Is Huckleberry Finn A Racist Novel Essay Outline

Is Huckleberry Finn really a racist book?

Controversial in death as he was in life, Mark Twain has been seriously accused by some of being a "racist writer," whose writing is offensive to black readers, perpetuates cheap slave-era stereotypes, and deserves no place on today's bookshelves.

To those of us who have drunk gratefully of Twain's wisdom and humanity, such accusations are ludicrous. But for some people they clearly touch a raw nerve, and for that reason they deserve a serious answer. Let's look at the book that is most commonly singled out for this criticism, the novel that Ernest Hemingway identified as the source of all American literature: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

For Twain's critics, the novel is racist on the face of it, and for the most obvious reason: many characters use the word "nigger" throughout. But since the action of the book takes place in the south twenty years before the Civil War, it would be amazing if they didn't use that word.

A closer reading also reveals Twain's serious satiric intent. In one scene, for instance, Aunt Sally learns of a steamboat explosion.

"Good gracious! anybody hurt?" she asks.

"No'm," comes the answer. "Killed a nigger."

But anyone who imagines that Mark Twain meant this literally is missing the point. Rather, Twain is using this casual dialogue ironically, as a way to underscore the chilling truth about the old South: it was a place where perfectly nice people didn't consider the death of a black person worth their notice -- where a "nigger" was, literally, not a human being. To drive the point home, Twain has the lady continue:

"Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt."

That's a small case in point. But what is the book really about? It's about nothing less than freedom and the quest for freedom. It's about a slave who breaks the law and risks his life to win his freedom and be reunited with his family, and a white boy who becomes his friend and helps him escape.


Growing up among slaveholders, the boy naturally accepts the idea that slavery is part of the natural order. But as the story unfolds he gradually learns to see Jim as the man he really is. He’s forced to wrestle with his conscience, and when the crucial moment comes he decides he will be damned to the flames of hell rather than betray his black friend.

Meanwhile, Jim, as Twain presents him, is hardly a caricature. Rather, he is the moral center of the book, a man of courage and nobility, who risks his freedom -- risks his life -- for the sake of his friend Huck.

Note, too, that it is not just white critics who make this point. Booker T. Washington noted how Twain "succeeded in making his readers feel a genuine respect for 'Jim,'" and pointed out that Twain, in creating Jim's character, had "exhibited his sympathy and interest in the masses of the negro people."

The great black novelist Ralph Ellison, too, noted how Twain allows Jim's "dignity and human capacity" to emerge in the novel. “Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain [Ellison wrote], that Jim was not only a slave but a human being [and] a symbol of humanity . . . and in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil taken for civilization by the town" -- in other words, of the abomination of slavery itself.

In fact, you can search through all of Twain's writings, not just the thirty-plus volumes of novels, stories, essays, and letters, but also his private correspondence, his posthumous autobiography and his intimate journals, and you'll be hard put to find a derogatory remark about the black race -- and this at a time when crude racial stereotypes were the basic coin of popular fiction, stage comedy, and popular songs.

What you find in Twain is the opposite: a lively affection and admiration for black Americans that began when he was still a boy and grew steadily through the years. In a widely praised post-Civil War sketch titled "A True Story," for example, he wrenchingly evoked the pain of an ex-slave as she recalls being separated from her young son on the auction block, and her joy at discovering him in a black regiment at war's end.

And on those occasions when Twain does venture to compare blacks and whites, the comparison is not conspicuously flattering to the whites. Things like:

"One of my theories is that the hearts of men are about alike, all over the world, whatever their skin-complexions may be."

"Nearly all black and brown skins are beautiful, but a beautiful white skin is rare."

"There are many humorous things in the world; among them is the white man's notion that he is less savage than all the other savages."

Mark Twain a "racist"! Isn't it about time we put this ridiculous notion to rest?

