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“Whiteness”, Huck Finn and the Logomachines: A Critical Study


“Whiteness”, Huck Finn and the Logomachines: A Critical Study

Dr. Ayan Mondal

Assistant Professor of English

Bankura Christian College

Bankura, West Bengal, India



Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is usually read as an exploration narrative that builds upon the anti-racist premise of black-white amiability projected through the relationship between the “white trash” Huck and the black “nigger” Jim. Toni Morrison in her seminal book Playing in the Dark; Whiteness and the Literary Imagination apart from theoretically analysing some of the basic tenets of the workings of literary imagination to give expression and come to terms with “whiteness”, also called for an re-exploration of some of the seminal “white” texts which are part of the nineteenth century American canon.  She hinted at a possible reading of Twain’s masterpiece “against the grain” to give expression to the textual agency of making use of Jim to bolster and articulate Huck’s “whiteness”.

This article proposes to attempt an in-depth analysis of the some of the verbal exchanges between Huckleberry and Jim and to show thereby how those seemingly funny exchanges get invested with power-dynamics and thereby become operational “logomachines”. The article therefore seeks to read the text from the methodological framework of literary “whiteness studies” as propounded by Toni Morrison and to show how the black vehicle constantly serves as the fodder to ignite “whiteness”.

Keywords: Literary Imagination; Logomachines; Nigger; power-dynamics; Whiteness

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered as one of the seminal texts in the American canon, despite Jonathan Arac’s recent contention that it has been indiscriminately “hypercanonized” by critics. One remembers Ernest Hemingway’s eulogy- “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that” (Hemingway 22). In the “Preface” to the third Norton edition of the text, Thomas Cooley, the editor, brings back a question that has perturbed critics for more than a hundred years since its publication. Cooley writes:

Is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a racist book? Huck himself likes comfort- the comfort of fishing naked from the raft, the comfort of sleeping while Jim takes his watch- but reading Huck’s opus even in private, much less as part of a class, is a profoundly uncomfortable experience for many people, and not just because Mark Twain uses a single demeaning racial epithet more than 200 times in the book. Does this mean that we shouldn’t read it? Or that book shouldn’t be taught in the public schools? (Cooley vii).

With the publication of Twain’s text in 1885, the Boston Transcript reported that the Concord Public Library Committee recommended the exclusion of the book from the library ; one of the committee members regarded the book as “the veriest trash” ( qtd in Twain Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,(hereafter AHBF) 308). The Springfield Republican too approved of the decision of the committee and considered the book to be morally low, the perusal of which can be harmful. In 1957, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) in collaboration with the National Urban League condemned the novel considering it inappropriate for teaching in the public schools of New York City because of its consistent and repetitive use of the word “nigger”.  In 1982 John H Wallace, a public school official who opposed the teaching of Huckleberry Finn at the Mark Twain Intermediate School, Fairfax County, Virginia,  considered the book as “the most grotesque example of racist trash” (Twain, AHBF 309) in “The Case Against Huck Finn”. In 1984, Julius Lester in the article “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” lambasted the novel with charges of immorality and condemned its treatment of Negroes under slavery.

However, favourable responses to the novel were not few in number. In 1885, Brander Matthews in the London Saturday Review praised the dexterity with which Twain creatively characterised Huck as a genuine boy. Matthews argued, “For one thing, the skill with which the character of Huck Finn is maintained is marvellous. We see everything through his eyes- and they are his eyes and not a pair of Mark Twain’s spectacles” (qtd in Twain, AHBF 330). Lionel Trilling’s 1948 essay “The Greatness of Huckleberry Finn”, addressed the novel as one of the central documents of American culture. Twain’s biographer, Justin Kaplan in one of his lectures entitled “Born to Trouble: One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn” attacked Julie Lester, claiming that the novel’s spirit was “that of matchless satire on racism, bigotry and property rights in human beings” (qtd in Twain AHBF 356 emphasis mine). T.S. Eliot in his “Introduction” to Twain’s text valorised the book as Twain’s masterpiece stating, “In the writing of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain had two elements which, when treated with his sensibility and his experience, formed a great book: these two are the Boy and the River” (qtd in Twain, AHBF 348). David L. Smith in his article “Huck, Jim and Racial Discourse” defended the novel against all charges of racism arguing –“Those who brand the book racist generally do so without having considered the specific form of racial discourse to which the novel responds”(qtd in Twain,  AHBF 364).

