Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Jim as A Human Being
Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the 1880s, two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Yet…Reconstruction, the plan to integrate freed slaves into the mold of society, was failing. The Jim Crow laws (segregation) were introduced, limiting the power and voice of African Americans more than ever—with a different approach. Because these “new” methods of racism weren’t as direct, they couldn’t be easily challenged. So, by Twain’s time, the majority of Americans—Southerners especially—still treated blacks with the same discriminative contempt as before. Therefore, it was ironic that perhaps the only character in Twain’s novel portrayed as a compassionate, caring, realistic, noble, loyal, human being is Jim, the black slave. Readers are forced to recognize Jim as a person, an equal, by the end of the novel. It is Jim that we inevitably sympathize with, consciously or not. It is in this way that Twain demonstrates to us the unjustness of slavery, and how Jim is more a free man than any character in the book.
In the first chapters of Huckleberry Finn, Jim is depicted as stupid and slow, with ridiculous superstitions. He has a “hair-ball oracle” which allegedly performs magic (Twain 17; ch.4). Things like catching young birds or counting what you are planning to cook before dinner are supposed to bring bad luck. The ideal belief system/religion, of course, is Christian—such is what Miss Watson, Sally Phelps, and Mrs. Loftus put stock in, and they are “good and moral” white people, after all. When you observe closely, though, they are in fact hypocrites. According to the Bible which they so devote themselves to, “We are all God’s children”, meaning that everyone is equal. Yet there’s one instance where this doesn’t apply; slaves, apparently, don’t count, so whites are free to be indifferent to their plight. When Huck meets Mrs. Loftus in chapter 11, she is sympathetic towards Huck when he makes up that he has run away from a mistreating farmer, but is eager for her husband to capture Jim, the runaway slave. Although Mrs. Loftus is clearly a clever woman, somehow she sees a significant difference between an apprentice’s mistreatment and a slave’s constant abuse. Chapter 32—Sally Phelps asks Huck if any one was injured in an explosion; he replies no, a “nigger” was killed. Her relieved response: “ Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.” Where’s the morality, or rather, humanity?
Even though Jim’s superstitions are simple, they seem more reasonable and realistic, such as “bad luck will come of handlin’ a snakeskin” in ch. 10; a rattlesnake’s mate bit him after Huck played a trick on him, after all. In fact, the bad luck that comes from the skin seems to pursue Jim and Huck the whole journey. Jim is also true to his religion; he treats everyone the same, and knows self-sacrifice. And while he is a poor man, he remains optimistic and faithful. Thus he has a clearer conscience than any white man, and better morals.
Jim runs away when he overhears Miss Watson say she would sell him. He also wanted to spare his family from having to be cruelly separated from him. We see how much Jim misses his family in ch. 23, he cries about them at night. He opens up to Huck on how he will never forgive himself for hitting his deaf daughter ‘Lizabeth…“ ‘Shet de do’.’ “She never done it; jis’ stood dah…I fetch’ her a slap side de head dat sont her a-sprawlin’…I says pow! Jis’ as loud as I could yell. She never budge!…i bust out a-cryin’…De Lord God Amighty fogive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself…” (Twain 156; ch.23) The fact that Jim can forgive others but not himself—even for an honest mistake—is honorable, and how much he loves and cares for his family is clear. Jim is also rather like a father to Huck, and provides a moral and positive example for him. When they are in the floating house, Jim won’t let Huck look at the corpse they find, saying, “doan’ look at his face-it’s too gashly”, and refuses to discuss it further (Twain 50; ch.9). We find out in the last chapter that it was Pap’s dead body. Jim shields Huck from the sudden wave of shock that would have come from seeing Pap’s face on a corpse. In chapter 15, Jim is so distraught when he believes Huck lost in the storm that he doesn’t care what becomes of himself. Jim often takes watches for Huck so that he may get more rest at night. Together, they bond much like father and son—which is the reason why Huck ultimately chooses to rescue Jim from the Phelps and “ go to Hell” rather than turn him in.
Jim is always at the mercy of everyone throughout the novel; he is a slave, and therefore has no rights. Even with Huck, all Jim will do is protest at the idea of landing on Walter Scott in chapter 12, even though he knows how foolhardy Huck’s plan is. Jim is aware of the delicate relationship he’s in, at least at first; Huck is white, and free to turn Jim in at any time, should he decide to do so. This shows how Jim is living in constant fear of being turned in. Indeed, he couldn’t do anything to stop the King and Duke from selling him in chapter 31. And he was subject to Tom and Huck’s elaborateness when they put him through twice the amount of time it would have taken to free him in chapter 42. But all the same, Jim is grateful. He always forgives on the occasions Huck tricks him. He may get angry, like in the snakeskin episode, but he forgives. Jim proves how truly selfless a human being he is when he puts his own freedom on the line to help heal Tom’s gunshot wound, when it was because of Tom that they were in a predicament in the first place. Even when Tom tells him he had been a free man since Miss Watson had said so in her will, Jim is unbelievably relieved and thankful to him and Huck. He is jubilant when Tom “repays” him for his trouble with 40 dollars—here is proof at last that he would be rich someday.
In the end, we as readers completely see Jim as the only true human being in the novel—realistic, compassionate, noble, sympathetic, and kind. Jim has the purest conscience, and substantial family and moral values. He thinks for himself, and teaches Huck to do the same. Jim is, in short, more free than any white man. This is the crucial point that Twain wanted to make clear all along.
“Yes; en I’s rich now, come to look at it. I owns mysef, en I’s wuth eight hund’d dollars…I wouldn’ want no mo’.” (Twain 47; ch.8)
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. United States. Tom Doherty Associates, Inc. ,1998.