Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ever since its publication, has been seen as one of the most controversial books in American history. In the American Library Association’s list for the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books for 2000-2009, the novel placed at number fourteen (“Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009”) . Coincidentally, the ALA’s same list for the 1990s also placed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at number eighty-three (“100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999”). However, my main focus is to explain not only how much Huckleberry Finn has changed throughout the book but also how society has perceived the character throughout history.
When we are introduced to Huck in this novel, he is not doing too bad for a thirteen (maybe fourteen) year old boy. Finn has become rich from his share of the treasure found at the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and also lives in a house and is getting an education at school. The two women he lives with, his guardian, the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson, attempt to civilize Huck and teach him about God and Christianity. Looking back at the beginning of the novel, I have already noticed a couple of interesting parallels – the two women attempted to civilize Huck into what society deemed acceptable, similar to Zitkala-Sa’s experience in the Indian boarding schools. However, it is important to note that Zitkala-Sa’s case had a more severe level of harshness than the attempted civilization for Huck . The second thingmay be a little more obvious – Miss Watson tries to civilize Huck in a proper, Christian way yet Watson herself is a slave owner, something that was acceptable in the 1830-40s but would now be considered appalling for anyone, let alone a Christian.
The part where everything goes wrong is when Huck’s father, only referred to as Pap, comes into the picture. Pap kidnaps his son and takes him to his cabin in the woods, isolated from society. Huckleberry is then subject to repeated beatings by his father until he cannot take it any more – he fakes his own death and flees to Jackson’s Island where he sees Jim, a black slave owned by Miss Watson who had fled from St. Petersburg after hearing that she was going to sell him for $800. Huck and Jim then leave Jackson’s Island after the former discovers that the town is searching for the latter. What is it that makes Huck change his mind about Jim at this point? Because, keep in mind that beforehand, Huck was perfectly fine with Jim’s status as a slave until now, deciding to help him escape.
My answer to this question comes from a quote in the book: “Before night they wanted to lynch him, but he was gone, you see. Well, next day they found out the nigger was gone” (Twain and Levine). This line is spoken by Judith Loftus, a minor character that Huck has a conversation with shortly before he and Jim leave Jackson’s Island. If this quote is considered as a counterpart to this question, Huckleberry may have wanted to save Jim because he knew him – he did not want his friend to be lynched by the townspeople because of his faked death. Finn could have also felt guilty that the citizens were looking for Jim despite the fact that he had no way of knowing that they would pin his “murder” on this newly escaped slave. Tuire Valkeakari, in her academic journal Huck, Twain, and the Freedman’s Shackles: Struggling with Huckleberry Finn Today, claims that Jim could also connect with Huck at an emotional level: “A slave, Jim can relate, at a most personal level, both to the agony generated by uncertainty about a family member’s fate and to the fear of becoming a target of physical violence” (Valkeakari). When the two leave Jackson’s Island, these realizations could perhaps be why Huck no longer sees Jim as a slave.
There are multiple scenes in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck proves his loyalty to Jim after Jackson’s Island: he apologizes to Jim after attempting to trick him into believing that the fog which separated them was just a dream; another time was when Huck lied to a man, saying that a black man was not onboard the raft. As the book progresses, Huck gets his share of life-changing experiences – he is practically adopted by the Grangerfords and then becomes emotionally scarred after witnessing the deaths of all the Grangerford men in a gunfight. Finn also sees a town drunk get shot in cold blood and deals with the Duke and the King, the latter situation also experienced by Jim. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been the subject of criticism in two different ways: the first, “its hero a boy who smoked, loafed, and preferred the company of a runaway slave to Sunday School” (Levine). By the 21st century, the reason changed because the novel continually uses the word “n—–”. Even Huckleberry uses thisword throughout the book, so has he really changed?
The pivotal moment where I believe Huckleberry truly changes is in the conclusion of the second part: he has the choice of either sending a letter to Miss Watson saying that he knows where Jim is and collecting the reward money for his capture or do nothing. This point in the book is similar to the other ones where Huck proves his loyalty to Jim, so what makes it so different? It is different because not only does Huck choose not to send the letter but he accepts the fact of going to Hell in his vow of freeing his black slave friend: “ ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’- and tore it up” (Twain and Levine). In this moment, Huck has now seen Jim as he should truly be seen – as a human being with feelings and not property that can be chained or sold like an animal. It is also safe to say with certainty that God would not have sent Huck to Hell just because he helped free a slave. This is the definitive moment where Huck no longer sees Jim as a nigger.
Huckleberry Finn, at the conclusion of the novel, would be seen as a traitor to his state because he helped free a slave. Society today would see him as a rebel who realized the system was wrong and decided to fight against it. This is probably why Huckleberry is not the main controversy associated with the novel as in the past and why the use of “n—–” has taken his place. Finn could also be seen as a symbol of America in terms of his journey – while he noticed how atrocious slavery was to the black people, (eventually) so did the United States. As for Jim, he may have achieved freedom but his struggle would undoubtedly continue: “The character Jim, to whom racial epithets are most often attached, remains a ‘nigger’ at the end of the novel but not a ‘slave’” (Smith). While Huckleberry now saw Jim as a person, other people would not give him that same leisure. In the time of the 1830-40s, black people would always be discriminated against, free or not. Racism against the African American people still continued after the Civil War in the 1860s and even today, people still see black people as an inferior race. If this were not true, The Klan and blackface would be racial blots of America’s past.
“100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues, 18 July 2017, www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/100-most-frequently-challenged-books-1990–1999.
Levine, Robert S. “Critical Controversy: Race and the Ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Ninth Shorter Edition, Volume 2, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, p. 291.
Smith, Cassander L. “”Nigger” or “Slave”: Why Labels Matter for Jim (and Twain) in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Papers on Language & Literature, vol. 50, no. 2, Spring 2014, p. 2, EBSCO Academic Search Complete. web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewerpdfviewer?vid=6&sid=4465e805-38f8-40af-bca0-e179118fce22%40sessionmgr102. Accessed 18 Feb. 2019.
“Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues, 18 July 2017, www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/top-100-bannedchallenged-books-2000-2009.
Twain, Mark, and Robert S. Levine. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “Chapter XI.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Ninth Shorter Edition, Volume 2, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, p. 143, 242.
Valkeakari, Tuire. “Huck, Twain, and the Freedman’s Shackles: Struggling with Huckleberry Finn Today.” Atlantis, vol. 28, no. 2, 1 Dec. 2006, p. 6, EBSCO Academic Search Complete . web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=5&sid=fb9842de-dd13-4ed7-b764-646d48d671b3%40sessionmgr120. Accessed 18 Feb. 2019.