-owning white woman. Though her intentions are pure in that she frees Jim and wishes to maintain her very proper, respected status, the irony of this cannot be ignored: she still owns another human. Twain incorporates her character into the novel to show that intent and action are not the same thing; the former can be morally correct while the latter can be damaging.

Audience members are also quite prone to falling prey to opinions such as those of Aunt Sally and Miss Watson. As readers, they become invested in the novel and their opinions transform them into characters because of the very real nature of the story. Because of this, they can easily misunderstand Twain’s intentions. The satire masks the true theme so successfully that critics such as Lester and Jane Smiley become confused and have misunderstood the purpose of the novel. The point is that no one is immune to racism: not in the novel and not in reality.

Twain’s use of the characters in his satire justifies his argument: racism is intolerable. No one is entitled to more than anyone else—especially on the grounds of skin color and nothing more. Twain creates a powerful argument under the guise of a plot-less novel; his ironic writing brings the real irony of the situation to the forefront of our attention. As explained by Smith, “Twain uses the narrative to expose the cruelty and hollowness of that racial discourse which exists only to obscure the humanity of all Afro-American people” (319).

Works Cited

Apstein, Barbara. “Masterpiece or Racist Trash?: Bridgewater Students Enter the Debate over Huckleberry Finn.”Bridgewater Review25.1 (2006): 38-40. Print.

Kaplan, Justin. “”Born to Trouble”: One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn.” 1984.The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 315-17. Print.

Lester, Julius. “Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse.” 1992.The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 314-15. Print.

Smith, David L. “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” 1984.The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 317-19. Print.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 130-309. Print.

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