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Analysing Slavery in Mark Twain's Writing

Info: 5506 words (22 pages) Dissertation
Published: 12th Dec 2019

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Tagged: English LiteratureLiterature


According to widely held view on slavery, it is has been acknowledged that it is ‘a virtually universal feature of human history’ that has preserved up to nowadays.  As absolute proof of old origins of slavery accounts to the fact that there are written documents survived from ancient times as written in e.g., the Code of Hammurabi and The Old Testament showing that slavery was established in the early civilizations. As to present days, the United Nations’ (hereafter UN) reports reveal a ‘huge  number’ of women, children and men being exploited and forced into slavery ranging from at least eight hundred- thousand to three million people trafficked annually. Therefore, globalization has brought not only positive cultural exchanges, but also endemic slavery around the world, raising a discussion of tackling and eliminating this painful issue.

Concerning the term ‘slavery’, it denotes much of negativism and violence e.g., torture, kidnap, murder, inferiority, punishment as well as ‘the wilful destruction of human mind and spirit’ (Bales, 2005:6). Nevertheless, the historians (Bales:2005;David:2004; Kopytoff:1977) describe that slaves throughout human history have been treated as inferior, uncivilized and bestialized e.g., Mark Twain’s story ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ portrays the Southerners’ vision of  a runaway slave who is perceived as superstitious, uneducated and perhaps violent thing: merely a human in their view.

This helps to explain the hostile or negative feelings, attitudes and actions towards one ethnic group of people, in this case a white person’s disdain and superiority overblack person. The superiority of white or Caucasian race derives from times of slavery as the historian Kevin Bales (2005:7) states slavery can damage people’s mind, namely, (1) slaves; (2) slaveholders and (3) members of society who live this system. As to Bales (ibid), such society accepts dehumanization of a person that allow prospering slavery around the globe. Thus, we can observe that slavery has remerged not only in many different times throughout human history, but also is present in our times. This research paper aims at illustrating a link between past and present displayed in Mark Twain’s literary works. They reveal that slavery in the South can be perceived as a ghost of the past, which has been equally haunting African Americans and Caucasian race. As a result, the past has widened a gap between those two races in America. William Faulkner has said that ‘only with Twain, Walt Whitman became a true indigenous American culture’ (quoted in Hutchinson, 1998:80). Mark Twain who was born and raised in the America’s South was the pioneer of displaying the spoken language, the very American language in literature that is characterized as  vivid, but with sardonic humour, neat aphorism. It has to be mentioned that Mark Twain is regarded as a complex personality; since he managed to contradict himself not only in a real life, but also in his writings.

The subject of the bachelor thesis is institution of slavery in Mark Twain’s works.  In other words, the paper investigates aspects and issue of slavery described in Mark Twain’s writings, including ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (1884-85) and ‘A True Story, Repeated for Word, as I heard It’ (1874) which are set in the pre Civil War society of American South-West.

The aim of the paper is to gain a comprehensive picture of slavery from Mark Twain’s works.

The objectives of the research paper

  1. the task is to select and to review the most common images of slavery presented  in Twain’s writings by such  characters as  Aunt Rachel, Jim  and Huck Finn
  2. to make the use of a study of history i.e. Slavery in America , but  take into account  Mark Twain’s personal view on slavery
  3. to analyse the images of slavery using  the writer’s stories
  4. to test the results  i.e. to  compare those two different images of slavery i.e. literary works and official  history of slavery
  5. to draw the relevant conclusions taking into account both his  writings and the  historical context.

Hypothesis: Mark Twain’s literary works imply personal responsibility and awareness on such complex issue as slavery, but problems of slavery cannot be viewed separately from historical context. 

Methods of research

  • case study: analysis of such  historical works on slavery  written by Suzzane Miers, Igor Kopytoff, Christine  Hatt,Robert McColley and others
  • analysis of two Mark  Twain’s  stories
  • Juxtaposition: to contrast and compare those two different images of slavery, namely, historical and literary description of slavery.

