The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: a Portrait of Slavery in America

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THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN: A PORTRAIT OF SLAVERY IN AMERICA

by John Femia

At the surface, Mark Twain's famed novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a thrilling narrative told by a 13-year-old boy who embarks on a perilous journey down the formidable Mississippi River aboard a tiny wooden raft. The story's sensationalism sometimes makes Huck's journey seem unbelievable. Underneath, however, lies an authentic portrait of the institution of slavery in America during the 1850s. Although born and raised in Missouri, Twain vehemently opposed slavery. He witnessed the inhumane treatment of blacks and openly criticized the barbaric institution of slavery. In an 1885 letter sent to Francis Wayland, dean of Yale University Law School, which was publicized in the New York Times, Twain sought reparations for former slaves: "We have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it." Twain was an early pioneer in this movement as the debate over compensating former slaves continues to rage into the 21st Century. Much of Twain's writing identifies him as a humorist. However, he reveals his pessimistic side as a satirist in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was published 20 years after the Civil War. Through the innocence of Huck's narrative, Twain attacks slavery, racism, hypocrisy, and injustice during one of the most shameful and embarrassing periods in American history. Several main characters throughout the novel epitomize typical slave owners and their attitudes toward the bondage of another human being. They are racists who portray the worst of what society has to offer. Twain frequently satires these characters and their treatment of slaves through the use of irony and ridiculing their paradoxical behavior and ostentatious lifestyles. Slaves had no control over their own destiny and were often sold several times throughout their life. This severed family bonds, causing disintegration of identity and culture among blacks. Huck lives among racists. Miss Watson, the sister of Huck's guardian, the Widow Douglas, is a slave owner. Miss Watson fosters the cruelty of a typical slave owner when she treats her slave Jim as a commodity rather than a human being. First, she tears Jim away from his family after buying him from a local farm. Later, Jim's hope of reuniting with his family evaporates when Miss Watson sells him to a trader in the deep South. Upon learning his fate, Jim escapes to nearby Jackson Island on the Mississippi River and unites with Huck, who is also on the lam in a quest for freedom. Although milder than her sister, the Widow Douglas preaches a moral paradox. She dictates a strict moral doctrine by force-feeding Huck lessons in "sivilized ways." Meanwhile, she fails to recognize the obvious inhumanity of slavery right in front of her and goes along with the status quo. As Huck and Jim head into the deep South, they encounter people from all walks of life. The Grangerford and Shepherdson families represent the aristocrats. Twain portrays them as the best of what society has to offer in the slave states. Ironically, they are hate-loving, trigger-happy killers embroiled in an eternal feud against each other. Since both families are very wealthy, they own hundreds of slaves to work their sprawling plantations. Every member of the Grangerford family–even the children–have their own personal slave to serve them in a demeaning, undignified manner. Buck Grangerford, whom Huck befriended, orders his slave to do menial tasks all day long. Although he gets his very own slave, Huck feels awkward having someone wait on him, so...
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