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Huck Finn Essay: Analysis of Twain's Satire

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Ernest Hemmingway famously declared in 1935, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” One major aspect that makes it a contender for the “Great American Novel” is how the topic of race is presented within the story. The story follows a boy by the name of Huck Finn as he helps Jim, a runaway slave, to escape along the Mississippi River. Today, Americans have grown comfortable with racism resting just beneath the surface of our politics. We believe that our country had become less racist because we were not as brazen as we once were; for many, President Trump has shattered that illusion. African Americans and others, led by the NAACP, began to challenge the book in the 1950s, appalled by the novel's portrayal of the slave Jim, its repeated use of the “n-word,” and characters such as Pap. While some consider Twain's satire to be inherently racist, others see Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a powerful attack on racism. Though many of the characters within the novel are racist, Mark Twain utilizes satire, stereotypes, and character archetypes in order to offer a deep-seated critique of racism and slavery.

Satire is the use of humor and wit with a critical attitude, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule for exposing or denouncing the faults of mankind and their institutions in the hopes that it will lead to reform. Twain uses satire to ridicule many things in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One instance occurs with the character of Tom Sawyer and the idea of Romanticism. His character is used to represent many of the weaknesses Twain saw in the Romantic view of life. Whenever Tom is present within the novel (towards the beginning and ending), the tone suddenly changes into one that is more playful, optimistic, and humorous. This shift in tone parallels the use of Horatian satire, which is a satire that is typically more easygoing and gentle. It also pokes fun at something, bringing it to a more positive light. An example of this occurs when Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and the rest of the gang raid a Sunday school after Tom says it is a group of Spaniards and Arabs enchanted to look like a Sunday school. In reality, the gang ended up comically raiding a Sunday school.

On the other hand, in regard to race, Twain employs Juvenalian satire, which is far darker, bitter, and more cynical than that Horatian satire. The use of this type of satire occurs as soon as Pap, Huck’s sorry excuse of a father, is introduced into the story. Pap is an alcoholic racist and sexist. He resents Huck getting any kind of education and is upset to learn that Huck is the first member of his family to learn to read and write. Pap’s only genuine interest in his son involves begging or extorting money to feed his alcohol addiction. The presentation of Pap, as an exceedingly stupid drunkard, attacks the idea of ignorance within society and the reluctance to accept change. Huck's being civilized makes Pap feel inferior, and his progression in becoming educated contrasts with Pap’s ignorant stagnation.

The notion that such a fundamental person as Pap, because of the color of his skin be considered superior to a well-meaning, kind-hearted person of color like Jim, demonstrates the flaws and hypocrisy of civilized society. Compared to all the adult characters in the novel, Jim is the most genuinely “whole” of them all. Twain satirizes this in the novel by drawing parallels between Jim and other adult characters like Pap. In chapter 9, Jim symbolically replaces Pap as Huck’s father figure. When Jim and Huck stumble upon the dead body of Huck’s father, Jim shields Huck from this fact by telling him not to look at the dead man’s face because it looks “too gashly.” He does this to protect Huck from the pain of having to see his murdered father. In doing this, Jim shows Huck more kindness and affection than his real father ever did. This act of Jim causes him to symbolically replace Pap as Huck’s father figure. Throughout the novel, Jim also demonstrates his fatherly qualities by, among other things, giving Huck “fatherly” advice, and instilling him with wisdom.

Similarly, Twain also uses stereotypes in tandem with satire in order to emphasize his critical attitude toward racism and slavery. A stereotype is a collective idea or belief many people have about a thing or group that is based upon how they look on the outside, which may be untrue or only partly true. The stereotypical black person was generally considered a large child who was immature, irresponsible, unintelligent, and physically strong. Many slaves during the colonial period especially were often looked down upon as ignorant for their superstitious belief in witchcraft. Twain uses similar stereotypes within the novel, specifically surrounding Jim. Stereotypes by themselves can prove to be problematic, but by utilizing these with satire, Twain breaks the constraints around once-held derogatory views surrounding African Americans by showing how ridiculous these views are.

Critic Julius Lester argues that Twain does not take the character of Jim or the reality of slavery seriously. He specifically sees Huck’s kidnapping and entrapment by his father as a direct comparison made by Twain to Jim’s legal enslavement. He also reasons that Jim’s character would never be so ignorant as to follow Huck into various slave states as well as allow himself to get into dangerous situations. He also sees Jim’s sacrifice towards the novel’s conclusion as a hurtful stereotype perpetuating the idea that Jim is only a “hero” because he put the needs of Tom ahead of himself only because Tom is white. Lester believes that Jim’s total compliance throughout the novel slays all credibility in regard to any overall message of race.

