Sunday, October 23, 2011

Is Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" appropriate for the classroom?

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The great American classic. The motto that every novel wishes it had. But what truly makes up the great American classic. Is it the writer? The language? The topic? The plot? The issues? It is quite difficult to pin point what exactly makes a novel a classic that is appreciated world wide, but once it achieves such a title it is clear that the elements of the novel sure are ones that should be esteemed. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of such novels that carries along with its name the clich� of an American Classic. In addition to being highly supported by teachers, parents, and students of all races and cultures, it is also a book that is the 4th most banned book in schools according to Banned in the U.S.A. by Herbert N. Foerstal(Censorship np). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is usually considered Mark Twains masterpiece in which he combines humor with satire to create a book of an elevated level. The old South is described through the eyes of the main character, Huckleberry Finn, who is a young boy growing up in a society that is racist. His point of view has not been completely altered by his society, yet it has indeed reflected upon the way he sees some aspects of his culture. Throughout the novel Huckleberry Finn runs away from a society where he sees all the of the people as being ideal models, and through his experience he is accompanied by Jim, a runaway slave. The debate over the appropriateness mainly revolves around Jims character. Throughout the novel many believe African Americans are portrayed in a very discriminatory manner.


There are indeed many flaws that deal with Jims character and the degrading manner in which African Americans are portrayed. The negative depiction clearly creates tension among readers of Twains Huckleberry Finn, and creates doubt about its suitability for high school use, yet it is apparent that contrary to these flaws, the main purpose of the novel was to criticize not only the African Americans but also society as a whole and to present the true old South. This is seen through the portrayal of Jim, both positive and negative aspects, in contrast to the society, as well as the new style of writing that is used throughout the book, such as the vernacular language.


Mark Twain personified Jim in a disdainful fashion that creates great controversy about its realism and success as a novel. Jims actions are quite simplistic and are often seen as foolish. Jim is made into an uneducated character who the public laughs at and uses as low comedy. After running away from Miss. Watsons plantation Jim was nearly starving and solely eating strawbries en sich truck (Twain 41). Huck on the other hand was well off since he took a gun, with which he could hunt for food, with him before he departed. Huck was obligated to aid Jim before he completely starved himself and therefore, …while [Jim] built a fire in a grassy open place amongst the trees, [Huck] fetched meal and bacon and coffee, and coffeepot, and frying pan, and suger, and tin cups… (4). Jim clearly was not thinking before he took off, since no thought of how he would obtain food was planned out. Jim is not only seen as a child here but also is ridiculed for his inability to plan out his survival, yet it is clear that there was an attempt to show Jims independence and savage nature through his ability of nurturing himself with what was available to him as well as creating a fire out of basic materials. Furthermore, many believe that Twain did not respect Jims character and only saw him as Hucks insignificant companion (Smiley ). Throughout the novel, Jim was inane and simply follows all of Hucks suggestions and never seems to act upon his own opinions. For example, when Tom and Huck persuade Jim into doing absurd things in order for him to earn his freedom, he simply goes along with it, even though, …he couldnt see no sense in the most of it, but he allowed we was white folks and knowed better than him, so he was satisfied and said he would do it all just as Tom said (Twain 45). From these examples Smiley believes that Twain created Jim to be character who is never autonomous, never has a vote, always finds his purposes subordinate to Hucks, … he never minds…[and] grows ever more passive… (Smiley ). It may occur to some that Jim is simply used as a side kick () and not an independent character who plays a major role in the formation of the novel. This view indeed is preposterous considering the fact the Jim is considered as one of the main characters. Brownell describes Jims importance very clearly emphasizing the fact that he is, …a moral catalyst, and thereby of central importance in the portrayal and illumination of the character of Huckleberry Finn, who aided in Hucks formation of morals (Brownell n.p.). Moreover, Jim clearly expresses his ignorance when speaking of history. Being a slave Jim is quite asinine since he received no form of education; this point of course in not brought up anywhere in the book, yet his stupidity is embedded within the novel. When Jim and Huck decide to speak of Kings, Dukes, and Earls, Jim is completely confused and lacks a great amount of information on the topic. Jim states, I didn’t know dey was so many un um, I haint hearn bout none un um, skosely, but ole King Sollermun, on less you counts dem Kings dats in a packer kyards (Twain 76). Once again Jim is made the butt of a joke, yet his remark about the kings in a pack of cards is indeed quite clever. It shows that even though he knows absolutely nothing about the kings in history he is capable of having a sense of humor and making witted remarks. Finally, Jims fatuous quality is seen through his stubborn attitude. Jim like to argue a lot, even on subjects that he knows very little about. As Huck and Jim argue over the many languages of the world, Huck realizes that Jim is one stubborn fellow who can not be moved from his position. Huck is appalled by his nature and says, I see it warnt no use wasting words- you cant learn a nigger to argue (7). Jim and Huck argue over inane topics and even though Jim is incapable of supporting his case he continues to argue just to prove his point, even though this is not necessary. This shows a flaw in not only Jims character but also in Hucks since he can not come up with enough support to prove his case, yet simply gives up.