The author of the paper has chosen the case study as a research method for a number of reasons. First of all, case study research allow us better understanding a complex issue or object and this method of study is especially useful for testing theory by using it in real world situations. Secondly, a case study is an in depth study of a particular situation. It is a method used to narrow down a very broad field of research into one easily researchable topic.  Finally, it provides a structural way of looking at events, collecting data, analyzing information, and reporting the results. As a result, the researcher may get a better understanding of why the event happened as it did, and what is important to look at more closely in the future.

The first chapter deals with the history of racism and the concept of racism. The second chapter provides an insight into understanding of slavery and deals with the issue of institution of slavery in the USA. The third one and its subchapters deal with issues of  slavery, namely, they show how  slavery is depicted  in Twain’s literary work ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and provide a brief insight into history of slavery in America and explores’ A True story’ and Aunt’s Rachel point of view of slavery.


This chapter deals with the history and the concept of racism. Racism is a subject that most people, at least in Western societies, have their own opinion on and it is as old as civilization, it continues to be an important factor in society today.

Alana Lentin (2011) claims that racism is a political phenomenon rather than a mere set of ideas. To analyze racism it is necessary to go beyond the texts of racial scientists and to look at how certain political conditions during particular historical contexts led to some of the ideas proposed by racial theorists being integrated into political practices of nation-states. There are three aspects – the political nature of racism, its modernity and its grounding in the history of the West that are fundamental to understanding racism’s hold over contemporary Western societies. It is very important as well to look at the statements, what a race is.

According to Ivan Hannaford (1996), the word race as used in Western languages is first found as late as the period 1200 – 1500. Only in the seventeenth century did it take on a separate meaning from the Latin word gens or clan and was related to the concept “ethnic group”. In other words the dispositions and presuppositions of race and ethnicity were introduced – some would say “invented” or “fabricated” – in modern times and in any case, were not given the meaning they have today until after the French and American revolutions. The reason why the notion of race became such a powerful and attractive idea is due to the “deliberate manipulation” of texts by scientists and historians to show that a racial order has always structured humanity (Hannaford 1996: 4). There was a definite division of the periods over which the idea of race developed. Hannaford divides it into three stages: 1684 – 1815, 1815 – 1870 and 1870 – 1914. The final period is known as the “Golden Age” of racism, it was a time when it was possible for the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to proclaim that race is all and there was no other truth. (ibid, 1996).

As Alana Lentin (2011) states the word “race” was first used in its modern sense in 1684, when a Frenchman published his essay, where race stood for divisions among humans based on observable physical differences. At this stage race was used a simple descriptor and there was no intention of superiority meant by presenting humanity in this way (2011).

Hannaford (1996) states that Western scholars later started to think about that it means to be human that fundamentally changed the way people thought about the origins of human life, the universe and society. It is the bases for the way we think about these things to this day. The most significant changes were in fact that theological explanations about life were replaced by logical description. (Hannaford, 1996: 187).

Lentin Alan (2011) considers that many people do not ask nowadays why racism is apparently so important, despite the end of colonialism, slavery and the Holocaust, the answer is that it is natural. Racism has entered into everyday speech and therefore in our consciousness. The idea of racism is so widespread that we easily mistake it for something that is just there, a fact of life. Racism is associated with the fear and even hatred that human beings are commonly expected to have for each other. Fear based on racism is inherent and there is no need to ask why it exists (2011).

As Neil Macmaster reminds us that racism is always a dynamic process, a set of beliefs and practices that is imbedded in a particular historical context, a particular social formation, and is thus continuously undergoing change, a plastic chameleon like phenomenon which constantly finds new forms of political, social, cultural or linguistic expression (2001: 2).

