Week 8

Although Mark Twain became known as a vocal opponent to slavery and valued the stories and culture of slaves in his time, framing him as a staunch liberal abolitionist wouldn’t do credit to the (sometimes contradictory) duality of his character. Early on in his life, Samuel Clemens began to question the way that society spoke about slavery. In his autobiography, he recalls a situation with his own mother, Jane Clemens, where he admits that, as a child, he “had no aversion to slavery” and “was not aware that there was anything wrong about it”. He recalls that the local papers said nothing against it, that the church taught him that God approved of it, and that they never saw a slave “misused”¹ in their town of Hannibal, Missouri. But one of his clearest, sharpest memories involved that of a slave boy named Sandy, who constantly sang and laughed. When Clemens asks his mother to “shut him up”, she tearfully replies that his singing is what comforts him in the reality of his enslavement, the reality that he will never see his mother again, and if he were older, he would be glad at “that friendless child’s noise”. Moments like these are what laid down the foundation for the dismantling of Clemen’s prior assumptions, and slowly allowed him to form his own personal moral code despite the social pressure of believing otherwise. Later in life, after meeting Aunt Hannah, Clemens recalls that “[the negroes and he] were comrades and yet not comrades”, and that “color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of and which rendered complete fusion impossible”. These moments of clarity and consciousness towards the situation in which he lived allowed him to be able to craft Huckleberry Finn, and realistically allow Huck to slowly understand Jim’s humanity enough to renounce his reliance on the status quo in order to validate his morality. While Clemen’s mother has her realization and simply pities the slaves while she maintains the dissonance between realization and action (the self-deception allowed in Bad Faith histories during this time period), Twain takes action in the form of this novel, and builds Huck up from simply following the status quo to actively deciding to rebel against it.

Why, then, does chapter 34 of this novel onward when Tom Sawyer arrives feel as though the reader has taken a step back from their epiphany, as Jim is yet again subject to be a plaything for childish amusement? Tom Sawyer’s arrival seems to disrupt the flow of character development in Huck’s life, and while it could be seen as a pull back from the seriousness of the novel to allow a more lighthearted ending, I feel it could also be using Sawyer as a symbol of the socially accepted opinion of slaves, one that Huck would have to face no matter his personal ideology. In chapter 38, where Tom is mentioning the critters that Jim has to train (as a part of his childish fantasy), the mention of snakes feels like a call back to Chapter 10, where Huck gets Jim bitten by the snake. Tom, who hasn’t been exposed to the situations that allowed Huck to realize Jim’s humanity. The snake here represents that childish, and almost vindictive, playfulness that, while Huck has graduated from that way of thinking, Tom has yet to realize dehumanizes Jim, who he fails to see as a human at all, and who’s pleas he ignores (“but what kine er time is Jim havin’?”)

While I do think it is a injustice to the genius of this work by not having Huck respond to Tom’s actions, I can see how Tom can symbolize the social ideas of the greater society.

  1. I’m sure he uses “misused” as to pertaining to any outright “violent” acts that the slaves were subject to, but given what was “normal” and accepted at the time, it’s possible that he simply didn’t see human rights violations for what they were during this time period and was under the illusion that everything was alright.

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