Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Trouble of the “N-word”—Narrator

It’s not hard to find reasons why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned so many times: a nasty view into the antebellum South, the questionable morals of the majority of its characters, the prevalence of the now abhorrent word “nigger.” Yet, even more problematic than the presence of these things is the absence of something else: a reliable, upstanding narrator. Huckleberry Finn, an endearing scamp though he may be, is at times entirely unreliable—but more often than not, he is a brutally honest child of his time wanting little more than to live freely and immorally.

Our protagonist, Huck Finn, does not place much confidence in books—not even his own. We see this throughout the novel as he initially describes the “stretchers” in Mark Twain’s book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and finally as he states “what a trouble it was to make a book” (Twain 9, 277). Behind this doubting Huck is the real author, Mark Twain himself, who also seems to have a bit of a problem with the over-dependence on the established; this is most notably seen in Huck’s childlike penning of Tom Sawyer’s foolishly stubborn adherence to books (like his cops ‘n robbers sort of stories). Though Huck does not really comment on this behavior, it soon becomes clear to the reader that something is amiss. This need for established rules goes to an extreme toward the end of the novel when Tom insists that he and Huck cannot simply rescue Jim simply, effectively, and immediately; instead, he makes Jim—an already freed slave, unbeknownst to both Huck and Jim—wait in confinement while he and Huck play games with his apparently valueless life.

Huck’s compliance with Tom’s silly need for make-believe games is particularly upsetting because the pair toy with Jim as though he were not human at all. Though this is obviously an uneasy concept for the reader to deal with, it is along the lines with the prevalent use of the word “nigger” throughout the book. Huck is not an extraordinarily upstanding boy—not by his day’s standards, or ours. Huck is merely a boy of his times. When he gets fed up with Tom’s games, Huck doesn’t plead with him to stop his foolishness for Jim’s sake, but for theirs: “…if we go to tearing up our sheets to make Jim a rope ladder, we’re going to get into trouble with Aunt Sally…” (229).

Yet, Huck is not an all-around bad kid; in fact, many people feel empathy towards him and become engrossed in his adventures. Readers want to support his quest to free Jim, but Twain does not make it easy for them. Huck doubts himself; his society tells him that slaves are subhuman, that they are not worthy of the same respect or dignity as the white population. So, no matter how nice Jim is to him, and no matter how hard Huck tries to convince himself that what he is doing isn’t morally reprehensible, he still has frequent moments of weakness. The most prominent of these moments of weakness—or moral strength, Huck might argue—comes in chapter 31, when he pens a letter to Miss Watson about Jim’s whereabouts. Though the episode is brief and Huck does not send this letter, it still serves to remind the reader that Huck is not from our reality; he is an antebellum boy with antebellum morals of which he is hardly aware.

Huck is not a noble crusader for human rights; he’s a young, southern boy who accidentally befriends a slave. So, the reader shouldn’t be surprised that Huck copies down into his book without hesitation or comment the games he and Tom play with Jim’s life; the word “nigger”; the moral struggle he faces in rescuing Jim. Furthermore, it shouldn’t be difficult to conceive Huck’s tricky role as narrator as one of the major reasons for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’s common banishment from schools and libraries—he’s just not a very good role model.

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