Jim's Role in Huckleberry Finn
When asked who the most important character in Huckleberry Finn is, almost all people would say either Huck himself, or Jim, the black slave. They are both essential to the story, though, and both give to the story an alternate perspective. Huck is the outsider, the nonconformist who just doesn't fit into society, and Jim is the runaway black slave, fearing for his freedom, being persecuted only on the grounds of the color of his skin. Jim is the representation of all slaves both stereotyped and in reality, just as Tom is the representations of society, and civilization. Not many people can ever really experience either person's situations, except through this book and other's like it. However, just because we can't physically be there doesn't mean we can't experience it. Adler says, "We learn from experience-the experience that we have in the course of our daily lives. So too, we can learn from the vicarious, or artistically created, experiences that fiction produces in our imaginations."
Jim reveals several things about himself through his actions and by what others say about his actions. I would like to examine a couple of scenes involving Jim to show some of his notable traits. The first passage I'll use is in chapter 11. This is the chapter where Huck finds out that some people are going to see if there is anyone on Jackson Island, where Huck and Jim currently are. After Huck tells Jim that men are coming, Huck says this about Jim's reaction: "Jim never asked no questions, he never said a word; but the way he worked for the next half an hour showed about how he was scared." This confirms something obvious-that Jim values his freedom greatly. Once he has experienced a kind of freedom, he understands all the better what he has been deprived of, and isn't willing to go back to the chains that slavery give him. It also shows that slaves were human. If slaves could feel fear and understand the consequences of getting caught running away, then it follows that they could feel other emotions. Bronowski said, "Only human beings have...the existence of words or symbols for absent things, all the way from 'nice day' to 'ultimate deterrent,' enables human beings to think themselves into situations which do not actually exist. This gift is the imagination..." Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." These can be used as a definition for what a man is-someone who has an imagination, and one who thinks. Has Jim demonstrated that he has an imagination? Certainly. From waking up and discovering his hat is no longer on his head, he creates this elaborate story involving the devil and witches. If this isn't an imagination, then I don't know what is. Has Jim demonstrated that he can think? He runs away because he doesn't want to be sold down the river, and then runs away from Jackson Island when he thinks he might be caught. So, it appears that Jim is human, and thus slaves are human too.
The next passage I would like to look at is in chapter 15. The passage is where Jim figures out he has been tricked by Huck:
What do [the leaves and rubbish] stan' for? I's gwyne to tell you. When I go all wore out wid work, en wid de callin' for you, en went to sleep, my hear wuz mos' broke bekase you wuz los', en I didn' k'yer no mo' what become er me en de raf'. En when I wake up en fine you back again', all safe en soun', de tears come en I could a god 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. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed.
This is the first major dispute that Huck and Jim have. Huck has not been a good friend, and like Tom, has tried to trick Jim into believing that he has just had a dream about what has taken place, and that nothing has happened at all. Jim figures the trick out, and reprimands Huck for being so very inconsiderate to a friend. Cicero says, "We may admonish [our friends], but we must not scold; we may reprimand, but we must not humiliate...." Jim and Huck do just this, and are true friends. Huck, after being admonished, then goes and "humbles" himself to Jim. This is an important first step. Huck realizes that he is not above Jim; that all humans are equal, and from then on, takes Jim into consideration more often.
The next passage I want to look at is in chapter 23. He is talking about his daughter:
...I fetch' her a slap side de head dat sont her a-sprawlin'....I wuz mad, I was agwyne for de chile, but jis' den - it was a do' dat open innards - jis' den, 'long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker-blam! - en my lan', de chile never move'! My breff mos' hop outer me...I bust out a-cryin' en grab her up in my arms, en say, "Oh, de po' little thing! De Lord God Amighty fogive po' ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long's he live!" Oh, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef en dumb - en I'd ben a-treat'n her so!
This passage again illustrates that Jim does have a human side to him, very powerfully. Jim's anger took the best of him, because he didn't know his child was mute, and he hit her. You have to feel sorry for Jim at the end of this passage, though. You can imagine what he must have gone through-to get really mad at your child for something that isn't even their fault, and then to regret it forever. I don't know why, but this passage really seems to have the most impact on me then the rest of them. The other's may illustrate certain points better, but this passage, I think is written very well, and evokes a reaction that saddens you.
The last passage illustrates beautifully the kind of friendship that any two people can have, and the development that both Huck and Jim make in the book. It is in chapter 31:
...I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and a laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there,...and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now...
