Racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Instructor: James Thompson

James has served as a teaching assistant in humanities and has master's degrees in humanities and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will explore the theme of racism in Mark Twain's classic novel ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' through discussion, analysis, and summary.

Huck's Struggle against Racism

Life is full of dilemmas, and doing the right thing is rarely easy. In the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain examines racism in the antebellum South and describes the protagonist Huck's struggle against it.

MARK TWAIN
Mark Twain

Main Characters

Huckleberry Finn is a homeless boy who lives in the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. His mother is dead, and his father, whom he calls Pap, has abandoned him. Huck becomes wealthy when he finds treasure in a cave. He is adopted by a rich woman, the Widow Douglas, but his father returns to town and kidnaps him. Huck escapes from his father and decides to flee the area.

Jim is a slave owned by the Widow Douglas's sister, Miss Watson. Jim learns that she is considering selling him down the river to New Orleans, where he will most likely be worked to death by cruel plantation owners. He escapes from St. Petersburg as Huck is making his own escape, and the two of them team up.

Unsympathetic Racist Characters: Miss Watson and Pap

Miss Watson

As a member of the wealthy, aristocratic class in St. Petersburg, Miss Watson takes pride in her Christian values. However, she is also a slave-owner. Not only does she keep the long-suffering Jim in slavery, she considers selling him down the river to New Orleans. Slaves are often literally worked to death in the harsh environment of the Deep South's cotton plantations, so being sold down the river would be a virtual death sentence for Jim. Clearly, Miss Watson fails to live up to Christian ideals of kindness and mercy.

Pap

The novel is set in a time and place in which racism is widely accepted, and many of the even more sympathetic characters make racist remarks at one time or another. However, it is notable that the most virulently racist character in the novel is Pap, Huck's father, who is also the novel's greatest villain. Pap has beaten and neglected Huck throughout Huck's life, and Pap returns to Huck after abandoning him only because Huck has become wealthy.

While holding Huck captive in a cabin outside town, Pap goes on a long, bitterly racist diatribe in which he complains that some states in the North even allow African-Americans to vote. He describes seeing a free African-American man in St. Petersburg who wore far finer clothing than Pap. Pap was particularly outraged to learn that the man was a college professor who could read and write, unlike Pap, who is illiterate.

Partially Sympathetic Characters: Mrs. Judith Loftus and Huck

Mrs. Judith Loftus

Mrs. Loftus is a white woman whom Huck meets when he returns to St. Petersburg disguised as a girl. She is a kindly person who remains magnanimous toward Huck even after seeing through his disguise and confronting him about it. She assumes that Huck must have a good reason for concealing his identity. Mrs. Loftus wishes to see the best in people; her benevolence far exceeds the conventions of hospitality that would be expected of a person in her position.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Loftus is uncompromising in her zeal to capture Jim and claim the three hundred dollar reward offered for his return to his owner. She has observed smoke from a campfire on the island where Jim and Huck are living, and she intends to send her husband to the island to try to capture him. She is so engrossed in thinking about the reward money that she willfully ignores the suffering Jim would experience were he to be recaptured. She lives in a slave-owning culture, so she knows that if Jim were to be recaptured, he would be flogged and probably sold down the river. None of these certainties matter to Mrs. Loftus; she sees Jim only as a source of money. The racism of the culture in which she lives has blinded her to Jim's humanity.

HUCKLEBERRY FINN
Huckleberry Finn

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