The literary theory allows deeper exploration of the meaning of a text, especially about contextual aspects when the work was authored. Nevertheless, this has not been the case as the pre-twentieth century literary critics focused on aesthetics of literature, its forms, and literary elements. However, in the early 1900s, critics started examining pieces of literature about their socioeconomic and political contexts. The shift is captured in Donald E Hall’s Literary and Cultural Theory, where he notes: As the writings of the nineteenth-century political theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883) circulated widely…, and as the work of the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) shifted attention to how literature might reveal individual personalities and broad psychological tensions…, criticism’s possible avenues of inquiry expanded beyond these perspectives. If literary texts were not transcendent entities wholly separate from society if they were instead products of social forces and belief systems that demanded critique and change. The literary critics were able, and even expected to probe beyond the formal limits of the text [the aesthetics]; many redefined themselves as social critics working openly to achieve certain political goals through the study of cultural forms…Thus, critics have shifted their focus to examine the complex interplay between text and context (pg. 3). The new methodological position is typified by Mark Twain’s the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an edifying piece of literature that explores the question of slavery during the Gilded Age. While it is discussing the post-Civil War attempts to integrate blacks into the American society, the novel is a creatively-engineered piece of literature criticizing the South as well as approaches adopted to oppress and control the disadvantaged groups, especially newly freed African Americans.
The first eight chapters of the novel explore racism, one of the major thematic focus of the book that was widely influenced by the sociopolitical landscape of the South in the second half of the 19th century. Although the setting of the story is fictional, historians have revealed that St. Petersburg represent Twain’s hometown of Hannibal along the Mississippi River (Lowe 71). Like other regions under the Confederacy, the institution of slavery was part of the society. The influence is evident in the novel, where the events of Chapter One reveals that owning a slave was perceived normal and an honorable thing. While it was against her religious inclination, even individuals such as the Widow Douglas are the embodiment of the Southern ideas, where slaveholding had attached social value (LeMaster and Wilson 289). While Twain has been criticized for adopting the soft version of the institution by denying individuals who were brutalized in the plantations by their masters a voice in his masterpiece, the plot development where Jim escapes to Jackson Island after overhearing Miss Watson’s intention to sell him for $800 to a New Orlean master in Chapter 8 highlights the dehumanization that characterized slave trade. Twain notes that the household slaves were separated from their families, an indication that helps in capturing the effects of slaveholding in disrupting families when the book was written.
Another contextual feature from the 1800s is the deep-rooted perceptions of White supremacism. The novel was published in 1884, 36 years after the end of the Mexican-American War, a westward expansion drive that was shaped the concept of Manifest Destiny. The Whites felt they had a moral obligation of civilizing other ethnoracial groups, a line of thinking that is well explored in the novel. Although he is from their dominant group, the Window Douglas adopted Huck among other slaves and tried to “sivilize” them. With Huck having no interest, the Widows bemoans her unwillingness to reform.
Mark Twain’s also uses the racial epithet ‘nigger’ to refer to African Americans, a discriminatory portrait that is richened by ‘Pap’ character (Harris 106). Although he is an abusive and irresponsible dad, he sees the new judge in town as a trade commodity because of his mixed race. He even questions the credibility of such a person holding a public office, sonorous to a widely-accepted belief in the 1800s, where only European Americans could hold public jobs. He says, “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?” (Twain 124). Other groups were economically segregated and could only work in despised jobs for meager pay because they were second class citizens. However, the discourse was not based on reality but racial ideals. Twain’s novel captures the fallacious categorization in the interaction of Huck and Jim in the Jackson Island. With both figures having escaped from the mainstream society, they depend on each other to survive the lonely island.
In conclusion, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel that intelligently explores racial tensions of the 1880s. While the era was characterized by widespread acceptance of the institution of slavery and the need for civilizing black after the end of the Civil War, Twain faults the approaches taken and instead uses his work to call for social resentment against the establishment. Although Jim did not have much control over his fate as Huck because of his racial background, they both detached themselves from the hypocritical and injustice society, a move that serves the role of inspiring. They coincidently spend time together on Jackson Island, watching the river, smoking pipe, eating wild berries, and feasting on the fish, an aspect that perhaps was foretelling the current multicultural establishments in America.
Hall, Donald E. Literary And Cultural Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.
Harris, James H. The Forbidden Word: The Symbol And Sign Of Evil In American Literature, History, And Culture. 1st ed. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2012. Print.
LeMaster, J. R and James D Wilson. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. 1st ed. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Lowe, Hilary Iris. Mark Twain’s Homes & Literary Tourism. 1st ed. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2012. Print.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.