This shows how much both of them mature over the course of this book, and how close they become to each other, to the point where they'll do most anything for each other, including going to hell, and to the point where they are no longer friends because of a need for each other-Huck could walk off now, since Jim is gone, and the Duke and King are too. No, they are friends because they enjoy each other's company. Montaigne says, "Only those are to be judged friendships in which the characters have been strengthened and matured by age." Does this happen between Huck and Jim? The passage from chapter 15 I have above shows the beginning of the friendship, where Huck doesn't think twice about tricking Jim, and hurting his feelings for a little bit of fun, but this last passage shows finally, that Huck appreciates and understands everything Jim has done for him. They help each other out all the time, but don't think twice about it. I think that in this friendship is a message of hope. If a little teenaged white child growing up in a very prejudiced society that doesn't even think of slaves as people can become fast friends with a runaway adult slave, transcending major prejudices from inward and outward in the process, then much is possible. If we can overcome our cultural barriers, and look past our outward appearances, then equality is possible. That message rings through everything else, crystal clear.
Based on all of this, what is Jim's role in relation to Huck? That is a complicated question. Jim is many things to Huck on many different levels. We've already definitely established that they were friends, but you have to consider who Huck is. Huck has no parents, nor does he have any roots. He does, though, have Jim. Jim is Huck's stability throughout all of this. Shepherdson's come and go, and the king and duke come and go too, but Jim is always there, watching over Huck somehow. Jim is Huck's mentor, a sort of Athene, and Jim is Huck's mother and father, not afraid to reprimand him like a parent would and not afraid to pet him, and call him "honey", or call him by the names appropriate to their relationship at the time: "Huck", or
"honey" or "chile" or "boss," and just once "white genlman." Jim is the only thing solid in Huck's life, and whether or not he is a slave doesn't matter at all.
The end of the book though, raises some odd questions. The entire section where Jim is in slavery again is tough to read. Jim is free! The entire "escape" is unnecessary, yet Tom persists in it anyway, even making it harder, to make it into a "grand adventure." Now though, Huck is changed, and doesn't want to just play with a person's life like that.
Jim was being held in a small wooden shack. Taking Jim from the shack would have been an easy matter, as was obvious to Huck, Tom, and to Jim himself. However, guided by Tom's reading of such books as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man In the Iron Mask , the boys made elaborate work of it. Tom says:
...Why, drat it, Huck, it's the stupidest arrangement I ever see. You got to invent all
the difficulties. Well, we can't help it, we got to do the best we can with the
materials we've got. Anyhow, there's one thing--there's more honor in getting him out
through a lot of difficulties and dangers, where there warn't one of them furnished
to you by the people who it was their duty to furnish them, and you had to contrive
them all out of your own head....
One odd situation is where Jim needs some stone to write his "mournful inscriptions" on. Tom remembers a big stone that would do the job fine. Unfortunately, it was too heavy for him and Huck to move, so they got Jim's help. Since they had already dug a tunnel under one wall of the shack it was easy to get Jim out. Once free, Jim helped the boys to get the stone back into his shack so he could then copy Tom's inscriptions on to it. Obviously, that is not right at all. Jim was already free when outside, but has to re-chain himself back up, and escape properly, with difficulty and "style". That was the point of the escape for Tom. They have already established how easy it would be to just break him out. Repeated over and over is that they must do it with finesse, and "style", since that's what Tom, civilization, wants.
Tom's painstaking planning came to finish in an escape that is successful. However, Tom is wounded by a bullet in his leg and, Jim is captured as he stays with Tom and helps the doctor. His only real friend he has is, once again, captured, and his other "friend" is wounded. When Tom recovers sufficiently to understand Huck's concern and to respond to it, he tells him that Jim "ain't no slave; he's as free as any cretur that walks this earth" (chapter 42). It seems that Jim's mistress, Miss Watson, has died two months ago and repented Therefore, Tom's "style," and even any plan at all is completely unnecessary. Here, I think, is where civilization is made the worst-in that Tom knew Jim was free from the beginning, but never told, even though he had many a chance, and almost did right after he saw Huck again. He bites his tongue just to have another adventure. The escape was only to assuage Tom and his romanticism.
Jim's role in Huckleberry Finn then to me, is astronomical. As a slave, he shows that he is human, and that he can live and act as a father of sorts to Huck. He is a better father to Huck than Huck's father, the alcoholic ever was or could have been. Jim shows that he has a conscience, and has feelings. Does this seem like a racist portrayal of blacks? He is crucial to the end, the condemnation of civilization again, and of romanticism. And in the end, he's right too. He is rich. Maybe not in the monetary sense, though...
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