Huck Finn’s relationship with slavery is very complex and often contradictory. He has been brought up to accept slavery. He can think of no worse crime than helping to free a slave. Despite this, he finds himself on the run with Jim, a runaway slave, and doing everything in his power to protect him. Huck Finn grew up around slavery. His father is a violent racist, who launches into tirades at the idea of free blacks roaming around the countryside. Miss Watson owns slaves, including Jim, so that no matter where he goes, the idea of blacks as slaves is reinforced.
The story takes place during the 1840’s, at a time when racial tensions were on the rise, as northern abolitionists tried to stir up trouble in the South. This prompted a backlash from Southerners, which entrenched the institution more than ever. Huck Finn could not be against slavery, because if he were, he would be a traitor to the South and its way of life. Huck’s first moral dilemma comes when he meets Jim on Jackson Island. Huck’s initial reaction on hearing of Jim’s escape is one of shock, he could not believe someone could run away from his master.
Huck does promise to keep his secret, however, despite knowing that “people will call him a low-down abolitionist and despise him for keeping mum”. Although Huck disagrees vehemently with the idea of runaway slaves, he quite likes Jim, and so warns him that dogs are coming on to the island. This shows that Huck’s heart and Huck’s mind are often in disagreement with one another when it comes to the issue of slavery. Despite being good friends with Jim, Huck does not hide his obvious prejudice against blacks. Because blacks are uneducated, he sees them as stupid and stubborn.
He frequently tells stories to Jim, mainly about foreign kings and history. When Jim disagrees with Huck, Jim becomes very stubborn and refuses to listen to explanations. Huck eventually concludes, “You can’t learn a nigger to argue”. Jim also seems to accept that whites are naturally superior to blacks. He knows that Huck is far smarter than he is. When Tom Sawyer and Huck are planning an elaborate breakout for Jim, he allows their outrageous plan to continue because they “was white folks and knowed better than him”. This mutual acceptance of whites as superior to blacks shows how deeply rooted slavery was in Southern culture.
This made it very difficult for Huck to help Jim. When Tom Sawyer says he will help free Jim, Huck is very disappointed. He had never thought that Tom Sawyer, of all people, would be a “nigger stealer”. Huck had always considered Tom respectable and educated, and yet Tom was prepared to condemn himself to damnation by freeing a runaway slave. This confuses Huck greatly, who no longer knows what to think about his situation with Jim. When Huck is forced to make a decision regarding slavery, he invariably sides with his emotions. Huck does not turn Jim in, despite having several chances.
His best chance to do what he believes is right comes as they are rafting towards Cairo, Illinois. Huck finally manages to convince himself that turning in Jim is the only way to clear his conscience, and so he sets off towards shore to tell the authorities. Before he has gone halfway, a skiff with slave hunter stops him and asks if the man aboard Huck’s raft is black or white. This is the perfect opportunity for Huck to do what he, as a white southerner, should do. Instead, he tells them that the only man aboard is his father, who has smallpox.
Later in the story, he writes Miss Watson a letter revealing Jim’s whereabouts. As he is about to send it, however, he remembers all Jim and he have been through together; how he is Jim’s only friend in the world. Finally Huck remarks “All right then, I’ll go to Hell,” and tears up the letter. These scenes confirm for the reader that Huck does not have the heart to betray a friend, black or white. Huckleberry Finn has a very complicated relationship with the concept of slavery. Being a Southerner, he naturally supports the institution, as it is all he has ever known.
Once he meets Jim, however, his opinions begin to change. He cannot bring himself to turn in Jim, although he believes it to be the moral thing to do. During his adventure down the Mississippi, Huck constantly sees evidence of the good inherent in Jim and other blacks, as well as the wickedness evident in some of his white acquaintances. This causes Huck to consider the fact that blacks are not necessarily inferior to whites. Because of this, he manages to justify, in his own mind at least, both slavery and his freeing Jim. He is thus trapped in a contradiction, which he must deal with for the entire adventure.