Social Criticism - Racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Sep 6, 2021
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Throughout his life, Mark Twain wrote about the inequalities he witnessed in American society. His work was heavily influenced by his childhood. Growing up in Missouri, he lived in a society where slavery was not only legal, but also accepted. His novels, especially The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is one of many novels that staunchly criticize racism and slavery. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in particular, criticizes the practice of Southern states who refused to free black people and see them as equals even after the Civil War, which was coined by Twain as “the Gilded Age.” Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn cannot be read separately from its historical context. In this analytical essay, the author will demonstrate how the novel serves as a mirror of American society during the Gilded Age and denounces the greed and religious hypocrisy and the resulting injustices and inequalities it causes on black people.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is told in the same adventure style as its predecessor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry Finn was introduced in the previous novel as Tom Sawyer’s friend. This time, he is the center of the story. Since the novel is an adventure, Huckleberry Finn meets numerous people who each represent an aspect of society. In the novel, society is told from Huck’s perspective. Huck is white but he is in the margins of society, and is thus did not grow up with mainstream views and values. As a result, Huck is skeptical of the world around him. Thus, the readers see American society from an outsider’s perspective, which reveals its corrupt and hypocritical nature that disproportionately affects black people.

Huck Finn’s own father serves as a criticism of white society. Pap Finn is an abusive drunkard. Based on Huck’s stories, Pap Finn frequently beat him up and wanted access to the treasure he and Tom Sawyer found in the first book. At the start of the novel, he locks up Huck in a cabin, which triggers Huck to escape and start his adventures. Pap Finn represents the worst of society for Huck as it leaves him with trauma. 

Another representative of society are Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas. Miss Watson is placed in contrast to her sister the Widow Douglas. The sisters adopt Huck and teach him the rules of society. While both sisters are religious, Miss Watson is the stricter and more self-righteous of the two. In contrast, the Widow Douglas represents the remaining good in society for Huck as she is gentle in her beliefs and patient. Still, the rules and prejudices of society are ingrained in the sisters, and this is most evident in Jim, whom Miss Watson intends to sell.

Perhaps the most scathing criticism of society in the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the Grangerfords. The Grangerfords are kind enough to open their home to Huck. The Grangerfords’ house impressive, reflecting their aristocratic status in the South. However, Twain’s description of the Grangerford’s house reveals the pretensions they engage in. First, they are in a feud with another family, which eventually ends up with many people dead. These characters represent different aspects of white society, all of whom believe they are stellar and moral yet find slavery acceptable. 

Another set of characters that serve as a critique of American society is the duke and the dauphin. The duke and the dauphin pretend to be European royals and proceed to commit fraudulent acts to scam people to give them money. These two characters echo the corruptness of the other characters in the novel in that they are willing to go to great lengths to gain wealth. In the novel, the duke and the dauphin steals Jim and sells him to Silas and Sally Phelps. This act crowns their fraudulent acts as the worst because not only did they objectify a person, they also stole and sold him. As we can see, all of American society’s corruption seems to stem or circle back to slavery. Throughout the entire novel, Jim, the black man, is the one who has to bear the brunt of American society’s corruption and hypocrisy. Although there are white people, such as Huck, who also experience injustices because of society’s corruption, it is really the black people who suffers the most because of it.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is ultimately a criticism of slavery and American society’s support of it. As demonstrated earlier, the white adults in the story engage in, if not support, slavery. Miss Watson, who presents herself as a righteous woman, even considers selling a black man, Jim. Huck’s adventures revolve around trying to help Jim be free. As the two characters travel, it becomes evident that they are seeking different types of freedom from the same society. Huck wants freedom from the rigid rules of white society, while Jim seeks literal freedom from slavery. 

Through Huck and Jim attempt to find freedom from American society, Mark Twain critiques the morality of the Gilded Age. On the one hand, as demonstrated in Huck, society is more concerned with pretensions than with true goodness and morality. So, although the Gilded Age was characterized with immense economic growth for the USA, a lot of people were left to live in abject poverty and injustice. Like the Grangerfords, white or “civilized” society is highly hypocritical in its selfishness and complicity of injustices.

The preceding character analysis shows how Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reveals American society for its corrupt and hypocritical nature. Mark Twain’s social criticism of American society remains relevant as people continue to be corrupt and hypocritical that black people still suffer from discrimination and hate crimes. Through the various characters that Huck Finn and Jim encounter, Twain makes it clear to his readers—the American people—what they and their society truly looks like. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does this successfully because Twain did not focus on only one aspect of American society. Instead, he showed the different ways each person in society can be corrupt and hypocritical. From Pap Finn who is flatly corrupt as a person, to the whole of society who let Pap Finn abuse Huck; even the religious people were not spared, especially those who participate in slavery despite their faith; the Grangerfords who are willing to kill to keep up with their façade of aristocracy; and the duke and the dauphin who would do anything for money. These people have different roles in society, and different goals, but all of them are complicit in the injustices experienced by the marginalized, and especially, by black people. 

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