Huck Finn; The Racist Protagonist

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Huck Finn; The Racist Protagonist

Laura Otten


Mark Twain, Mr. Samuel Clemens, published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884 and it has become his most famous work. Today, we view the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in a variety of ways. It is seen as a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it is a piece of history, it is a story for children, it is a story only for adults, it is about boys, it is about slavery, it is about adventure, it is about the Mississippi River, it is about the South, it is about coming of age. However, although these topics function as fine descriptions, they do not strike at the issue that lies at the core of this novel. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a book about racism. Throughout the entire story, we read about the plights of Jim and Huck, as they drift down the Mississippi River, and witness the interactions between these two characters. Although they seem to be friends, for most of their time together, Huck treats Jim badly. However, despite his wrongs, Huck glides through the novel without consequence. How do his actions look to others? Margaret Fuller was an enlightened female writer and theorist who valued both self-sufficiency and equality. When holding these two values in high esteem how would she justify or criticize Huck's treatment of Jim?

Throughout the novel, Huck's treatment of Jim is negative because it is racist, demeaning and insensitive. When they first are hiding in secret on the island, Huck decides to play a mean trick on Jim. Huck kills a rattlesnake and coils the body up by Jim's sleeping area, hoping that it will scare Jim. Later, Jim is bitten when the mate comes looking for the body. (Twain, pg. 63) The unpredicted outcome of Huck's trick causes him to feel some remorse, but this guilt does not keep him from continuing to treat Jim poorly in the future. At one point, Huck is telling Jim the story of King Solomon and Jim has difficulty understanding Huck's skewed version. As Huck becomes frustrated by Jim's incomprehension, he laments, "I never seen such a nigger." (Twain, pg. 89). This racist comment is tainted with Huck's irritation at Jim's 'stupidity'. Huck sees himself as the smarter expert despite his youth in comparison to Jim. For Huck, it is not a matter of age and experience, race is the primary determining factor of one's intelligence.

One of the most striking interactions between Huck and Jim occurs when Jim, who usually protects Huck and takes his cruelty passively, makes the choice to express anger and humiliation at Huck's bad treatment of him. At one point on the river, Jim and Huck separate because of a storm and Huck becomes lost, causing Jim to stress and worry. When the fog lifts, Huck is able to find the raft again and boards while Jim is asleep. When exhausted Jim realizes Huck is safe and onboard, Huck produces a wicked lie and tells Jim that he was on the raft the whole time and that Jim's memory of the storm and Huck being lost must have all been part of a dream. Jim is initially taken in, but then learns that Huck is pulling his leg when he spots some trash from the storm scattered on the deck of the raft. Jim is hurt and tells Huck off saying, "'All you wuz thinkin 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en make 'em ashamed.'" (Twain, pg. 95) Although Huck knows that he tried to play a very mean trick on Jim, he still struggles to admit fault. Huck confesses, "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 afterwards, neither. I didn't do him no mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd knowed it would make him feel that way." (Twain, pg. 95) In the whole novel, this scene is rare because Huck actually apologizes to Jim. It is a somewhat redeeming moment for Huck because he does not regret his apology, but with that statement, he implies that he shouldn't have had to apologize to Jim, a black man, to begin with. Huck obviously lacks an understanding that Jim, as a human, has the same capacity for feelings that he does. In addition, even if Huck were to realize that Jim was capable of having similar types of feelings, Huck believes that Jim's feelings would never be as valid as his own. Jim's identity as a 'nigger' makes him too different.

Lastly, although their trip down the river provided many opportunities for Huck to change his treatment of Jim, any progress made during their adventure is lost when Huck reunites with Tom Sawyer and they two abuse Jim mercilessly through their prisoner play. Compared to Tom Sawyer, Huck's racism and self-appointed authority towards Jim is minuscule. When paired with Tom, Huck shrinks into the background, becoming just as submissive to Tom's whims as Jim is. In the end of the novel, Tom decides that Jim, who is prisoner as a runaway slave on the Phelp's farm, must lead the life of a true prisoner. Tom creates ridiculous tasks and wastes time scheming a way to free Jim while Huck does nothing except aid in his mischief. Although Huck knows that Jim's life and freedom are at stake, he does nothing to help him. Instead, he watches and participates while Tom creates pointless, uncomfortable burdens for Jim. Huck's choice to follow Tom's instructions instead of help a friend in need is selfish and cowardly.

