The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Slavery and Racism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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Society and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Religion and Superstition Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon

Though Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after the abolition of slavery in the United States, the novel itself is set before the Civil War, when slavery was still legal and the economic foundation of the American South. Many characters in Twain’s novel are themselves white slaveholders, like Miss Watson, the Grangerford family, and the Phelps family, while other characters profit indirectly from slavery, as the duke and the king do in turning Miss Watson’s runaway slave Jim into the Phelpses in exchange for a cash reward.

While slaveholders profit from slavery, the slaves themselves are oppressed, exploited, and physically and mentally abused. Jim is inhumanely ripped away from his wife and children. However, white slaveholders rationalize the oppression, exploitation, and abuse of black slaves by ridiculously assuring themselves of a racist stereotype, that black people are mentally inferior to white people, more animal than human. Though Huck’s father, Pap, is a vicious, violent man, it is the much better man, Jim, who is suspected of Huck’s murder, only because Jim is black and because he ran away from slavery, in a bid for freedom, to be with his family.

In this way, slaveholders and racist whites harm blacks, but they also do moral harm to themselves, by viciously misunderstanding what it is to be human, and all for the sake of profit. At the beginning of the novel, Huck himself buys into racial stereotypes, and even reprimands himself for not turning Jim in for running away, given that he has a societal and legal obligation to do so. However, as Huck comes to know Jim and befriend him, he realizes that he and Jim alike are human beings who love and hurt, who can be wise or foolish. Jim proves himself to be a better man than most other people Huck meets in his travels. By the end of the novel, Huck would rather defy his society and his religion—he'd rather go to Hell—than let his friend Jim be returned to slavery.

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Slavery and Racism Quotes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Below you will find the important quotes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn related to the theme of Slavery and Racism.
Chapter 6 Quotes

“When they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote again…I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?”

Related Characters: Pap (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

One night, while he and Huck have dinner in an isolated cabin, Pap gets drunk and begins to rant nastily against the government. He is especially infuriated that a man of mixed race can become an educated college professor with the right to vote. The quote given here makes up a part of his rant.

Earlier, Pap berates Huck for getting an education, and he similarly resents the professor, whom he considers to be his racial and social inferior. Some historians suggest that, because the class structure was more mobile in post-Revolutionary America than in Europe, people could no longer derive a sense of identity from their position in a traditional social hierarchy. As such, poor whites in particular defined their social identity in contradistinction to that of black or mixed-race Americans, who in a slave-holding society were overwhelmingly forced into a place at the bottom. Pap certainly seems to do so, which is why the idea of a man of mixed race being more successful than him is so disturbing to him: it destabilizes his sense of social identity, his sense of superiority to others in society.

Of course, the novel as a whole completely rejects Pap's toxic racism and his perverse reliance on rigid social structures, embracing instead freedom for all and adaptability of spirit.


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Chapter 8 Quotes

“People will call me a low down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t agoing to tell, and I ain’t agoing back there anyways.”

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck and Jim stumble into one another on Jackson's Island after Huck escapes from Pap and after Jim escapes from his owner Miss Watson. However, Jim is at first reticent about his escape, because he's afraid that Huck will turn him in. Huck responds with this quote.

In the pre-Civil War America of Huck and Jim's time, Abolitionism was a movement that agitated for the immediate end of slavery in the country. The movement was largely based in the North, and most white Southerners like those featured in Twain's novel denounced Abolitionism as fostering disorder and slave rebellions. Huck, however, doesn't care if he's associated with Abolitionism and despised for it; he does what he thinks is right, even if it flies in the face of social interests. When he says, "I ain't agoing back there anyways," he is at once being literal and metaphorical – he is not going to return to "civilization," nor is he going to return to the frame of mind it sponsors. 

Note, however, that Huck wrestles with racism throughout the novel, not just in his society but in himself. He knows and loves Jim for who Jim is, and therefore don't turn him in; but it will take more spiritual education before he more firmly resists and more squarely turns his back on racist patterns of thinking.

“Yes—en I’s rich now come to look at it. I owns myself, en I’s wuth eight hund’d dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn’ want no mo’.”

Related Characters: Jim (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

During their rendezvous on Jackson's Island, Jim tells Huck about many superstitions, including one which holds that people with hairy arms and a hairy chest are destined for riches. Jim, who fits this description, says he feels rich even now, however, because he has escaped from slavery and owns himself now. 

