Huckleberry Finn: Masculinity, Power Struggles, and Self-awareness in the Novel

Published: 2021-09-15 21:15:10
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The early nineteenth-century setting in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn offers a turbulent landscape for Twain to stage a commentary on the interdependencies that perpetuate his main characters’ transracial relationship. Focalizing through Huck, a child of twelve, deconstructs the traditional narrative and emphasizes the complex overlap in Jim’s fundamental identity as black and his cultural role as slave. Ironically, the ascribed nature of Jim’s identity is what grounds Huck (and, subsequently, the reader) in the represented world; although he is owned and held as a slave, Jim is the father of a nuclear family he hopes to reunite, and moves comfortably between the roles of servant and parent in his dealings with Huck. In stark contrast, Huck’s identity is held captive within the violent cyclicality of his relationship with his alcoholic, deadbeat father, and the elderly, traditional, Miss Watson. These hugely differing adults fail to provide Huck with a reliable masculine compass, compromising Huck’s developing sexuality, thus, Twain presents masculinity and sexuality as the axes on which Huck and Jim’s intimate friendship is the asymptote, blurring the rules governing the conventional relationship between master and slave and redefining the constitution of these titles.
Placing masculinity and sexuality on a plane to represent axes is complicated by these variables’ interchangeability within the novel. One may be represented by the other, and vice versa; Huck’s straightforward storytelling-style suggests a desire to communicate independently of those around him, nevertheless, his narration is laced with their influences. “They talked it over, and they was going to rule me out, because they said every boy must have a family or somebody to kill, or else it wouldn’t be fair and square for the others,” (Twain 16). Tom Saywer’s masculine imagination, heightened as it is through his apparent readings of fantastic tales, contains a latent sexual vulnerability; the boys’ admission to the robber-murderer troupe Tom Saywer’s Gang is contingent upon a paradoxical emphasis on family and intimacy, suggesting that role-playing masculine figures such as highwaymen somehow illuminates masculinity within a sexuality framework. Further, Huck’s authorial choice to present the issue facing his admission to the gang in passive voice rather than direct dialogue sharpens the vulnerable aspect of an otherwise macho-boy idea. “I was most ready to cry; but all at once I thought of a way, and so I offered them Miss Watson—they could kill her,” (Twain 16). The playful nature of the game is undercut here by Huck’s gritty, real background: he has no family, and his father is an alcoholic. Thus, by submitting Miss Watson instead of a family member, he signals her as simultaneously valuable and disposable, a paradox that extends to all of his major relationships throughout the novel, most notably that between him and Miss Watson’s slave, Jim. As a slave, Jim stabilizes Huck’s perception of the world by administering to the black-white division in societal rank, maintaining a social construct that fosters Huck’s personal development at Jim’s own personal sacrifice.
Humanizing Jim in this manner upsets the conventional relationship between the black man and the white child because there is no prominent white, male authority in Huck’s life to demonstrate a dominant masculinity in his exchanges with Jim. In his essay “The Trouble With Friendship,” Benjamin DeMott discusses transracial friendships as “a vehicle of wish fulfillment,” suggesting that “what’s wished for and gained is a land where whites are unafraid of blacks, where blacks ask for and need nothing from whites,” (15). Curiously, this definition of a wish applies most directly to that between Huck and his father, which queries the importance of physical race difference vs the ascribed status associated with race difference.
Consider: by virtue of his skin color, Huck’s dad is socially superior to Jim. However, Jim’s youth and sex relative to those of Miss Watson’s inverts the notion of the black as one who asks for or needs anything from whites. On the contrary; Jim’s servitude to Miss Watson distinguishes a sexualized component to masculinity through female ownership of the physical male; the master-slave relationship between Miss Watson and Jim, though inverted, is stable because of the rough equal-ness of exchanged relationship dynamics. Therefore, the instability of Huck’s relationship with his dad reflects an internal “blackness” to Huck’s father—an acute awareness his father attempts to allay through his drinking habits.
“Tramp—tramp—tramp; that’s the dead; tramp—tramp—tramp; they’re coming after me; but I won’t go—Oh, they’re here! Don’t touch me—don’t! hands off—they’re hold; let go—Oh, let a poor devil alone!” (Twain 39). Pap’s ranting and quailing at this juncture are eerie in their dichotomous representation of both the senseless ranting of an alcoholic, but also in the panicked fear of the black, ancestral anger characterized by the use of “they’re.” If we continue to view Pap through the lens of a black-white man, the dead who are appearing to him in his hallucinations are faceless black men who Pap embodies in the helpless hopelessness of his pathetic existence; he essentially represents the black slave’s suffering from this standpoint. His refusal to “go” indicates an unwillingness to die, but also perhaps a refusal to accept responsibility for his actions as a father. It is also worth noting that the dead who pursue him in his hallucination are together, thus, presumably, unified, something that Pap claims with Huck when he wrests him from Miss Watson’s care.
