In July of 1876, a man by the name of Samuel Clemens began writing one of the most important and influential works in America’s literary history. Under the pseudonym of Mark Twain, the work was begun as a sequel to Twain’s popular boy’s adventure novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. As he progressed in the writing of the sequel, Twain, an author already noted for his humor, cynicism, and American social criticism, began to lean away from strictly the boy’s adventure style towards a more serious, critical look at society.
By the time Twain had finished writing the novel in 1884, eight years after it was begun, he had produced The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his greatest work and possibly on of the greatest works of American literature. With The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain attempted to illustrate his contempt for certain aspects of specifically pre-Civil War Southern society through the eyes of the innocent Huck Finn. However, his focus was not entirely on pre-War Southern society, for criticism of aspects of modern society as a whole was evident, as well as on aspects of human nature.
Although Twain had essential produced a superficial boy’s adventure novel, it’s very themes are not characteristic of such a genre. The themes that are developed throughout the novel include that of hypocrisy, racism, violence, and gullibility. These four themes represent the elements of pre-War Southern society that bear Twain’s main criticisms throughout the pages of the novel. Specifically, much of Twain’s critical focus landed upon the theme of racism.
Racism, in all of its ignorance and crudeness, is present in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson’s attempt to “sivilize” Huck to Tom Sawyer’s startling acclamation that Jim was already free. Huck is confronted with example after example of Southern society’s innate racism, some of which Huck too has inherited. As Jim and Huck journey down the mighty Mississippi, Huck begins to lose those inborn racist sentiments in his through his uninfluenced life with Jim.
By closely developing the theme of racism through Huck’s internal struggle with reality and with society’s reality, Twain attempts to illustrate his contempt for the outright injustice of one of society’s most disturbing and irrational aspects. As the novel begins, Huck reveals that the Widow Douglas has adopted him. The Widow and Miss Watson have attempted to help Huck conform to society’s civilized standards.
As he is introduced to aspect after aspect of civilized society, from religion to table manners to the clothes her should wear, his “uncivilized” side, meaning natural and uninhibited side, causes him to question the practicality of society’s standards. As Huck has settled into civilized society, he has befriended a boy named Tom Sawyer. Tom, having been born and raised in civilized society, has never inherited the natural or uninhibited tendencies that Huck has been raised with.
Through Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain satitrizes the apparent foolishness of a civilized person’s ethic and outlook on life, and specifically their tendency towards racism. In a specific scene in Chapter Two, Tom illustrates that natural tendency through his insensitivity towards slaves and members of the black race. In that particular scene, Tom wants to play a trick on a sleeping slave named Jim by tying him to a tree. He wants to do this simply for the intrigue and has total disregard for the feelings of the sleeping slave.
Tom does not worry that he may startle or upset Jim; he is more focused on simply having fun. However, he settles on playing a trick on Jim. Tom’s insensitivity towards slaves exemplifies his inherent racism, due to the fact that he has been taught to disregard them through his inheriting the belief that he is superior to all members of the black race. Another example of Southern society’s penchant for racial prejudice occurs through the character of Huck’s Pap in Chapter Six. After he kidnaps Huck, Pap takes Huck to his cabin in the woods near St.
Petersburg, where he imprisons Huck while he goes to town every day. Pap is drunken, uneducated, and unemployed, representing the lowest class of white Southern society. In a specific event, Pap returns home from a trip into town outraged with the “govment” over a free black man that visited town. “And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myselfbut when they told me there was a state in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out.
I says I’ll never vote ag’inHere’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it’s a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a-hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger” (Twain 6) This quote of Pap’s illustrates the unaware and irrational hatred of the black race common among many of the South’s uneducated white trash. The free black man has done no wrong, yet Pap accuses him of being a thief and infernal.
Twain is attempting to put into context specifically how he feels about racism by using such a stupid, irrational, and not respected character as Pap to proclaim such a strong racist sentiment. This declaration of racism is one of the novel’s most blatant and ugly affirmations of the inherent racism of Southern society. In Chapter Nine, there is a very important affirmation of strong racial prejudice towards members of the black race in the pre-Civil War South. This affirmation occurs when Huck and Jim decide that Huck should go into town in disguise to find out some information.