However, at other points in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck's treatment of Jim is more positive because it alters due to Huck's better intent. Yet most of these rare moments are still tinged with racism. One example of Huck's true and sincere sympathy for Jim happens on the river, when Huck and Jim are trying to travel in secret. Two men see their raft and Jim leaps overboard to avoid being spotted. As the men draw near Huck lies to them and says that his family has died and the only one remaining is his sick father. The men become wary of the sickness and Huck leads them to believe it is smallpox. The men then refuse to approach the raft and Huck has protected Jim by saving him from being caught. (Twain, pg. 113) This scene is interesting because it serves as an example of Huck's confusing behavior and thought pattern throughout the novel. Huck struggles constantly with his guilt over helping a runaway slave to freedom, yet at every opportunity to rid himself of this guilt by turning Jim in, he does not betray him.

The crucial moment when we witness Huck make the conscious decision to save Jim comes later in the novel. Huck is on the raft thinking about his situation and debating whether he should turn Jim in. He decides to write a note to the Widow Douglas and tell her where she can find her runaway slave. However, when writing that note, which is essentially his way of turning Jim in, does not make him feel less guilty he rips up the note saying, "All right, then, I'll go to hell". (Twain, pg. 223) At this moment, Huck decides to continue to help Jim escape from slavery even if it means that his action, which society considers a sin, will land him in hell. It is a powerful decision for Huck to make because amidst his conflict he picks the option that is not self-serving. At this rare moment, Huck chooses to treat Jim well, although he maintains a racist attitude by believing that he is doing a 'bad' thing by helping a 'nigger'.

Towards the end of the novel, Huck has somewhat changed his opinion of Jim's character, although his new perspective does not cease to be racist. When Tom, Huck and Jim finally manage to put their escape plan into action, they flee the Phelp's farm. During their getaway, Tom is shot. Once they safely reach an island in the middle of the Mississippi River, it becomes apparent that Tom's condition is bad and that he will need professional medical help. Jim makes the executive decision to send Huck for a doctor, even though bringing a doctor to Tom's location on the island will compromise Jim's chance at freedom. At this, Huck comments, "I knowed he was white inside," (Twain, pg. 279) stating that Jim's ability to make a good decision put him at the level of a white person. This is a racist opinion because it implies that only white people are capable of making good, ethical decisions.

In general, Huck's independence leads him to be thoughtless of others, including Jim, because his main concern is self-preservation. In the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Huck does not like to be controlled or influenced by other people. He states, "The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied." (Twain, pg. 13) By the end of the novel, Huck's attitude has not changed because he proclaims a similar statement, "But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before." (Twain, pg. 296) Huck values his freedom and finds that attachments to others only hinder him. This is a sentiment that both Margaret Fuller and her teacher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, could have easily understood. However, it is questionable whether Huck Finn truly embodies their concept of a 'free' individual or if his treatment of Jim is too great a fault to justify.

Margaret Fuller would have justified Huck's actions towards Jim in the novel by focusing on the independence of his unattached choices. In her essay, 'The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.' Fuller writes about her friend Miranda discussing her own independence, "It is true that I have had less outward aid...but that is of little consequence. Religion was early awakened in my soul, a sense that what the soul is capable to ask it must attain, and that, though I might be aided by others, I must depend on myself as the only constant friend. This self-dependence, which was honored in me, is deprecated as a fault in most women. They are taught to learn their rule from without, not to unfold it from within." (Fuller, pg. 166) Although Fuller directs her account at women, her message of self-dependence is for everyone. She believes that it is most important to be able to rely on oneself and Huck Finn shares the same belief. His self-dependence stems from necessity rather than desire because he had to function on his own without the help of his neglectful father. Yet, now that he has this strength, he is reluctant to give up his independence. Fuller writes of this freedom saying, "They have time to think, and no traditions chain them, and few conventionalities". (Fuller, pg. 177) Her praise of freedom is similar to Huck's love of no boundaries. He states at many points in the novel how he dislikes the rules of society and his lack of agency.

Fuller continues with negative references to relationships and society, "If any individual live too much in relations, so that he becomes a stranger to the resources of his own nature, he falls after a while into a distraction, or imbecility, from which he can only be cured by a time of isolation,". (Fuller, pg. 180) Based on this statement, Fuller would be supportive of Huck's need for independence from society. She would argue that Huck's time on his own, in isolation, is valuable and important as it gives him a chance to learn from himself. Fuller adds that, "To be fit for relations in time, souls, whether of man or woman, must be able to do without them in the spirit." (Fuller, pg. 181) This statement means that in order to function properly in relationships, in society, one must be able to function in isolation. This idea is a reference back to the self-dependence Fuller described earlier. Within the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck has learned self-dependence, as he has grown up essentially isolated from society. Fuller would say that Huck is more advanced than most because he first learned to function on his own without society.

