How does Twain's characterization of Jim express his ambivalence toward racial issues?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Twain's racial views as expressed in Huckleberry Finn have been the source of much controversy. In some parts of the book, Jim is portrayed as having a great deal of wisdom, more, even, than most of the other characters in the book recognize. On the other, there are times when he reverts to simple racist stereotypes. One possible resolution to this question proposed by many scholars is that Jim is representative of the complexities of the institution of slavery itself.

One of these complexities is that slaves often portrayed themselves as ignorant, simple, and deferential as a way of resisting slavery and white supremacy. Historians like Eugene Genovese long ago noted this aspect of the planter-slave relationship, and interpreted it as a way to earn the trust of masters, which would allow for more freedom and opportunities to assert their humanity. Jim could be understood in that context. One literary scholar has interpreted Jim's character in exactly this light, arguing that Huck is "quite unprepared to tolerate the full unfolding of the human being emergent behind the mask," and that Jim responds to this fact by reverting to child-like minstrelsy at various points in the book. Other scholars have simply argued that Jim's behavior is evidence that he is not intended to be a fully-developed character, but rather a foil for Huck and a catalyst for his transformation.