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Huckleberry Finn In A High School Curriculum English Literature Essay

2668 words (11 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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Since the early ages of literature, some works have been considered controversial due to content that some believe to be offensive. Works such as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and Harriet Beacher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin are just two of the many works that have sparked major controversy in the world of literature. One of the most controversial works of American literature is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn written by Mark Twain. This novel has brought about many points of contention due to the controversial time period in which the book takes place. One of the longest standing debates concerning Huck Finn has been over whether or not to allow this novel to be taught in an English Language Arts curriculum. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should only be included in a grade nine through twelve English Language Arts curriculum. Due to the presence of many groundbreaking themes that have become essential to American literature, this novel is an important piece of the young American’s repertoire of literature. Aspects of the novel such as the use of the racial epithet “nigger,” the complex themes woven into the novel by Twain, and Jim’s role in the novel require a certain amount of maturity that is not possessed by the majority of middle school students. Therefore, the teaching of this controversial novel should be restricted to ninth grade as the minimum age to study this novel.

One reason that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be taught in grades nine through twelve is because of a high school student’s ability to comprehend the complexity of the racist stance in this novel, specifically, the use of the racial epithet “nigger” and Huck’s complex relationship with Jim. After Huck is asked whether or not anyone was injured in the fictional boat accident he replies, “No’m. Killed a nigger” (Twain 221). The connotation of the word “nigger” in this context is one of inhumanity. By using the word in this way, Huck suggests that those of African-American descent are not worth enough to consider a loss in this situation. Also, there are only two instances in this novel in which the word “nigger” could not be interchanged with the word slave. Sloane’s statement that, “The word “nigger” is one of the most uncompromising parts of Twain’s realism, and an understandably upsetting on for a black youth to assimilate. Twain showed the level of respect he saw in America…” (12) shows that it takes considerable maturity to understand that Twain did not use this word to offend, but rather because it was the accepted term in the time period. Also, this was an attitude and a word used that he felt correctly illustrated the mindset of the average white person during that time. The maturity needed to overcome this offensive language is not something that the average middle school student possesses. Because of a high school student’s higher level of maturity, their ability to cope with an offensive word and its connotations is much more likely than that of a middle school student. Knowing that this word has possibly offensive implications, it would not be practical to teach the novel which uses the word so frequently in an environment where the students may not understand the motivations behind its use, such as a middle school. The contrasting relationship between Huck and Jim causes the use of this racial epithet to create a complexity in the novel that also makes it suitable minimally to the mind of a ninth grade student.

Huck’s decision to risk everything, including what he believes is his salvation, in order to save Jim from the Phelps’ contrasts his derogatory use of the word “nigger” (Twain 214). This contrasting idea that the relationship between Huck and Jim has progressed to such a point that Huck was able to overcome the typical racist view of most white Southerners of that time and view Jim as an equal being to himself shows that Huck has been able to conquer the racial segregation of Jim and himself. This mature attitude of Huck’s gives the novel an undertone that compensates for the overall racist tone of the other characters. The Mensh’s state that, “Once Huck learns where Jim is, he undergoes this ultimate crisis of conscience, which concludes with his decision to risk hell to free Jim. So morally momentous is this decision that is seems Huck himself has developed morally” (86). Huck growth in morality shows that it was possible for such a deep bond between a slave and a white person to grow that the white person would risk everything in order to ensure the slave’s freedom. According to the Menshs, Huck’s growth in morality is plausibly detectable at this point when he decides to risk everything to save Jim. This attitude toward Jim contrasts the previous use of the word “nigger” by Huck because it seems as though he has reached a level of maturity in which race is not a contributing factor in the way that he treats people. What makes this idea more complicated is that Huck only has this seemingly pro-abolitionist attitude when it comes to Jim, excluding all of the other slaves that are mentioned in the novel. Because of the complex and often contradicting nature of Huck’s attitude toward African-Americans, this novel would be better suited to be taught in the later years of a student’s education in which enough experience with literature has been acquired to fully comprehend the relationship between Huck and Jim. Without this understanding, one of the main ideas of the novel would be completely overlooked causing one’s reading of it to be purposeless. Along with the complexity of the racial position of the novel, the complexity of certain themes also causes this novel to be more appropriate for a high school curriculum.

The presence of specific themes in the novel cause it to be ill suited for the immature mind of a middle school student, but other similar themes can be essential to a young reader’s understanding of American literature. At one point in the novel, Huck describes a scene involving a drunk man at a circus saying, “It warn’t funny to me, though; I was all of a tremble to see his danger”(Twain 149). Huck’s previous experience with Colonel Sherburn and Boggs caused Huck to be aware of the possible outcome of a situation involving a drunken man. Because of Huck’s upbringing and his use of practicality in situations in order to survive, Huck does not find the same joy in this supposed comedic act that the other people attending the circus did. Kenneth S. Lynn does so far as to say that Twain is suggesting that in this regard, Huck is more mature and thoughtful than the majority of society. Lynn states, “Thus by this juxtaposition of episodes…does Twain lay bare the depravity of a society that views life as a circus…”(132). Because of the high level of understanding required to pick up on this purposeful juxtaposition of chapters, this novel is not ideally suited for the mind of a middle school student. Also, the lack of Huck’s enjoyment of the scene at the circus puts into even greater effect the idea that this novel is not an adventure tale, but rather a tale of survival and morals. This lack of romanticism present in the style of life that Huck leads would also be unappealing to a middle school student and better understood by the average high school student. Unable to become fully involved in this novel, it would be pointless for a middle school student to attempt to read this novel before such a time that they would be able to completely appreciate the novel for its true purpose, rather than dwelling on the lack of lust for adventure felt by Huck. A high school student’s need for the ability, one that has perhaps already been acquired, to look beyond a novel as something one reads for pleasure, and rather as a tool to instruct and by those who wish to exercise their voice in this way makes Huck Finn an ideal novel for the grades nine through twelve.

