Jay Greene, a NASA engineer for Apollo 11 once said: “If it matters, it produces controversy.” This quote is exemplified through Mark Twain’s 1884 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This novel has earned its spot on the list of literary classics, but is also considered one of the most controversial pieces of literature ever to be written. The novel tells the story of a 13 year old boy, Huck, and Jim, a runaway slave, floating down the Mississippi River to reach freedom in the North. Huck is searching for freedom from his controlled and abusive life, whereas Jim is searching for freedom from enslavement.
Jim’s character provokes the greatest controversy. Some say Jim is portrayed accurately for a person of his era and circumstances, while others see racism in his depiction, which is most often the reason the book is removed from classes and libraries. The book intended to be a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. Satirical in nature, Huck Finn exposes early 19th century Southern society through racist characters and sexist gender norms. In the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, author Mark Twain challenges the historical context of the South through the satire of societal norms and beliefs in the 1800’s.
To begin, Mark Twain portrays racist southern culture from an abolitionists perspective and use of historical context. This novel, published in 1884, was written as a response to the emerging popularity of Jim Crow laws in the Southern states. Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South as a way to “legally enforce racial segregation post civil war” (Urofsky). Throughout the novel, Twain uses the river journey of Jim and Huck as a symbol of how Jim Crow laws take Southerners farther away from equality and closer to segregation and immorality.
Huck and Jim believe that they are floating towards the North, but are actually traveling deeper into slave territory in the South after taking a wrong turn through the fog of the Mississippi River. Huck realizes that their plan to head North has been ruined when he exclaims “So it was all up with Cairo!” (Twain 93). Their misconception over whether they are going towards the North and freedom is a symbol for post-civil war America. Twain shows the idea that while American society thought it was going farther away from slavery and inequality for Blacks, the South was actually becoming more unequal because of the rising popularity of Jim Crow laws.
In fact, Twain was clairvoyant in warning of the problems with these laws. Jim Crow laws were practiced in the South for over 80 years; but were finally abolished with the “Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in any type of public accommodation of any race, color or religion” (Abolition). In the end, Twain’s abolitionist point of view portrays racist southern culture through Jim Crow Laws in America symbolizing Huck and Jim’s journey.
Twain also utilizes satire to portray the hypocrisy of Southern societal norms and beliefs. While Huck is not a slave, he still feels trapped by the restrictions society has placed upon him. The entire novel reveals Huck’s internal battle and resistance to conformity in a culture filled with hypocrisies. For example, Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, two women who have taken Huck into their home, try to civilize Huck and conform him to the beliefs of Southern society.
The characters of the Widow and Miss Watson emphasize how manners and appearances are valued more highly over the individual qualities of a person. Huck demonstrates his struggle against conforming to society when he states “I didn’t see how I’d ever got to like it so well at the widow’s, where you had to wash, and eat on a plate, and comb up, and go to bed and get up regular, and be forever bothering over a book and have old Miss Watson peeking at you all the time” (Twain 37). Although the Widow and Miss Watson have good intentions, they have superficial concerns of making Huck live amongst the ‘status quo’ whereas Huck is more concerned with learning to live independently and helping Jim.
Huck’s battle against Southern society symbolize the resentment of social norms that women like Miss Watson and the Widow espouse. Huck aspires to live in a place where he has the freedom to live unrestricted from what societal rules appear to require of him. At the end of the novel, Huck struggles with choosing a family or freedom. Aunt Sally, a character designed to represent Southern hospitality of the time, offers to adopt Huck into her family. Huck’s internal struggle with this decision is shown when he says; “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (Twain 294).
Although Huck enjoys his time staying with Aunt Sally, he struggles with deciding if he should live with her due to his trust issues from his past. Huck has always wanted a family, but now that he has the opportunity, he is scared to sacrifice his freedom to live independent from society. After his long journey, Huck has finally gained a sense of individuality and freedom that he was unable to reach while living with the Widow and Miss Watson. Twain satirizes Huck’s struggle by leaving readers on a cliffhanger about what Huck will decide. Twain’s use of satire shows the emphasis of appearing to follow Southern societal norms and beliefs through Huck’s many internal battles throughout the novel.
In conclusion, Mark Twain, author of the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses satire of the racist South to examine and challenge southern societal norms. Twain is able to display the racism underlying Southern societal norms through his indirect calling out of Jim Crow laws forming in the South. Additionally, he portrays the hypocrisy of societal beliefs through characters Miss Watson, Widow Douglas and Aunt Sally who symbolize the ‘status quo’ of the Southern beliefs. Although The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published almost 134 years ago, it still continues to provide controversy for schools and scholars through the multiple social justice issues it addresses. In the end, Mark Twain is able to satirize the post-civil war South through his historical accuracy of the time and exposure of societal norms.