In her comprehensive “Introduction” to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) published four years after the publication of Playing in the Dark, she once again catalogued her reading-experiences of and encounters with the novel. In the well-conceived title of her “Introduction”, “This Amazing, Troubling Book”, Morrison furthered her erstwhile readings of the text, arguing that the novel was simultaneously the cause of her amazement and unease. She recorded in her article her varied responses to the novel at different stages of her life. Her first reading could generate only fear and alarm because she missed the “treasure- island excursion” of Tom Sawyer in the novel. Her second reading, under the supervision of an English teacher added some traces of satisfaction with her initial discomfort. The liberating language of a child which was neither “baby talk”, nor the “doggedly patronizing language” of books placed on the children’s shelf, was one among other factors that attracted her towards Twain’s text. This was followed by her third encounter with the text, through the perspectives of Leslie Fiedler and Lionel Trilling, evoking the response, that the criticisms enlightened her more than the novel did. Ironically enough, Morrison’s readings of Fiedler and Trilling did not open up new dimensions which she was ignorant of, but on the contrary, propelled her to consider why those critics literally ignored things that “troubled” her. During the early 1980’s Morrison’s fourth reading of the book was occasioned by the rising demands of removing the book from the public libraries (discussed earlier in this chapter) on account of the author’s persistent use of the epithet “nigger”. Though the decision to ban the book was made with the speculation that it had possibilities of corrupting school-children, Morrison could only identify in the drive a strategy to appease the adults:

It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution….Embarrassing as it had been to hear the dread word spoken, and therefore sanctioned, in class, my experience of Jim’s epithet had little to do with my initial nervousness the book had caused. Reading “nigger” hundreds of times embarrassed, bored, annoyed- but did not faze me. In this latest reading I was curious about the source of my alarm- my sense that danger lingered after the story ended. I was powerfully attracted to the combination of delight and fearful agitation lying entwined like crossed fingers in the pages. And it was significant that this novel which had given so much pleasure to young readers was also complicated territory for sophisticated scholars (qtd. in Twain, AHBF 385 emphasis mine).

Morrison, therefore was against a forceful “band-aiding” of the solution by maintaining a highly diplomatic critical silence in acknowledging the real nature of the “wound”-- the actual racial bruise that her reading of the text generated. Morrison’s thesis in Playing in the Dark and her comprehensive “Introduction” to the novel, was to “track” her unease by studying the centrality of “whiteness”, or for that matter, Americanness, of the text that came to be articulated in and through a parasitic dependence on the “blackness” or the Afro-American presence that the text had taken recourse to. Criticisms of the text attesting to Twain’s stereotypical handling of the “nigger” were plenty, but the white characters’ (or for that matter the white author’s) necessity of handling and manipulating the “black” persona in specific ways was what Morrison was interested in. The focus of the present article is to unravel the text’s celebration of “whiteness” with reference to specific exchanges between Huck and Jim imbricated in power-politics which Joshua terms “logomachines”.

Chadwick Joshua addresses the verbal battles between Huck and Jim as “logomachines” and identifies some major logomachines in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn-- Huck and Jim’s discussions about securing the canoe, Huck’s “readings” of passages from King Solomon and the discussions that follow, Huck and Jim’s discussions about language concerning the debate whether a Frenchman should speak only French and the interaction between the two comrades which follow when they reunite after being separated by the fog are some such logomachines Joshua discusses. Anthony J. Berret states that such conversations between Huck and Jim resemble the “comic dialogues and sentimental songs” (Berret 38) of the first part of blackface minstrelsy shows. The logomachines which Joshua refers to, fail to subvert the Huck/ Jim binary as oppositional categories of the racially powerful and powerless, when seen through the lens of “Whiteness” studies. The analysis of each passage, reversing the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject, would highlight how Huck is deeply in need of drawing psychological sustenance from Jim.

