Multidimensional Black Characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
A subject of controversy today, as it has been since its publication, Huckleberry Finn is by any measure, despite obvious flaws, one of the great works of American Literature. Much confusion surrounds the interpretation of Twain's story, mostly because of the presence of Jim, who was one of the first multi-dimensional black characters in all of fiction. There has been a resulting tendency to grant him primacy of place in analysis of the novel and to read it as a statement, pro or con, about Slavery. This is really not the appropriate way to understand the story. Jim is obviously vital, but his story is secondary, or at least only complimentary, to that of Huck himself. For our purposes, we'll try looking at the novel as if Huck was the central character, which of course he is, a fact which would apparently surprise most modern critics.
Approached in this way, we can see that, far from being an aberrational instant of a major popular author tackling the race question, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn instead falls directly into the mainstream of American Literature, with clear antecedents in The Last of the Mohicans and Moby Dick and obvious successors in everything from the Western to the hard-boiled detective story and most directly in works like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Cool Hand Luke. If we look at just the novels named above, we find that they all share the same central theme--dissatisfaction with the secure but restrictive clutches of "civilization" and the desire for freedom. Each of them is about men who have escaped or are trying to escape from some form of civil society, from some system that denies them liberty.
This is particularly important in the case of Huck Finn because, while academics view it strictly through the lens of Jim's escape from Slavery, the core of the novel is Huck's dash for freedom. Indeed, while Twain is often criticized for the elaborate scheme that Tom and Huck develop to free Jim at the end of the novel--criticized because it turns his state of slavery into a joke and a source of amusement for the boys--the critics miss the point that it is Huck who ultimately ends up reenslaved. This is why the story concludes with his famous vow:
I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before.
I think you've got to grant Twain the benefit of the doubt here and assume that he was not merely setting up a sequel. Presumably we can take this statement seriously and it would appear to reveal the entire point of the book--Huckleberry Finn views the formal structures of civilization as intolerable. It is in this sense that the book fits into the continuum of our Literature and of our politics and gives it a valid claim to being one of the great American novels.
Before we go, a couple of other similarities in these books deserve mention. One conspicuous shared aspect of these novels is that they are all specifically about men. Women appear only as oppressors or figures of idolatry. I believe this is a function of the concrete difference in the political philosophies of the two genders--men tend to favor freedom and the risk it entails, while women most often opt for security even at the cost of surrendering liberty. Even if you disagree with this theory, which would put you in good company, it is certainly true that the central story line of all of these books involves the heroes moving away from more secure settings into riskier but freer environments.
The other noticeable similarity of the stories is the frequent presence of the "noble savage" character. Whether it be Chingachgook or Queequeg or Jim or The Chief, they represent man in the state of nature, unsullied by the dandifying influences of civilization. They are nearly aspirational figures, archetypes brought along in order to show the hero what he could be like if he succeeds in freeing himself. This is a curious residue of the idyllic beliefs of men like Jean-Jacque Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson. I won't take the time here to discuss this fully; I merely note that the theme recurs and point out that the idea that primitive man was somehow more free than modern man is asinine. Hobbes had it right when he referred to life in the state of nature as "nasty, brutish and short."
From the foregoing analysis, it may seem to some folks that I am trying to diminish Jim's stature or deny Twain's originality; this is not the case. Instead, I am suggesting that in mankind's long and schizoid struggle between Freedom and Security, America is the place, more than any other, which has sought to vindicate the cause of Freedom. It is natural, therefore, that our very best literature draws upon these ideas. Huckleberry Finn has many flaws--it is overlong; it has really jarring changes in tone; at times it is merely cruel when trying to be funny; and for the modern reader, the portrayal of Jim is quite disconcerting, so condescending as to make us uncomfortable--but it is above all else a quintessentially American novel and Huck is an archetypal American figure. As a nation, we represent the ideal of "lighting out for the Territory", of providing captive peoples with freedom and opportunity. It is in this context that, regardless of its shortcomings, Huckleberry Finn must be reckoned a central text in the American Canon.