Racism and slavery in Huckleberry Finn


The novel Huckleberry Finn is an embodiment of the racism that was much apparent after many decades of Emancipation Proclamation and the ending of the Civil War Era.  However, the South still struggled with the problem of racism, which would be among the after effects of slavery.  Therefore, Mark Twain provides a detailed and comprehensive exploration of race relations, although it had seemed positive after the Civil War era, once again, became so much strained.  The novel touches on crucial events and developments in the USA like the imposition of the Jim Crow Laws, which was designed for limiting the black’s powers in South, although in various indirect ways, opened the room for a new and insidious ways of oppressing people.  It concentrates on the new racism in the Southern region, which although monolithic and less institutionalized, proved much difficult to combat.  In essence, it was possible to outlaw slavery but with the white Southerners enacting racist laws as well as policies under professed motives of their defense against the apparent free blacks, the acts were immoral and as such, proved one of the many forms or approaches for oppressing and furthering slavery in the country.  How Twain explores the theme of racism is the same as the thematic explanation of racism in To Kill A Mocking Bird. Therefore, Mark Twain uses characters to develop the theme of racism, shows how it leads to enslavement, prejudice, untold suffering, social inequality, told from his personal perspective while at the same time, racism even affects the oppressors through moral decay and mentally enslavement.

One of the major ways through which the Twain develops racism as the central theme in his novel is that many of the characters he has presented are slave holders; he uses character development to send a message about what he perceives on racism.  In this case, racism is much depicted and developed around characters. Among them include the Phelps, Miss Watson and the Gangerford families. Conversely, some characters have been portrayed to be profiting indirectly from the practice, for instance, the kind and the duke shows when they turn Jim, Miss Watson’s runway slave into the Phelpses, traded for a cash reward (Twain 50).  Miss Watson and the Widow are the true embodiment of how the author has used characters to paint the clear picture of slavery. For example, the two women are demanding Huck’s conformity to societal norms but the young boy resents.  On the other hand, Miss Watson is shown as the hypocritical character who holds Christian values but at the same time, cruelly keeping slaves and supporting and as such, responsible for the separation of Jim from the family.  For instance, it is quite unfortunate that a character who would preach about providence supported racism as Huck says that “sometimes the widow would take me one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water (Twain 30), which contradicts her inability to use wisdom in treating Jim as a human being. However, she is the character used to show how the some members of the society were fast to realize their mistakes, evident when she frees Jim, which happens at her will.  Therefore, through her, Twain portrays how racism was driven by hypocritical characters ascribing to religious values while at the same time, came to realize their mistakes and championed for the freedom of the slaves.

The Duke and the King are the true exemplification of the institutionalization of racism, which led to the acceptance of slavery in the society. Accordingly, their acts show how the leaders and the prominent in the society have taken their position to use slavery in serving their self-interests. It shows how racism was driven by debauch, deception, selfishness, greediness. In addition, the actions of the King and Duke display the societal exploitation that established racism which thrived through slavery in spite of the untold suffering that it had exposed on the individuals.  Through these two characters, Twain shows how slavery was influenced or promoted by the individuals in the society that had limited regard to human life and no dignity when handling or perceiving humans.

Nonetheless, the theme of racism is told from the narrator’s point of view of which the audience gets to understand his perspective and stand on racism.  The novel begins with the author introducing himself as he says, “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by name of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter” (Twain 10). From this voice, the audience gets to learn right away that slavery is told from first-person narrator, of which there is full embodiment of the author’s personality, his viewpoint and strengthened by the youthful voice.  The narrator’s life impact or biographical impact on the story ensures that the audience has to rely on his interpretation and agrees or confronts what he is presenting.  One of the biological information or aspect of his life that influenced the manner in which Twain approached slavery was the life in Hannibal, between the age of 4 and 17 (Kirk 12). The town was situated around the Mississippi River, such a splendid place to grow up.  However, the area was full of violence, which became such a common place. For instance, at 9 years of age, he had watched a local man murdering a cattle rancher and by the age of 10 years, he also witnessed a slave dying after a white supervisor had hit him with an iron rod (Kirk 69). In this case, all that the author portrays, about Huck and Jim, and the freedom they find in around Mississippi River also resonates with the freedom he once yearned for; to break off from Hannibal town and live a better life, free of poverty and endless deaths.

From the narrator’s perspective the audience gets to learn how he dreaded slavery and uses the book to pinpoint the struggles of the slaves like Jim to become free.  In addition, Missouri, the hometown, was regarded or considered as a slave state, and had been reassured that slavery had been institutionalized by God (Kirk 10). However, the cruelty remained as embedded memories and with much sadness, all would be reflected in his maturity, which in this book, shows how he grew to hate racism, pinpointed the evils and used characters like Huck and Jim to champion for the freedom of the slaves.

Nonetheless, slavery is not only confined the physical enslavement of the Africans or the black community, it equally shows the emotional and psychological entanglement with life complexities. One of such characters that portray this type of slavery is Pap, Huck’s father, who is a racist drunk.  In fact, in the entire book, all is ever wanted is having Huck’s fortune for himself.  He has a greater resentment towards Huck’s mobility, because when not in jail or drinking, the father is seen harassing Huck (Twain 30).  At some point, he goes ahead to kidnap Huck, imprisons him and deliver merciless beating to the young boy, which leads Huck to escape from the father. In essence, the character embody another form of slavery of which Pap is enslaved to his alcoholism and wretched viciousness, just like any other prisoner appearing in the novel (Pinsker 645).

