Reflections of Racism: Twain’s Huckleberry Finn Then and Now*

by Rose Sandra Soivilien

(Trigger warning: racist language from the literary work is explored in this analysis)

Literary critic Leo Marx, in his important essay on Mark Twain’s novel “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn,” asserts that he “…believe[s] that the ending of Huckleberry Finn…jeopardizes the significance of the entire novel.” The ending, Marx argues, confronts the reader with the looming question: “What is the meaning of the journey?” (291). And, Marx is not alone. Indeed, many critics take exception to the ending of Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Twain (1885). The ending, according to critics, diminishes the journey that Huck and Jim take on the raft as they travel down the Mississippi River over the course of the first two-thirds of the novel. Equally offensive, it mocks Jim’s life: the human life of an enslaved Black man. However, critics who read the novel and misunderstand the importance of the ending miscomprehend the reality of slavery and the historical period in which Twain set his book. Twain’s ending both captures the harsh reality that Blacks endured as they struggled for freedom during the pre-emancipation period and indicts White America in the post-emancipation era for their continuing racism and failure to afford equality and civil rights to their fellow citizens. Any alternative ending for Huckleberry Finn would likely seem farcical given contemporary realities. Thus, Twain challenges the readers to face up to history, observe current systems of oppressions that various groups face, and conclude whether present-day America is any different from the ending of his novel.

One way to understand and recognize Twain’s genius in this book is to view him as a historian rather than an author of fiction. A popular criticism cited against the book is the lack of growth that both Huck and Jim experience after their travels. After all the time that Huck spent with Jim, Huck reverts to his old self and Jim returns to being enslaved. Twain does this in order to illustrate an accurate depiction of the history of slavery between Whites and Blacks. Enslaved people, and enslaved women in particular, spent countless years living with their white slaveholders. These women who did housework and even breast fed their masters’ children, were seen as vessels, rather than humans. Twain parallels this master and slave relationship to Jim’s and Huck’s relationship. Even after Jim tells Huck, “you’s de bes’ fren’ [I] ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now,” Huck continues to see Jim as a nigger throughout the novel (102). This realistic depiction of the relationships between Whites and Blacks at the time is harsh, but it is an accurate representation of history. Describing Twain as “autobiographical and nostalgic” in his book Selling Huck Finn Down the River, Seymour Chwast defends Twain’s non-progressive ending, “Mark Twain was writing a historical, not a reformist, novel” (467). Critics’ condemnation of the final scenes of the book may be a refusal to accept the evils of history—evils that linger in contemporary society.

Huck’s and Jim’s journey is also an accurate and realistic depiction of the culture that existed in America’s South in 1804. Slavery was not only prevalent, but considered a necessary evil by White Southerners. Whites likely knew that slavery was wrong and conflicted with their professed Christian values. In the Constitution, for example, the word slavery is never mentioned; instead, enslaved people were referred to as “other persons.” Even with so many guilty consciences, slavery continued until 1865. From the beginning of slavery in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 to its end in 1865, it took America over 240 years to fully acknowledge the evils of slavery. It took America over 240 years to view Blacks as humans rather than as slaves. Is it not an unrealistic expectation of critics, therefore, to expect Huck to see Jim as a human after a few months in a raft?

Publishing Huckleberry Finn twenty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Twain’s novel is a critique of the status quo of America. Life for Blacks did not improve drastically after the Emancipation. The Proclamation established Blacks as freed people, but not as equals with their White counterparts. There were countless new obstacles that Blacks were overcoming as a result of the legacy of slavery: racism, bigotry, classism, and segregation were only some of the types of systematic oppressions that Blacks face after freedom. Therefore, it is impractical for critics, like Leo Marx, to want Twain to portray Jim as a happy, freed man at the end of the novel. Marx claims, “…The most serious motive in the novel, Jim’s yearning for freedom, is made the object of nonsense” (294). It seems that Twain knowingly and rightly mocks the idea of freedom for Blacks. As a man who wrote this book in a post-emancipation era it was obvious to him that freedom for Blacks was theoretical and not actual. This type of theoretical freedom is depicted in the last few chapters of the novel, where it is revealed that even after Miss Watson frees Jim, Tom continues to treat Jim as a slave. This portrayal of Jim, a freed Black man still held in bondage, parallels life for Blacks post-emancipation. Even though they are free, Blacks do not have the liberty to do as they wish. Thus they enter a new type of psychological and physical form of slavery where limits and rules are imposed on them by White America.

Twain’s gruesome ending of the novel is not only fitting but it is also realistic because it is a reflection of the reality that Blacks have to face in White America. T.S. Eliot echoes the appropriateness of the ending of the book when he asserts, “For Huckleberry Finn, neither a tragic nor a happy ending would be suitable. No worldly success or social satisfaction, no domestic consummation would be worthy of him; a tragic end would reduce him to the level of those whom we pity” (288). It is likely the unapologetic realism of the final scenes of the novel that agitates critics and readers.

As a historian it is highly appropriate for Twain to leave the readers unnerved. Not only would a happy ending be unsuitable for the novel, but it would also be unfair to the memory of those who were enslaved. Twain honors the legacy of enslaved people, by illustrating the harsh realities they faced. By doing so, he simultaneously forces the reader to acknowledge and face the difficulties that Blacks continue to endure living in White America. Even though Toni Morrison disagreed with the ending of the novel, she contends, “In that sense the book may indeed be ‘great’ because in its structure, in the hell it puts its reader through at the end, the frontal debate it forces, it stimulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom” (310). Identifying the genius behind the effect that the book’s ending has on readers, Morrison identifies that it not only prompts discussion, but also allows readers to see what freedom entails in America. Twain putting the reader through “hell” is also reflective of the hell that Blacks continue to endure.