-- Peter Salwen


Below you will find four outstanding thesis statements for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes in Huck Finn and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement for Huckleberry Finn. These thesis statements offer a short summary of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from Huck Finn by Mark Twain, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1 : The Character of Jim and the Anti-Slavery Theme in Huck Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is absolutely relating a message to readers about the ills of slavery but this is a complex matter. On the one hand, the only truly good and reliable character (and the only one who is free of the hypocritical nature other white characters are plagued by) is Jim who, according to the institution of slavery, is subhuman, thus one has to wonder about the presence of satire in “Huck Finn”. Furthermore, Mark Twain wrote Huck Finn after slavery was made illegal and the choice to set this story in a time when slaves were still held is significant. What truly makes this thesis statement about race and slavery in Huck Finn complex is that there are still several traces of some degree of racism in the novel, including the use of the “n” word (although in Twain's time it was not quite the contentious word it is now with the loaded meaning) and his tendency to paint Jim in some ways that fit the stereotype of a slave (superstitious, consenting, etc.) Despite these issues, for this essay on Huck Finn, argue that the character of Jim as the only righteous and honest character in a sea of white characters who are all greatly flawed proves that Twain wanted to show that despite the “civilized” nature of white society, it is not perfect and slavery, which denies human rights, is a hypocritical institution. For this essay, performing a character analysis of Jim will be vital.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2 : Dark Themes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after receiving a great deal of critical and public success from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but there are several marked differences between Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as texts. When making a comparison between Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer one almost immediately notices the darker themes and motifs in Huck Finn. Certainly, one could argue in an essay that this was in part due to the tragic path of Mark Twain's life (which just kept getting worse after Tom Sawyer was published) and whether you want to take a biographical approach to this essay or not, you can easily make the argument that there are many dark themes this text addresses. Pap is abusive and drunk, Huck is alone in the world and is stifled by others rather than cared for, families engaged in rivalry actually kill one another, conmen and other criminals abound and generally speaking, the world Huck Finn lives in is a scary place. While there were some darker themes in Tom Sawyer as well, look to the several examples of the dark world Huck lives and in this argumentative essay on Huck Finn, examine the dark themes of slavery, abuse, and dishonesty and decide what Twain was trying to relate in the novel, keeping in mind it is from the viewpoint of a young boy.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3 : Good Intentions and Huck Finn

Throughout the novel by Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there are countless characters who are filled with the best intentions but are generally not doing the best thing for Huck Finn. Judge Thatcher wants to improve the moral condition of Pap (which, of course, backfires and only allows him to torment Huck further) Miss Watson wants to give Huck a “sivilized” upbringing but only suppresses his nature and makes him miserable, and the Phelps family wants to “do the right thing” and return Jim to his owners. The problem with all of these characters is that they are limited by their own view of what is best for others and tend to completely overlook the harm to do others, most notably Huck and Jim. For this argumentative essay on Huck Finn and the role of good intentions, consider how the desire to do the right thing actually points to the hypocrisy of some characters or how good intentions only serve to work against Huck and Jim.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4 : Huckleberry Finn and the Notion of Being “Sivilized”

Throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn there is a strong attempt on the part of those who are important in white society to get Huck to conform to certain standards or to attain traits of a civilized person. Miss Watson and Widow Douglass try to give Huck the clean upbringing that a character such as Tom has but this creates a problem because Huck Finn lacks the fundamental basis for having much of a reason for any of these marks of civilization. His father is cruel and malicious and because of his situation, he generally does not need to be told what to do but instead comes to his own decisions based on his firsthand experiences. The most important aspect of this thesis statement about what it means to be “sivilized” in Huck Finn is that the white characters who seek to “improve” him are not always the best people. In other words, Huck is given nothing but contradictory ideas about what kind of boy he should be. For this thesis statement and essay on Huck Finn, perform a character analysis of Huck in which you look at his reaction to influences trying civilize him versus influences that teach him about life from first-hand experience.

For additional help, be sure to read the following articles. They should help you develop new thesis statements and expand upon those listed here: Class and Satire in “The American” by Henry James and “Huck Finn” by Mark Twain and
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