Lentin (2011) refers to race in descriptive terms, it takes account of racionalization. Racionalization is the process through which the supposed inferiority of black, colonized and non-whites is constructed. Today’s global racism divides the rich and the poor worlds and is no longer a simple black and white issue. Racionalization involves endowing the traditions and lifestyles that are attributed to groups of different “others” with negative signifiers (2011). According to Alan Lentin (2011), the development of a radicalized discourse about a group of people provides justification for their discrimination. It puts into words the very thing about a particular group that is said to disturb us and pose a threat to our way of life. The fact that racionalization and racism are repeated, affecting different groups over time, does not mean that racism is inevitable. Rather, it shows that considerable transformations of our political systems, our social and cultural infrastructure, and our discourse – the very way in which language is used – needs to change if racism in Western societies is to be overcome (2011:10).

Memmi (2000) investigates racism as social pathology – a cultural disease that prevails because it allows one part of society to empower itself at the expense of another. For Memmi, racism emerges from within human situations, rather than simply as the enforcement of an ideology, or the “natural” belief some people have according their innate superiority. Racism is a charge, like a judicial accusation that is levied against somebody, who is indicated as being in some manner (racially) different. It implies that the other has, in being different, somehow broken certain assumed rules, and is thus not a good person. Thus the person is devalued and disparaged and he suffers from it. The indictment, however, is unfounded and unjust, and the accused is thus the victim of an injustice. As well Memmi (2000) states that in France, reference to “le raciste” in a  third person nominative mode, as to some unspecified person who behaves in a particular way, upholding certain ideas and attitude, would call up a more or less familiar picture, bur in the United States it would not really be as clear. It is a nation in which white racism is wholly generalized and integrated into political and social life. Though it may be invisible in everyday life, it can see by White people through accepting themselves without question as white. Thus racism moves beyond individual prejudice to engage broader questions of collective behaviour and social responsibility.

As it can be seen, the topic of racism is very broad. Some people would say that racism is just based on prejudices but some would say that it is something that people are born into, and they are not able to fight against it, nor break out of their social status. People who are in such situations, are born into a situation where they do not have an unfair disadvantage when trying to move out of their social status and thus fall into a category that can make them more susceptible to racial prejudice and ideologies. The next subchapter will have a closer look at types of racism.  


The current subchapter aims at giving additional conceptions  of  the term ‘racism’ as well as outlining  basic types of racism proposed by several authorities(Reilly, Kaufman, Bodino:2003)(Fredrickson:2002). The given section suggests that there is obvious correlation between racism and slavery.

The website on racism ‘Anti-Defamation League’ defines racism as ‘the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another as well as that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics’.

According to Reilly, Kaufman and Bodino (2003:9), race has no basic biological reality, because all we see is just a colour or different texture of hair or shape of eyes, but it does not have any decisive influence over a person’s intelligence or other traits. As a result, ‘misconceptions about race have lead to forms of racism that have caused much social, psychological and social harm’ (Reilly et.al.2003:10). Additionally, Frederickson points out (2002:1) that ‘racism that is the antipathy of one group towards another’ that ‘can be expressed and acted upon with a single mindedness and brutality’.

Nevertheless, the same experts describe racism as prejudice or discrimination against other people because of their race, due to their biology or ancestry and physical appearance. This pattern is clearly visible in Twain’s work ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ when a slave named Jim runs away from his owner, whereas the whole city spreads out the rumours about him having killed Huck’s father. Their assumption is based on prejudice that all black people are savages, violent and ca not be trusted. Thus, their attitude towards, slaves can be described as racism, because they judged those people, due to their ancestry and physical appearance.

Although the term racism first came into common usage in 1930ies (as stated in the book ‘A Racism: a short history’) (Fredercikson, 2002:5), the act of discrimination is still there i.e. while reading  Twain’s literary works we can perceive how coloured people were treated in the American South.

This attitude or and approach of white superiority overwhelm the Southern society at the time when Huck Finn was embarking in his famous adventures on Mississippi river. A great deal of harm has been done to generations and in this particular case to Jim, Aunt Rachel and Huck Finn. The pain and burden of slavery of these characters are depicted in chapter three.

As to types of racism, the website on American Research and Geography called ‘Amerigis’ provides detailed information on types of racism. The types are as follows: Historical, Scientific, New, Spatial, Institutional, Internalized and Individual.

