Even though Mark Twain is a humorist and a comedic writer, his works touch upon acute social and existential issues. Hence, slavery and racial discrimination constitute one of the most prominent themes in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The novel written after the Civil War reflects tension and strained race relationship that remained after slavery was abolished. Twain’s humor targets several serious subjects such as religion, politics, government, slavery. The book has provoked controversy in education due to the abuse of the n-word and stereotypes. Thus, the text abundant with racial slurs represents many opportunities to question Twain’s views on racism.
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The action in the novel takes place before the abolition of slavery in the country. Hence, the novel’s characters include white slave-owners benefitting from slaves. Some of Twain’s characters express straightforward racist opinions, and Huck’s father is exemplary in this regard. Pap states in the sixth chapter that “when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drew out. I say I’ll never vote again…” (Twain 35). The way Pap is portrayed in the text and the fact that he is an antagonist demonstrate that his opinions should not be viewed as models. Although Twain does not directly condemn Pap’s racism, the author attributes multiple negative characteristics to the character: he is a violent, greedy alcoholic and an extremely bad father. Pap’s attitudes and bigotry are meant to inspire antipathy, disturbance, and scandalize. Twain does not portray this racist character as a hero or make readers sympathize with him.
The author describes the reality of the time in terms that are offensive in actuality. One of the most problematic aspects in the novel that potentially can make readers think that Twain’s attitude toward slavery and racism is not laudable is the excessive usage of the n-word by all sorts of characters throughout the novel. For instance, even the protagonist uses the word, “Jim was monstrous proud about it and he got so he couldn’t notice the other niggers. Niggers come miles to hear Jim tell about it and he was more looked up to than any nigger in that country” (Twain 13). It can be seen that the way Huck Finn’s characters speak is unacceptable by the standards of today. On the one hand, Twain had to capture the manner of speech of the era when the novel’s events take place to make it realistic. On the other hand, the use of the n-word may seem needlessly immoderate, even considering that the text is satirical as in Huck’s lines above.
Furthermore, the language is not the only aspect that may make readers question Twain’s attitude toward slavery and racism. The text contains stereotyped and somewhat warped ideas regarding the African-American population. Even though Huck’s and Jim’s friendship transcends race’s limits, the relationship is not uninhibited by social prejudice. Thus, the protagonist expresses the following thought about Jim “well, he was right; he was almost always right; he had an uncommon level head, for a nigger” (Twain 87). Jim’s portrayal and characterization are somewhat problematic – Twain makes him overly compliant, passive, and somewhat childlike despite his adult age. It can be argued that these characteristics emerged due to years spent in slavery and that Jim was conditioned to be obedient and submissive. Nevertheless, it is not suggested in the text and appears to be an excuse.
It is most probable that racist stereotypes and most of the remarks discussed above are not used literary, but ironically as means of social satire, and not a character can escape Twain’s derision. Twain’s satire can seem cruel and inconsiderate, especially considering the sensitivity of the subject at which it is directed. At the same time, the author does not shy away from mocking social institutions such as education, religion, and government. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, when Huck is staying at Widow Douglas’s house, he ridicules her zealous religiousness and Christian rituals. Moreover, the social and political ambiance of the time when The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written diverges significantly from the modern time. It seems faulty to judge a book written more than a hundred years ago by the standards of contemporary society that itself has a long road ahead in terms of racial equity.
In this way, without reading the novel in-depth, a contemporary reader can reach premature conclusions about Twain’s attitude toward slavery and racism. The excessive use of the n-word and the stereotypical portrayal of Jim can make a reader think that Twain shared racist opinions. It is difficult to deny the fact that, based on the norms of today, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does not seem the most inoffensive text. Nevertheless, for its time, the novel is progressive, particularly in describing the friendship between a white underage boy and an adult African-American slave. The controversy regarding Huck Finn should be acknowledged in classrooms but not eclipse the text’s importance in literature. Conclusively, even though, based solely on the novel, Twain’s views on racism are not politically correct, they do not seem bigoted.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Penguin, 1986.