Another flaw in Jims persona is his superstitious beliefs. The extent to which he follows his beliefs makes Jim to be presented in a foolish and gullible (Furnas n.p.) manner due to the exaggeration (n.p.).On many occasions throughout the novel Jim refers to his superstitions. He fears disserting them and sticks by his beliefs like any Christian sticks to the bible. Jim blames all of the problems which he encounters on his superstitions. He said you mustnt count the things you are going to cook for dinner, because that would bring bad luck. The same if you shook the table cloth after sundown… Jim said bees wouldn’t sting idiots; but [Huck] didn’t believe that, because [he] had tried them lots of times, and they wouldnt sting me (Twain 45). Huck seems to believe much of what Jim tells him and even indirectly calls himself an idiot because the bees don’t sting him. In this comment Twain criticizes the white not only for their own beliefs in superstition, which are portrayed by Huck, when he believes most of what Jim tells him about the mystical beliefs, but also because Huck himself acknowledges his stupidity and flaws. Jims ideas are a bit peculiar yet it shows how much passion he has for even such silly things as superstitions. Since it only lessens his superiority and degree of intelligence, this criticism against Jims fallacious beliefs, creates a grand problem for many readers, yet it just adds on to the humor of the novel and is used for low comedy once again.


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In addition, Jim is depicted as an inhumane character. It seems as though Huck sees him as not having any emotions or morals. On their trip away from home Jim seems to miss his family greatly. At night he is often crying and wishes he was with them. Huck is astonished by his actions and does not comprehend how a slave can have such an attachment, I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folk does for theirn. It dont seem natural… (Twain 15). Hucks inability to realize that Jim is just as human as white people makes him look very low in the eyes of the reader. Through Twains portrayal of Jim as an object rather than a human being not only makes Jim seem worse but also shows the level of understanding among the whites. Their position in this case is degraded even more than Jims. Jims character is even more debased in the last section of the novel. He no longer even has the small portion of his own persona and completely lets himself be lowered by Huck and Tom, …Jim losses his dignity, accepts degradation, and becomes the eye- rolling pawn that he was in the beginning (Cardwell ). Jim is sympathized for in the last chapters of the book due to his lack of security and courage to step up against the young boys actions. Even in the middle of the novel Huck plays a cruel joke on Jim. Huck tells Jim that he is loosing his mind and imagined Hucks disappearance. In reality, Huck indeed was gone the entire night and Jim had every right to be worried about his survival, yet Hucks insincerity lead him to ignore the love that Jim has for him and instead Jim feel even more debauched. It even took Huck fifteen minutes before [Huck] could work [him]self up to go and humble [him]self to a nigger;…(Twain 85). This comment is completely degrading since it makes Jim look very insignificant in Hucks eyes. The fact that Huck did indeed apologize all in all to Jim does give Jim a sense of Hucks compassion for him, yet the fact that it took Huck so long to apologize is completely ridiculous and makes him look very insincere destroying the credibility of Hucks moral maturation (Cardwell ).


The debate over the usage of the book mainly revolves around the negative depiction of the blacks, yet to many peoples surprise Twain was attempting to mock the white culture as well. Throughout his novel he criticizes their superficiality. Twain introduces the reader to the Grangerfords through a very precise description. For example, Twain focuses on the decorations of the Grangerfords home. Twain speaks of the . . .lovely crockery basket that had apples and oranges and peaches and grapes piled up in it, which was much redder and yellower and prettier than real ones is, but they warnt real because you could see where pieces had got chipped off and showed the white chalk. . . (Twain ). Twain criticizes the white society and its want to be perceived as being perfect and better than they are in actuality, yet with the chipped fruit and the white chalk showing through, Twain is stating how even if at first they seem perfect, yet underneath the coating they have flaws, which makes up their true nature. Furthermore, Huck goes on to describe colonel Grangerford. He goes into much detail about his clean-cut look that was seen by the public yet speaks briefly about the other side of the colonel that was not as apparent. Huck states that, Every body loved to have [colonel Grangerford] around, too; he was sunshine most always- I mean he made it seem like good weather. When he turned into a cloud bank, it was awful dark for half a minute and that was enough; There wouldnt nothing go wrong again for a week (104). The colonels cruelty was so unbearable that even a split second of it lasted for quite some time in the minds of many. Of course, he most never actually exposed this bad weather in public and therefore was quite artificial since he only showed the one side of him which most people favored. Twain greatly criticizes the fallaciousness of the aristocracy by showing them as being completely fake on the outside and hiding their inner truth.