The online resource stated above claims that racism looks different today from it did thirty years ago. The author of the current paper finds important to mention that racism back in 19th century was blatant and caused so much pain and injustice to black race. Thus, the graduate proposes the idea that discrimination and injustice has derived from the time when slavery was acceptable even more it was the cornerstone of the South’s vision of sound social order.  The author of BA thesis asserts that such blatant discrimination has never been experienced in human history as it was back in early 19th century; it was the root of all evil caused to black race.

The classification of racism is based on several resources such as the Internet resource mentioned above, and three publications on racism

The types are as follows:

Cultural racism

According to Belgrave et al(2010:104)  cultural racism is expressed as assumed superiority of a language or dialect, values, beliefs, worldviews and cultural  heritage e.g., in the novel ‘Huckleberry Finn’ the slave named Jim is regarded as superstitious person whose beliefs and values are regarded as infantile  even compare to young white  lad like Tom Sawyer.

Individual Racism

The same scholar (ibid) explains that individual racism has the same meaning and features as of racial prejudice i.e. it assumes the superiority of one’s own racial group and justifies its domination and power over other race. For example, when Pap Finn gets all furious about a ‘white shirted free nigger to right to vote’, because he holds the view that black  race has no right to  freedom nor participate in elections.  As he states ‘they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote,’ [ thus he determines ] , ‘I’ll never vote agin as long as I live’.

Institutional Racism

The Internet source ‘American research and geographic information system’ point to „white privilege” that frequently is hidden, because it has become internalized and integrated as part of one’s outlook on the world by custom, habit and tradition. For example,  concerning antebellum society in the South of America if a white person helps a runaway slave towards freedom, ‘and in doing so he violets the laws of man, and he believes the laws of God’ (Hutchinson, 1998:130). The fact of helping slave that according to the Southerner rules is a deadly sin that sends a sinner into flames of hell. This points out that the church played a great role in peoples lives whereas any person who would disobey the given rule would be perceived as danger to their moral social order in the South. As a result, the southern upbringing does not allow Huck Finn to show his sympathy towards Jim, a runaway slave.

Slavery functioned as main social moral and religious issue in the South. The preceding sentences and extracts from Twain’s writings show that social order had a tremendous impact over members of the Southern society at the given time.  Nevertheless, at that time there were no subtle forms or hidden ways of showing one’s hate towards other race, unlike today where many people express their hate via the Internet. On the contrary, it was impossible to show sympathy towards a slave e.g., the runway slave Jim who has abused the system and has sinned against the owner Miss Watson, arises the question to Huck whether he deserves his freedom.

Additionally The psychologists Bhattacharya, Cross, Bhugra (2010:41) also give the classification racism based on the analysis of human behavior under certain circumstances, namely, being  exposed to people of other ethnicities in our global world. The author of the BA thesis will highlight the types which can be found in the following works ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘A True Story, Repeated for Word, as I heard It’

  1. dominative when a person acts out; 
  2. aversive when a person feels superior , but is unable to act;
  3. regressive when a person’sdue to his or her view on racism behaves regressively;
  4. pre-reflecting when a person has fear of strangers;
  5. post reflecting when a person justifies his fear of strangers;

The study on racism shows that it involves biased judgments on humans and their action e.g., racist determines what is good, correct, beautiful, sane, normal. Nevertheless, the historians and other experts of this field (Fredercikson, 2002), (Reilly, Kaufman, Bodino: 2003), (Carol: 1987) agree upon the view that  racism and the same slavery is seen as ideology, as practice as social structure. Whereas, Mark Twain’s writings reflect on slavery as doctrine, practice and social cornerstone of the America South in antebellum society that has brought so much injustice and pain, as well.

The next subchapter will explore the ideology of racism.


