Week 7

Throughout his lifetime, Samuel Clemens constantly struggled with the cultural expectations regarding slavery and his intrinsic moral code. His experiences with slaves in his childhood instilled a foundation of cultural doubt in him. People like Uncle Dan’l and Aunt Racheal showed him the power a vernacular storyteller can have over their audience. The impact of these encounters comes into fruition in Huckleberry Finn, where the young Huck Finn goes through his own moral metamorphosis regarding how he views Jim, an escaped slave and his companion throughout the novel. But before that can be realized, Huck must be confronted with the absurdity of the culture in which he’s been raised through his interactions with Jim, whose “uncommon level head” subtly questions cultural ideas that surround slavery (Twain 120).
One such scene involves King Solomon, where Huck talks about his lifestyle. Jim comments that he doesn’t take stock in Solomon being “de wises’ man dat ever live’”, seeing as he has so many wives (Twain 121). Huck’s response is that he must be, because the widow told him so. Jim insists that he couldn’t be, and references the dispute between two mothers who argue over the same child, each claiming it as her own, where Solomon suggests cleaving the child in half and giving half to each mother. As the story goes, the real mother would object to cutting the child in half, and that’s how Solomon discovers who the child’s real mother is. But Jim sees it as wasteful, and criticizes Solomon’s decision (while Huck insists that he simply “clean missed the point” (Twain 122)). Huck’s position of social superiority leaves him incapable of looking at the situation from Jim’s understanding. We see this in the beginning, as well, where Huck comments on Jim being “most always right”. While Huck lifts him up with complimenting his “uncommon level head”, he also feels the need to push him down by ending the comment with, “for a nigger”, in securing his superiority (Twain 120). But Jim himself is well aware of what he’s saying, and that “de real pint is down furder—it’s down deeper”, and lies in the way that Solomon values children that are not his own (Twain 122). His “wisdom”, here, is only a reflection of his excess; the child offered up to be cleaved in two—whether he were to cleave the child or not—is not valued by him, and that lack of consideration is what Jim is criticizing. With the treatment of black families during slavery, cleaving families apart doesn’t affect the slaver the way it effects the family that loses their child. It is a matter of perception, something that Huck is unwilling to see, and instead decides his interpretation is correct. The irony of this situation is that while Jim is offering a unique argument that works to reflect his own experiences, Huck is simply repeating what he is told without any critical thought of his own and believing it as fact. The satire in this scene is subtle, critiquing the value of children and their families during slavery, undercut by the fact that Twain knows his audience is likely to read the passage with their own prejudices and dismiss Jim much like Huck has. Even though he’s unable to respond with an argument of his own, he is quick to save face by repeating his derogatory language towards Jim in a way to reclaim his feeling of superiority.

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