In Chapter XIV, for example, when Huck and Jim boarded the wrecked steamboat after the robbers stole off, Huck starts excitedly narrating all his experiences, inside the wreck and ferryboat verbally re-enacting the adventures. But the voice of the narrator immediately records Jim’s reaction to the same:

“…he said he didn’t want no more adventures. He said that when I went in the texas and he crawled back to get on the raft and found her gone, he nearly died; because he judged it was all up with, anyway it could be fixed; for if he didn’t get saved, whoever saved him would send him back home so as to get the reward, and then Miss Watson will sell him south sure. Well, he was right; he was most always right; he has an uncommon level head for a nigger” (Twain, AHBF 86 emphasis mine).

Joshua reads this episode as a moral defeat of Huck and triumph of Jim, not merely because Huck acknowledged the uncommon intelligence of even a “nigger”, but because Jim could assert himself registering his refusal to indulge in any more adventures.  Jim could count his life and his freedom more than the naive pleasure of “adventures” and this emphatic assertion on his part was interpreted by Joshua as a sign of his victory:

Such inescapable logic from Jim to Huck makes Jim, then, one to whom Huck will listen, at least as much as a “nigger” needs to be listened to. Note that here Huck feels the necessity to qualify his praise for Jim. The qualifier is framed into the sentence as an important consideration, yet Twain places it structurally so that the real meaning of the sentence is not dependent on this additional comment (Chadwick-Joshua 44).

Joshua’s elation at Huck’s defeat is fallacious, because in Huck’s acknowledgement of Jim, there is an identification with what he too wished to achieve-- freedom. Jim’s comment symbolically manifested the quest for freedom that the boundless expanse of the river equally promised and threatened. Again Jim’s helplessness at the possibilities of both his getting “saved” and “drowned” only intensifies his vulnerability. A perception of Jim’s vulnerability merely serves to strengthen the “free” spirit of Huck. Therefore, Huck’s appreciation of Jim’s “intelligence” to fight the adversities and threats in the river is at bottom an assertion of his own racial superiority and advantageous subject-position. Again Twain puts Jim’s idea of “freedom” not through Jim’s individual persona but through narrative voice of Huck. It can be argued that in narrating Jim’s fanatic obsession with “freedom” directly to the readers, Huck, too, in this context, re-enacts his own desires to achieve it. Jim’s actions here get infiltrated neither through Twain’s voice, nor through his individual dialogue. In fact, when Twain vehemently puts Jim’s desires for freedom directly through his persona later in the novel, the readers notice how the statements of Jim unsettles Huck as he was battling with his conscience for helping a runaway slave.

The passages where Jim and Huck converse about “King Sollermun” are equally loaded and revealing. Although Huck puts on airs of intellect with his stories about the million wives in King Solomon’s harem, Jim plays on the word “harem”, to suit his purpose, much to the astonishment of Huck. The passage from the text is worth quoting:


But mostly they (kings) hang round the harem.


Roun’ de which




What’s the harem?


The place where he keeps his wives. Don’t you know about the harem? Solomon had one; he had about a million wives.

Why, yes, dat’s so; I-I’d done forget it. A harem’s a bo’d’n house, I reck’n. Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nursery. En I reck’n de wives quarrels considable; endat’ crease de racket (Twain, AHBF 87).

Jim’s initial ignorance of the meaning of the word “harem” gives way to his re-interpretation of the word from his own subject-position, deviating from Huck’s elaborations. Freeing the word from the invested meanings (a place of polygamy, prostitutes and harlots waiting to gratify the male lust), for Jim, the word becomes a signifier of family bliss and happiness (“a bo’d’n house”). Later, Jim even subversively argues that Solomon’s insistence on allowing the women to tear a child into two halves was as imbecile as tearing a dollar bill into two half- dollar ones. Jim also antithetically counters Huck’s view- that he has accumulated from Widow Douglas (and this time he again returns to the hegemonic centre) - that King Solomon was “the wisest man” (Twain, AHBF 87). Rather he emphatically notes “he weren’t no wise man, nuther” (Twain, AHBF 87).  Interpreting these Solomon excerpts, again, as Jim’s triumph in taking recourse to his own rhetorical strategy to counter the established ramifications of history, Joshua writes:

Jim’s signification causes the reader to rethink the historical status of Solomon and to reconsider conventional preformed Sunday school ideas. Jim assumes a new status, that of the one who makes the decisions and decrees the fate of those who serve him. By assuming the persona of Solomon and thereby appropriating Solomon’s voice and authority, Jim assertively rejects the silence his slave and nigger status have imposed upon him (Chadwick-Joshua 51).

