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Last post, I started discussing how Mark Twain uses language in The Adventures Huckleberry Finn to, as Stephen Railton notes, address “an individual’s psychological enslavement to cultural preconceptions, epistemological prejudices.” Twain achieves this in multiple ways throughout the novel, and to highlight a few of the specific places where he uses language to juxtapose the ways that characters treat and refer to Black and White characters. The discussion below is in no way exhaustive, but it is meant to serve as an entry point into a deeper examination of how Twain uses language to expose “psychological enslavement” and to hopefully free individuals from their “cultural preconceptions.”

One of the key linguistic distinctions in the novel occurs with “borrow” and “steal.” Both of these terms are similar, but “borrow” has the connotation that the individual intends to return an item once he or she is done with it. On the other hand, “steal” means that an individual will take something from another person, without permission, and with no intention of paying the person back. Throughout the novel, Huck uses “borrow” to relate to items such as chickens, watermelons, or other items that he would take and consume. As for “steal,” Huck uses it when referring to helping Jim escape slavery. This is a difference that needs to be teased out some more.


In Chapter XII, Huck ponders the term “borrow”:

Mornings before daylight I slipped into cornfields and borrowed a watermelon, or a mushmelon, or a punkin, or some new corn, or things of that kind.  Pap always said it warn’t no harm to borrow things if you was meaning to pay them back some time; but the widow said it warn’t anything but a soft name for stealing, and no decent body would do it.  Jim said he reckoned the widow was partly right and pap was partly right; so the best way would be for us to pick out two or three things from the list and say we wouldn’t borrow them any more—then he reckoned it wouldn’t be no harm to borrow the others.  So we talked it over all one night, drifting along down the river, trying to make up our minds whether to drop the watermelons, or the cantelopes, or the mushmelons, or what.

Here, Huck parses out what he means by the word “borrow.” For Huck, he initially follows Pap’s definition of “borrow,” essentially, if he planned to ‘pay them back sometime,” it was alright to “borrow” something. However, the widow claims that “borrow” is nothing more than stealing. Jim convinces Huck that the widow and Pap are both right, in their own way, and this leads the two to decide what they feel comfortable with borrowing.

Juxtaposed against “borrow,” though, is “steal.” In Chapter XVI, Jim talks about what he will do once he is free. He plans to buy his wife’s freedom, and then the two of them plan to buy their children out of slavery. If that does not work, they will hire “an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.” Key here, of course, is the word steal. Jim’s use of steal causes Huck to freeze up and contemplate how he feels about Jim.

It most froze me to hear such talk.  He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before.  Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free.  It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.”  Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking.  Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.

Unlike the “borrowing” of watermelons or other sundry items, Huck becomes disturbed by Jim’s assertion that he will steal his children. To Huck, while the children may biologically be Jim’s, they are the property of someone else. Here, he does not see Jim, Jim’s wife, or Jim’s children as human; instead, he only views them as capital and property for others. Hence, “stealing becomes something illegal in Huck’s eyes.

Even when Huck realizes Jim’s humanity, he still frames his plan to free Jim as stealing. He thinks to himself, “And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again.” Huck still sees Jim as Miss Watson’s property; thus, he equates his actions with stealing not liberating. This linguistic distinction is important. Huck’s “psychological enslavement” runs deep and cannot be overcome by a mere shift in how he views Jim. Huck still maintains the conceptions of power that exist within his world, and it will take time for him to realize that he is not stealing Jim but liberating him.

Another important linguistic moment occurs in Chapter XI when Huck speaks with Judith Loftus to learn about what is occurring in town. Judith tells Huck that some the townspeople think Jim murdered Huck because he ran off the same night that Huck’s father found the “remains” of Huck. She talks about the $300 reward for Jim and that her husband has gone off searching Jackson’s Island for any trace of Jim. Judith sees Jim as property, and since he ran way, she sees a chance to make some money by having her husband find Jim and return him to Miss Watson.


During the conversation, lets Huck know that she realizes he is lying to her. She knows that he is not Sarah Williams and that he is a boy. Huck tries to maintain his charade, but Judith presses. She knows that Huck is running away, and she tells him, “You see, you’re a runaway ’prentice, that’s all.  It ain’t anything.  There ain’t no harm in it. You’ve been treated bad, and you made up your mind to cut.  Bless you, child, I wouldn’t tell on you.  Tell me all about it now, that’s a good boy.” Just like Jim, Huck as run away; however instead of treating Huck like property, she treats him as a human, seeing his suffering, something she does not do for Jim.

Judith even tells Huck, “I’ll do what I can to get you out of it.”  She then tells Huck where to go and what to do to avoid coming across anyone else. Judith would not do this for Jim. If her or her husband discovered Jim, they would capture him and return him for the reward. By creating this juxtaposition, Twain shows the stark differences between Jim and Huck and the false constructions created to maintain the institution of slavery and the subjection of others solely based on constructed ideas of inferiority and superiority.  There are other instances in the novel where Twain sets up these same juxtapositions.

In Chapter XXXII, Aunt Sally asks if anyone was killed in the steamboat explosion that Huck tells her about. Huck replies, “No’m.  Killed a nigger.” Sally simply responds, “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt” before telling Huck about a white man who died in a steamboat explosion. Sally denies humanity to the Black man that Huck mentions while she recognizes the humanity of the White man. Like Judith’s dismissal of Jim’s plight and acceptance of Huck’s plight, Sally highlights how her “psychological enslavement” affects her views of others.

These are not the only instances that I could discuss in this post, but I think they are some of the most important. Stay tuned next post for a discussion of E.W. Kemble’s illustrations. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

2 Comments on ““The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Language Part 2

  1. I very much enjoyed your discussion of the distinction between “borrowing” and “stealing.” As I read this, I was reminded of Richard Poirier’s discussion of _Huck Finn_ in his book _A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature_. His general thesis–which clearly applies to Huck–is that American writers see language as a way to create a kind of space that militates against the socio-cultural status quo. Huck comes of age in a world in which the worst thing you can accuse someone else of being is an Abolitionist; no wonder he’s all but inarticulate when it comes to arguing on behalf of helping Jim escape–and no wonder why he can’t extend that argument to a general condemnation of slavery.

    Thank you again for posting this.


  2. Pingback: Language in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” | Interminable Rambling

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