pros and cons of teach huckleberry finn mark twain

Pros and Cons of Teaching Huckleberry Finn

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It is essential that a teacher weigh the pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn and make mindful choices. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and controversy go together like, well, Huck and Jim. Every time a school district drops the novel from the curriculum, the national debate is renewed.

Even if you are required to teach the novel, examining the pros and cons of teaching Huck Finn enables you to avoid conflict and successfully defend your decisions. My mentor teacher’s best advice was that a teacher must always be prepared to eloquently justify every pedagogical decision. 

Pros and Cons of Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Cons

What are the main objections from educators, students, and society at large?

The use of dialect is a distraction.

As teachers we want our students to be able to code switch and use standard, academic English, so why would we teach a novel where even the narration is in dialect? The dialects in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are regional, informal, and antiquated.  Does this text create confusion and set bad examples?

If the objection is based on the use of antiquated forms, one might offer the same objection in order to drop Shakespeare from the curriculum as it is no longer standard.  Students must learn to approach and comprehend different forms of English (revered or otherwise).

Even though Twain’s language was the dialect of poor, common folk, it should not be so readily dismissed. After all, yesterday’s dialects and slang are today’s standard English. This is an opportunity for students to think about the nuances of language, the perceptions of language (including distinctions of class), and how language morphs over time, space, and social groups.

The book is too outdated, and students cannot engage.

Pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn outdated language and dialects
Photo by William Creswell

The setting of the book might as well be another planet for my students.  80% of Americans live in urban areas as compared to 20% in 1884My students are loathe to walk in the grass, so forget about getting them to relate with traveling down a river on a raft and living off the land. How can we expect students to engage?

Many of the jokes that killed in 1884 fall flat today (like jokes at the expense of royalty and Arkansans). Not only has the context changed but our collective sense of humor has changed. If you want students to understand how satire uses humor, why would you pick examples that are no longer funny?

It is true that many readers enjoy books that reflect their own experience, but great literature can also offer a window into a different experience.  If students never learn to relate to unfamiliar points of view and contexts, their literary experiences will be tragically limited.  Advanced readers learn to connect to the unusual, fantastic, and novel. It is my job to make sure that students can engage with the unfamiliar.

Pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn and unfamiliar contexts

The ending is lousy and diminishes the novel’s literary value.

One literary objection to teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is that the ending is irrevocably flawed. Critics argue that when Twain decided to finally finish the work, the novel lost its way and conclude that the ending degenerates into silliness and negates the thematic value of the entire narrative

Ernest Hemingway’s narrator in Green Hills of Africa famously explains,

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the N—– Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

In the end, Huck relinquishes the moral standing that he has agonizingly attained and regresses into meaningless Tom-foolery. Jim’s emancipation comes not in the form of a defiant triumph but through a post-dated technicality. Twain leaves the reader with the conclusion that the adventure has meant nothing.

Defenders of the ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn argue that the dissatisfaction is the point. The episode of freeing Jim, who is already free, is an allegory (and satire) of emancipation and the reconstruction era. Twain wants us to consider how Huck is led astray. Tom plays the role of the planter class and cannot comprehend the gravity of the injustice he has imposed. In this allegory, African Americans are free only in a technical sense, and the white establishment, like Tom Sawyer, is oblivious.

I don’t know which point of view I prefer, but I love to listen to my students argue the issue.  Some students feel that the ending represents a literary failure while others think that Twain makes a key point about America’s broken promise to African Americans.

Students may think that the novel condone’s Huck’s racism.

Twain and John T. Lewis photo
Twain with long-time friend John T. Lewis

The possibility of this misinterpretation is a major objection to teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnI would never teach this book below a high school level because this novel is not for readers that cannot recognize that Huck’s racism is being satirized.

Huck is racist. In this way he fits well into his society. He uses the n-word freely and his interpretations of Jim’s thoughts and actions are often based on racist stereotypesTwain understands Huck’s racist point of view but is satirizing rather than condoning it.