In narrating his version Jim even imagines himself to be Solomon and this impersonation of Solomon is the symbolic projection of a New-Negro who rewrites history. Jim therefore, offers Huck the vision of an alternative, subversive reality that he always tried to assume, but Huck is far from acknowledging it through verbal language. Huck is either reluctant to pay heed to the ostensibly non-sensical words of the “nigger” or is only supressing his anxieties by reverting to the racial stereotype- “I never see a nigger. If he got a notion in his head once, there warn’t no getting it out again. He was the most down on Solomon of any nigger I ever see. So I went to taking about other kings, and let Solomon slide” (Twain, AHBF 89). Rightly does Morrison remark in her book, “…it is absolutely necessary that the term nigger be inextricable from Huck’s deliberations about who and what he himself is- or precisely, is not” (Morrison 55)  With obstinacy and considerable confidence Jim could configure and re-create a new Solomon who should be forsaking the noisy harems and enjoying repose. However nonsensical Jim’s deliberations might appear to be, Huck’s denial to continue with the Solomon narrative points at his own anxieties regarding imagining the “Other”. Andrew Solomon comments:

…Jim has contradicted Huck and the Widow Douglas as well as denounced King Solomon. Slaves in 1845 did not do that. Jim’s words here are as much an act of mutiny as running away from Miss Watson was, and the penalty could have been, in fact, just as severe. Jim has now started to break his psychological enslavement, just as he had recently broken from physical enslavement; the importance of this break must not be ignored. It can even be argued that the black man’s severing of the identification with a Biblical Hebrew, an identification based on their mutual slavery, is in itself his first step towards psychological freedom (Solomon 21).

Yet for Huck’s whiteness to get asserted the spectre of enslavement is necessary for imagining not merely the “not-free”, but also the “not me”, to borrow the expressions of Morrison. Little wonder, that Huck considers it futile to drag the Solomon debate and he therefore slides on other topics of discussion, but only after stereotyping the “nigger” by his derisive comment that they are stubborn enough not to come out of preconceived notions. In the same chapter, when Huck asks Jim what would he “think” if somebody approached him  with the French remark “Polly-voo-franzy”, Jim promptly replied that he would simply bash the person’s “head” if he was a “nigger” and “warn’t a “white” ”. The moment Jim suggested that he won’t dare attack a “white” person, through him, once again Huck’s white male ego gets reinforced and gratified. This reinforcement also has its roots in Jim’s (and this time it is not Huck’s) use of the pejorative use “niggerwhich suggests his acquiescence to the hegemonic and hierarchical power-structure. Jim, however, fails to understand why a French person is unable to speak the English language. To this, Huck with supreme instance of rhetorically sophisticated logic initiates the following conversation with Jim:

            Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?

            No, a cat don’t

            Well, does a cow?

            No, a cow don’tnuther.

            Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?

            No dey don’t

It’s natural and right for them to talk different from each other,

            ain’t it?


            And ain’t it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk

            Different from us?

            Why most sholy it is

Well then, why ain’t it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? You answer me that (Twain, AHBF 57).

Jim in the same logical manner appropriates Huck’s sophistication and answers Huck back. Jim suggested, since neither cats nor cows were men and the Frenchman was one, there was every reason to expect that a Frenchman would talk like a man. If Huck demanded an answer from Jim (“You answer me that”), Jim too makes the same enquiry, in the same manner to Huck (“You answer me dat”). Huck was at a loss to answer Jim back and could only put an end to the verbal confrontation with another racist statement “I see it warn’tno use wasting words- you can’t learn a nigger to argue. So I quit”.  With a feeling of self-aggrandizement at his racial superiority, Huck feels not defeated in this verbal confrontation. However, James S. Leonard in his article “Huck, Jim and the “Black and White” Fallacy” o`pines:

…Jim has learned his logical and rhetorical lesson and is ready to show that the black man can play the white man’s game with equal or greater adroitness. Tired of serving as Glaucon to Huck’s homely version of Socrates, he decides to turn the tables- to rise up, one might say and overthrow his rhetorical master (Leonard 58).