In addition to criticizing the white Americans superficiality, Twain also condones their views. He believes that the white Americans beliefs are just as ridiculous as the blacks. For instance, the whites hold strong Christian beliefs about heaven as well as the way in which their wishes come true. Miss Watson, for instance, tells Huck that in order for him to get exactly what he wants, he must, . . .pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it (10). Huck realizes that this is not the case at all. In reality, Twain points out the absurdity of Miss Watsons ideas since it is apparent that one cannot get all that one wishes for. This misconception points out their stupidity as well as gullibility, since Huck did indeed try this multiple times. Finally Twain criticizes whites for being hypocrites concerning superstition, since many laughed at the blacks for their superstitious beliefs, yet practiced this on their own. For example, when Huck was left all alone and flicks a spider into a flame and watches it burn, and before you knew it he, . . .got up and turned around in my tracks three times and crossed my breasts every time; and then I tied up a little lock of my hair with a thread to keep witches away (). Twain mocks Hucks fear of getting any bad luck as well as points out his fault for making fun of Jim and not believing some of his various superstitions. This shows how truly the whites are no better than the blacks themselves and should not act superior. In fact, Shelley Fisher Fishkin states that, . .. this book makes white people look pretty bad, indeed not only for their cruelty, but for their ignorance (Fishkin 4).


As opposed to all of the negative characteristics that pertain to Jim, Twain adheres positive aspects to Jim as well. He not only focuses on his faults at hand but also on all of the things that make him the great character that he is. First of all he mainly uses Jims stupidity as a source of low comedy, while to point out Jims positive effect that he contributed to the novel he focuses on his intelligence and logic. When Jim and Huck speak of King Solomens logic when dealing with two women who want one child he clearly restates the situation. In addition, he brings in his own example using a dollar and splitting that same dollar into two. He finds the kings logic irrational and asks Huck, Whats de use er dat half a bill? Cant buy nothn wid it. En what use is half a chile? I wouldnt giver a dern for a million um (Twain 77). This makes complete sense and shows that Jim is not scared to share his opinion about the faults even a King posses. It seems as though Jim understands many concepts and is capable of applying them to other examples to help clarify the events in a story. In turn, this shows Jim as being Hucks mentor in this dark and shifting realm (Brownell n.p.). Yet, Hucks inability to understand Jims logic makes him look a bit dull-witted, since he simply believes in everything he hears and does not listen to his so- called mentor. Jims logic is even further portrayed in the way in which he escaped. As he recalls the events of the day to Huck it is clear that Jim had everything worked out so that there was no possibility of him getting caught. He tells Huck that he waited till morning came because he knew that Miss Watson was leaving in the morning to search for Huck and this would open an opportunity for him to leave and not be noticed since no one would be around (4). Such planning is quite difficult to come up with since it takes perfect timing and patience, something that Jim apparently posses. Furthermore, Huck notices how smart Jim truly is. As he describes the lost raft adventure, Huck acknowledges the fact that Jim was right in his logic about how to find each other in the end. Huck states, Well, he was right; he was most always right; he had an uncommon level head for a nigger (76). This quote depicts Hucks view of the slaves of being very low, yet to his surprise he is wronged by Jims unexplainable intelligence. Not only does this show how smart Jim really is but it also shows how much more respect he got from Jim for having such wit for someone as uneducated as Jim.


Likewise, Jim is portrayed in a positive manner when he represents a fatherly figure to Huck. He clearly shows his attachment to Huck and his emotions are so strong that he is unable to contain them all inside of him; he truly furnishes authentic pathos, [and] achieves full humanity…(Cardwell ) in his relationship with Huck. When Huck disappears for one night Jim is left alone and all night long he worries greatly about the security of his companion. He does not fear being left alone, yet he fears for the health and safety of his friend. When he recovers Huck in the morning he becomes joyous and tells Huck that when I wake up en find you back agin, all safe en soun, de ears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo foot, Is so thankful (Twain 85). Twain really emphasizes on how much love Jim feels towards Huck and creates this father- son bond between them, in which Jim really looks out for his loved one. As Huck and Jim continue their travels, Jim never thinks twice about helping Huck. He always wants the best for Huck and looks out after his every move. Huck describes Jims gentil manner with him and how Jim would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, that’s how he always was (10). Even on those long nights on the boat Jim usually let Huck sleep while he took over for both shifts and got no sleep himself (15). He saw Huck as a young boy and understood what he truly needed. This makes Jim seem very understanding and helpful, two positive characteristics that all characters should acquire. Finally, Jim protects Huck from the awful world that awaits him. When Jim and Huck find a dead body in a shack in the woods, Jim takes control of the situation and does not expose the dead figure to Huck. Instead he told him to hold still and hell go and see (50). Furthermore he does not tell Huck that it is his fathers dead body because he does not want to see the boy crushed. This shows how he protects Huck just like any other father would do and how kind and thoughtful Jim really is.