Jim says he is worth eight hundred dollars because that is how much Miss Watson was planning to sell him for before his escape. At the time, this was a great deal of money, enough for Jim to live on for the rest of his life. Jim's speech is funny in the sense that he of course can never get that money for himself. At the same time, the humor of the speech allows it to suggest, without feeling like a sermon, how totally morally reprehensible it is to set a cash value on a human body, as though it were just another product to be bought and sold, given how infinitely valuable our lives are to us. In other words: it is a devastating critique of slavery.

Notice that Jim, like Huck, speaks in a carefully constructed dialect. This contributes to the novel's realism, and it is arguably a democratic gesture on Twain's part. He represents as accurately and as richly as he can the many voices of the America that he lived in, rather than writing exclusively in the literary language of the white educated class.

Chapter 14 Quotes

Well, he [Jim] was right; he was most always right; he had an uncommon level head, for a nigger.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

The morning after their encounter with the robbers during the storm, Huck refers to it all as an "adventure." Jim says he doesn't want any more adventures, because he could easily have been harmed. Huck thinks this is pretty level-headed of Jim.

Huck is divided between two influences, that of Tom Sawyer and that of Jim. Tom is fantastical, self-serving, reckless – the kind of person who would take any adventures that come his way. Jim, in contrast, is realistic, sensitive to other people's wants and needs, and therefore careful. In this quote, we see Huck acknowledge the rightness of Jim's perspective, the level-headedness of it. This is a sign that Huck is growing up.

This growing up on Huck's part coincides with a change in Huck's perception of Jim. Huck absorbed his society's prejudice in thinking blacks intellectually inferior to whites, but his experience with Jim is corroding this prejudice. That being said, the qualification "for a nigger" is blatantly racist; Huck is still bound at this point in the novel to society's way of looking at the world and at Jim.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“My heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, 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 en soun’, de tears come en I could a got down on my knees en kiss’ yo’ foot I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin ‘bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie.”

Related Characters: Jim (speaker), Huckleberry Finn
Related Symbols: The Raft
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

A fog sets in on the Mississippi River as Jim and Huck make for the Ohio, and the two are separated. When reunited, Huck plays a trick in the style of Tom Sawyer on Jim: you dreamed the fog, he says. Jim figures out Huck's trick, however, and responds with this quote.

Huck's trick demonstrates both his childish egocentricity and his racist callousness toward Jim, whom he as yet thinks incapable, perhaps, of the full range of human feeling. Jim's response proves just how ignorant Huck's attitude is. Jim loves Huck deeply – perhaps more deeply than anyone else in the world does. Jim is not selfish like Huck can be either: the raft, Jim's vessel to freedom, means less to him than Huck does. Huck's lies are often charming – and he lies just to stay in practice, as he says – but here he lies without thinking of the consequences of doing so. 

This episode draws a great deal of its power from the fact that Jim has been ripped away from his family by slaveholders. If his heart breaks at the thought of losing Huck, it must have been shattered by that loss – even though many whites at the time of the story deny that blacks are fully human and capable of heartbreak. Twain's novel, in contrast, insists on the full humanity of all of its characters, and in this way his art imitates life and serves as a rebuke to the aspects of American society that continue to believe in white superiority at the time he wrote the novel and even today.

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck tricks Jim into thinking the two were never separated by a fog that settled on the Mississippi River, and Jim shames Huck for playing such a callous trick. Huck, albeit reluctantly, humbles himself and apologizes to Jim.

In Huck's society, a white person didn't need to treat a black person like a human being, much less apologize. Consequently, in his racist pride, Huck is reluctant to apologize to Jim for wronging him – but Huck is also very different from most other whites in his society, and he recognizes that he really did wrong Jim, and that Jim was right to shame him for it, and that an apology is the only decent thing he can do at this point. Huck recognizes in his heart Jim's inalienable humanity, despite all of the prejudices he's absorbed. 

