In order to craft a realistic novel set within an historical timeframe, it is essential for the author to have lived in the period he or she is writing about. As a witness to the Civil War era, author Mark Twain was in a position to comment and reflect truthfully on the conditions of his time. In his novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain reveals the truths about life in the American South during the 1800s. It is important, however, to discern the differences of truths that he employs. In this novel, Twain uses situational and timeless truths.
The situational focuses on the historical aspect, while the timeless concentrates more on thematic elements and human qualities. So while class differences and slavery are peered through an historical perspective, a human virtue such as honor is seen from a timeless viewpoint. Since its publication, the novel has drawn ire from various groups of people, many criticizing the way African Americans are portrayed. Not only this, but many were also appalled by the general immorality of the protagonist, Huck Finn.
Although there is controversy concerning the way Twain presents his characters and the setting, he has still retained a sense of truth throughout the novel. One reality of Twain’s time that has been threaded throughout the novel is the idea of class differences in the South. Twain highlights the differences in dialect, education and money between the rich and poor, and whites and blacks. The unique dialect that Mark Twain utilized was one of the main reasons that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a target for scrutiny. While the book was written after the Civil War, the story takes place in a period prior to the freeing of slaves.
Twain attempts to give a detailed portrayal of the characters in the novel, and one way of doing so is by employing different dialects in characters. It is a clever device used by Twain to give an indication as to the education level of the character, and in terms of the content of the dialogue, their skin color. For example, Twain has Jim and other African Americans discussing superstition at various points in the novel. On one instance, “Jim said it was a sign it was going to rain. He said it was a sign when young chickens flew that way, and so he reckoned it was the same way when young birds done it” (Twain 52).
In a way, this idiosyncratic labeling becomes synonymous with African Americans throughout the novel. Of course, this can lead to public outcry and allegations of racism towards African Americans. The most common dilemma is that people of the past, as well as in the present, misunderstand Twain’s use of the word “nigger,” although at the time, it was even a part of the vernacular of blacks as well. For example, even a slave uses this word when he recognizes Jim: “Why, dish-yer runaway nigger” (Twain 229). This word was not intended to offend anyone, but instead, to capture the veracity of the various dialects of the region.
On a similar note, the concept that African Americans are portrayed as fools is a hasty judgment. It is likely that black characters would appear to be less intelligent than whites were, because that is a realistic assumption, as the black character is deprived of any formal education. In addition, the treatment of blacks by white people resulted in a possible inferiority complex that developed among blacks, which to the reader, may appear as subservience to white people (and technically was because slavery was still instituted at the time).
Although it may seem as if Twain has created a racially-biased novel, it is his intention to make the time period as authentic as possible, and the racially-biased atmosphere was certainly present during his time. The relationship and ideas shared between Jim and Huck is a microcosm between the rich and the poor. Twain purposely begins the novel by directing the reader’s attention to the fact that Huck has over six thousand dollars to his name. In that time, six thousand dollars was an opulent sum. It is easy to see that any sum of money less than that would be inconsequential to Huck.
Additionally, living a very primitive life before out in the wilderness means that money does not become a necessity for Huck. Twain elucidates on class differences through the discussion of money, as Huck’s perspective on money is antithetical to Jim’s perspective. Jim views money as a way of achieving freedom from slavery. This is exemplified when Jim speaks of his future plans: “I been rich wunst, and gwyne to be rich again” (Twain 53). Money would help Jim reunite with his family and lead to a better standard of living in the future.
It can be seen that throughout the novel, Jim tries to earn money whereas Huck shows a measure of indifference towards riches. On the river, there are no class differences between Huck and Jim, and a sense of honor develops between the two stowaways. The concept of honor pervades throughout the novel. Initially, Tom forms a robber gang with his friends, and the sanctity and honor of taking an oath are shown to be important to the members: “It swore every boy to stick to the band, and never tell any of the secrets; and if anybody done anything to any boy in the band… he boy was ordered to kill that person and his family” (Twain 17). The idea that there is honor among thieves is woven throughout the novel, as Jim and Huck encounter robbers on the shipwrecked boat, and also when they become tangled with the Duke and the King. At the beginning of the novel, Tom and Huck are pretending to be robbers, but at the denouement, they are in fact, actual robbers. With honorable intentions, Tom and Huck become robbers in freeing Jim from slavery. As the reader can see, the maintenance of honor is a subject that Huck hopes to preserve in himself.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a satire of the old and decadent slaveholding society of the South. Huck’s views of slavery and of African Americans in general are a product of the societal values he grows up in. These societal values are the same ones that Twain actually grew up in as well. But what makes the topic even more powerful is the pervasion of slavery and how the concept propagates to denizens, whether rich or poor, white or black. An adage that Huck learned when he was younger was “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell” (Twain 92).
This maxim shows the extent to which Huck is exposed to societal stereotypes. Being raised in this society has definitely instilled in Huck an impression that slavery is acceptable, and only until he befriends Jim does he begin to doubt the morality of the status quo in society. Nevertheless, by having Huck, a pariah, understand the concept of slavery, Twain demonstrates how widespread the notions were in the society of that time. Following its publication, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn caused uproar because of the topic of slavery.
At the time, the United States was divided over the issue of slavery. The inhumane treatment of African Americans was so important that it prompted Twain to write a social satire on it. As the African American population became more educated, they became upset over the way Twain depicted their ancestral past. A new question is derivative of this: are African Americans really upset over the portrayal of that time period or is it only the realm of the black writer to discuss slavery in the past? In reality, Twain’s novel is a powerful satire on slavery and its effects.
Even though slavery was abolished, African Americans were treated as second-class citizens even 100 years after, until the Civil Right Movement began in the mid-1950s. The book’s message is clearly one against slavery. Nevertheless, some passages are reflective of the societal immoralities that Twain grew up surrounded by. Though containing racist elements, the racial content is factual of the time. Twain’s commitment to bringing out the truth is unmistakable, even amidst the past and present controversy swirling around the novel. Twain’s truths are reflected in his writings.
Although this literary work is a piece of satire, the timeless thematic messages are clear to the reader. Yet, it is not the timeless truths that are controversial, but the situational truths. In this sense, the historical aspect of the novel directly attracts the reader, and is ultimately dominant over the subtle thematic elements. As mentioned, it is important to focus on the time period of the novel, and to keep the notions within an historical context. By all means, Mark Twain utilizes this work as an instrument to reveal the factuality of an epoch in history.