Besides the realistic representation of slavery that Twain provides for its readers, the ending of Huckleberry Finn is also appropriate because of the pragmatic way Twain characterizes Huck as a child. As a child, Huck is naive and easily influenced by his peers. Any lesson that Huck might have learned while on the raft is completely obliterated by the presence of Tom Sawyer in the final scene. Tom represents the old life that Huck left when he set out on his journey, but because Tom is his friend and not one of his oppressors, Huck easily succumbs to the charms of his past life. Huck happily follows Tom around, even though he treats Jim with no respect. Huck’s relationship with Tom proves he is still a boy who is not yet independent or able to separate himself from the erroneous values validated by society.

Due to how easily Huck goes back to his past life with Tom Sawyer, Twain shows that Huck has not experienced any moral growth while on his journey. Even before the ending, Twain hints that Huck sees Jim as a nigger and nothing more. At the very beginning of their travels, Huck plays a trick on Jim after their separation in the fog, which Jim finds highly offensive and hurtful. Even though Huck sees the effect that his games had on Jim, he does not apologize immediately. He says, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger…” (100). It took Huck fifteen minutes to decide whether he should apologize to Jim, and even after those fifteen minutes, he did not apologize to the man that Jim is but to the nigger that he sees him as. As Huck and Jim continue their travels down the Mississippi River, Huck consistently views Jim as inferior. Even after Jim calls Huck his only friend, and even after Huck sees the human qualities in Jim, Huck still views Jim as less-than human. When he finds out that Jim has been sold, his initial reaction is not to refer to Jim as his friend, but as his property. Huck exclaims, “…Why, he was my nigger, and that was my money. Where is he?—I want my nigger” (203). Huck’s characterization of Jim as a nigger is proof that Huck has not realized that slaves are human. Therefore, according to Eliot, it is only “… right that the mood of the end of the book should bring us back to that of the beginning” (288). It then begs the uncomfortable question: does the attitude of contemporary society towards Blacks still reflect that of the beginning, at the origin of slavery?

Throughout the novel, Huck is shown to be ambivalent, yet another trait of his boyhood and immaturity. Much like the raft on the river, Huck is always swaying back and forth on his decision; he is never sure of what to do, nor does he ever have any confidence in his decisions. Throughout his trip with Jim, Huck continuously engages in battles with his conscience regarding what the right thing to do is. Even though Huck spends countless weeks with Jim, he is still undecided on the issue of whether helping Jim is the right thing to do. It is fitting therefore for Twain to depict Huck as a boy who still does not have a clear sense of right from wrong, and continues to view and speak of Jim as subhuman although he has noted Jim exhibits human characteristics.

One human characteristic Huck acknowledges in Jim is that he, too, desires freedom. Huck wants freedom from authoritarian figures like Pap and Miss Watson, and Jim wants the type of freedom where he can live safely with his wife and children without being seen, by society and the law, as property. They escape oppression from the outside world by seeking refuge on the raft. While on this raft, both Huck and Jim are comfortable and at ease with one another. Huck states, “It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed, only a kind of low chuckle” (286). Huck and Jim can only experience peace and tranquility on the raft, not on land. Even on the raft, it is limited, which is implied by their quietness and sparse laughter. Twain uses the raft as a metaphor to critique society: the calamities of society are so great that they push both child and adult away, and even then, the calamites are not entirely escapable.

Twain also uses water and land as tools for critiquing American society. Water inherently has no shape and it is unrestrained—essentially it is free. Huck and Jim, much like water, are free in the utopia that they create for themselves while on the river. Being on water also represents the lack of an inherent order, meaning, there is no fixed role of master and slave. However, at the end of the novel, they are back on land, where they take up their previous roles again: Huck is the unruly boy that needs to be “sivilize[d],” and Jim is the slave (263). Twain uses the raft to create a microcosmic world in order to show what life for Huck and Jim—for Whites and Blacks—could be if society were not so corrupted. However, because slavery, racism, and various other forms of systematic oppression are so rooted within American society, Jim could not find the freedom he was looking for, nor could Huck have any moral progression. The ending was inevitable—but hopefully not for Americans today.

The ending of Huckleberry Finn is appropriate because it depicts the grim reality of slavery and the reality of a young child. Twain writing this book post-emancipation enabled him to critique the current systems of oppression, like racism, that Blacks still endure. Any other ending for this book would only belittle the hardships that Blacks had to and continue to face after the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, over 130 years after the publication of Twain’s novel, the reality for Blacks could still be described as grim. The battle for Blacks to be seen as equals to their White counterparts is ongoing, and it is a battle that America will be engaged in for a long time due to the lasting legacy of slavery. Therefore the ending, which depicts an uncertain future for Jim, accurately hypothesized the uncertain future for Blacks in America.

Work Cited

Chwast, Seymour. Selling Huck Finn Down the River: A Response to Jane Smiley. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Eliot, T.S. The Boy and the River: Without Beginning or End. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Linder, Doug. “The Thirteenth Amendment: Slavery and the Constitution.” The Thirteenth Amendment: Slavery and the Constitution. University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.

Marx, Leo. Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Jim’s Africanist Presence in Huckleberry Finn. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.