Although there are still several discernable traces of overt racism in the novel by Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author uses characterization to convey an anti-slavery message. One of the most effective ways Twain does this is by creating Jim, a character who is an escaped slave and who at first seems to embody many of the stereotypes of slaves or African-Americans during this period such as the tendency to be superstitious and acquiescent to the requests of whites, despite the fact he has escaped. As this character analysis of Jim in Huck Finn suggests, by representing Jim as one of the most reliable, least hypocritical, most honest and caring characters in the text, this novel makes a statement about the hypocrisy of the institution of slavery and about the whites who support the institution.
Interestingly, Mark Twain wrote the novel several years after slavery was declared illegal but still chose to set the story in the time of slavery and this makes the reader wonder about this decision and whether or not the deliberate setting within slavery is significant in terms of the message or themes about slavery (or anti-slavery) Twain wished to convey. No matter what the reason was, this novel convinces the reader that despite the many adults encountered in the text, none of them are close in comparison to the level of honesty and integrity Jim has and this speaks volumes about the humanity of slaves, thus speaks also about the wrongs of denying the basic rights of humanity. By offering readers the chance to perform a character analysis of Jim in Huckleberry Finn, it allows readers to see how the character of Jim is a mouthpiece for anti-slavery ideas.
The honest and helpful character of Jim stands in stark contrast to many of the other white characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because he seems to be the only reliable character there is and is, for the most part, free from the biases and weakness white characters have. While many of the whites in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are quite well-intentioned and genuinely seek to help others and improve their condition, women such as Miss Watson, for instance, seek to improve the moral, educational, and religious state of Huck and take a great interest in keeping him from harm and “sivilized.” While there is nothing wrong with this, the fact that this is the same character who is steadfast in her belief that slaves should be kept and not run away demonstrates a clear case of hypocrisy.
On the one hand, Mrs. Watson believes that a religious upbringing will make a better man yet ignores many of the messages religion teaches about being a humanitarian. By being a slave-owner and supporting that institution, she is not a completely “good” character like Jim who escapes only because of his fear of being separated from him wife and family whom he loves dearly. In other words, the only way Jim is deemed as wrong in the novel is when he escapes slavery but even this act is noble because he does not wish to be separated from his wife and family whom he loves dearly. What Jim’s character serves to point out is how, even someone who is looked down on by society and deemed as subhuman is actually a better person and thus this calls to mind the righteousness of slavery, especially when a slave is a better person than the whites who consider themselves to be upstanding and correct.
When one scholar remarked that, “in racial terms, Twain’s creation of the Huck-Jim relationship reflects a muddled terrain of good intentions, confusion, wavering, and inconsistency” (Pinsker 643) he was referring to the confusion that engulfs Huck as he struggles with his feelings about Jim being an escaped slave and knowing that he should do the “right” thing, but also, the more powerful notion that this is someone who is a good person and thus the law governing his escape is not right. Huck has a powerful sense of what is right and wrong, however, due to his life lived outside of the mainstream society a character such as Tom Sawyer knows and respects, he can create his own sense of justice and sees Jim as the only character who is really truthful. Twain creates several white characters, most notably Huck’s own father, who are supposed to be “better” than a slave, yet are terrible and malicious people. This contrast and the feeling that develops over the course of the novel that Jim is the only person a young boy like Huck can rely on speaks to Twain’s anti-slavery sentiments as he is clearly demonstrating that white people are by no means better people simply on account of their race and thus the whole institution of slavery is incorrect and unfounded.
Twain paints Jim as a character who is more of a father and true friend than Huck could ever know and the various well-intentioned but hopelessly hypocritical and flawed white characters pale in comparison. One critic remarked that this was a slight attempt of “an effort, albeit a flawed and unfinished one, to transcend the limitations of post-Reconstruction racism and racialism” (Valkeakari 30) in the sense that Twain wanted to show that race was simply a construct, that perhaps the best and most honest people were not those in power. While Valkeakari is quite cynical about Twain’s attempt to convey an anti-slavery message, it is quite easy to disagree with this and suggest that the very creation of Jim as the most reliable character and a character around whom much of the action revolves signifies a direct and strong attempt to relate a negative message about the founding myths of the institution of slavery—most notably that slaves are not complete people; that they are subhuman.
In addition to making Jim the only shining example of an honest character throughout the text (with the exception of Huck himself, of course) it is important to note that Twain made the conscious decision to set The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a time when slavery was still legal. This lends further to the idea that this text is a direct attempt to speak to the many ills of slavery and that it is trying via the character of Jim, to deconstruct the underlying myth of slavery; that black slaves were less human than whites and that they required less and were bereft in many of the aspects whites and their religion touted. In fact, Jim is the only character that can be relied on and trusted, even by the reader, and this fact makes the text a compelling work against the institution of slavery.
Pinsker, Sanford. “Huckleberry Finn and the Problem of Freedom.” Virginia Quarterly Review 77.4 (2001), 642-649.
Valkeakari, Tuire. “Huck, Twain, and the Freedman’s Shackles : Struggling with Huckleberry Finn Today.” Atlantis (0210-6124) 28.2 (2006), 29-43.