The Ambivalent Adventures of Huck Finn*

by Kelly Stone

The controversial ending of Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) troubles readers because it calls into question and disrupts Huck Finn’s seeming progress in morality in terms of his relationship with Jim. Yet, it seems that Huck Finn, while experiencing several points of moral development, remains conflicted in his views towards Jim throughout the entire novel. The ending is therefore justified because it is a natural and realistic continuation of Huck’s ambivalence. In creating this tension, Twain provokes conversation on the topic of race, not only for his contemporary readers but for readers today. Twain’s novel, considered a masterpiece in the American literary canon, is important precisely because it highlights the internal crisis that many of us face while growing up: should we believe what we have learned through our own discoveries, or should we believe what society has told us about the world?

Huck Finn’s first moment of significant crisis is seen toward the beginning of his adventure with Jim. At the end of chapter fifteen, Huck upsets Jim by tricking him into thinking their separation from each other during the fog was only a dream. After seeing Jim sullenly walk away, Huck proclaims, “It made me feel so mean I could almost kiss his foot” (100). This moment illustrates Huck’s ability to see Jim as a human with emotions; he feels a sense of guilt for distressing Jim. By acknowledging Jim’s emotions, Huck recognizes him as more than a piece of property. Huck ultimately apologizes for his actions and admits that he “warn’t even sorry for it afterwards, neither” (101). An apology is a sign of humility and recognition of wrongdoing. Therefore through his genuine apology, Huck admits that it was wrong for him to hurt Jim’s feelings and further acknowledges of Jim’s humanity.

Yet this early improvement in Huck’s moral compass is contrasted just a few paragraphs later, at the beginning of chapter sixteen, when Huck realizes the role he plays in Jim’s freedom. In a moment of reflection, he thinks, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?” (101). The use of the word “nigger” here is particularly important in portraying Huck’s racism. By referencing Ms. Watson as a “poor old woman” and Jim as a “nigger,” Huck reveals his understanding of social hierarchies. Even though he begins to see Jim as human, he still views white people as superior and therefore empathizes with Watson over Jim. Furthermore, by saying “her nigger,” Huck recognizes Watson’s ownership of Jim and therefore defines Jim as property. Identifying the use of the word “nigger” as extremely demeaning in her essay “Say it Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain’s Masterpiece,” critic Jane Smiley explains, “No matter how often critics ‘place in context’ Huck’s use of the word ‘nigger’ they can never excuse or fully hide the deeper racism” (460). Huck’s racist feelings towards Jim are highlighted even further when Jim discusses his aspirations for “stealing” his children. In reference to Jim’s plans, Huck states, “It was according to the old saying, ‘give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell’” (101). This establishes Huck’s belief that it is dangerous and foolish to give a black man full freedom. This first moment of crisis shows that despite Huck’s recent discovery of Jim’s humanity, at this point in the journey, he is still possessed by racist attitudes.

Huck Finn’s second significant crisis of conscience occurs towards the end of the novel after the Dauphin sells Jim. At first, this moment appears to be a major turning point in Huck’s racial views towards Jim. As Huck reminisces about his journey with Jim, he realizes the value of Jim as an individual, narrating, “I see Jim before me… and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing” (200). These instances of pure human connection that Huck and Jim share together throughout their time on the raft forge a personal bond between them. Despite their momentous racial and age differences, these two characters manage to form a strong friendship. Huck realizes that he has “no place to harden me against him but only the other kind” (200). In other words, he cannot find any flaws in Jim’s character; he only has warmhearted memories of their travels. In a pinnacle moment, Huck decides to help Jim and proclaims, “All right then, I’ll go to Hell!” (201). He loves Jim so much that he is willing to go to Hell for him. This scene exposes Huck’s recognition of Jim not only as a human, but also as a cherished companion for whom he is willing to sacrifice his soul.