Since racism and slavery are interlinked, the author shows that racism, which led to enslavement of people, has detrimental effects on the enslaved as well as the oppressors.  In essence, some of the effects include exploitation, oppression, mental and physical abuse as some of the elements of slavery.  For instance, Jim is the major character who has been used to show how racism contributed to untold suffering of the slaves, of which he was ripped from the children and the wife (p.124).  He shows how the white slaveholders made racism as a rational choice and used their reasoning or justification to abuse and exploit black slaves. Moreover, racism manifested the negative effects in the novel when the slaveholders assured themselves of the racist stereotypes by arguing that the black people are inferior, mentally, to the white people and as such, are next to animals (Pinsker 642).  In this case, it shows the effects of racism in separation of social classes, prejudice and disregard of other humans are being inferior while others considered being much superior than others. For instance, Pap, Huck’s father, is such a violent and vicious man whom the society regards as being a better man and this leads to Jim being the prime suspect in Huck’s murder because he had been a runaway slave, in his bid to gain freedom, so that he could stay with the family.

Moreover, the negative effects of racism is even much seen on Jim, whom apart from being the morally and spiritual upright who guides Huck, becomes a victim of racism by being subjected to dehumanization, haunting and persecution. Therefore, from the novel, the narrator shows the negative implications of racism which leads to enslavement of people, disregard of their moral stance and even being viewed as individuals with lesser values who deserve oppression (Pinsker 642).  However, with much resistance from Jim, it shows the manifestations of racism through such actions like rebellion and resistance. When the individuals are much exposed to untold suffering due to racism, the problem is more likely to result in serious rebellion and as such, contribute to divide within the community of which the oppressed resist the serious implications imposed by racism.

Conversely, as shown in the book, racism is not only bringing about untold suffering to the individuals who are oppressed and prejudiced, but the racists are doing moral harm to themselves as well as they are viciously misunderstanding humanity because they want to make profits.  The effects are clearly manifested through Huck who at the beginning of the novel is ascribing to the racial stereotyped. He is even seen reprimanding himself for the failure to turn Jim for escape because he had been shown that such is a legal and societal obligation (Twain 9).  On the other hand, the character transition of Huck shows how he realizes what racism has done to his perception and worldviews, and this is much manifested when he becomes friends with Jim.  In essence, he comes to the realization that they have common traits with Jim as human beings, who hurt or love, can also be foolish and wise.  In fact, to his surprise, Jim has turned out to be a better man in comparison to most people Huck meets in the course of the travel.  In addition, as the novel ends, Huck is shown read to defy religion and his society, rather go to Hell than letting Jim, now a friend, returned enslavement.

To Kill A Mocking Bird is another novel developed and constructed around racism and how it brought about untold suffering in America as well as the implications of racial prejudice. The novel supports Twain’s perception of the society regarding the colored people as being less superior to the majority races (Lee 9). Furthermore, Lee constructs the story around another form of enslavement, which is not as physical in Twain’s novel, but mental. Accordingly, there are whites in the novel who considered the African Americans as inferior and as such, all supported the unjust judgment. In this case, the novel highlights the presence institutional racism, just like the Dukes and Kings were supportive of the discriminatory laws and oppression of the blacks.  Conversely, the effects or racism in To Kill a Mocking Bird are shown through characters,  just like Twain uses the concept or style of character development to outline the detrimental effects of racism.  In both novels, racism was much manifested in homes. For instance, the 1930s had been defined by many white families having African American housekeepers and an example is the Finch’s family.

Conversely, To Kill a Mocking Bird resonates with the Twain’s exploration of racism as having profound negative effects by creating class stratification and bringing about social inequality.  For one, there are greater manifestations of social inequality in the novel through the complicated Maycomb social hierarchy.  For example, the well-off Finches are standing atop the Maycomb social hierarchy but a majority of the townspeople are sitting beneath the family.  There are ignorant farmers including the Cunninghams lying below the townspeople but the black community, despite having some admirable qualities, are squatting further below even the poverty stricken like Ewells, a situation that led Bob Ewell persecute Tom Robinson to compensate for his lack of importance (Lee 63).  The same is seen in Twain’s novel, of which the Miss Watson imprisons and enslaves Jim, takes him away from his family and even the low in the white class like Pap, Huck’s father, is racist and dismissive the blacks as having no substance or importance.  Hence, in both novels, racism is portrayed as a constraint to human interaction and bringing about social inequality, prejudice and hate.

In summary, Twain had a way of exploring and explaining racism. The book has been told from the first person perspective which also leads to the audience guessing that it is  Mark Twain explaining his life and the overall stand on racism.  For one, racism is developed through characters, some support the ordeal and profit like the Duke and the King, the Watson’s but with time, they come to their real senses to accept that prejudice is immoral. Racism separates families, as evident from Jim being taken from children and the wife and leads others into perceiving themselves as the superior in the social class or stratification. However, racism also has serious implications on the mental slavery and moral degradation of the oppressors, evident from the manner in which Watson comes back to her senses and frees Jim. Hence, the novel accurately points some of the elements of racism which, to a greater extent, resonates perfectly with the elements of racism explained or explored in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

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  1. Kirk, Connie Ann. Mark Twain: A Biography: A Biography. ABC-CLIO, 2004.
  2. Pinsker, Sanford. “Huckleberry Finn and the Problem of Freedom.” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 77, no. 4, Sept. 2001, pp. 642-649.
  3. Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade). Collectors Reprints Incorporated, 1885. Print.
  4. Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Dramatic Publishing, 1970. Print.
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