In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain explores the experiences of African-Americans in a time when the institution of slavery was a controversial issue in the United States, especially in the South. By choosing a period 40-50years before the publication, Twain makes a deliberate effort to reveal to the audience the life of black people in the period preceding the emancipation of slaves in 1865. Through the protagonist, Huckleberry (also referred in-here as Huck), the book depicts the hostile race relations in the South and how such relations changed over time to reflect political developments in the country. Twain skillfully uses the character of Huck to bring to the fore the issue of hypocrisy surrounding the institution of slavery and racism, revealing how racism influenced relations between whites and blacks in the Southern parts of the United States during the period before the Civil War.
The story begins with Huck having a conversation with a friend, Tom Sawyer, on the shores of the Mississippi River. The two characters have acquired a considerable amount of money obtained from earlier adventures. However, what strikes the reader at the onset of the story is the description of characters which plays a vital role in developing the theme of the book throughout the adventurous journey of the protagonist.
On this encounter, Huck narrates to Sawyer about the experiences he had while staying with Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. This happens after he escaped an abusive and alcoholic father known in the book as Pap. In the conversation, Huck expresses disgust at the behaviors of his hosts after running away from the father. For instance, Huck describes with disdain the moral principles of both Douglas. He says, "After supper, she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him"(3). Huck adds that he did not care so much about having learned from Douglas that Moses died a long time ago because he naturally cared little about the dead. This conversation is critical in setting forth the tone of the book from the onset as it reveals that Douglas is devout Christian and this fact is used in the latter stages of the book to show the hypocrisy of Christians in the South.
The hypocrisy in Douglas is depicted in the text when Huck reveals that Douglas strived to civilize him by teaching manners and taking him through the teachings of the Bible. For example, when Huck requests Douglass for permission to smoke, the latter rejects this request, justifying the prohibition from the Bible. Huck felt disappointed and laments, "Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn't. She said it was a mean practice and wasn't clean, and I must try to not do it anymore"(Chapter 1:5). Intriguingly, Douglas considered smoking a bad practice yet she smoked snuff which is as harmful as tobacco. This is one of the first incidences in the book where satire has been used to show the hypocrisy of Christians in the South.
Douglas' residence also enables the reader to be introduced to white racism in the South towards African-Americans. In one case, Huck reveals that Miss Watson fondly told him about the beauty of heaven and how God had prepared a place for Christian believers. She urged Huck to work on his ways to ensure that he also goes to heaven. Interestingly, Watson does not believe that black people would go to heaven. This is revealed when Huck asks for her opinion about the possibility of his friend, Sawyer, going to heaven. Huck says, "So I didn't think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight"(Chapter 1: 7). He further adds satirically that "I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together"(Paragraph 7). Although the Sawyer is presented as white in the story, the description puts his morals in black context which reveals the belief shared among the overwhelming majority of the whites in the South that blacks were savages and were destined to suffer in condemnation. It is upon this premise that Christians in the South supported the institution of slavery and other savage acts towards blacks.
Huck manages to escape from Douglas headed for Illinois with Jim. He reveals how he faked death and escaped from his father, who has been described as violent and drunk, and peacefully settles in Jackson highland. In this Island, the audience learns from a conversation between Huck and a Mr. Parker about the practice of recapturing fugitive slaves for money. In his valedictory message, Parker remarks that "If you see any runaway niggers you get help and nab them, and you can make some money by it"(Chapter 15). The conversation demonstrates the violence that blacks faced as they strove to run away for their freedom. It is an irony that Parker assumes that Huck is free. On the contrary, Huck is white but cannot find the freedom he wants among his white father as well as in Douglas and her sister. This is why he is escaping from the mentioned individuals. The ironic twist stretches further as the narrator is depicted to find mental peace by associating himself with Jim who many whites consider a savage. Perhaps the author aims at educating the audience that being a good person is not a characteristic of a given race but a human attribute which can be found in people irrespective of the color of their skin.
Another area that plays an essential role in developing the plot is the Kentucky accident. As the Jim and the narrator continue in their sailing adventure, their raft is hit by a passing steamship, resulting in separation of the two friends. Huck is given refuge by an aristocratic family known as the Grangerfords. The audience learns that the family was embroiled in a decades-old feud with another family known as the Shepherdsons. Buck Grangerfords, the new friend to the narrator, passionately supported the animosity between the families yet he knew little about its origins. This may be symbolic of racial discrimination of blacks which was not based on any logic but universal condemnation all black individuals. However, what struck Huck most is the fact that the members of the feuding families fellowshipped in the same church and always attended worship with guns. He observes, "The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall"(Chapter 18). On that particular day, the sermon was about brotherly love yet belligerence was an open sight in the church. Huck is shocked by this hypocrisy and satirizes them the sermon by reporting that everyone in the church observed that the brotherly love theme of the preacher was a good sermon. The relationship between the two families depicted the violent nature of Southerners at the time. On the flipside, the author may have wanted to suggest that the fact the Jim meets Huck after the latter was given shelter by the Grangerfords shows the struggle black people underwent be to be the same level as whites as no support is provided to Jim to enable him deal with the aftermath of the raft accident.
As a conclusion, it can be stated that the novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn portrays institutional slavery and racial discrimination in the South during the first half of the 19th century. In particular, it highlights the violence and suffering that black people endured in their daily lives in the South. The irony with the experiences of African-Americans in the South is that whites used Christian values to justify in the institution of slavery and racial discrimination. In effect, the author indicts Southern Christians for their complicit stance on the slavery. By choosing a white protagonist who finds love and peace in a fugitive slave, Twain sought to inform the readers that human virtues are universal among all the peoples that make up the human race. That is, no race should be considered as having superior characteristics compared to others.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Courier Corporation, 2012.
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