Chadwick Joshua also underscores Huck’s defeat in this verbal battle: “Huck “quits” because Jim has “learned” so well that nothing else remains to be said. Huck’s ad hominum shift is a marker for his defeat and frustration as well as a reminder to the reader as the racist premises on which his regard for Jim has been based” (Joshua 53). One is inclined to question whether Huck really “quits” when he hurls his racist aspersion on Jim pointing at the futility of involving and engaging Jim in sophisticated “arguments”  which seems to be a strategy of the supremacist “white” world. Though Leonard had read Jim’s swift and prompt responses as the black man’s ability to “play the white man’s game”, Huck, who is ignorant of reading abstract or profound ideas, could only read it as an abuse or misappropriation of the rhetorical strategy of “argument”. Leonard further comments in this regard:

The arguments between Jim and Huck are, in fact, exercises in sophistry- rhetorical push disguised as logic. When Huck, by his example, “teaches” Jim to argue, what he actually accomplishes is the “sophist”-ication of Jim. For a moment, Huck leaves his role as repository of natural virtue and assumes the role of society at large, and in that capacity his first act is the corruption of Jim. But his creation turns out to be a “Frankenstein’s monster” that threatens its creator and (ultimately) society as a whole. The interactions between Huck and Jim graphically illustrate the slaveholding society’s need to keep its slave population “ignorant” that is unsophisticated (Leonard 61).

Pushing Jim time and again into such an unsophisticated domain is what Huck needs to assert his own subject-position. Therefore, Joshua’s interpretations of Jim’s “victory” in destroying the implications of his “teacher”, get problematized in this context. Hansen, too, interprets the dialogues of Jim as supreme examples of Jim’s subversion of white hegemony (‘in demystifying Solomon and universalizing the Frenchman as belonging to the “human” race). Joshua and Hansen’s interpretations seem limited because they overlook Huck’s continuous withdrawals from his “pariah” status in assuming “the role of society at large” and his needs to keep Jim in his un- sophisticated stereotypical domain of “ignorance”.  It must be noted, therefore, that neither Twain’s intended implications, nor Hansen’s or Joshua’s interpretations could have been comprehended by the white- narrator protagonist Huck who could only take delight in “quitting” with a feeling of superiority. In deciding not to “waste” any more words on the Negro, Huck was simply re-inscribing Jim in the “nigger-stereotype”, only to champion his own superior status. There is merit in William Van O’ Connor condemns the Solomon and the Frenchman “passages” as derisive projection of “minstrel-show, end-men sort of humour” because when Twain minstrelizes Jim, he celebrates Huck’s whiteness.

The most striking verbal confrontation between Huck and Jim occurs in Chapter XV, when, after being separated by the fog, Huck reunites with Jim on the raft.  Without paying any heed to Jim’s extreme intimidation and anxiety, Huck could confidently feign his ignorance of any “fog” that led him asunder from Jim all night:

“Well, this is too many for me, Jim. I hain’t seen no fog, nor no islands, nor no troubles, nor nothing. I been sitting here talking with you all night till you went to sleep about ten minutes ago, and I reckon I done the same. You couldn’t a got drunk in that time, so of course you’ve been dreaming (Twain, AHBF 94).

Without much difficulty, Huck could convince Jim that he had actually been “dreaming” and even pushes him further  to interpret his dream through a series of fabricated elements- the “first tow- head”, “the whoops”, etc. The joke was clearly intended to befool Jim, until Huck interrupts Jim to point out “the leaves and rubbish on the raft, and the smashed oar” (Twain, AHBF 95) and Jim realises that he had only been tricked to believe that he was dreaming. Jim’s reaction at the revelation of the falsity of the entire narrative of “dream”, however, was far from what Huck expected. Dejected and devastated by the joke, Jim expressed his resentment:

…When I got all wore out wid out, and wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuzmos’ broke bekase you wuzlos’, en I didn’t k’yer no mo’ what become er me en de raf’. En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe ensoun’, de tears come en I could a got down on my knees en kiss’ yo’ foot I’s so thankful. En all yowuzthinkin ‘bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head erdeyfren’sen makes ‘em ashamed (Twain, AHBF 95).

