Huckleberry Finn - A Racist Novel?
There is a major argument among literary critics whether
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is or is not a racist novel. The
question boils down to the depiction of Jim, the black slave, and to
the way he is treated by Huck and other characters. The use of the
word "nigger" is also a point raised by some critics, who feel that
Twain uses the word too much and too loosely.
Mark Twain never presents Jim in a negative light. He does not
show Jim as a drunkard, as a mean person or as a cheat. This is in
contrast to the way Huck's (white) father is depicted, whom Twain
describes using all of the above characterizations and more. We see
Jim as a good friend, a man devoted to his family and loyal to his
He is, however, very naive and superstitious. Some critics say
that Twain is implying that all blacks have these qualities. When Jim
turns to his magic hairball for answers about the future, we see that
he does believe in some foolish things. But all the same, he is
visited by both blacks and whites to use the hairball's powers. This
type of naivete was abundant at the time and found among all races-the
result of a lack of proper education. So the depiction of Jim is not
negative in the sense that Jim is stupid and inferior, and in this
aspect of the story clearly there is no racism intended.
It is next necessary to analyze the way white characters treat Jim
throughout the book. Note that what the author felt is not the way
most characters act around Jim, and his feelings are probably only
shown through Huck. In the South during that period, black people were
treated as less than humans, and Twain needed to portray this. The
examples of the way Jim is denigrated: by being locked up, having to
hide his face in the daytime and how he is generally derided, are
necessary for historical accuracy. So, Mark Twain had to display Jim's
treatment in this manner, even if it is not the way he felt.
Huck, however, does not treat Jim as most whites do. Huck looks at
Jim as a friend, and by the end of their journey, disagrees with
society's notion that blacks are inferior. There are two main examples
of this in the story. The first one is where Huck is disgusted by
Jim's plans to steal his own children, who are "someone else's
property." While Huck is still racist here, Twain has written the
scene in a way that ridicules the notion that someone's children can
actually be the property of a stranger because the father is black.
The second example is where Huck doesn't tell Jim's whereabouts, which
would return Jim to slavery, and instead chooses to "go to Hell" for
his decision. This is again Twain making a mockery of Southern values,
that it is a sin to be kind to black people.
Another reason that is given to say this novel is racist is the
use of the word "nigger." This is not a good reason because this is
how blacks were referred to then. To have used the word Negro or
African-American would have taken away from the story's impact and
make it sound stupid. If Twain wanted to write an historically
accurate book, as he did, then the inclusion of this word is totally
These claims that Huckleberry Finn is racist are not simply
attempts to damage the image of a great novel. They come from people
who are hurt by racism and don't like seeing it in any context.
However, they must realize that this novel and its author are not
racist, and the purpose of the story is to prove black equality.
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