The chapter gives an insight into the ideology of racism as it is an important matter discussed, portrayed in history books and literature. Ideology is a body of beliefs that drives the goals and expectations of an individual or a group. According to Martin N. Marger (2006) “As a belief system, or ideology, racism is structured around three basic ideas:

  1. Humans are divided naturally into different physical types.
  2. Such physical traits as people display are intrinsically related to their culture, personality, and intelligence.
  3. The differences among groups are innate, not subject to change, and in the basis of their genetic inheritance, some groups are innately superior to others” (Marger 2006:19).

Thus, racism is a belief that people are divided into hereditary groups that are different in their social behaviour. Racist thinking states that differences among groups are innate. 

Carol Brunson argues that “the ideology of racism prescribes the parameters for perceiving social reality thereby defining guidelines for “desirable” interracial behaviour. Once the members of society are imbued with racist thinking, they will not only perceive their institutions as natural, they will voluntarily carry out institutional mandates as of they are a function of their own individual choice” (Carol Brunson, 1987:17).

According to the authors of the books on the ideology of race it can be seen that it is powerful and it persists in different forms of expression. Robert Miles’ work “Racism” is an essential reminder that racism is the object of ideological and discursive labouring. Robert Miles argues “Racism is best conceived primarily as an ideology for at least one other reason. Racism, qua ideology, was created historically and became interdependent with the ideology of nationalism. The argument that racism is a form of ideology is important and worth repeating” (Robert Miles, 2003:10).

When it comes to ideological components – assumptions of racism, Carol Brunson holds the following viewpoint: “Racist institutions not only create the structural conditions for racism, but also create a culturally sanctioned ideology that keeps the system operating. Racist ideology is a set of notions that ascribe central importance to real or presumed biological, cultural, and psychological differences among racial groups, attributing the arrangement of both historic and current social systems to these differences” (Carol Brunson, 1987:15). While ideological and cultural arguments are two pillars that support racism, one or other may be in the forefront at any given time. Stephen Gould states two assumptions of biologically based racist ideology:

  1. Humans are classifiable into discrete, hierarchically ranked biological groups (with whites at the top).
  2. Differences among the races reflect the natural and/or ordained order and therefore are eternally fixed (Gould, 1981:45).

Besides this biological argument, there exists also cultural argument, explaining the realities of the lives of people of colour. William Ryan (1976) defined blaming the victim as an ideological stance that locates the origins of social problems. Ryan identified four steps in victim blaming process. Locating social problem and population affected by it, comparison of values and behaviour of people affected by the social problem, locating the source off the problem in how the affected people are different from the successful ones, initiation of treatment that would change the affected people (Ryan, 1976).Victim blaming therefore provides a framework for explaining the problems of people of colour. It is also a framework for strategies to ameliorate the position of people of colour in our society.  Many people learn about the ideology of racism and families, schools and media contribute to this education. They learn and behave according to the dictates of racist ideology. Carol Brunson argues that very early, children of all backgrounds learn stereotypes about other groups regardless of whether they have contact with actual people (Carol Brunson, 1987:18). These stereotypes later shape people’s reality and they start judging and interpreting ideas and behaviours by their learnt stereotypes. Each person’s own judgement is not harmful but over time the prejudices may become poisonous and damaging.

 As it can be seen, there appear new arguments of racism and its ideology, justifying institutional, cultural and individual racism. While these new faces and arguments of racism try to cover the problem, racism and racist ideology are alive and existent in America. Racism affects us as individuals and the choices that we make in responding to it. Anti-racism education should require an immediate focus on each individual. The goal of the anti-racism education should be generation of development of individual consciousness, enabling people to become active initiators of the change in perception of racism. All people should be responsible for transformation of racism ideology. However, the situation is difficult because, while groups keep racism alive, the responsibility is not equally positioned. Yet, racism has always gone hand in hand with slavery, and it is a precedent to slavery.

Racism is evil. It is not a social problem that will gradually disappear through education and legislation. These alleviate the symptoms, but no more than that. The only cure is in understanding that evil is real. In the words of Jeffrey Burton Russell,

The essence of evil is abuse of a sentient being, a being that can feel pain. It is the pain that matters. Evil is grasped by the mind immediately and immediately felt by the emotions; it is sensed as hurt deliberately inflicted. The existence of evil requires no further proof: I am; therefore I suffer evil.