Jim’s account of how overjoyed he was at Huck’s return, that drove him almost to cry, kiss his foot and express his thankfulness to him, made Huck guilty of the entire matter. James McIntyre explains: “Huck’s experience, his close association with Jim, causes the runaway slave to emerge from the abstract to the concrete” (37). Huck decided to apologise and “even kiss his foot”, which he did: “fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger” (Twain, AHBF 95). Alan and Carol Hunt was all praise for Huck in analysing this metamorphosis. The Hunts comment about Huck:

He is on the fringe of society, and although he thinks he is supposed to embrace the middle-class white racist ideology, he must reject it. He grows and changes, coming to know Jim as real man. In feeling guilty, Huck represents the conscience that society as a whole lacks. He is defying society when he apologizes…Huck’s words bristle with defiance because society would be shocked at his apology, at treating a slave with compassion (Hunt & Hunt 201).

But the Hunts’s innocent discovery of the sudden transformation in Huck hinders credibility, when one considers the reasons that brought him to this debasement before a nigger. The genuineness of Huck’s apology should not be dismissed at ease, but what made Huck apologise needs to be analysed. It is here that Jim’s tirade needs close scrutiny. With pathetic undertones Jim expressed how desperate he was to call Huck and to find him out, because without him Jim’s existence in the Huck would be precarious. He also recounted that on discovering Huck, “safe and sound”, he could not restrain his affectionate tears for him and was about to kiss his foot to express his thankfulness. Whatever Jim was narrating even gets testified reading the immediate verbal reaction of Jim after he met Huck:

Goodness gracious, is dat you, Huck? En you ain’ dead- you ain’ drownded- you’s back agin? It’s too good for true, honey, it’s too good for true. Lemme look at you, chile, lemme feel o’you. No, you ain’ dead! You’s back again, live ensoun’, jis de same ole Huck- de same ole Huck, thanks to goodness! (Twain, AHBF 93).

Jim’s reactions clearly indicate two crucial things, contradictory though.  First, in expressing his excited euphoria at meeting Huck and his desire to “kiss his foot” out of thankfulness, he once again accepted his inferior and dependent status to his white counterpart. Second, in addressing Huck as “child”, he fulfils the absent paternal space in Huck’s life. The former makes it easy for Huck to ask for “forgiveness” by humbling himself to a nigger, because his superiority has already been acknowledged. The latter makes it easy for Huck to consider him an important “human” element in his life. If Huck’s conscience gets stirred here to defy society and he becomes a transformed soul, it is Jim’s asseveration of his inferiority that makes it possible. Morrison’s comment in Playing in the Dark is relatable: “(The) representation of Jim as the visible other can be read as the yearning of whites for forgiveness and love, but the yearning is made possible only when it is understood that Jim has recognized his inferiority” (Morrison 56 emphasis mine). Moreover, Huck’s emotions of apology for Jim has only been “narrated” and the readers are deprived of deciphering the true emotional intensity of Huck. In Morrison’s “Introduction” to the text she rightly opines about Huck: “When he “humbles” himself in apology to Jim for the painful joke he plays on him, we are not given the words” (389), and interprets it as “Twain’s calculated use of speechlessness” (389).

Huck’s crisis of “whiteness” however, becomes more palpable in Chapter XV1 of the novel when Jim’s continuous articulations about his approaching freedom unsettle Huck and make him question his own “whiteness”. The following excerpts might shed light on these anxieties:

I tried to make it to myself that I weren’t to blame because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner (Twain, AHBF 110).

Conscience says to me, “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? (Twain, AHBF 110)

I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wishes I was dead….We neither of us could keep still. Every time he danced around and says, “Dah’s Cairo!” it went through me like a shot, and I thought if it was Cairo I reckoned I would die of miserableness (Twain, AHBF 110).