Similar in its crucial nature, Huck’s passage from youth to maturity is a theme that is essential to a high school student’s understanding of American literature. When Huck says, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterward, neither” (Twain 86) he displays that he has the ability to overcome the racial barrier between the two of them and in doing so, he matures. Previously, Huck had played a trick on Jim saying that they had never been separated in the fog, an event that was traumatic for Jim. By realizing that his actions were not warranted or kind and therefore apologizing for them, Huck displays his growing maturity. While giving reasons as to why Huckleberry Finn should be categorized as a world novel, Lane states, “Huckleberry Finn also gains its place as a world novel by its treatment of one of the most important events of life, the passage from youth into maturity…One of the central patterns of the novel is the progress of his learning” (159). Because of the time of their lives that a high school student is in, this novel is very appropriate. Knowing that the prospect of college is on the horizon, many high school students are challenged with leaving behind the immaturity of life at home in order to become an independent college student that cannot rely on someone else, such as a parent, guardian, or teacher. This causes this theme to be much more relatable to them rather than a middle school student who has years to become independent. Also, this is a reoccurring theme that can be found throughout a large spectrum of American literature. It is important gain experience with themes such as this in order to comprehend other works with this theme with greater ease.

Unexpectedly, Jim is integrated into the novel with a major role, one of which some would consider of epic hero proportions. When Huck and Jim initially realize they have missed the exit off the Mississippi at Cairo to the Northbound Ohio River, the pair faces a dilemma. Huck says, “By and by we talked about what we better do, and found there warn’t no way but just to go along down with the raft till we got a chance to buy a canoe to go back in” (Twain 93). Through this narration, it is apparent that much of the purpose of the raft’s destination is based on Jim’s quest for freedom because of the way Huck says “we” instead of just “I.” In noticing this subtle detail, the entire purpose of the book changes causing it to not just be an adventure tale but rather a tale of survival for Huck and Jim alike. This also creates an alternate purpose for Jim in the novel. It gives him the power over his fate while he travels with Huck, alone which would not be expected due to his status as an escaped slave. In her article, Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua makes the following comment about this realization of Jim and Huck: “Once he makes up his mind, he accepts no limitations – not the passing of Cairo; not his experiences with other, less sympathetic white characters…” (14). In this statement, it is shown that not only is Jim very determined to become free, but also that his strong sense of self and his optimism are a driving force in what is truly a quest for freedom. It is clearly visible that Huck is not only trying to secure his own safety, but that in consulting Jim, their developing relationship, which will be built upon trust, is glimpsed by Huck asking Jim what he believes should be done. This sophisticated way in which Twain infuses Jim’s true role in the novel is on that the majority of middle school students would not pick up on and would even challenge some high school students. Because Twain uses subtle details to convey a major character’s role in the novel, it is apparent that this novel is appropriate for high school students and not middle school students. Other, complex, characterizations of Jim support this idea in addition to the motivations behind the journey.

At the conclusion of the novel, it is revealed to Huck that his father has been dead during almost the entire journey. At this moment of understanding, Jim says, “Doan’ you ‘member de house dat was float’n down de river, en dey wuz a man in dah, kivered up, en I went in and unkivered him and didn’ let you come on?…dat wuz him” (Twain 293). Through this statement, it is understood what Jim’s true intentions and motivations throughout the entire journey have been. By keeping this horrible truth away from Huck, the critical and inconsiderate reader would interpret this action of Jim as selfish because he knew that if he were to have told Huck that he could safely return home, Jim would no longer have a traveling companion. To the more understanding reader, it is evident that Jim was attempting to shield Huck from a potentially traumatizing image making this act selfless rather than selfish. Lauriat Lane claims that, “Jim also has the qualities of an epic hero. He has strength and courage, and he possesses the supreme virtue of epic poetry, loyalty” (161). It is apparent that in this selfless act of Jim’s, that he is showing pure loyalty to Huck because he is trying to shield him from the harshness of reality. As in the Lane article, this quality shows that Jim does possess the type of characteristics of an epic hero. This forces his purpose in the novel into an even greater proportion. Because the idea of an epic hero must be included in a high school student’s education in order for it to be complete, the ironic role of Jim as an epic hero makes this an ideal choice for a ninth through twelfth grade curriculum. Due to all of these reasons, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be taught in grades nine through twelve English curricula.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has been a long debated topic concerning whether or not it should be taught in curricula. Due to the experience and maturity needed to observe certain themes and topics in this novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should not be taught in middle school, but rather in a grade nine through twelve English Language Arts curriculum. Specifically, most middle school children would not be able to handle maturely the vast use of the racial epithet “nigger” along with certain themes and subtleties that they would not be mature enough to grasp. The higher level of maturity and literary experience of a high school student causes this novel to be better suited for grades nine through twelve English Language Arts curricula. Also, the complexity of the relationship of Huck and Jim also causes this novel to be more appropriate for a high school curriculum. Since man became literate, written word has been the one way to transport knowledge through the ages that has been consistent for as long as the spoken word has been alive. By reading books, man has been able to extend his knowledge past that of what he hears from the present, by diving into the past through the words of people who have already lived and perished. It is imperative that humans continue to read because if reading did not occur, the human race as it is known today would cease to exist.

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