The Treatment of the Race Issue in 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction: The controversy on one of the nation’s finest novels

2. Influences on the Author and Historical Background of the Novel

3. The relationship between Huck and Jim in selected scenes
3.1 “They’re after us” – The first contact of the poor white boy and the runaway slave
3.2 “Pooty soon I’ll be a-shout’n for joy” – Huck and Jim get to know and respect each other and experience the River Society
3.3 “I’ll help you steal him!” – The elaborate freeing of Jim as a comment on Post-Reconstruction times

4. Summary: Why Huckleberry Finn is not a racist novel


1. Introduction: The controversy on one of the nation’s finest novels

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is probably the first great American piece of literature. For generations, writers all over the young nation had waited for a novel that would not only duplicate literary traditions from Europe but instead define what American Literature stood for. Published by Mark Twain in 1885, it is today by many regarded as “a novel that anybody with a pretence to full literacy ought to know”[1]. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a must-read for both school children and college students in the United States as well as in many parts of the world. Dozens of scholars have also commented on the novel, one half praising it, the other half disagreeing, at least partly, with it. The story of a young white boy, Huck, and a runaway slave named Jim and their journey on a raft down the Mississippi has been a cause for discussion ever since it was published. Especially Twain’s treatment of the sensitive issues of slavery and racism in Huckleberry Finn divides critical opinions.

Written in a time when slavery had been officially abolished, Twain created a relationship between Huck and the runaway slave Jim and thereby made substantial comments on race relations between black and white. Important in this respect is the fact that Twain, after having completed about half of the novel, put aside his work during the summer of 1876[2]. He had obviously realized that the novel was about to be dealing with far more serious matters than simply being a boy’s adventure story – such as Tom Sawyer had been. Fishkin comments on the author’s artistic break:

In July 1876, Twain began what he probably believed at first was a sequel to Tom Sawyer, another nostalgic boys’ book. But the narrative was soon hijacked by a black man and a white boy on a quest for freedom. Shortly thereafter, Twain temporarily scuttled that quest by having Huck and Jim miss Cairo in the fog. Then Twain abandoned it – not casually or passively, but violently: he ‘smashed all to flinders’ the raft that was to carry Huck and Jim to freedom.[3]

When he had finally finished and published the novel in 1885, especially the controversies regarding the latter part of the book began and they have lasted until today. The simple idea of a runaway slave going even further into the slaveholding South after he has missed his initial goal, namely the town of Cairo in the free state Illinois, has caused many critics to denounce Twain’s work. What critic Forrest G. Robinson aptly entitled “the nation’s favourite book about its most painful and enduring dilemma”[4] has thus often been regarded as racist writing. John Wallace is another example of critics who opinion “that Jim functions as a minstrel and that the teaching of this novel, with its use of ‘nigger’, does nothing more than to perpetuate the teaching of racism in America’s classroom”[5].

To fully understand the message about race relations in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn it is therefore important to consider personal influences on the author as well as the historical background of the book. Chapter two of this paper is an attempt to enhance our understanding of these specific circumstances of the novel. In Chapter three, the relationship between Huck and Jim will be explored more closely. By dividing the novel up into three sections and choosing crucial scenes where the white boy and the black runaway slave interact I will focus on the development of their relationship. The first section of that chapter includes their initial encounters with each other, ending with the important “fog scene” in chapter 15. Chapter 3.2 then deals with the development of their liaison while experiencing the wonders of river society. This section includes “the most strongly satiric, the most powerful part of the book, bringing Huck and Jim into contact with the outside world”[6]. The most controversial part of the novel, the last twelve chapters, will be examined in Chapter 3.3. It is this so-called “Phelps’ farm episode” that most critics disagree on.

Only after having looked more closely on the relationship between Huck and Jim will we be able to comprehend Twain’s artistic intentions. “What is the meaning of the journey? With this question all discussion of Huckleberry Finn must begin”[7] – this remark by Leo Marx in his famous essay “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn” will also be addressed here. The purpose of this paper then is to proof that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a racist novel. Instead, it makes wise and critical, though often extremely sarcastic, comments on race relations in the United States of the late 19th century. Though written after the Civil War, it not only presents views on slavery and racism after the slaves’ so-called liberation, but also brings in elements of the Antebellum period as well. Critics who argue that the novel is a celebration of racism have in my opinion missed the most important point of the book. That is, at the time of writing the novel, Mark Twain did not favor racism in any form at all. On the contrary, he had become a supporter of the Black’s cause.

2. Influences on the Author and Historical Background of the Novel

Mark Twain was born as Samuel L. Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Missouri, and spent his boyhood and youth in Hannibal in that same state. This was a time when slavery was so common in that region of the United States that almost no one questioned it. Neither did Twain, as he himself acknowledges in his Autobiography. It is crucial to know about his earlier sympathies for slavery in order to comprehend the magnitude of the change in attitude in his later years:

In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind – and then the texts were read aloud to make us make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing. In Hannibal we seldom saw a slave misused; on the farm never.[8]

Born and raised in the South, it is not at all surprising that the young Twain did not feel sympathy for Blacks. Had he spoken out against these conventional conceptions, he would surely have gotten into conflicts with his peers and parents. Slavery was the way of life in his little hometown, although “everybody knew there could be freedom somewhere for blacks”[9] – but the eastern states were far enough away from antebellum Missouri to forget about that.