Students must note Huck’s misinterpretations of Jim’s behavior. A thoughtful, critical reader recognizes that while Huck perceives Jim’s honesty, kindness, and courage he fails to perceive Jim’s ingenuity and guile. Huck is intelligent in many ways, but his racism makes him ignorant in fully understanding Jim. Jim must where the mask of Jim Crow at times in order to navigate the precarious route to freedom. 

In thinking about the pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn, make sure that your students can navigate this issue.  A reader who thinks critically identifies Huck’s misinterpretations and Twain’s satire of racist views.

Outbound link: “Mark Twain and African Americans” explores the influences that shaped Twain’s rejection of racism.

This factor and the emotional harm that the racist point of view might cause students are the most important considerations in weighing the pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn.

Several of the illustrations included in the original (and approved by Twain personally) are unforgivable.

One troubling issue is Twain’s personal approval of the original illustrations by E.W. Kemble.  Twain had personal approval of the illustrations for the first edition, yet the edition includes terribly racist portrayals.  

Twain complained about the illustrations from Kemble’s first batch (chapters 1-12), resulting in a less insulting portrayal of Jim in later chapters. Nevertheless, the illustrations for the early chapters were approved.

Mark the difference in Jim’s portrayal before and after Twain’s feedback:

pros and cons of teaching huckleberry finn and racist illustrations
Jim in chapter 2
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and portrayals of Jim
Jim in chapter 13

The persistent use of the n-word and hateful stereotypes harms the students.

Beyond the arguments of anachronism and literary merit, the essential objection to teaching the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn asserts that the novel causes emotional and/or developmental harm to the students.

When a student says that presence of the n-word or racist portrayals is creating negative feelings, we must take this concern very seriously. Many students would not admit to this sensitivity, but the harm may be occurring nonetheless.

There is no easy answer here. How can we balance the well-being of the students with our obligation to explore the troubling issues of America and its past? I offer no solution. Whether you decide to teach the original novel, keep the n-word silent, teach a version that removes the n-word, or drop the novel entirely, be prepared to defend you choice.

I do teach the novel, but I tell students that I do not want to hear the n-word aloud. I also explore this debate with the students so that they can voice their own views and objections.  Sending a letter home explaining your views on the novel, your approach, and requesting feedback might be the best way to prevent problems.

Pros and Cons of Teaching Huckleberry Finn:  Pros

How does a teacher justify the inclusion of the novel? Whatever your views on the pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn, there are elements that make the novel a masterpiece for many.

The structure of Huckleberry Finn is brilliant.

Pros and cons of teaching huckleberry finn and structure
The American Odysseus

Twain structures Huckleberry Finn as an American odyssey. Our protagonist is not the nobility of antiquity, but, like America itself, an ignorant upstart. Huck, like Odysseus, must use his wits to overcome all of the adventures and adversaries in his path.  The internal flaw with which he contends is not hubris but closed-mindedness.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn gives secondary students the opportunity to develop a more nuanced view of narrative structure.  The novel demonstrates a traditional plot structure, but it has been enhanced with episodes, sub-plots, and parallel plots.  Even the sub-plots have sub-plots. Despite these complexities, Twain artfully weaves a cohesive whole.

Students need to develop a more complex understanding of point of view and unreliable narration.

A key pro of teaching Huckleberry Finn is the opportunity for students to develop a more analytical approach regarding point of view.  The fact that Huck is a racist boy telling his story of aiding a freedom-seeker is essential to the resonance of the novel. We pull for him in spite of his prejudice. Huck (like America in 1884) must overcome internal racial bias to do what is right.

Because of this prejudice, Huck is an unreliable narrator. He is not trying to deceive us; he is telling us the facts as he knows them. Herein lies the problem, he sees the facts through his racist lens.

Twain gives us many examples that show that, despite their love for one another, Huck fails to recognize Jim’s intellect and point of view. Huck is oblivious to the fact that Jim must go along with people’s silly notions because, as a freedom-seeker, he is at their mercy. Performance is an important motif of Huckleberry Finn, and Jim’s behavior is no exception. Jim must wear a mask of idiocy and subservience, even with his friend Huck.

Pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn and point of view

Evidence that Jim is performing:

  • Jim doesn’t reveal that Pap is dead (feigning concern for Huck’s feelings when it is more likely that he wants to retain Huck’s assistance).
  • He suspects that Huck is about to turn him in but says otherwise and reminds Huck of their friendship.
  • He goes along with Tom’s charade until there is a life-threatening inclusion (rattlesnakes).
  • He uses superstitions to direct Huck since he cannot do so overtly.
  • He argues thoughtfully (including pointing out the shortcomings of Huck’s analogy between the sounds of animals and different languages).
  • He knows that he can scold Huck for pranking him but not Tom; Jim acts as though both boys are his friends, but he knows the truth of the matter.
  • He cleverly tests the King by feigning interest in French.

The symbolism and allegory in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn must be studied.

Pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn symbolism
Photo by SportsandHistoryReader521

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn demonstrates symbols and allegories exquisitely. The symbols of the river and the raft are organic, beautiful, nuanced, and multi-faceted. The book contains specific allegories (e.g., breaking Jim out of prison) and is an allegory as a whole. Huck, in reluctantly learning to oppose racism, personifies America itself.

In thinking about the pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn, the opportunity to analyze these symbol and allegory is paramount.

There is no better text to explore satire and irony. Twain’s satire of racist views gives the novel societal merit.

Twain mercilessly satires everything in view. He lambastes society, morality, racism, politics, honor, status, romanticism, propriety, and humanity generally.

Specific satires in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

  • Tom Sawyer (romantic notions)
  • Huck Finn (moral justifications)
  • The Grangerfords (honor)
  • Freeing Jim from prison (American slavery)
  • Townsfolk in Parkville (social pressure) (self-interest)
  • Arkansans (human nature)
  • Boggs (courage)
  • The murderers on the steamship (moralizing)
  • The lynch mob (human nature) (social pressure)
  • The duke and the king (human nature) (nobility)
  • Col. Sherburn (honor)
  • The ferry operator (greed)
  • Pap Finn (voting rights)
  • Emmeline Grangerford (obsessing on loss)
  • Tom Sawyer’s gang (childish understandings)

Of course, the essential satire (a humorless one) is of slavery and racism as the ultimate American hypocrisy. To the society in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, enslaved people are simultaneously people and objects.

Satire of slavery and racism:

  • Mrs. Phelps is relieved that no on is harmed in a river boat accident even though a slave was killed.
  • Jim is imprisoned in a shed and later treated as an honored guest by the same family.
  • The king scolds the duke for allowing the Wilks’ slaves to take the blame for a theft but not for forcibly separating their families and community.
  • The act of capturing freedom seekers is seen as a boon carrying no more moral weight than “picking up money in the street.”
  • When the doctor recognizes Jim’s heroic and noble nature, he concludes that Jim must be worth a thousand dollars.

Students need to think about America and race.

For me, the main issue regarding the pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn is to face American racism. America has a legacy of racism unlike any other nation – a legacy that continues to bear bitter fruit. This legacy must be faced, explored, and understood if America, like Huck, can learn to oppose racism despite its foundational biases.

Exploring the controversy over the inclusion of Huckleberry Finn in the classroom engages critical thinking.

Students should explore the controversy as we have.  Has the book’s fame outlived its value? I do not like to start from the premise that “this is a critical piece of literature, and you must read it because everybody says so.”  I would rather offer up the novel, explore it objectively from varying points of view, and allow students to reach their own conclusions.

The Pros and Cons of Teaching Huckleberry Finn Conclusion.

Difficult decisions are a part of teaching. Teachers face dilemmas on a daily basis and on a long-term philosophical basis. There are compelling reasons to include the novel as well as serious objections. Only you can decide what is best.  

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn teaching unit
My complete unit has pre-reading activities, reading quizzes, dozens of lessons, assessment tasks, and exam banks.

If you do decide to teach the novel after weighing the pros and cons of teaching Huckleberry Finn, consider using my complete The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn unit and teacher guide.

Related post: 30 Tips for Teaching Huckleberry Finn

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