Slavery in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

When looking at ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' by Mark Twain, we cannot help but consider the way the practice of slavery is addressed. Twain makes his feelings about the institution of slavery clear; he was not a fan.

The Institution of Slavery

As one of the main themes of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain made his feelings of disgust about slavery clearly understood. Twain believed that slavery and religion were tied together in ways that made the abolition of slavery a difficult task. Twain told of religion's support for slavery:

''The local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery, they were wise and said nothing…''

Twain felt there was a distinct conflict between what society was doing and what they should have been doing in regard to slavery. He took the opportunity with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to extol the horrors and hypocrisy of the institution of slavery.

In the novel, Twain helped us to see the contradictions inherent in the institution of slavery. The slaveholders made money on the backs of the men and women they owned. They were unable to see that they were exploiting them, abusing them, and oppressing them because they honestly believed that the slaves could not survive in the world without them. The slaveholders thought they were,in effect, doing the slaves a favor by providing for them.

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

The Setting

Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after slavery had been abolished, but he chose to set the story in 1852, during the Civil War, so he could address the issue of slavery. Because slavery was legal and played an important economic role in the way of life of the southern states, Twain was able to address the issue in a number of ways through a variety of the characters in his novel.

The Characters

In the novel, we are introduced to characters who own slaves and those who make money because of the institution of slavery. We meet Miss Watson, the Grangerford family, and the Phelps family who own slaves, and we also meet people like the Duke and the King who profit from the institution of slavery. There is a market for runaway slaves, and money to be made if you capture one.

Twain also used characters to mock the practice of slavery. Twain cleverly juxtaposed characters to make his point. Pap, Huck's father, should be his protector and supporter, but that is not a role he can play because he is a drunk and self-centered man. Jim, a slave, plays the role of protector to Huck; he provides guidance and understanding, helping him to grow and develop responsibility.

It is fitting, considering the social conventions of the day that even though Pap is an unsavory character in every way, it is Jim, the upstanding, caring, thoughtful man who is accused of Huck's murder. In this way, Twain takes a jab at people's perceived beliefs, supporting the idea that slaves are somehow less than human. Jim shows us that this is far from the truth.

A Change in the Making

In the beginning of the book, Huck is not much different in his beliefs from other white folks in the community. He has bought into the stereotype that black people are less valuable than white people and need to be taken care of in order to survive. He struggles with the idea of turning Jim in to the authorities as a runaway slave, believing that if he doesn't, he will burn in hell.

As Huck gets to know Jim, he comes to understand that he was wrong. His relationship is based on a mutual caring. Jim shows Huck true friendship and love. Huck realizes that Jim is nicer and in many ways more human than most of the people he has ever known. Huck decides that he would rather burn in hell than see Jim as a slave. It is a complete turn around in his thinking.

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