Sunday, September 13, 2009

Misinterpretations of Huck's Regard for Jim

I found both Jane Smiley's and Toni Morrison's thoughts on the relationship between Jim and Huck to be overly cynical and definitely unwarranted. It seems as though they are holding Huck up to the expectation's one would have for an adult when it comes to his moral code, neglecting to consider that Huck is merely a child--furthermore, he is an orphan with no adults present to set a positive example for him. In fact, I think that Huck's ability to make decisions considering his lack of an authority figure is highly commendable. His situation also enables him to make judgments about Jim in a very unbiased way, which in turn creates a unique and pure, compassionate relationship. Although Huck does make comments about Jim's low status in the community, and he does grapple with the moral scheme of being friends with a run-away slave, it was not because Jim was black, but it was because he was thought to be someone else's property. In time, Huck and Jim learn to look past the color of one another's skin despite inklings of what society as a whole believes, and this, I believe, is Mark Twain's reasoning for including their unexpected kinship in the book at all.

When Smiley claims Huck is "shocked" by the Duke and Dauphin selling Jim, "but the fact is neither he nor Twain has come up with a plan that would have saved Jim in the end," and that it was in fact Tom Sawyer who has the most motivation to save Jim is simply untrue. Is it not Tom who knows Jim has been free all along, but devises the escape plan as a game, putting Jim, Huck and himself in the face of danger out of pure boredom?
To suggest that Tom is in someway morally superior to Huck is simply absurd. Huck did not have to go after Jim at all, but he values their friendship so much that he tells Tom that their friendship will be over if Tom does not help to free Jim. He says to Tom, "I know what you'll say. You'll say it's dirty Low-down business; but what if it is? - I'm low down; and I'm agoing to steal him, and I want you to keep mum and not let on."

Claiming that "Twain and Huck use Jim because they really don't care enough about his desire for freedom to let that desire change their plans" is overly critical and rooted in Smiley's failure to see the big picture. Her expectations of a young child whose brain has not yet fully developed is iron-fisted--especially for a child with no parental guidance. Smiley belittles Huck's actions, which are actually quite courageous for a child, rebelling against social norms and establishing a comforting rapport with another human being. The whole reason to write a story about a white child befriending a runaway slave is to warm people up to the idea of an interracial friendship, not to stir up a slew of angry rants from a writer who neglects to take the story for what it really is.

Toni Morrison's interpretation of the relationship between Huck and Jim is not as blatantly ignorant, but it still stings a little bit to read when you have such faith your own interpretation of their time together as an alliance. Morrison, although a little bit more forgiving, leans toward the negative, just like Smiley. "Knowing the relationship is discontinuous, doomed to separation is (or used to be) typical of the experience of white/black childhood friendships (mine included) and the cry of inevitable rupture..." I feel as though she is trying to shatter my confidence in the strength of their relationship. She, like Smiley, paints a picture of Jim as being taken advantage of by Huck, but this is surely not the case. Huck clung to Jim as a father figure, a caretaker, and a friend; he does not regard Jim as inconsequential, but he values him deeply.

Morrison calls attention to Jim's affectionate attitude toward Huck, which she views as unrequited. I personally believe that this is a result of Huck's lack of intimacy with his own father, not because he does not feel a profound affection for Jim. Morrison sees Huck's confusion by Jim's love for his family as Huck's being critical, but really he is just not used to seeing loving relationships. "Huck has never seen nor experienced a tender caring father--yet he steps out of this well of ignorance to judge Jim's role as a father," she says. Yes, it is true that Huck has never experienced a positive father figure in his life, but this is the very reason why we should approach his situation with sympathy. It is not that Huck is judging Jim, but he is perplexed by caring and being cared about, because it is something he has never seen before.

Kolvenbach, however, would most likely interpret the relationship between Huck and Jim in the same fashion as I do. He would see it as a tool to educate the whole person, raising the reader's empathy levels for Jim, an underdog as a slave, and Huck, an underdog as an orphan. He may actually focus more sympathy for Huck than for Jim, unlike Smiley and Morrison. In his description of the Jesuit education, he takes the time to make it known that "one child in every six is condemned to ignorance and poverty" in Silicon Valley, so obviously the well-being of a child is very important to Kolvenbach. Huck and Jim could be considered one of the "promotions of justice" he speaks about because they defy social norms, but maintain a steadfast bond. By their example, they tell the reader it is rewarding to relinquish his or her insecurities about befriending or aiding someone society may not approve of. This, in and of itself, is a very Jesuit idea.

Thinking more and more about the uniformity of my classes and the lack of diversity in my schooling career, I have been in the position to befriend the underdog only a few times. I went to a Catholic elementary school nearby, where I was surrounded by other Catholic, white children. I can recall the day when an African American child transferred into my first grade class, and how afraid I was that he would be rejected for his unfamiliarity. I was very concerned for this little boy's feelings, and so I decided to draw him a picture. At such a young age, I saw drawing him a portrait of himself as a token of my acceptance of his physical differences. I quietly placed my portrait on his desk when he wasn't looking and tried to slip away without having to explain, but I heard the teacher call my name. "I think you left your picture on our new student's desk," she said. Eventually, she came to the realization that I intentionally put the picture on his desk in an attempt to inaugurate him into our classroom.

I feel that it is these kinds of instinctual and pure gestures of children that really get at the heart of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The point of the novel was not to make the reader feel helpless about relationships between African Americans and whites, but it was to inspire a warmth in the reader that makes them feel comforted in the idea that these bonds can not only exist, but survive. I think that Smiley and Morrison missed the mark completely to say that Huck and Jim's relationship was ill-portrayed, unrealistic, or indecent. To me, a child who chooses to befriend someone he or she thinks is being discriminated against is the most authentic and genuine act of tenderness.

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