Themes Of Religion And Slavery In The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

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Samuel Longhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, was born in Missouri in 1835. He worked as a printer and as a Mississippi river-pilot, which influenced him to write some of his best books: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883) and The Adventures of Huclkleberry Finn, published in 1884. In them he wrote with warmth and accuracy of the life he most vividly knew, the life of his boyhood river town and of the river. In addition, he participated in the Civil War (1861-65) as a soldier, which also shaped his work. For instance, his opinion about religion changed during the war, which is portrayed in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as Huck eventually comes to the conclusion that religion is useless and only exists to undermine black people.


Mark Twain mainly lived and experienced Realism, which emerged in the 1840s in France. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a greatly realistic novel in which Huck’s morality struggles against society. Realism is a literary style that consists of describing and representing everything as realistic as possible. Characters are not necessarily good or evil. They have bad and good qualities. Such characters usually do bad things, such as committing a crime or carry out immoral actions. In realism, facets such as the time period and the location are also matter of focus, as well as the use of local dialects. Twain represents this movement in almost every aspect of his writing; the description of the setting, the description of the characters, and even in the way characters speak. He criticizes several aspects of society along the way, such as the hypocrisy of religion and education. Moreover, he exposes how Huck’s morality and thoughts systematically emerge and evolve throughout the novel. “It presents an almost artistically perfect picture of the life and character in the southwest, and it will be equally valuable to the historian and to the student of sociology. Its humor, which is genuine and never-failing, is relieved by little pathetic touches here and there that vouch for its literary value” (The Atlanta Constitution, May 26, 1885).

Slavery and Racism

Slavery began in America during the seventeenth century. Two centuries later, the rights and liberties of African-Americans, who were now part of the american society, were put into debate. All of this would eventually lead to the American Civil War in 1861. As a consequence, the North freed the African-Americans and ended slavery in 1865. In spite of the fact that Samuel Longhorne Clemens wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after the American Civil War, the novel itself is set before this war. For example, there are some characters in the novel that are slaveholders or own slave farms. Huckleberry Finn experiences a phycological jorney throughout the Mississippi river, which represents freedom, since the very first moment he meets Jim, Miss Watson’s runaway slave, who has been blamed for Huck’s “death”.

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Mark Twain gives his protagonist adult problems. During their trip, Huck bears a mental fight between his society-based knowledge and principles taught by Widow Douglas and Miss Watson and his own conscience and self-awareness. In chapter 20, Huck defends Jim from the Duke and the King, who are suspicious, argumenting that it would be stupid for a runaway slave to go south, where slavery is predominant. “For Goodness sakes, would a runaway nigger run south?”. Along the way, he learns about the evil of the world. He wonders whether he is doing a bad thing (helping a runaway slave escape) or whether he is doing the right thing, just as he perceives Jim more human and close to him as the raft brings them together. In chapter 31, Huck faces this moral dilemma created by the corrupt society he lives in. He must decide whether to accept the conventional wisdom, which defines black people as subhuman commodities, or to accept the evidence of his own experience, which has shown Jim to be a good and kind man as well as a true friend. This society has institutionalized slavery and is extremely racist as a matter of a fact. “Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”. “No’m. Killed a nigger”.”Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.” (chapter 32).

Huck’s sense of right and wrong is strongly socially conditioned as well. For instance, in chapter 34, Huck is astounded when he sees how determined and willing to help Tom Sawyer is. This attitude goes utterly against the rules and perceptions of society. By this point, the serious human and moral issues of the middle section of the novel are almost forgotten. By the end of the novel, Huck has come to the conclusion that Modern American society is rotten to the core. Mark Twain had grown pessimistic about the possibility of any imaginative individual living a worthwhile existence in such country. “Huckleberry Finn offers much more than the typical liberal defenses of human dignity and protests against cruelty. Though it contains some such elements, it is more fundamentally a critique of those socially constituted fictions-most notably romanticism, religion, and the concept of “the Negro”-which serve to justify and disguise selfish, cruel and exploitative behaviour” (David L. Smith in “Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse”,1994). Mark Twain believed society supresses humans natural and healthy instincts and portrayed it through Huck. Twain thus adopts a strategy to attack race. He focuses on a number of commonplaces associated with black people and then systematically dramatizes their inadequacy. For example, he uses the term “nigger” and shows Jim engaging with superstitious behaviour. Nevertheless, he portrays Jim as a compassionate, thoughtful, self-sacrificing and wise man.

Jim exposes all que quirks black people supposedly do not have. The word “nigger”, though very insulting and offensive nowadays, was used by Mark Twain to criticize American racism, comprehended as a synonym for slave. “Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim” (chapter 2). This clearly designates Jim as a property, as a slave. As a serious critique of American society, Mark Twain recognized that racial discourse depends upon the deployment of a system of stereotypes which constitute black people as fundamentally different and inferior to Euro-Americans. Twain’s strategy with racial stereotypes is to elaborate them in order to undermine them. He uses the narrative to expose the cruelty and hollowness of that racial discourse which exists only to deeply obscure the humanity of all African-Americans. Apart from the use of the term “nigger”, Mark Twain also makes use of superstition to make points that undermine and devalue the American racial discourse. Jim is used as an element related to superstition from the very beginning, when Tom Sawyer pranks him in chapter 2. However, Jim turns the tables and cleverly exploits the conventions of the “Negro superstitions”, turning Tom Sawyer’s prank to his own advantage, as many black people come to see him afterwards. In another instance of explicitly superstitious behaviour, Jim uses a hair ball to tell Huck’s fortune. Even if Jim does believe in the supernatural powers of his hair ball, all of the transaction still depends on Jim’s wit and loquacity. Ji mis portrayed as an astute adn sensitive observer of humar behaviour. Again, he clearly possesses and demonstrates an intelligence, wit and reasoning abilities black people are not supposed to have. Throughout the novel, Mark Twain presents Jim as an example that demonstrated that race does not provide any useful index of character. This fact may seem pretty obvious to contemporary readers, but not to nineteenth century Euro-American writers. Mark Twain’s ideas were revolutionary.


Almost any Euro-American intellectual of the first half of the nineteenth century could relate and approve of Thomas Jefferson’s words about black people: “...In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection...” (Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785). Nevertheless, Mark Twain fought and wrote in order to change this. “Many of us continue to assert both racial distinction and liberal values simultaneously. If we, a century later, continue to be confused about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, perhaps it is because we remain more deeply commited to both racial discourse and self-deluding optimism than we care to admit” (David L. Smith in “Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse”, 1994). Black people’s rights and liberties have been a matter of debate since the nineteenth century. Not only this occasioned many problems in the past, but it is now causing them in the present. America and the whole world is currently fighting racism all over again. Step by step, the human being learns, though slowly. Mark Twain satirized and critized the Racial Discourse in order to end racism, or at least contribute his grain of sand on the matter. Almost 140 years later, one part of society struggles to make life fair for all, meanwhile the other part still struggles to read and comprehend The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Black Lives Matter.

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