All these passages reflect what Peter Schmidt addressed as “the climax of white racial panic” (Schmidt 111) when Huck becomes aware of the sins he had committed against “whiteness” on previous occasions. However, Huck outgrows this anxiety soon when, at the point of Jim’s getting caught by two slave-hunters, he decides not to reveal his racial identity. Asked whether the man inside was “white or black”, Huck replied “white”.  Duping them, Huck remarked that the person inside was actually his father, and through his tricks, led them to believe that he had caught the contagious disease. Two things are crucially important here. First, Huck makes a father of his black companion and second, he invests him with an improvised “whiteness” to save his life. In fact Jim has been a surrogate-father to Huck (and this is also the white boy’s need from the black adult) even before his Odyssean journey began. Threatened with the possibilities of being seized by Pap Finn, his biological father, Huck gets emotional succour from Jim. In Chapter 9, after discovering Pap Finn’s body inside the house that floated, Jim decides to conceal it from Huck and embarks on the new journey to protect the fatherless boy with paternal care. Huck, behaving like an obedient son abides by Jim’s statement of not looking at the dead man’s face. In fact, Huck, who was denied the bliss of familial happiness starts restructuring places he inhabits with Jim as “home”. Tuire Valkeakiri rightly comments “Twain here deliberately seeks to transcend the stereotypical image of the black male slave as an “uncle”” (Valkeakiri 35) and this transcendence is nevertheless a need for the orphaned white boy. But whether Huck’s white racial identity can accept Jim for a father, or whether he can really invest Jim with this adulthood gets expressed in Chapter XIII of the text, when the readers encounter Huck’s silence at Jim’s narration of his former experience with his deaf and dumb four-year old daughter. Jim narrates with supreme filial repentance how he chastised and slapped his little one mistaking her indifference to his orders for her insolence, when actually she was deaf. At this point however, Twain’s chapter XXIII abruptly ends. Morrison has it right in “This Amazing, Troubling Book” when she says –“The chapter does not close: it simply stops” (389). And this time Twain’s silence becomes eloquent. Valkeakiri comments: “At this point, Jim’s real family signifies a rival for his new, needy “son” Huck” (38).Huck denial to reciprocate the highly intense and emotionally charged narrative of Jim, therefore merely suggests his psychological denial to accept Jim’s role as a “real father figure” because he can be “controlled” unlike his Pap, who within the limited space of the novel in which he was incorporated, exerted his violent and corrosive control over Huck. Having contextualised this dilemma in Huck, Morrison’s comments on Huck’s crisis seems pertinent:

As an absurd and homeless child running from a feral male parent, Huck cannot dwell on Jim’s confession and regret about parental negligence without precipitating a crisis from which neither he nor the text could recover…Because Jim can be controlled, it becomes possible for him to feel responsible for and to him- but without the onerous burden of lifelong debt that a real father figure would demand. For Huck, Jim is a father-for-free. The delicate, covered and fractious problematic is thus hidden and exposed by litotes and speechlessness, both of which are dramatic ways of begging attention (Morrison 389-90).

On learning that Jim has been sold to Phelp’ s farm, Huck gets preoccupied and is left with two alternatives- either to inform Miss Watson about Jim or to steal Jim from Aunt Sally’s farm. He overcomes this crisis ultimately in tearing the letter written to Miss Watson and finally deciding to help Jim out- - “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”. Here too, Huck’ s  liberal choice as an attestation of his friendship to Jim becomes problematic, because in his statement that hell would be his ultimate destiny for helping a runaway “nigger”, Huck is merely reproducing the dictum of the hegemonic white society which has informed him that assisting a nigger would land him into the “bad place”.

This transformation of Huck, however, was preceded by his submission “to the power of social pressure” (Traber 31) when the Duke and the Dauphin enter the space of the raft and make all possible attempts to ostracize and “minstrelize” Jim successful, until they decide to sell him, back into slavery for a sum of forty dollars. In the Phelps farm, once Tom Sawyer enters (and Twain spares 11 chapters for Tom’s adventures), Huck once again indulges in uncritically idealizing Tom with whom he already shares a history of “adventures”. In fact, even when Huck gets isolated from St Petersburg, Tom’s ideas of adventures came to be mindlessly imitated by Huck, at every possible opportunity – be it making fun of Jim or enjoying the adventures on the wrecked steamboat, thinking of how Tom would have done the same. In this context, the role that these comic pranks in this novel needs to be re-assessed. In their essay “The “Practical Joke” in Huckleberry Finn” Alan and Carol Hunt referred to the first folklorist Tallman who theorised “practical joke” as a folklore form and pointed out the intention behind a joke- either benevolent or initiative or malevolent- which always conditioned the relationship between the actor and the perceiver. Bruce Michelson argues in favour of the fascination Twain had for games and riddles “in making up new games, in acting our children’s fantasies, in poker and billiards, in wild costumes, cake-walks, impersonations, jokes, toys, pranks, puzzles, riddle-play and games of every imaginable kind” and in Huckleberry Finn, the practical jokes, have implications that help one look into the relationships of Huck and Tom with Jim. In the first prank that Tom played, he slipped Jim’s hat off while he was asleep and hung it on his limb. After waking, Jim interpreted the entire episode as his bewitchment by the witches. Huck lets the readers know that Jim even exaggerated this supposed witch-experience to the other niggers in the neighbourhood, hung the five-center piece (which Tom had given) around his neck and interpreted the same as a gift from the devil, that can cure anybody. David L. Smith interprets this as a way by which “Jim clearly benefits from becoming more a “celebrity” and less a “servant”. Alen and Carol Hunt, however, interpret this joke in a completely different way:

