Do Huck and Jim forge a friendship that transcends the limits of race? Or do race and racism prove inescapable?

Much of the scholarly criticism written on Mark Twain’s masterpiece Huckleberry Finn analyzes the novel’s depiction of and attitude toward race and racism. Over the years, readers have asked whether Huckleberry Finn is a racist boy or a smart kid eager to interrogate the bigoted beliefs of white society; whether Twain portrays Jim as a three-dimensional human or as a collection of stereotypes; and to what degree Twain himself shared the racist views he parodies in his novel. While Huckleberry Finn is a novel obsessed with race, however, it is also a novel obsessed with the absence of race. Huck and Jim find happiness only on Jackson’s Island, the site of their first meeting, where the two manage to briefly transcend race altogether. Because of their unusual circumstances, Huck and Jim momentarily turn their identities upside down, an achievement Twain portrays as deeply desirable.

Huck and Jim are uniquely suited to the blurring of race and identity that occurs on Jackson’s Island. Both are intelligent, despite their lack of formal education; both question conventional wisdom and view events from a skewed angle; and both are good at heart and tend to empathize with people, including those who are unlike themselves. In addition, both are outsiders in society. As a slave, Jim is viewed as less-than-human by whites. While Huck is infinitely more privileged because of his whiteness, he is nonetheless an outlier due to his poverty, his drunken, violent father, and his frequent homelessness. Because of their smarts, their inquisitiveness, their compassion, and their mutual alienation from society, Huck and Jim are far less likely than other characters in the novel to view race as a rigid mold into which people are poured at birth.

On Jackson’s Island, Huck and Jim achieve a kind of racelesness. Here, they don’t act like an escaped slave and a white kid on the lam; they act like partners, helping each other and, as Jim does for Huck, forgiving each other. Their identities become fluid. In Chapter 9, Jim becomes a father figure to Huck, reversing the traditional slave-master relationship. Jim conceals the shocking sight of Pap’s corpse from Huck, a gesture that conveys Jim’s protective paternal qualities and suggests that, though Huck has lost his biological father, he has gained a spiritual one. In this moment, Pap’s role transfers to Jim, and Jim steps into the shoes of a middle-aged white man. Later, in Chapter 10, Huck takes on the identity of a girl, donning a dress and practicing a feminine shtick. These wild reversals suggest that on the island, identities are turned on their heads. There is no doubt that Twain heartily condones this topsy-turviness. He portrays Jackson’s Island as an Eden, a glorious refuge where food abounds. Anything that happens there, he suggests, is desirable and good.

The charmed time cannot last long, however. Almost before it has begun, it ends, and Jim and Huck find themselves back in their familiar, polarized world, where kind women speak cheerfully about hunting down escaped slaves and Huck feels guilty about his failure to turn in Jim, Miss Watson’s “stolen property.” Their identities continue to slip and shift throughout the novel; after all, simply by traveling together and relying on each other, Huck and Jim blur the racial boundaries between them. But the realities of race weigh heavily on them after they leave Jackson’s Island. The extreme brevity of their raceless idyll suggests that it is nearly impossible to create a society that doesn’t classify people according to the color of their skin. But the fact that the idyll exists at all, even for a moment, demonstrates Twain’s fundamental optimism about the future of race relations in America.