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Lester does have a point that stereotyping people is a type of prejudice and what is on the outside is only a small part of who a person is. However, Justin Kaplan says it best when he argues that Jim is the best person in the novel. He does this by transcending Jim's stereotypical introduction through the development of his relationship with Huck. During Huck’s contemplation to rescue Jim, Huck recalls how Jim would “do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was” (Twain, 200). If Jim was nothing more than the stereotypical slave, then Huck wouldn’t have felt this way towards Jim considering his experience with slave and master relations within Kentucky and Arkansas.

Within his first paragraph, Kaplan describes how Jim and Huck accidentally travel down the Mississippi due to heavy fog. This was also done in order to place the setting in a location that the author was familiar with, whilst evoking conflict within the plot. At the same time, this allows author Mark Twain to provide an array of instances of race and slavery issues that he can comment on through the experiences, struggles, and thoughts of Huck, the protagonist. Kaplan even goes as far as to say the use of racial epithets such as the frequent use of the “n-word” was to immerse the reader and describe the time and place this story takes place, thirty years before Emancipation in Mississippi. Such words are used to belittle African Americans during that time, and to justify how they were less than human because of their skin tone. Yet, Huck realizes through his relationship with Jim and his desire to find the truth despite being in a corrupted adult world, that Jim is a genuinely good person despite what civilized society will say about him due to his race.

Furthermore, the use of the fool and savior archetypes in relation to Jim adds to his character development and Twain’s critique of racism and slavery. In literature, the fool provides comic relief by crossing cultural norms. For example, Tom takes Jim’s hat off his head while he is asleep and hangs it on a tree branch above his head to scare him. Jim later talks about how it was the work of a witch that took him across the country, but the reader knows better. Much like the archetypal fool, Jim efficiently characterizes every character who comes into contact with him. The truest consistent and valid test of character within the novel is how others treat Jim, who is considered beneath most people due to his race. Not to mention, the stereotypical African American was characterized as foolish during the time in which the novel takes place. Jim possesses an innocent naivety about him that makes him not only a lovable, comical, and entertaining character, but it also allows us to act as Huck’s consciousness.

However, Jim’s progression and development throughout the novel transform his archetype into the savior. The Savior archetype takes hold of those who are naturally inclined to be caretakers, which is perfectly fitting for Jim as he adopts the role of Huck’s father figure. Jim is the Savior that overflows with a desire to be helpful towards Huck and always reliable in a crisis. He quickly distracted Huck so that he wouldn’t recognize the corpse they stumbled upon was Pap. Also, Jim’s greatest achievement within the novel is when he jeopardizes his only opportunity of freedom to help the doctor take care of Tom Sawyer, who had been shot in the leg. Typically, saviors endure a sizable sacrifice as the means of bringing that salvation about for others, a fate they do not deserve up to and including death or a fate worse than death. On the contrary, Jim’s huge risk is rewarded with his freedom as Tom tells him Miss Watson wished him to be free in her will. When Aunt Polly and the Phelpses hear about the assistance Jim gave the doctor in nursing Tom, they immediately unchain him, feed him, and treat him like a king.

Jim is both of these character archetypes to show Twain’s attitude toward the limitations and stereotypes placed on African Americans that were unjust, ignorant, and blatantly incorrect. Jim’s experiences demonstrate to the reader that he too struggles and grows. It is cognizant of the “American Dream,” a dream in which anyone can make it no matter their status, race, or social standing. Although Lester may argue that Jim was only conditioned to help his white “master,” Jim does clearly chooses to help Tom and manages to do a fine job in doing so. One can attain the title of savior and become a hero despite their race or limitations placed by society. At the end of the day, Twain demonstrates how anyone can achieve that “American Dream”

Through the use of satire, stereotypes, and character archetypes to offer a profound critique of racism and slavery. Calling for change with the use of satire, transcending racial stereotypes, and demonstrating the growth of an individual despite their disadvantages speaks a universal language that most can sympathize with and understand. Times have changed and hopefully, we are at a point in society today that can recognize the potential of an individual despite race, status, or social standing. As the federal government expands social programs redistribute resources and ensure social justice may we find ourselves in a world where the last thing we see is race.

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Huck Finn Essay: Analysis of Twain’s Satire [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2024 Mar 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/huck-finn-essay-analysis-of-twains-satire/
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