Huckleberry Finn - Racist Novel?


There is a major argument among literary critics whether The Adventures of

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

focuses on the depiction of Jim, the black slave, and 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 often 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. The reader views Jim as a good

friend - a man devoted to his family and loyal to his companions.

Jim 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 amongst 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 this aspect of the story is clearly not meant as a

racial slight.

Next, it is necessary to analyze the way in which 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 conveyed

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 ways

Jim is denigrated include being locked up, having to hide his face in the

daytime, and being mercilessly derided. These examples are necessary for

historical accuracy. So, Mark Twain had to display Jim's treatment in this

manner, even if it was not the way he felt. Huck, however, does not treat

Jim as most whites do. Huck sees 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 still seems racially prejudiced at this point, Twain

has written the scene in a way that ridicules the notion that someone's

children can actually be the property of a stranger just because the father

is black. The second example is where Huck doesn't reveal Jim's

whereabouts, so as not force Jim to return to slavery. Huck instead chooses

to "go to hell" for his decision. This is again Twain making a mockery of

Southern values that considered it a sin to be kind to black people.

Twain's critics consider the novel to be racist, and quite outwardly so.

They cite the common use of the word "nigger," as the most obvious instance

of the book's racism. This, however, is not a good example because this is

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

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

make it sound ridiculous. If Twain wanted to write a historically accurate

book - as he did - then the inclusion of this word is totally necessary.

A closer reading also reveals Twain's serious satiric intent. In one scene,

for instance, Aunt Sally hears of a steamboat explosion. "Good gracious!

anybody hurt?" she asks. "No'm," comes the answer, "Killed a nigger." But

anyone who imagines that Mark Twain meant this literally is missing the

point. Rather, Twain is using this casual dialogue ironically, as a way to

underscore the chilling truth about the old south - that it was a society

where perfectly "nice" people didn't consider the death of a black person

worth their notice. To drive the point home, Twain has the lady continue:

"Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people