We first meet Jim at the beginning of Chapter 2. He is the classic caricature: an ignorant, superstitious braggart who schemes a way to get a counterfeit quarter from young Huck with a mysterious hairball oracle. I believe this initial treatment of Jim is wholly intentional. One of the remarkable things about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the way our narrator changes as the story marches along. Instead of a moralized, sanitized account of events after the fact, we get from Huck his actual thoughts at the time he is having them. As a result, his ideas about Jim change with events in the narrative. It’s perhaps not realistic (nor, frankly, is the idea that the character Huck would sit down to write this book in the first place), but it is effective in letting us see a relationship slowly unfold.
When Huck first encounters Jim on the island, he learns that Jim has run away from his owner, Miss Watson. Huck makes a rash promise, one that he’ll have trouble keeping later on:
“(Y)ou wouldn’t tell on me if I ‘us to tell you, would you Huck?”
“Blamed if I would, Jim.”
“Well, I b’lieve you, Huck. I – I run off.”
“But mind, you said you wouldn’ tell – you know you said you wouldn’ tell, Huck.”
“Well, I did. I said I wouldn’t, and I’ll stick to it. Honest injun, I will. People would call me a lowdown Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum – but that don’t make no difference . . .”
Our first indication that Jim is more than a caricature comes when Huck and Jim are separated in a fog. After considerable trouble, Huck finds his way back to Jim and the raft. Jim, exhausted from the ordeal, has fallen asleep sitting up. Instead of greeting Jim, Huck decides to play a trick, making Jim believe that the fog and the separation were all just a dream. Afterwards, Huck reveals the damage and debris left by the adventure, asking Jim to explain it, and Jim responds:
“Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.” Then he got up slow and walked to the wigwam, and went in there without saying anything but that. But that was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back. 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. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d ‘a’ knowed it would make him feel that way.
Huck is beginning to see Jim in a different way. He’s not the caricatured sub-human Huck thought he was. Jim has feelings. But other forces tug on Huck, as well. Soon after the fog incident, Huck begins to feel guilty about promising to help Jim escape slavery.
I begun to get it through my head that he was most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, me. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest; I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more.
Huck soon faces a clear choice. While paddling to shore to learn their location, Huck encounters two men hunting for runaway slaves.
One of them says: “What’s that yonder?”
“A piece of a raft,” I says.
“Do you belong on it?”
“Any men on it?”
“Only one, sir.”
“Well, there’s five niggers run off to-night up yonder, above the head of the bend. Is your man white or black?”
I didn’t answer up prompt. I tried to, but the words wouldn’t come. I tried for a second or two to brace up and out with it, but I warn’t man enough—hadn’t the spunk of a rabbit. I see I was weakening; so I just give up trying, and up and says:
Huck goes on to tell as deft a lie as you’ll find in the book, convincing the men through what he doesn’t say that the man on the raft has smallpox and is deadly contagious. It’s the sort of cleverness that Huck denigrates in himself, though we see that his brains and his heart have once again saved the day. Huck feels no pride in his good deed, but only guilt. And we love him all the more for his self-deprecation.
Jim knows exactly what Huck has done.
“I was a-listenin’ to all de talk, en I slips into de river en was gwyne to shove for sho’ if dey come aboard. Den I was gwyne to swim to de raf agin when dey was gone. But lawsy, how you did fool ’em, Huck! Dat wuz de smartes’ dodge! I tell you, chile, I ‘spec it save’ ole Jim—ole Jim ain’t going to forgit you for dat, honey.”
Much later, Jim reveals more about his character to Huck, and again we see Huck surprised to learn that Jim is a human being.
I went to sleep, and Jim didn’t call me when it was my turn. He often done that. When I waked up just at daybreak he was sitting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself. I didn’t take notice nor let on. I knowed what it was about. He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.
All this, Huck’s guilt about helping Jim escape, his growing realization that Jim is a person, his knowledge that a choice is coming, and his insistence on being honest with himself – and with us – leads Huck to the climax of the book, and for me one of the great moments, maybe the great moment, in all of fiction.
Before we get to that, though, I promised another funny moment from this deeply funny book.
Early on in their adventure, before the fog, before the runaway slave hunters, Huck and Jim discuss the idea of “borrowing” to get the things they need. Huck says:
Every night now I used to slip ashore toward ten o’clock at some little village, and buy ten or fifteen cents’ worth of meal or bacon or other stuff to eat; and sometimes I lifted a chicken that warn’t roosting comfortable, and took him along. Pap always said, take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don’t want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain’t ever forgot. I never see Pap when he didn’t want the chicken himself, but that is what he used to say, anyway.