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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

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When it comes to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Julius Lester wrote a critique on the black morality and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Do you agree with this argument or disagree?  Why or why not?  What examples in the story of Huck can prove your argument?

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In the opening pages of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain writes a "Notice":

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Obviously, Mr. Twain is facetious in his "Notice," suggesting that he wants his readers to be aware that his novel is satirical. Certainly, the depiction of the feuding  Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords, who are so foolish in their hatred that eventually everyone is killed off, the con artists who call themselves the King and the Dauphin, and Tom Sawyer's silly contrivances are all meant to be taken not for realistic depictions, but rather for satirical portrayals of human foibles and evils. Most importantly, the two characters that Twain does not satirize are Huck and Jim. Huck is the innocent boy who learns of the evil that men do as he travels down the Mississippi River with the moral and loving Jim, who at times is like a real father to Huck. 

In his critique of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mr. Julius Lester mentions that Jim's disappearance coincides with Huck's absence. "Yet, we are now to believe that an old white lady would free a black slave suspected of murdering a white child." But Miss Watson has not freed Jim; he has run away.

At another point, Mr. Lester argues, "A boy held captive by a drunken father is not in the same category of human experience as a man enslaved." This argument does have validity. It is true that knowing one will live an entire life in slavery cannot be equally compared to the plight of having an abusive parent. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable that the boy Huck could feel as though he is enslaved when he is beaten, deprived of food, locked up, and verbally abused, all when the new judge in town rules that a father and son should not be separated. Also, the reader must not forget that the fictional narrative is told from the point of view of the boy, who would view things with less logic than an adult.

Further, Mr. Lester writes,

If the novel had been written before Emancipation, Huck's dilemma and conflicting feelings over Jim's escape would have been moving. But, in 1884, slavery was legally over. 

This argument is fallacious. It is not the publishing date that has to do with the credibility or poignancy of narratives; it is the setting. And, the setting of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is clearly during the time of slavery and "before Emancipation."  After all, in the narrative of Twain's fictional novel, Jim escapes from his owner, Miss Watson. 

Mr. Lester's contention that the treatment of Jim "is a picture of the only kind of black that whites have ever truly liked-- faithful, tending sick whites, not speaking, not causing trouble, and totally passive" is disingenuous. First of all, this is a sweeping generalization, a logical fallacy.  The reality is that there have been many readers who have found the portrayal of Jim as the kindest, tenderest, most unselfish, and loving character in the novel. Consider, for instance, the time that Huck, who is in a canoe, and Jim, who is on the raft, are separated from each other in the fog on the river. Hours later, Huck finds his way back to the raft, where Jim is asleep. When Jim awakens, he is elated to see Huck,

"....It's too good for true, honey, it's too good for true. Lemme look at you, chile, lemme feel o'you. No, you ain' dead! you's back agin, ""live an soun', jis de same ole Huck, thanks to goodness!" (Ch.15)

Despite Jim's demonstration of love, the mischievous Huck tricks Jim into thinking that he has been on the raft all the time, and Jim was just dreaming. So Jim accepts that he must have been dreaming, and he starts to interpret his dream. It is true that Jim is unlearned and superstitious, but slaves were not educated, and they were not too far removed from a continent where superstitions existed, so Twain's portrayal is simply realistic. Notwithstanding his predictable lack of knowledge, Jim is far from being like the stereotypes of minstrel shows that Mr. Lester labels his characterization. On the contrary, Jim is wise in several instances. In one of these instances, as Huck continues his fabrication that he was on the raft the entire time, Jim notices the dead leaves and tree branches that the raft must have collected while it was adrift, and he realizes that Huck has been lying. Jim then scolds Huck:

...he looked at me [Huck] steady, without ever smiling...."En when I wake up en fine you back agin', all safe en soun', de tears come en I could a got down on my knees en kiss' yo' foot I's so thankful, En all you wuz thinkin' 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv old Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er day fren's en makes 'em ashamed." (Ch.15)

These words of Jim's form a very moving passage as the deep love that Jim has for Huck is evinced in his words.  These emotionally moving words and Jim's scolding of Huck are hardly characteristic of some foolish and self-deprecating stereotype. In fact, Huck feels ashamed of himself when he realizes how badly he has hurt Jim. So, he apologizes, and he says, "I warn't ever sorry for it afterward, neither....I wouldn't done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way." These words of Huck's demonstrate respect for Jim, not ridicule nor derogation. More than any other person, Jim is responsible for Huck's moral growth. No foolish or ridiculed character could accomplish this improvement in another.

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Julius Lester’s analysis of the way Twain characterized Jim as a black slave is his main argument in his critical essay. Lester believes that if Twain was writing an anti-slavery book and using satire to point out the racist behavior of white Americans, he could have made Jim more human than just a caricature or stereotype prominent in literature of the time.  Lester feels that Twain made Jim appear “child-like” and ignorant even though he was an adult with a family, and he basically led Huck down the river.  Lester also says that Jim was portrayed as ignorant when he seemingly didn’t know that Illinois was a free state, when he fell prey to superstitions about witches, and when he was duped by Huck’s pranks along the river. 

Lester also finds issues with Twain’s comparison of Huck’s enslavement by his drunken father and the institution of slavery shown by Jim.  Lester maintains that these were two very different experiences and should not have been made to seem as if they are the same.  Although Huck is locked up by Pap in the cabin, Huck still has the freedom and privilege that slaves during that time did not have.  Lester feels that Twain was making light of the profound hardships of slavery. 

Lester also feels in his criticism of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Twain failed in telling a moral story that treated slavery in the serious way it should have been presented in the novel.  Slaves were characterized as immature, clownish, and as a source of entertainment for the reader, a caricature found in the minstrel performances of the time in the form of the happy slave stereotype.  Lester feels that Jim was not presented as a human being whose life was marginalized and who was fighting valiantly for his freedom and family.  He therefore criticizes Twain for not clearly presenting the moral issue of slavery in the novel.

There are a lot of interpretations of the way Jim is treated in the novel.  Some say that Huck learning to love Jim and see him as a friend he will go to hell for shows what can happen when someone opens their heart and mind and accepts others.

This is a very debated topic, and one only a reader of the book can decide for himself.  Although I can’t help you with how you personally feel, I hope I have given you some guidance in helping you make a decision.

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