Therefore, Huck's actions within the book, his poor treatment of Jim, do not reflect cruelty but self-sufficiency. Huck does not take Jim's feelings or needs into account because Huck functions solely as an individual and expects others to function at the same level of self-dependence. However, the rest of the world does not possess this self-sufficiency and therefore, does not understand Huck's actions.

Opposite of her potential praise, Margaret Fuller would have criticized Huck's actions towards Jim in the novel by focusing on Huck's racism due to lack of perspective and disregard for equality. In her essay, Fuller focuses on race, comparing the position of women in society and the position of slaves. Again, Fuller directs this account at women, but her reflections on slavery are insightful. Her discussion of the unequal treatment of slaves sheds negative light on Huck's actions toward Jim. Early in the essay she writes, "As men become aware that all men have not had their fair chance, they are inclined to say that no women have had a fair chance." (Fuller, pg. 159) Here she immediately notes that not all men in society have been given the same rights. This concept is foreign to Huck who believes that, as a 'nigger', Jim lives the life of a slave because it is what he deserves.

Fuller goes on to say that men have easily brushed off their faults in treating people unfairly. "But I need not speak of what has been done towards the red man, the black man. These deeds are the scoff of the world; and they have been accompanied by such pious words, that the gentlest would not dare to intercede with, 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.'" (Fuller, pg. 159) Fuller obviously has little sympathy for people who mistreat others and then attempt to walk guiltlessly away from their poor actions. Therefore, her critique of Huck would be strong as Huck repeatedly mistreats, uses and abuses Jim without offering apology or feeling guilty about it. Fuller frowns upon this type of mistreatment stating, "Though freedom and equality have been proclaimed only to leave room for a monstrous display of slave dealing, and slave keeping; though the free American so often feels himself free...only to pamper his appetites and his indolence through the misery of his fellow beings." (Fuller, pg. 159) Huck is a perfect example of an individual who fights fiercely to maintain his own freedom and independence but fails to understand Jim's need and desire to obtain and keep that same freedom.

Fuller believes that everyone should possess the same independence because she writes, "It is inevitable that an external freedom, such as has been achieved for the nation, should be so also for every member of it. That...must be acted out..." (Fuller, pg. 160) Huck's actions throughout the book would have disappointed Fuller. Although it wasn't until the end of the novel that Huck physically kept Jim a prisoner away from his freedom, for the rest of the novel Huck's racist attitude reflects his belief that Jim doesn't deserve freedom because his 'nigger' status gives less value to his membership in society. Fuller recognizes that slaves are not equals (Fuller, pg. 161) and she strongly believes that no certain members of society should have the power to stand above others. "If the negro be a soul, if the woman be a soul, appareled in flesh, to one master only are they accountable. There is but one law for all souls, and, if there is to be an interpreter of it, he comes not as man, or son of man, but as Son of God." (Fuller, pg. 164) Although Fuller believes that only one god should rule the universe, she is aware of the nature of humans, "In every-day life the feelings of the many are stained with vanity. Each wishes to be lord in a little world, to be superior at least over one." (Fuller, pg. 167) Huck sets this example by accompanying Jim throughout the novel while referring to him as 'my nigger'. Even in circumstances when this title would not lend Jim protection from capture, Huck still has the innate need to claim control over another individual. Huck has a mindset that Fuller illustrates clearly by writing, "In slavery...each is a work-tool, an article of property, - no more!" (Fuller, pg. 169) Huck refers to Jim as a possession because this is how he views him.

Based on her statements in the essay, "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.", Margaret Fuller would be more likely to criticize Huck's racist and unequal treatment of Jim in the novel rather than promote his selfish spin on her belief in self-dependence. Although Fuller believes in individualism, self-reliance and self-dependence, her aim is not to promote selfishness. An individual who has mastered self-dependence would see its value and work to promote self-dependence in others. The institution of slavery and racism is contra to this idea because it requires dependent relations and is demeaning to certain individuals by claiming that they need guidance and could therefore never attain true self-dependence. Fuller would admire Huck's resilience and self-sufficiency, but she would not respect his condescending attitude towards and treatment of Jim. Throughout the novel, although Huck works to free Jim, his underlying racism drives his belief that Jim's race is of a lower potential. 'Free' Huck joins society in believing that 'niggers' neither deserve nor could ever attain true freedom because it is not in their nature. This is where the book strikes its racist core, as the readers realize that their main protagonist is working to accomplish a goal that he does not fully support. Huck Finn is a racist and this makes him more attune to the values and rules of society than he realized. Therefore, Margaret Fuller would not deem Huck Finn a 'free' and self-dependent individual.


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