Jim is never aware of the first joke about the hat, and when he embellishes the tale with his superstitions, he and the other slaves look ridiculous to Tom and to a number of readers. The result of the joke is divisive, for it separates the white and black communities by defining the insiders, the middle class white society which Tom represents, and the outsiders, the powerless slaves, which Jim represents. This malevolent intent results in a more negative relationship between the characters: the prank represents the traditional middle-class prejudice (Hunt & Hunt 199).

However, as a prelude to Tom’s adventures, this attempt by Twain to mould Jim in the role of a humorous “minstrel”, who has a fanatic belief in superstitions and supernaturalisms allows Tom enjoy a superior status as a “middle class educated” white boy. In Tom’s narration of the episode to Huck, there is a further ego-reinforcement as both having a common share of the cultural baggage of whiteness partake of pleasure and delight at the black man being befooled. If Tom’s Sawyer’s “band of robbers” is a celebration of the white boys’ fantasies and glories in imagining themselves as plunderers, Jim’s celebration of his transformed entity from a “nigger” to the devil’s “chosen one” heightens the hilarity. Kemble’s “illustration” at the very next episode shows all the white boys’ wearing their caps celebrating their spirit of adventure. This further makes the parody more palpable when one remembers Jim’s interpretation that the hat was stolen by the witches and hung on his limb. In another instance, in the Jackson’s island Huck tricks Jim by keeping a dead rattlesnake on the foot of Jim’s blanket when he was sleeping, to evoke amusement owing to Jim’s belief that touching a snake skin with hands brings bad luck. While Huck was awaiting “Jim’s stereotypical reaction”, the plan did not work as intended. As Chadwick Hansen puts it- “He expects, of course, that Jim will react like any other stage Negro. His eyes will bug out: his teeth will chatter, his knees will knock together, and Huck will have a good healthy laugh” (48) Contrary to expectations the snake’s mate comes there and bites Jim. This joke, therefore, “backfires” and Huck promises, “I made up my mind I wouldn’t ever take aholt of a snake-skin again with my hands now that I see what had come of it”( Twain AHBF 64). But it must not be missed that Huck still denies Jim a reciprocation of human sentiments, he still doesn’t blame himself for bringing forth unintended outcomes by playing the stupid trick. On the contrary, his mind confirms and acknowledges the superstition about “snake”, earlier addressed by Jim and this confirmation comes only at the cost of Jim becoming a pitiful victim. All the logomachines analysed above, therefore, show that Huck required the exchanges with Jim to bolster and foreground his complex white positionality.


Works Cited


"Huck, Jim and the “Black and White” Fallacy." (2008). In Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, (pp. 44-55). Viva Books Pvt Ltd.


Hunt, A., & Hunt, C. (1992). The practical joke in "Huckleberry Finn". WesternFolklore51(2),197. https://doi.org/10.2307/1499366


Morrison, T. (1993). Playing in the dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination.Vintage.


Solomon Andrew. (n.d.). Jim and Huck: Magnificent Myths.” Mark Twain Journal16 (3), 17-24. www.jstor.org/stable/41640959. Accessed 4 Apr. 2018.


Traber, D. S. (2000).Hegemony and the politics of Twain's protagonist/Narrator division in "Huckleberry Finn". South CentralReview17(2),24.  https://doi.org/10.2307/3190010


Tuire & Valkeakari. (2006). Huck, Twain, and the Freedman's Shackles: Struggling with "Huckleberry Finn". Atlantis, 28  (2),29-43. www.jstor.org/stable/41055245?seq=1. Accessed 4 July 2016


Twain, M., & Cooley, T. (1999). Adventures of huckleberry Finn: An authoritative text, contexts and sources, criticism. W. W. Norton.