Huck discovers that the entire town has shifted its focus from Pap to Jim concerning Huck’s murderer. As it turns out, Pap is the first suspect of the town and is nearly lynched before it is discovered that Miss Watson’s slave Jim has runaway, and that he had been gone around the exact time when Huck’s murder would have been taking place. With no other evidence but the fact that Jim’s escape and Huck’s “murder” occurred in proximity to each other, the townspeople shows no reluctance in putting an award on Jim’s head as the murderer of Huck.
In this instance, Mark Twain once again cleverly illustrates the innate racial prejudice characteristic of Southern pre-War society through their total arrogance of ignoring Pap as the prime suspect, and the one with more motives, and focusing their attention on Jim. This is, in essence, replacing a white suspect with a black scapegoat when the chance arises. The townspeople seem almost eager to relieve Pap of his being the prime suspect and pin it on a black man, who has no particular motive for killing Huck.
By showing the complete and ignorant willingness of the townspeople to blame it on Jim, Mark Twain is demonstrating how unjust and unaware racism is. Throughout his journey down the Mississippi with Jim, Mark Twain often uses Huck’s struggle with his inheritance of racist sentiment from civilized society to further illustrate his attack on racism in the South. In Chapter 15, there is a specific event that exemplifies Huck’s struggle. That event occurs when Huck plays a mean and thoughtless trick on Jim by confusing him that Huck being gone was a dream.
This trick demonstrates Huck’s disregard for Jim’s feelings, which is due to the idea that Jim is inferior to him that he inherited from society. However, it is Huck’s quote in reaction to the reprimand he receives from a hurt Jim that truly illustrates the ignorance of the racism that Huck is not yet fully devoid of. “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterward, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t a done that one if I’d a’ knowed it would make him feel that way. Twain 15)
Through this quote, Twain uses Huck to illustrate the racist sentiment that a black man was inferior to all white men, whether right or wrong. Through Huck’s struggle with apologizing to Jim, despite the fact that he really hurt Jim with his prank, Twain shows his contempt for the corrupting and demoralizing aspects of Southern civilized society. Young and innocent, Huck Finn has to “work [himself] up” to apologize to his friend for hurting them, for he still feels the shackles of society’s beliefs telling him that due to his being white, he doesn’t have to apologize.
Once again in Chapter 16, Mark Twain uses Huck’s internal conflict with himself over following what his instincts tell him or going by the sentiments that Southern society has bequeathed upon him. Throughout the chapter, Huck is plagued by his conscience over his helping Jim to escape and spends much of the chapter deliberating whether to do the right thing, meaning turn Jim in, or follow his heart and remain Jim’s friend. However, there is a specific scene in the chapter when Huck makes an important statement.
Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children-children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm. ” (Twain 16) By having Huck make such a callous and ignorant statement, Twain is once again illustrating Huck’s inherited racism from society. Society has taught Huck to look upon black slaves as property, and nothing else.
Huck feels bad about helping Jim to steal his children out of slavery for the man who Jim’s children belonged to had never had ill-will towards Huck. Huck totally neglects the fact that the children are Jim’s children; rather they belong to the slave owner. This statement shows Huck’s acquired ignorance and disregard towards black slaves. Yet another example of how Mark Twain illustrates his feelings for the racism of Southern society occurs once more on Jim and Huck’s journey down the Mississippi in Chapter 23.
There is an event in the chapter in which Huck’s response to an observation shows his refuting of yet another inherited aspect of society’s racist sentiments towards the black race. The element of racism that Huck chooses to disregard applies to the idea of Southern white society that a black man can in no way equal or better a white man in any aspect from intelligence to emotion. Huck’s response occurs when he awakes to find Jim crying about his not ever being able to see his family again.
When Huck probes deeper into Jim’s despair, he discovers that Jim feels wholeheartedly guilty about an incident that occurred in his relationship with his deaf and dumb daughter. Jim’s great display of emotion surprises Huck, for he has inherited the belief that a black man is not capable of such a degree of emotion. “He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe that he cared just as much for his people as white folks does their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so. Twain 23)
Society’s belief that the black race was inferior to the white race in every way, including emotion, is illustrated in this sentence. Huck’s surprise that Jim loves his family just as much as white people do is simply a belief that he has inherited from civilized society. Twain demonstrates the inherent racial prejudice of pre-Civil War Southern society in a satirical manner. The notion that black people do not care for the families as much as white people care for theirs seems utterly ridiculous to the reader. However, in the South, this notion was commonplace and accepted.