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Written during a time in which racial inequality is the norm, and people of color are looked upon as lesser beings, Mark Twain, in his landmark novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, pens a character in Jim who is the epitome of restrained maturity and understated grace. With the constant threat of being discovered and subsequently returned to his “owner,” Mrs. Watson, Jim maintains his remarkably composed demeanor, and serves as a surrogate father to the wild and uncontainable title character. While Jim does not play the marquee role in novel, he is in fact the most integral character, and may possibly be the only true responsible adult in the entire novel. A testament to Twain’s forward thinking, Jim functions as an intermediary between the uncultivated Huck and the outside world, while at the same time fighting for his own freedom and the right to live unburdened with his family. Thought of as more than a simple slave, as most blacks were in the time frame of Huck Finn, Jim garners unusual respect; “He was more looked up to than any nigger in that country. Strange niggers would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he were a wonder” (6-7). This esteem is not solely from other slaves, but from Huck and Tom Sawyer as well. It becomes readily apparent that Jim is an intelligent, analytical man, who just happens to be colored. Completed in the late nineteenth century, Twain makes a bold decision when he writes the sympathetic character of Jim, who represents the author’s not so subtle protests of the treatment of blacks in the South. Despite the objections of his contemporaries, however, Twain utilizes Jim as the protagonist’s guide, and in the process, exhibits a clear respect for the capabilities of all races.
The clearest sign of respect Twain shows for Jim is in his moral strength, and the ability bequeathed upon him to use said strength in a positive way. On countless occasions, Huck requires Jim’s help in some manner, whether it be advice on a complicated issue, or assistance in getting out of trouble. The most obvious occasion for this support is actually a deception; when Huck and Jim encounter a floating house on the Mississippi River, they find a corpse, covered by a piece of fabric. When Jim goes to identify the body, he realizes it is Huck’s Pap, and, using his solid common sense, withholds the information from Huck in order to protect his fragile psyche. Instead, Jim frightens Huck with a superstitious tale, telling him, “it would fetch bad luck; and besides, he said, he might come and ha’nt us; he said a man that wasn’t buried was more likely to go a ha’nting around than one that was planted and comfortable” (58). This instance reconfirms Jim’s paternal position in the development of Huck, and it is clear that he is a far superior role model than Huck’s biological father. In addition, the reader comes to recognize the respect Huck has for Jim, despite the fact that he holds the fate of the runaway slave in his young hands.
A prominent theme in the novel is the use of superstitions, primarily by Jim, in accordance with long antiquated folklore passed down from generations past. Despite the surprising accuracy and usefulness of these myths, Huck is skeptical, and often times disagrees with Jim’s directives. Shortly after discovering Huck’s father, Jim again warns Huck of potential bad luck, this time in the form of a discarded snakeskin. Instead of heeding his wiser and older friend, Huck places the snakeskin next to Jim as he sleeps, inducing another snake to come over and bite Jim. This is a clear example of Huck’s youthful ignorance, mirrored against Jim and his well-earned knowledge. Despite their roles–as white and black–it is clear that the author does not differentiate in terms of intelligence or experience.
Despite the revolutionary racial equality demonstrate throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, racism still plays a large role in the overall plot of the novel. In the era in which it’s written, Huck Finn is an anomaly of understanding; however, there are definite traces of blatant racism incorporated. When separated in a dense fog late one night, Huck plays a trick on Jim, causing him to think he imagined being lost. When he finally realizes his friend’s deception, Jim is understandably upset, especially after his warm reception when Huck returned. Vocalizing his displeasure, Jim tells Huck, “Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ’em ashamed” (95). Huck, realizing the mistake he has made, and seeing the hurt he causes his friend, is contrite. However, despite recognizing his error, and feeling bad about it, Huck is still hesitant to apologize, solely because Jim is black, and such and act contradicts the code of the South. Despite the unconventional situation Huck finds himself in, Huck eventually relents and apologizes; “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither” (95). This break in traditional, while minor in some respect, can be seen as a significant action in terms of race relations and the treatment of blacks in the South during this time.
Further burdened with the constraints of conventional societal tropes, Huck faces a moral crisis: Should he assist Jim in running away from his “rightful owner,” Mrs. Watson, or should he turn his friend in to the authorities, as his upbringing would dictate? Huck ruminates to himself, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean” (97)? However, despite his programmed racism, Huck relents, and realizing the value of his friendship with Jim, and the unfair nature of slavery, does not turn his friend over to the white establishment. It is this mutually valuable friendship that truly converts Huck, and he is ultimately swayed when Jim says, “Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ le Jim’s got now” (98). Huck, even at his young age, can see the special nature of their bond, and realizes– more so than the majority of adults at the time—that the color of ones’ skin is unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Mark Twain, with his transcendent novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, takes a large, if not calculated risk, with the character of Jim, a runaway slave searching for literal and figurative freedom with a young Southern boy named Huck. These two, as unlikely a pair as you will encounter in literature, form an unbreakable bond that supercedes mere friendship and borders on a familial union. Jim, while not traditionally educated, is portrayed as intelligent and caring, two traits not commonly associated with blacks in the late eighteen hundreds. This intelligence is too hard to ignore, and while not the main character in the novel, Jim steals the show, putting Twain’s slavery protest on center stage. Because of his insistence on equality and the portrayal of a black slave as more than a piece of meat, to be bought and sold, Twain has influenced writers for the past hundred years.
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