Many readers of Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have objected to the way in which Jim, near the end of the novel, is finally freed from imprisonment and slavery. Tom Sawyer knows that Jim had been granted his freedom much earlier by his owner, but Tom concocts an extremely elaborate plot to free Jim from his imprisonment. If Tom had merely announced Jim’s actual freedom as soon as he saw Jim, Jim would not have suffered the indignities and the physical pain he endures as a result of Tom’s elaborate scheme. Many readers, therefore, have considered the final chapters of Twain’s novel to be artistic and even moral failures. Such readers have felt that Tom, Huck, and even Twain himself put Jim through unnecessary suffering.
Attempts to explain Tom’s “evasion” scheme have been numerous. One of the most convincing of these attempts argues that the depiction of the “evasion” scheme is Twain’s way of satirizing the period of Reconstruction in American history as well as its aftermath. According to this explanation, Twain realized that the slaves had technically been freed by the south’s defeat in the civil war, but he also realized that they had not been granted true, real, meaningful freedom during Reconstruction and later. According to this reading, Twain mocks the shabby, false freedom blacks endured after the end of the civil war by showing how Tom denies Jim true freedom despite the fact that technically Jim has already been freed from slavery.
Another way of explaining Twain’s decision to include the unnecessary and self-indulgent “evasion” scheme, however, is to argue that Twain knew that the scheme would make readers morally uncomfortable and even morally outraged and that this was exactly the effect he intended. If we find the concluding chapters of the novel to be ethically troubling, that (according to this argument) is because Twain wants them to trouble our sense of what is fair, right, and decent. In this sense, the evasion scheme performs its true function if it disturbs us and calls attention to its own ethical shortcomings. Morally, then, the scheme may be a failure in its own right, but in terms of the moral effect Twain wishes to achieve – an effect that makes us pity Jim and feel outraged by the way he is treated – the scheme succeeds as part of Twain’s carefully planned novel.
At one point, for instance, Huck reports that some white men who captured Jim at the conclusion of Tom’s scheme now
wanted to hang Jim . . . [for] making such a raft of trouble, and keeping a whole family scared most to death for days and nights.
As soon as we read this sentence, however, we must feel morally outraged, since it was, after all, Tom who terrified the family, not Jim. Jim is being blamed for Tom’s actions. No reader who has paid close attention to the ethics implied by Twain’s novel can feel at all comfortable with this fact. By allowing Tom to play games with the life and fate of Jim, Twain helps underscore the evil of playing games with any other human’s life, even if that other human is “merely” a freed slave. Tom’s scheme is shallow, pointless, and self-indulgent, but Twain’s presentation of it actually serves the purpose of implicitly condemning any and all behavior that is shallow, pointless, and self-indulgent, especially if the dignity and safety of another human being can be threatened it.
[See the link below to my article on this issue.]