Race and racism in Mark Twains "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction: Cultural studies, American realism and race

2. Race and racism in the novel
2.1 Characters
2.2 Language
2.3 Narrative Strategy

3. Conclusion: Huckleberry Finn – a racist novel?

4. References

1. Introduction: Cultural studies, American realism and race

Race – often considered alongside class and gender – is one of the most influential theoretical concepts in cultural studies. It looms large in various discourses, among which the postcolonialist with its reference to the psychoanalytical concept of the ‘other’ and its critique of western imperialism is of particular importance:

The decentring and deconstruction of categories and identities assume fresh urgency in a context of racism, ethnic conflict, neo-colonial denomination. The ‘other’ is no longer merely a theoretical concept but groups and peoples written out of history, subjected to slavery, insult, mystification, genocide. (Eagleton 204-205).

In contrast to biological notions of race, which – particularly in the past – tended to be essentialist in that they invariably linked specific ‘objectively’ given races with specific characteristics and thus represented the different races as simple and undeniable facts of nature, current concepts of race in cultural studies stress and examine the modes in which race is constructed discursively and exploited in various cultures in order to preserve and exercise cultural power.

However, the ideas associated with these more recent concepts of race are by no means new. It is not surprising that American literature in the period of slavery and the Civil War deals with issues of race and that it is the realist texts which do so in a particularly critical manner. After all, slaves were treated in an outrageous manner: they had extremely poor food and housing, slaveholders had Negro women for concubines, and families of slaves were separated to be sold off individually and at higher profit. Ultimately, slavery was the main cause of a bloody political and military struggle, at the end of which the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery everywhere in the United States after it had been in effect for two and a half centuries.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is an intriguing case in point.[1] Not only are race and racism prominent issues in the novel, but they are also dealt with in a specific manner as Huck is the narrator whose eyes everything is seen through and whose language everything is presented in the text. According to Quirk, this has the advantage that “through the satirical latitude Huck’s perspective on events permitted him, Twain could deal scathingly with his several hatreds and annoyances – racial bigotry, mob violence, self-righteousness, aristocratic pretense, venality, and duplicity” (Quirk 146-147). Nevertheless, this narrative strategy, which differs from focalization only in its use of the past tense, has led to a controversy about whether the novel is racist, anti-racist, or both. This point will be discussed in the final section of this paper.

2. Race and racism in the novel

There are four levels on which the novel is concerned with issues of race: the characters, the language and the narrative structure. For the purpose of a closer analysis, these aspects will first be considered individually and then integrated in an interpretation of the novel as a whole.

2.1 Characters

It is Jim who represents the African-American slaves in Mark Twain’s text. At the beginning, he is presented as a superstitious person, who does not articulate his grievances and identifies with his role as a hard-working slave. He runs away when he finds out that his owner, Miss Watson, intends to sell him down south, and travels along the river with Huck. In the course of the action, it turns out that Jim possesses a strong sense of love and humanity when he is willing to sacrifice himself for others and displays an unselfish love for his wife and children, whom he wants to buy out of slavery. On the one hand, Jim is modelled on the stereotypes associated with the African-American minority in 19th-century racist discourse: he is presented as somewhat ‘subhuman’, feeble-minded, immoral and lazy. In chapter 10, for example, his superstition reaches its climax when he is bitten by a rattlesnake: “And he said that handling a snake-skin was such awful bad luck that maybe we hadn’t got to the end of it yet. He said he druther see the new moon over his left shoulder as much as a thousand time than take up a snake-skin in his hand” (HF 64-65).[2] On the other hand, however, he is also shown as a good person with strong moral convictions and as a dynamic character who develops towards the end of the novel:

Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and free them. It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. (HF 110)

Importantly, the remarks judging Jim’s character are made by Huck and do not necessarily reflect Mark Twain’s attitude. Despite his occasionally racist comments, Huck decides to keep Jim’s secret and later actually defies society in order to save his friendship with Jim. Throughout the novel, Huck remains an ambivalent character: On the one hand he sincerely regrets having fooled Jim and embarks on a friendship with him in the snake bite episode in chapter 10, and when he hears that men are attempting to hunt down Jim in chapter 11 he is out of his mind and regards Jim’s problems as his own. On the other hand, although Huck respects Jim, he never really overcomes his racist prejudices although he does express his misgivings about slavery and his empathy for Jim in chapter 31:

Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave, and so I’d better write a letter to Tom Sawyer and tell him to tell Miss Watson where he was. But I soon give up that notion, for two things: she’d be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she’d sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn’t, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they’d make Jim feel it all the time, and so he’d feel ornery and disgraced. (HF 221)


[1] Among the features noteworthy about the novel, Quirk lists the “centrality to the novel’s purpose of questions of racial prejudice” (138).

[2] All page numbers refer to the Norton Critical edition of the novel, which is listed in the references.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Race and racism in Mark Twains "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
University of Cologne
Racism in the American Novel
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
2147 KB
Race, Adventures, Huckleberry, Finn, Racism, American, Novel
Quote paper
Dr. Martin Holz (Author), 2000, Race and racism in Mark Twains "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/114271


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Race and racism in Mark Twains "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free