Section 6 Section 5 Section 4 Section 3 Section 2 Section 1
Huck Finn Teacher's Guide
Culture Shock Huck Finn in Context: The Curriculum

Section 3: The Development of Character in Huck Finn
  Suggested length: 7-10 days
The conventional approach to teaching Huck Finn assumes that Huck is the hero and center of the story and considers Jim only in relation to Huck and his moral growth. In Section III students are asked to consider a new paradigm. Professor Maghan Keita explains,

"I ask people to do a juxtaposition when confronting Jim. Take for a moment the notion that Huck is not the central character, but Jim is. How does this change notions of what this book is about? How is it that he -- a slave and a 'nigger' -- represents all the best qualities in the book, and how does he humanize Huck? How can Huck rise to heroic proportions without Jim? Jim teaches him how to be a hero."

In discussing the climax of the book, you may want to explore the idea that the climax comes when Huck apologizes to Jim.

This section asks students to examine who Jim and Huck are and how they change one another before considering other issues in the novel. It employs the kind of character analysis -- the concept of the hero, the struggle for identity -- that will be familiar to English teachers, and asks students to take what they have learned about stereotypes and apply them to the portrayal of Jim. Toni Morrison's contemplation of Jim's character also helps spotlight the issues surrounding the book as a whole.

In order to understand the environment in which Jim and Huck lived, students may need background information on the 1840s, particularly the slavery conflict that would eventually lead to the Civil War. To provide an overview of the period, you may want to use young adult history books such as Days of Sorrow, Years of Glory 1831-1850 (Milestones in Black American History series) by Timothy J. Paulson (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994) or Let My People Go: African Americans 1804-1860 (Young Oxford History of African Americans series) by Deborah White (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Companion Reading for Teachers and Students

Note: You may also want to use additional essays from these sources.

Cox, James M. "A Hard Book to Take." In Modern Critical Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, 87-108.

Morrison, Toni. "Introduction." In The Oxford Mark Twain, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Smith, David L. "Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse." In Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, edited by James Leonard et al. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992, 103-120.

Discussion Questions

  • What is your first reaction to Jim? How do you feel about him by the end of the novel? Why?

  • To what extent is Jim a stereotype? When and how does he break free of stereotypical roles?

  • Compare Pap's treatment of Huck with Jim's treatment of Huck and of his own daughter.

  • What is your reaction to Huck at first? How do you feel about him by the end of the novel? Why?

  • What determines who we are -- nature (inborn traits) or nurture (environment)? How do you think Jim and Huck were shaped by these factors?

  • Have students reread the passage in Chapter 31 of Huck Finn in which Huck talks about the conflict between what his heart tells him to do about Jim as his friend and what his conscience tells him to do about Jim as a slave. Reflecting back on the Jefferson essay (see Section II), how does a slaveholding society influence its members to see slaves as inhuman?

  • Twain wrote in a journal that "Huck Finn is a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat." What do you think he meant by "a sound heart and a deformed conscience?" How is "conscience" a theme in the novel in general?

  • What is a hero? Have students brainstorm a class definition. How is Jim a hero? How is Huck a hero?

  • What do you think is the climax of the novel? Why?


  • Have students work in small groups to find passages in the novel that reflect the plantation stereotypes they have studied. (You may want to direct them to particular chapters of the book that critics have targeted, such as Chapter 8 on investing money; the "French debate" in Chapter 14; Chapter 22 on stealing; Chapter 24 and the King Lear outfit; Chapter 42 and the entire ending in which Jim aids wounded Tom.) Does Jim ever go beyond being a stereotype? If so, when and how? Have a class debate or discussion in which each small group takes a stand that they can back up with evidence from the novel.

  • After choosing either Huck or Jim, have students to go back through the book and copy down lines, phrases, or words that describe that character or tell something important about him, or something he did, said, or thought. Then have the students arrange the words and phrases so that they tell something important about the character, forming a "character poem." Ask for student volunteers to read their work aloud. (This exercise can either begin or be the culmination of a class discussion about character analysis.)

  • Have students keep a reader's response journal about Jim, tracing their feelings about him as they read. At the end of the Huck Finn unit, have them write a concluding essay on how they feel about Jim overall.

  • Let student volunteers role play Jim and Huck. Let the class pose as reporters at a press conference. Have them list questions they'd like to have the characters answer-for example, they might ask Jim how he felt when he was "enslaved" again on Phelps Farm, or they might ask Huck to comment on what happened at the end of the book after he "lit out for the territories" -- and then conduct the interview. Afterward, ask students to review both the questions asked and the answers given. Are there any additions or corrections that should be made? Explore with the class new insights or observations they have about the characters.

  • Ask students to consider Professor Keita's suggestion that Jim, not Huck, is the central character. Do they agree or disagree? Have students defend their answer in the form of an essay, citing specific passages from the book to support their answer. You may want to hold a forum or town meeting where students can present their opinions individually or in small groups. To extend this activity, have students rewrite a scene from the book from Jim's point of view. How would it change the meaning of the book and the novel itself?

Next: Section 4: The Novel as Satire

See also: Controversy at Cherry Hill

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