Huck’s volatile lifestyle presents the cone of his asymptotic existence as the height of masculinity at minimum sexuality, or when he is in his father’s possession. Huck’s impressionable age naturally begins the digression from masculinity into the softer vagueness of sexuality, a process that Jim facilitates following Huck’s escape from his father. In fleeing his father, Huck is seeking a freedom from his father’s beatings and Miss Watson’s civilizing, but it is just as important to consider where Huck was going as to why he went in the first place. “Jackson’s Island is good enough for me; I know that island pretty well, and nobody ever comes there,” (Twain 44). The sparse description reveals a depth of fear and unhappiness that Huck’s youth prevents him from articulating. “Good enough,” “pretty well,” and “nobody” (emphases added) in particular stand out because they reveal the first jaded etchings to Huck’s otherwise sunny and take-life-as-it-comes personality.
Curiously, it is Jim who makes the autonomous decision to harness an escape in pursuit of a specific freedom, a freedom that society has told him he neither has the right to nor has the capacity to seek: reuniting his family. While Huck’s decision also reflects his autonomy, it lacks direction and motivation beyond the present. In his essay “Love and Death,” Leslie Fiedler discusses the notion of freedom as constrained by guilt. “The enemy of society on the run toward “freedom” is also the pariah in flight from his guilt, the guilt of that very flight; and new phantoms arise to haunt him at every step,” (Fiedler 26). Contextualized within Fiedler, however, it is Huck, not Jim, who faces repercussions from society; his socioeconomic and family situation make him a pariah and his rejection of adult aid heavily influences his desire to remain hidden from their intrusions into his life. On the other hand, if we neutralized Jim’s skin color, society would champion him as a father and husband, and applaud his actions as a traditionally embedded masculine strength rather than a creature runaway.
Both Jim and Huck’s deviation from “natural” masculinity inclines them towards a more experimental, sexually emotional relationship, simply by virtue of their unconventional pairing. By disregarding society’s framework for proper relationships, Huck and Jim are able to demonstrate a partnership with an original foundation that recalls basic cornerstones to all relationships, such as communication and trust. Their mutual dependence on one another as white child and black adult runaway slave creates a bond that also draws attention to the sacrificial nature of their relationship: Jim was raised in a culture of loss and Huck plays at being a child in the very real game of life because he knows no imaginary one as fraught with danger.
In her essay “Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire,” Eve Sedgwick challenges the basis for interest in sexual politics—“What does it mean—what difference does it make—when a social or political relationship is sexualized? If the relation of homosocial to homosexual bonds is so shifty, then what theoretical framework do we have for drawing any links between sexual and power relationships?” (Sedgwick 5). Contextualized within Huckleberry Finn, the theoretical framework detailing the social differentials in homosocial vs homosexual bonds appears to depend on its mutability. That is, the heightened sexuality in Huck and Jim’s encounters is made so because of their rejection of traditional racial politics, though it’s likely their transgression was only a circumstantial consequence.
This observation leads us to an obvious question: do circumstances justify the rejection of societal norms? How does society determine which transgressions to condemn and which to forgive? Huckleberry Finn suggests a personal involvement component, that is, the degree to which transgressions are noted is directly proportionate to the degree to which they affect society. Because Huck and Jim are traveling together, their presentation of master and slave is a guise that allows them to exist, undisturbed, in their far more complex arrangement of sage, paternal, (ex?) slave and wandering, directionless white child. Their shared sex serves as a buffer to society and catalyst for their personal communication; their homosocial relationship is illustrated, more than anything, by their absences from one another, particularly when the absences are forced upon them by outside factors. “So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double,” (Twain 227). The shame Huck feels in his desire to rescue Jim grounds the reader in the represented world’s masculinity: Huck and Jim may compromise the relationship rules within their own world, but the wider world of the novel does not sanction mercy at the sacrifice of the white male’s masculinity.
The notion of masculinity as something that must be sacrificed for, rather than to, is a critical observation, and one that Huck struggles to reconcile with his sympathetic sexuality towards Jim. The feeling of “playing double” apparently stems from his awareness of white masculinity and his inability to own it. In this sense, Huck’s conscious rejection of his whiteness is also a dismissal of white masculinity. However, a question stands: is this choice due to Jim’s impressed black masculinity or his own matured security in his sexuality? The novel constructs the fundamental difference between black and white masculinity through the presence of constancy; Jim is the constant black male who, though more vulnerable than his volatile white counterpart, derives his strength from a constancy born of a unity found in the standardized sameness impressed upon his race for hundreds of years.
Thus, there cannot be constancy without unity, or vice versa, which the white males of the novel demonstrate through their manipulations and power-struggles with one another. All except Huck. Unlike the other white males, he outwardly submits to the authorities as they converge and ebb around him throughout his journey, a practice that relies on his sexual security as a youth engaging the world around him rather than as a white adolescent clumsily wielding his masculinity. This self-awareness reflects Huck’s relationship with Jim because it embodies the mutual transgression of partners in the personal development of one, a development contingent upon the strength of Jim’s constancy in his masculine role and to shield his blackness while preserving his manhood, ultimately presenting masculinity as a rhetorical puzzle that cannot be solved, only attended to.

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