The Impact of Society on Jim in Huckleberry Finn
As Forrest Robinson writes in his essay “The Characterization of Jim in Huckleberry Finn”, “Jim does seem to change, from a plausible complete man to a two-dimensional racial stereotype”. Although many blame Twain for this deterioration of Jim, claiming that it is laziness in the writing, he actually appears to use this supposed flaw in the novel to strengthen his point. Jim’s loss of character can be seen as a loss of confidence. All of his development happens when he is on the river and safe from any judgment from people. Huck is able to gain Jim’s trust and could see Jim’s development first hand, but when Jim separates from Huck, all of his human characteristics leave with Huck. When Tom Sawyer rejoins Huck and Jim at the end of the novel, he takes charge, pushing Huck into the background. Jim, noticing Huck’s loss of a voice, also withdraws and lets Tom dictate what happens. Although Jim is a free man, the loss of his humanity during the time he is separated from Huck is crucial to fully represent the impact society has on Jim.
First, Jim is able to think for himself and become independent when he is on the river and away from society. While he is on the river, Jim is free of the judgment of others, which enables him to develop a character. When he is alone with Huck on the river, he feels comfortable enough to open up to Huck. The only time Jim is “human” is during the times when he speaks his thoughts. On the raft, Huck wakes up to find Jim crying, and when Huck finally talks to Jim, Jim says, “what make me fell so bad dis time”(155). Although the rest of the passage overshadows these first words, it subtly reveals that this is not the first time Jim has talked to Huck, but rather it is a common event. Jim’s freedom on the river has given him the confidence to express himself to Huck whenever there is a need. To the reader, this is the pivotal moment when Jim finally has feelings not related to Huck, which separate Jim from the other slaves and makes him “human”. Not only does he gain the confidence to express himself, but he also begins to assert power for himself. When he scolds Huck by calling him trash after that cruel joke Huck played on Jim, Huck “[humbles himself] to [Jim] a nigger”(87), Jim not only has the confidence to scold him, but he was also “human” enough to convince Huck to ask him for forgiveness despite his color. This equality on the river is what Jim needs to start to become independent and to start asserting himself. The river, an oasis from a racist society, is where Jim can be a person and not just a nigger.
Another point that Robinson makes is that Jim relies on Huck because Huck “is the living proof that Jim is not a murderer [, …] and gives [Jim] eyes and ears, information, an alibi, and some small leverage when the inevitable disaster strikes”(Robinson). Robinson then claims that the “subsequent occasions when Jim welcomes Huck back to the raft, this desperate need, and the sense of breathless relief, provid[ing] the warmth in what usually passes for unmingled outbursts of affection” (Robinson) are because of the relief the Jim feels on Huck’s return. Without Huck as his alibi, Jim not only has to retreat back to the safety of his “ignorance” but also has to sacrifice his humanity to do it. While the duke and king are doing the inheritance scam, the duke paints Jim up like an “A-rab” to keep him from being taken away. After Huck escapes, he runs to the raft and encounters Jim who “when [Huck] glimpsed him in the lightning [his] heart shot up in [his] mouth […] but Jim fished [him] up and was going to hug [him] and bless [him]”(204). Because he does not have Huck as his protector, Jim has to suffer the indecency of being painted as an “A-rab” to the point where even Huck, who has lived with him on the raft, cannot recognize him. The symbolism used by Twain shows that without Huck, Jim cannot be