The definition implies two things: One, that every human being suffers evil. Two, every human being inflicts evil. Thus, the essence of the human condition is in how we live with evil.

Of necessity, then, evil has two faces – one is individual, the other is collective. That we as individuals will and do commit evil is unavoidable. Our efforts not to do evil, however, need the support of a collective, i.e. a society that not only recognizes evil but condemns it.

In contemporary America,

In her Gifford lectures, Hannah Arendt said: As citizens, we must prevent wrong-doing because the world in which we all live, wrong-doer, wrong-sufferer, and spectator, is at stake; the City has been wronged….We could almost define a crime as that transgression of the law that demands punishment regardless of the one who has been wronged….the law of the land permits no option because it is the community as a whole that has been violated.

America is struggling to reach a consensus that racism violates the community as a whole. It cannot do so as long as blacks are still excluded from a sense of community.

Blacks have no doubts or questions about their humanity and thus are made to suffer evil, an evil that is still not obvious to the white majority. Racism is an act of evil but white people do not hear the moaning of the wounded or the death rattles of the dying.

The evil of slavery, the evil of the Holocaust are written large. So much so that many are in danger of thinking that these cataclysms are the only ways in which racist evil expresses itself. That is why it is both ironic and maddening that so many blacks equate anti-Semitism only with the Holocaust and thereby conclude that because they would never condone the extermination of Jews they are not and could not be anti-Semitic. Non-blacks are equally culpable when they equate racism solely with acts of violence.

Because our perception of evil is limited to the dramatic, we have lost the capacity to recognize it. Evil has become so prosaic in appearance, manner and style that it is now woven into the fabric of the normal like smog, acid rain and K-mart. Hannah Arendt maintained that the horror of evil in the Third Reich was that it had “lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality of temptation.” The racist evil of contemporary America is as charismatic as an empty can of cat food. In her Gifford lectures, Hannah Arendt attempted again to describe the figure of Adolf Eichmann and what had so horrified her about him:

I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer…was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives, and the only noble characteristic one could detect in his past behavior as well as his behavior during the trial…was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness….It was this absence of thinking – which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination to stop and think – that awakened my interest. Is evildoing (the sins of omission, as well as the sins of commission) possible in default of not just “base motives”…but of any motives whatever, of any particular prompting of interest or volition? Is wickedness, however we may define it…not a necessary condition for evil- doing?

What Arendt saw in Eichmann is true of American society. This is not a country of wicked white people imbued with a virulent racism based on some principle or other. What exists is far more distressing. Racism has become a psychological habit, a habit many wish to dislodge, but it is so ingrained that they do not know where to begin. It is imperative, however, that they look, for as Goethe wrote in Wilhem Meister, “every sin avenges itself on earth.”

Where they must look is in themselves. Whites cannot feel the pain of blacks, Jews and women until they feel the pain they inflict on themselves by passively accepting a definition of Order that crowns whites as racially superior beings. I do not know why whites do not feel the evil they inflict on themselves because I see the evil of racism taking its revenge on a drug-addicted white society which did not care forty years ago when drugs appeared in black slums. If America had been able to feel then that black life is human, if America had been able to feel that racism is a silent evil inflicting pain as murderous to the human spirit as any weapon is to the body, it would have been alarmed and moved to alleviate the conditions that made drugs appear to be a viable alternative. If America had been able to conceive that black life is human life, thousands of white and black lives would not have been destroyed, literally and psychologically, since drugs entered white American society. I do not understand why white America cannot understand this simple principle: Everything white people do to black people, they will eventually do to each other.

 The ultimate evil of racism is not in its effects, but in the inability of white people to recognize themselves in black people. This evil will continue until white people take responsibility for that which they wish was not within them, namely, evil.

Ultimately, we must accept that evil is, that it is not something out there but something in here. It cannot be expunged because our humanity lies as much in our capacity to evil as

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