In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, what is Twain's attitude toward slavery and racism?

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perfectsilence eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain is clearly against slavery and racism.  His work is groundbreaking in its portrayal of a black man as a sympathetic, human figure.  Twain does not simply attempt to write a "type," such as the oppressed, humble, innocent slave who simply wants to get to freedom.  Instead, he fleshes out a complete character, with both positive and negative qualities. 

Further, Twain also avoids making Jim an overly sentimental charity case.  Instead, he presents situations where Jim helps, and others where he needs help.  At times, he is ignorant, but at other times, he shows a penchant for logical argument, such as in chapter 14 when he and Huck argue about why French people don't talk as Americans do.  Jim takes issue with the French language, and Huck attempts to justify the way that French people talk by comparing the French and Americans  to cows and cats:

“Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?”
“No, a cat don’t.”
“Well, does a cow?”
“No, a cow don’t, nuther.”
“Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?”
“No, dey don’t.”
“It’s natural and right for ‘em to talk different from each other, ain’t it?”
“And ain’t it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from us?”
“Why, mos’ sholy it is.”
“Well, then, why ain’t it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us?  You answer me that.”
“Is a cat a man, Huck?”
“Well, den, dey ain’t no sense in a cat talkin’ like a man.  Is a cow a man?—er is a cow a cat?”
“No, she ain’t either of them.”
“Well, den, she ain’t got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of ‘em.  Is a Frenchman a man?”
Well, den!  Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man?  You answer me dat!”

Huck ends the chapter, and the discussion, by saying "I see it warn’t no use wasting words—you can’t learn a nigger to argue. So I quit." In creating his characters, Twain strips away a lot of the things that separate the races, until we have two fairly evenly matched, nuanced characters (who happen to be black and white) engaged in a battle of wits—which is ultimately forfeited by the white character. 


Twain also creates a number of beautiful moments in his text, including another in which the reader gets to see Huck see Jim as a worthwhile human being.  In chapter 23, Huck provides another anecdote the further humanizes Jim:


I went to sleep, and Jim didn’t call me when it was my turn.  He often done that.  When I waked up just at daybreak he was sitting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself.  I didn’t take notice nor let on.  I knowed what it was about.  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 he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n.  It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.  He was often moaning and mourning that way nights, when he judged I was asleep, and saying, “Po’ little ‘Lizabeth! po’ little Johnny! it’s mighty hard; I spec’ I ain’t ever gwyne to see you no mo’, no mo’!”  He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was.

But this time I somehow got to talking to him about his wife and young ones; and by and by he says:

“What makes me feel so bad dis time ‘uz bekase I hear sumpn over yonder on de bank like a whack, er a slam, while ago, en it mine me er de time I treat my little ‘Lizabeth so ornery.  She warn’t on’y ‘bout fo’ year ole, en she tuck de sk’yarlet fever, en had a powful rough spell; but she got well, en one day she was a-stannin’ aroun’, en I says to her, I says:

“‘Shet de do’.’

“She never done it; jis’ stood dah, kiner smilin’ up at me.  It make me mad; en I says agin, mighty loud, I says:

“‘Doan’ you hear me?  Shet de do’!’

“She jis stood de same way, kiner smilin’ up.  I was a-bilin’!  I says:

“‘I lay I make you mine!’

“En wid dat I fetch’ her a slap side de head dat sont her a-sprawlin’. Den I went into de yuther room, en ‘uz gone ‘bout ten minutes; en when I come back dah was dat do’ a-stannin’ open yit, en dat chile stannin’ mos’ right in it, a-lookin’ down and mournin’, en de tears runnin’ down. My, but I wuz mad!  I was a-gwyne for de chile, but jis’ den—it was a do’ dat open innerds—jis’ den, ‘long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker-BLAM!—en my lan’, de chile never move’!  My breff mos’ hop outer me; en I feel so—so—I doan’ know HOW I feel.  I crope out, all a-tremblin’, en crope aroun’ en open de do’ easy en slow, en poke my head in behine de chile, sof’ en still, en all uv a sudden I says POW! jis’ as loud as I could yell.  She never budge!  Oh, Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh, de po’ little thing!  De Lord God Amighty fogive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long’s he live!’  Oh, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef en dumb—en I’d ben a-treat’n her so!”

While Jim kept watch, he started to think back to his family—specifically,  his mistreatment of them.  He recalls a time that he beat his daughter 'Lizbeth for not listening to him, unaware that her bout with scarlet fever had made her deaf and she could not hear his commands.  At the time, he had no way of knowing she was deaf, yet he still feels guilty and refuses to forgive himself for the mistake.  Once again, Twain writes in such a way to let his reader understand Jim's thoughts, emotions, and regrets.  As Huck learns of the inherent worth of all life, so do those who read his narrative.




slchanmo1885 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a satirical look at the institution of slavery. Although written from the point of view of a southern white boy, Huck ultimately sheds the ideals of his upbringing and decides to help his friend, the slave Jim. The novel explores many ideas of freedom. Jim is a slave from St. Petersburg who has found out that he is to be sold away from his family. In order to prevent this, he runs away. Huck is also running away, from an abusive father and a town that wants to "sivilize" him. In Huck's case, civilizing him means turning him into a version of themselves, Bible-toting racists and hypocrites. Huck cannot abide it, and against all he's ever been taught, helps Jim escape slavery. There is a pivotal scene in the novel where Huck has an opportunity to do what is right according to his society and turn in Jim. Instead he says, "alright then, I'll go to hell!" and decides to protect Jim at the expense of his own soul. By doing this, Twain points out the humanity of this lone boy in the face of a whole institution. Huck is more humane, more ethical, than almost every other character in the book. Huck is the only one that sees Jim as something more than property, he sees him as a friend. 

There have been critical texts galore written about this topic. I would suggest reading books and essays by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, R. Kent Rasmussen, Henry Nash Smith, and others. There is also the Annotated Huckleberry Finn edited by Michael Patrick Hearn that has more information on this topic. Enotes has a wonderful study guide and group on Huck Finn as well. 

kimfuji eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Twain's attitude toward slavery and racism is that he is against it. How you can tell is by examining how his characters react to the other characters in the novel who support slavery and who are racist. I am thinking of that chapter where Huck stays with the Grangerford's. It is such a funny chapter because it really shows Twain's attitude toward those people who supported slavery and racism. He portrays the Grangerford's and the Sheperdson's are really stupid white people who haven't got a clue about why they believe the things they do. They act in ways that support fighting and slavery but they cannot explain why. And, even when they are asked to explain their actions, they don't even take that as an opportunity to re-think their actions or beliefs. Instead, they just blindly follow the social rules and habits of their ancestors. This says a lot about what Twain thinks about slavery. He sees most people to be more like the Grangerford's and Sheperdson's than unlike them.

Read the study guide:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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