However, upon further analysis, this second crisis of conscience also reveals that Huck still holds many of the racist attitudes he displays earlier in the novel. When Huck makes the decision to “steal Jim out of slavery again,” he associates this decision with him going to Hell. Therefore, even though he chooses to go against societal norms in order to help Jim, he still sees his actions as immoral. Although he sees Jim’s value and worthiness of being freed, Huck does not reach a point where he sees the actual institution of slavery as an atrocity. As Jane Smiley points out, even though Huck sees Jim as a man, he doesn’t “act in accordance to his feelings” (460). Furthermore, by using the word “steal,” he is still referencing Jim as a piece of property. This can also be seen when he tries to find Jim, and states “Why, he was my nigger, and that was my money. Where is he?—I want my nigger” (203). Huck’s phrase “my nigger,” particularly with the emphasis on the word “my,” stresses that Jim is his property. The use of the word “nigger” reflects how Huck still views Jim as subordinate. As author Peach Henry discusses in her critical essay “The Struggle or Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn,” critics of the novel often disparage it for giving blacks “traits that deny their humanity and mark them as inferior” (391). Evidence for this criticism is abundant in this scene; despite Huck’s recent realization that Jim is a friend he deeply cares about and wants to steal from slavery, Huck still considers Jim subhuman.

These two moments of crises, one at the beginning of the novel and one at the end, prove the persistence of Huck Finn’s ambivalence and offer justification for the end of the novel. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is criticized because the last few chapters disrupt the progress Huck has made in viewing Jim as a human, but, as these two moments of crises illustrate, Huck was never on the path to moral perfection. Although it may disappoint readers to see the character Huck Finn revert to racism even in the final chapters, Huck is still a young boy who is the product of a southern and heavily racist environment; it would be unrealistic for him to fully reject the values society has placed on him based on one journey. Twain consistently juxtaposes moments of moral progress with moments of moral regression and is clear about his intentions across the text; therefore, it should neither surprise nor upset readers in the way Twain concluded the novel.

The perseverance of Huck’s ambivalence in this novel is significant because it creates controversial but necessary conversation surrounding topics of race for both contemporary and modern readers. Twain’s creation of such an ambivalent character should not be seen as a downfall of this novel, but rather a major component in its power and continuing relevance. Critic Jane Smiley argues that the paradox of Huck realizing Jim’s humanity, yet remaining racist through the end diminishes the novel. She contends that the book is highly flawed and offensive because it insinuates that “all you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don’t actually have to act in the interest of his humanity” (465). Yet Smiley seems to be overlooking that Twain never claimed that Huck was the hero of the story. While Huck’s racism certainly should not be excused, Huck’s character is powerful precisely because he is continually conflicted with what to believe—a struggle to which many can relate. Smiley’s harsh criticism of Twain’s writing fails to recognize the value of creating a character that is morally flawed. The presence of racism in this novel does the opposite of diminishing its importance; instead, it highlights the difficulty of overcoming deep-rooted societal values, and causes the reader to question their own assumptions about society.

Through the use of uncomfortable language such as the frequent use of the word “nigger,” and contradicting viewpoints on the topic of race, Twain incites the reader to think critically about their own views on race. Peaches Henry, who is a supporter of Twain, states:

“Active engagement with Twain’s novel provides one method for students to confront their own deepest racial feelings and insecurities. Though the problem of racial perspective present in Huckleberry Finn may never be satisfactorily explained for censors or scholars, the consideration of them may have a practical, positive bearing on the manner in which America approaches races in the coming century.” (405)

As Henry explains, the uneasiness felt from not having the “perfect ending” gives this book the power to provoke controversy and conversation, important factors in creating change. Twain has masterfully managed to create a conflict between his critics that parallels the contradiction seen within the character Huck Finn. Twain has crafted a novel that has managed to transcend time; the discomfort of the conclusion and consistent uncertainty reminds the reader to question what society has told them to believe about the world—or they may forever end up as ambivalent as Huckleberry Finn.

Works Cited

Henry, Peaches (eds.). Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. 2nd. Edition. Boston & New York, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.  Print.

Smiley, Jane (eds.). Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. 2nd. Edition. Boston & New York, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.  Print.

Twain, Mark. Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. 2nd. Edition. Boston & New York, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.  Print.