Why is the n-word essential to the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?Does the n-word have importance or relevance in the novel Huckleberry Finn?

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lrwilliams | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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As others have pointed out the term has changed over time in that it is much more offensive today than it was when Twain wrote the book. I am not sure that it is essential to the story being told by Twain, but do think that he used it to be true to the time period in which the story takes place.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Consider the fact that the words "colored" or "negro" are considered offensive today, throwbacks to an era of racial segregation, but Martin Luther King Jr. and others regularly used those terms as self descriptors.  By using the "N" word in Huck Finn, it reminds the reader that blatant racism was the accepted social norm of the day in which the novel is set, as well as showing us how far society has come in terms of racial tolerance and progress.  While some people find it too offensive even for literature written in that time period, I find the use of that offensive term essential in educating students about what racism is and was.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Context context context. To understand the novel, we have to bear in mind the context in which the novel, the characters and the action is set. This was one of slavery. Given the point of view, we need to recall that Huck was a boy who was brought up in an environment where slavery was considered the norm. However, I always think we risk missing the point of this novel by focussing on the problematic usage of this word. Far more important is the way that Twain depicts Huck as a character that matures and finds his own sense of right and wrong, even when that leads him to denounce Christianity in favour of helping his friend, the runaway slave Jim, to escape. Read in this way, the novel becomes harshly critical of slavery.

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catd1115 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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The simplest reason that the "n-word" is essential to the novel, and I believe it is, is that it is the word that Twain chose. You have heard all the arguments about it not being a controversial word in the time of Twain, as well as the idea that the purpose of the novel can be achieved without it. However ultimately that AUTHOR chose to use this word and use it repeatedly. We cannot be certain what his intentions were or if he even thought it was important. But, he chose the word and it needs to remain to maintain the integrity of the novel the way it was written. If it offends you, maybe that was the point. IF you notice it and wonder why Jim is referred to that way, maybe that was the point. By changing the verbiage you do not allow new readers to see and interpret the novel the way it was written.

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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It is accurate.  It is a social novel about the time period, and without the accurate vocabulary and an accurate portrayal of people's beliefs, readers would not fully understand or get the overall effect.  Plus, once one reads this novel, he or she recognizes immediately that the best, most loveable and honorable character in the entire book is Jim.  Without Jim, Huck would not have the growth--emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually--that he experiences.  It is through his discourse with Jim and the events they survive together that Huck comes to understand that slavery is wrong, and that everything he has ever known about blacks was incorrect.  Jim is the great humanitarian; the teacher; the father-figure; and the friend that Huck needed to make the tough decisions.

 

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I do not think the use of the word is important in the novel and the reason for that can be seen in the way your question has been edited.  When you first posted it, it said "nigger."  Now it doesn't.  Someone clearly changed your question so as to avoid having that word show up.

This is because that word is so immensely offensive today that people cringe when they see it.  This was not what Twain intended by using that word in this book.

It is important that the racism of the society should show clearly in the book since that is something that Twain was emphasizing.  However, it does not need the word "nigger" in order to do so.  The way people treat Jim makes very clear that this was a racist society.

 

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The "N" word in the time period of the novel was certainly racial terminology, but it was a common and accepted reference. Sometimes it was used hatefully and contemptuously, for sure, but Post #2 makes a good point in noting that the emotional load of the "N" word now is different and undeniable. In our time, it is an ugly, hurtful word that attacks and demeans people through ignorance, arrogance, and hatred. Reading the word today in Twain's novel is offensive to many because it summons up painful memories and vivid images of racism in American society. Even readers who know how and why Twain used language in the novel often find it uncomfortable to hear the "N" word in the story--that's how powerful the word has become in its emotional connotations.

Huckleberry Finn stands as one of the strongest condemnations of racism in American literature as Huck chooses to go to hell rather than send Jim back into slavery. Mark Twain wasn't a racist, but he was a local color writer intent upon capturing both the romance and the realism of his part of the country. The romance of the Mississippi River and the beauty and freedom of life on a raft is an integral part of the novel, and Twain's use of vernacular style and his attention to specific detail contribute to its realism. In writing in the dialect and the diction of his characters, Twain made them real.

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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One simple answer to your question is that it was the word of choice by author Mark Twain for many of his characters. Recent adaptations have actually eliminated the "N" word from the original text in order to appease readers who might be angered by the repeated usage of what has become one of the most hated words in any language. However, the "N" word was in common use during the mid-1800s by Americans in both the North and South. Presumably, slaves may also have used the term widely as many African-Americans still do today. African-Americans--both freed men and slaves--were still considered second (or even third) class citizens, and the "N" word was a common expression to describe anyone of color. It was not necessarily a hateful expression, and Huck does not seem to show any innate hatred toward African-Americans in general. Indeed, he treats Jim as a friend, but he is also aware that as a slave, Jim was not his equal. Twain's repeated use of the word was in part due to his own desire to create a truthful colloquial style of the time. Educated or uneducated, most Americans of the time used the word, though it did not seem to hold the hateful intent that it has today. Repressive and insensitive, yes; but Twain's use of the "N" word in Huckleberry Finn word hardly holds the deliberately antagonistic meaning that the word represents today. As far as it being essential to the novel, I believe its use is meant to represent its realistic common usage of the era. Huck could refer to Jim in such a manner and still consider him a friend; today, this concept would not be possible.

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ichabod | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Honors

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The history of our species is best charted using the works of art that we’ve left behind. Is not the art of an era remarkably illustrative of Man’s condition at that given time and place in history. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain has left us an enduring artifact: a picture of a nation struggling towards the realization of unparalleled civil liberties for its citizens and the apotheosis of individualism, while grappling with the taxing realities of that endeavor.

Recently, an edition of Huck Finn editing its 200+uses of the N-word has been released. In this edition the word “nigger” has been replaced with the word “slave”. Are these synonymous? Does this revisionary terminology accurately demonstrate the realities of life in America circa 1884? In that Huck Finn is a significant relic of America’s historical struggle toward liberty for all, documenting both the evolving character of a nation and its individual constituents, we must preserve it, for posterity’s sake if for no other reason.  It teaches us too great of a lesson.

Shall the Spanish forget the inquisition and the Germans the holocaust, whereby through selective memory a nation can revise its history into the spotless narrative it’s always wanted it to be? No, the use of the N-word in Huck Finn is as essential to the text as the time and place it was written.

 

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saddlehead1 | eNotes Newbie

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Consider the fact that the words "colored" or "negro" are considered offensive today, throwbacks to an era of racial segregation, but Martin Luther King Jr. and others regularly used those terms as self descriptors.  By using the "N" word in Huck Finn, it reminds the reader that blatant racism was the accepted social norm of the day in which the novel is set, as well as showing us how far society has come in terms of racial tolerance and progress.  While some people find it too offensive even for literature written in that time period, I find the use of that offensive term essential in educating students about what racism is and was.

i do not agree Negro or Colored is considered offensive- i guess it would depend with whom you are talking.  Those two words I feel is the badge that should be worn by all so called blacks and worn proudly.    It is to those names they fought for their freedom while being hung and humiliated. Treated in many inhumane ways by the so called humane christian people  who could reallydish out. But, through it all they still fight.  You cannot erase that word or the real intent of it.  It's there--it is their history.  It is this Nation's  history.  Do not attempt to erase that.  STOP!!!! IT WILL NOT WORK.

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