Huck says he "warn't ever sorry" for apologizing to Jim, which suggests the he expected to regret doing so. His experience is shattering his expectations, and his experience is therefore his most important teacher when it comes to understanding the iniquity of the world he lives in.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom. Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, me.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

As Huck and Jim drift on their raft toward Cairo, Ohio, and the free states up North, Jim becomes very excited, and so does Huck, although for very different reasons. Jim is joyous to be almost free, while Huck dreads the idea of having helped a black man escape from bondage.

Huck's spiritual education is not without regressions back into the toxic attitudes and beliefs of the racist society around him. This is one such regression. Even though Huck has recognized that Jim is wholly human, and though he is Jim's friend (whether he would admit it or not at this point), he nonetheless can't help but see himself through society's eyes. What he sees is a person who helped a slave illegally escape from his owner, someone who is blameworthy in the eyes of other whites. This makes Huck anxious, but only because he does not yet have the courage of his convictions. 

Another characteristic of the racist worldview is that whites are the actors in the world, the people who make things happen, while blacks are passive, objects to be acted on and incapable of self-determination. Huck displays that trait here when he asks "who was to blame" for Jim's freedom. He acts as though he singlehandedly freed Jim, as though Jim has no responsibility for his freedom because, being black, he couldn't actively achieve it for himself. This, of course, is a fallacy: Jim is capable of self-determination, and was the actor who effected his own escape. 

Chapter 23 Quotes

I do believe [Jim] cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck's adventure on the raft becomes rollicking and exuberant once the duke and king join up with him and Jim – so much so that Huck doesn't keep in mind Jim's plight. One morning, however, he wakes to find Jim mourning for his wife and children, from whom he's been separated. This quote gives Huck's reaction.

Earlier in the novel, Huck sees through his racist prejudices and recognizes that Jim can be hurt by cruel jokes and have his heart broken by loss like anyone else. However, Huck does not seem to recognize till now that Jim is capable of loving his own family as much as white people are. This error in empathy is challenged by experience, however, when he finds Jim in mourning here.

The big irony of this passage is that there's nothing more natural in the world than that people should love their family members. Huck, however, has been raised to think it unnatural for a black husband and father to care so deeply for his wife and children. Culture teaches us what to think of as natural or unnatural, and it is so effective in this – in Huck's case insidiously so – that we can become blind to what is self-evident and deaf to what our hearts tell us.

Chapter 31 Quotes

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and [I] tore [my note to Miss Watson] up.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker)
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

When Jim is turned in by the king for being a runaway slave, Huck thinks for a moment that the only moral thing to do would be to write a letter to Miss Watson so that she can reclaim her human property. However, Huck reflects on how good Jim is, and resolves at last to help him reach freedom no matter what; he tears up his note.

The decision represented in this quote is the major turning point in Huck's spiritual education. At the beginning of the novel, he thinks that hell would be more interesting than heaven, anyway – but here he goes a giant step further and realizes that what society thinks of as heaven is just rigid rule-following without much of a basis in what's right, and that choosing hell is not about indulging oneself. It is about living a good and loving life, regardless of what society dictates. Huck and Jim's friendship is the most sacred thing in the novel, and embracing it over all ingrained prejudice and cowardly conformity is Huck's crowning moment.

Chapter 33 Quotes

I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer!

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Tom Sawyer
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck and Tom meet up near the Phelps's farm and, after hearing that Huck plans to rescue Jim, Tom agrees to join in the attempt. Huck thinks less of Tom for helping him, because doing so flies in the face of the racist, slaveholding values of their society.

This passage is troubling. Huck has just decided to save Jim, society be damned, and then he judges Tom's decision to help him from the absurd perspective of the society he's just cast off. Can Huck really be so divided in his soul that he can decide to rescue Jim, only to judge someone negatively for doing the same? This is either a considerable regression on Huck's part, a moment of reflexive thinking that doesn't reflect how he really feels, an irony on Huck's part, or a mistake on the author's. The second of these interpretations is perhaps most charitable to the novel (though many critics would argue that this final section of the novel is its weakest, and that Twain in fact did make a mistake in this entire escapade with Huck and Tom trying to free Jim).

Tom's reasons for joining the rescue attempt are very different from Huck's. Huck loves Jim. Tom thinks it would be a fun adventure to play rescue. This suggests Tom's childishness, but something more troubling. Tom treats himself like the hero of a drama and Jim like a prop. This is just a refinement of how his society sees Jim as an object to be used by whites.