Ultimately, Jim is also given characteristics that do indeed show him to be like every other human being, which overrides many peoples beliefs of Jim being portrayed completely as an insignificant character. Many even believe that he is the moral center of the book, a man of courage and nobility, who risks his freedom- risks his life- for the sake of his friend Huck (Salwen np). This shows how good natured Huck really is and how he considers others peoples success over his own. In addition, Jim is portrayed as a true human being in his appreciation towards Huck. Jim feels so dear to Huck due to the fact that he helped him escape and stride toward freedom. He told Huck that when he reaches the free state he will be shoutn for joy, en Ill say, Its all on accounts o Huck; Is a free man, en I couldn’t ever ben free ef it hadnt ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim wont ever forgit you, Huck yous de bes fren Jims ever had… (Twain 88). This makes Jim seem very noble in the eyes of the reader and respectable. His appreciation for what Huck has done is clearly one of amazing strength. Quite ironically, in some cases, Jim is even more humane than his companion. For example when arguing over the various languages humans speak, Huck does not see everyone as equals, yet due to Jims understanding of everyone being human and of equal status, it is difficult for him to understand why each country has their own language (Hansen np). In a sense this seems absurd since he does not understand the reasoning behind various languages, but his logic for why he doesn’t understand makes him seem very intelligent and kindhearted. Through out the novel Jim takes on many roles, Jim is, in part, the comic stage negor who can be made the butt of Toms childish humor. But he is also a second Negro type, Mr. Bones, whose cleverness enables him to turn the joke back on the Interlocutor. He is also a third Negro type, the kindly Old colored Mammy, the protector of the white child. He is a fourth type, the sentimental man who weeps for the suffering of his own child. And he is a fifth type, man in the abstract- natural man, if you wish- with the reasoning power, the dignity, and the nobility that belong to that high abstraction (Hansen np). It is clearly seen that he posses more positive roles than the negative ones, and even the negative ones are solely in the novel to be humorous to the reader and not used directly to make fun of the African Americans.


Finally, in Mark Twains The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain replicates the vernacular speech of the time. By doing this he indeed uses the n- word when speaking of Jim and other African Americans. This creates much hostility amongst the African American students since this word is very discriminatory. The word is used over 00 times throughout the novel and makes children lower their self-esteems as well as feel inferior to the white students in the classroom (Arac 5). Huck uses the n- word quite a lot in his speech. He uses it at times to make it seem degrading while at others it simply classifies a group of people. For example, when Huck speaks of a steamboat incident and he is asked if anyone is killed, his reply to Anut Salley is Nom. Killed a nigger. Afterwards Aunt Sally rudely replies, Well, its lucky- because some times people do get hurt (Twain 8). The usage in this sense is quite degrading because it is clear that slaves are of no importance and even if one has died, that does not mean a thing. This depicts the whites as being very cruel and cold-hearted, since they do not care for the deaths of human beings Yet on the other hand when Huck speaks of all of the African Americans collectively he refers to them in the same manner. As seen in the example with Huck referring to the many slaves that he has come across and eh says, I never see such a nigger…(78). This was simply the word that was then used to describe them. Since this was before the Civil war, it is indeed quite understandable, … because, after all, thats what all white Southerners called them back then… (Marx np). Twain was simply attempting to give an overview of the way people spoke during his time, and he did what was artistically necessary to give the impression of living speech (Cardwell ). Not only did he use the n- word but he also employed words such as sah and yo in the speech of the characters. He was replicating the Old South because that was one of his main points to show the true aspects of the way people lived during this time and in this place. The use of the n- word was not discriminatory on Twains part yet it was a part of life when he wrote the book and therefore in order to allow the reader to get a true feel of the vernacular he incorporated all aspects of society, the positive ones as well as the negative ones.


Huck Finn is a monument that no puny pecking will destroy. It is built of indestructible blocks of human nature; and if the blocks do not always fit, and the ornaments do not always agree, we need not fear (Paine ). Twains book exposes readers of todays world to what once was. It is incomprehensible to forget what happened in the past. This book forces students to learn about discrimination and actually discuss their views on it. If people simply focus on the negative characteristics that pertain to the African Americans in this novel then they are clearly missing the point of the novel and it should be retaught in a manner that will teach the student not only about the discriminatory aspects of the novel, but about the satire within it and why it truly is the Great American Classic.





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