Slavery in Mark Twain's 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'

Pencil drawing of Jim from

Twain, Mark, 1835-1910/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain was first published in the United Kingdom in 1885 and the United States in 1886. This novel served as a social commentary on the culture of the United States at the time, when slavery was a hot-button issue addressed in Twain's writing.

The character Jim is Miss Watson's slave and a deeply superstitious man who escapes from his captivity and society's constraints to raft down the river. This is where he meets Huckleberry Finn. In the epic journey down the Mississippi River that follows, Twain portrays Jim as a deeply caring and loyal friend who becomes a father figure to Huck, opening the boy's eyes to the human face of slavery.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said of Twain's work that, "Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain, that Jim was not only a slave but a human being [and] a symbol of humanity...and in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil taken for civilization by the town."

The Enlightenment of Huckleberry Finn

The common thread that ties Jim and Huck together once they meet on the riverbank — other than a shared location — is that they are both fleeing from the constraints of society. Jim is fleeing from slavery and Huck from his oppressive family.

The disparity between their plights provides a great basis for drama in the text, but also an opportunity for Huckleberry to learn about the humanity in every person, no matter the color of skin or class of society they are born into.

Compassion comes from Huck's humble beginnings. His father is a worthless loafer and mother is not around. This influences Huck to empathize with his fellow man, rather than following the indoctrination of the society he left behind. In Huck's society, helping a runaway slave like Jim was the worst crime you could commit, short of murder.

Mark Twain on Slavery and the Setting

In "Notebook #35," Mark Twain described the setting of his novel and the cultural atmosphere of the south in the United States at the time "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" took place:

"In those old slave-holding days, the whole community was agreed as to one thing — the awful sacredness of slave property. To help steal a horse or a cow was a low crime, but to help a hunted slave, or feed him or shelter him, or hide him, or comfort him, in his troubles, his terrors, his despair, or hesitate to promptly to betray him to the slave-catcher when opportunity offered was a much baser crime, and carried with it a stain, a moral smirch which nothing could wipe away. That this sentiment should exist among slave-owners is comprehensible — there were good commercial reasons for it — but that it should exist and did exist among the paupers, the loafers the tag-rag and bobtail of the community, and in a passionate and uncompromising form, is not in our remote day realizable. It seemed natural enough to me then; natural enough that Huck and his father the worthless loafer should feel it & approve it, though it seems now absurd. It shows that that strange thing, the conscience — the unerring monitor — can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it."

This novel wasn't the only time Mark Twain discussed the horrendous reality of slavery and the humanity behind each slave and freed man, citizens and humans deserving of respect the same as anyone else.

Sources:

Ranta, Taimi. "Huck Finn and Censorship." Project Muse, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

De Vito, Carlo, Editor. "Mark Twain's Notebooks: Journals, Letters, Observations, Wit, Wisdom, and Doodles." Notebook Series, Kindle Edition, Black Dog & Leventhal, May 5, 2015.