When Twain decided to leave for New York in 1853 his attitude towards Blacks had still not changed. It was not until he had traveled through Europe in 1867 that his horizon had broadened and the concept of a better treatment of Blacks became plausible to him.[10] This change for better, Subryan argues in her essay “Mark Twain and the Black Challenge”, was even further strengthened by the marriage to his wife Olivia in 1870. Since her family were “staunch abolitionists” her background must have had an impressing influence on Twain himself.[11]

Six years later, in 1876, after his first successful novels such as The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It and Tom Sawyer, Twain began to write Huckleberry Finn. In the process of putting pen to paper, he was not only influenced by his wife and her attitudes towards slavery, but also by the general political climate in the United States. In the year of the 100th celebration of American Independence the reconstructed South witnessed more and more “racist opposition to blacks actually exercising the rights of citizenship”. Moreover, in the Southern states that had lost the war the 1870’s and 1880’s were “a time when the nation was effectively re-enslaving its black citizens by law and force”[12]. Twain could not have escaped noticing this. This revival of the old power structures in the South, in my opinion, was what made Twain lay aside his book for several years and contemplate about the course his novel should take. And with the negro Jim Twain had a powerful character in the plot which he regarded as instrumental in commenting on the society in which he himself had grown up but which he now began to question.

The sources for the description of white racism and especially for the characterization of Huck’s companion on the river, Jim, are diverse. Gladys Carmen Bellany in “Roads to Freedom” argues that the stereotype for white racism in the novel, Huck’s father, for example, is a result of Twain’s “years of observation of mountain whites, piney-woods people, and river rats”[13]. The character of Jim, on the other hand, combines various images of the American slave in the 19th century. Not only do we find traits of typical runaway slave qualities, Twain’s personal relations to Blacks also play an important role. He was, for example, a good friend of the former runaway slave Frederick Douglass[14].

Twain himself acknowledges that he used memories of real persons for his novels. Talking about “Uncle Dan’l”, a slave on the farm of his childhood, he explains:

[…] I’ve had his welcome company a good part of that time and have staged him in books under his own name and as ‘Jim’, and carted him all around – to Hannibal, down the Mississippi on a raft and even across the Desert of Sahara in a balloon – and he has endured it all with the patience and friendliness and loyalty which were his birthright […] The black face is as welcomed to me now as it was then.[15]

This explanation of the author clearly exhibits that he used traits of a person he had know himself in order to create the character of Jim. Surprising here is the fact that Twain claims to always have been sympathetic towards Blacks – which is very well possible, though he had still silently accepted the system of slavery in his youth, as was shown above.

Besides being influenced by his wife, the general political climate or his personal acquaintances, Twain had also been exposed to African (-American) folk culture. He was, for example, no stranger to “the centuries old African and African-American tradition of using satire to criticize the pretensions and foibles of white folks”[16]. Moreover, Fishkin argues, the sources for his rendering of Jim might have come from African-American tales, which he was familiar with, as well.[17] The so-called “Witch Episode”, where Huck and Tom play a trick on Jim, might have its origins there. But not only black sources were used by Twain. The so-called “minstrel shows” where whites painted themselves black on stage and made fun of (the former) slaves, came to Twain’s attention as well. His attitude towards minstrelsy, however, is not certain[18].

To sum up, many aspects play a role in determining the author’s presentation of slavery and racism in Huckleberry Finn. While Twain was not seriously opposed to the peculiar institution in his youth, his exposure to foreign cultures in combination with the marriage to his wife were two first steps in changing his attitude. Moreover, the general political situation of the 1870’s and 1880’s, marked by fatal court decisions such as the famous 1883 Civil Rights Cases which declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 illegal[19], left an open wound in Twain. Personal acquaintances with (former) slaves, an exposure to African-American folk culture and familiarity with popular American cultural elements of the time such as minstrelsy further influenced the author of Huckleberry Finn. With all this background information in mind the paper’s focus will now shift towards the actual novel and exhibit how Twain used all this in his representation of a black-white relationship.


[1] Budd (1985): 1

[2] Cf. Fishkin (1993): 70

[3] Fishkin (1993): 69f

[4] Robinson (1988): 224

[5] Chadwick-Joshua (1998): 5

[6] Bellamy (1950): 16

[7] Marx (1953): 51

[8] Chadwick-Joshua (1998): 23f

[9] Subryan (1992): 91

[10] Cf. Subryan (1992): 92f

[11] Cf. Subryan (1992): 94

[12] Fishkin (1993): 70ff

[13] Bellamy (1950): 18

[14] Cf. Chadwick-Joshua (1998): 16f

[15] Cf. Chadwick-Joshua (1998): 19

[16] Fishkin (1993): 75

[17] Cf. Fishkin (1993): 83

[18] Cf. Fishkin (1993): 90

[19] Cf. Fishkin (1993): 73

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Treatment of the Race Issue in 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'
University of Bamberg  (Lehrstuhl für Anglistik)
Hauptseminar Mark Twain
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Treatment, Race, Issue, Adventures, Huckleberry, Finn, Hauptseminar, Mark, Twain
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Moritz Oehl (Author), 2005, The Treatment of the Race Issue in 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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