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Virtue in Literature (8) – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Magnanimity (12th Grade)

One of my favorite anecdotes about Julius Caesar is as follows. Caesar and some of his men were in a rural area and invited to a private dinner. Their hosts, wanting to please them, tried to cook fancy Roman food. As part of the dinner they cooked asparagus in oil, but being provincials they confused cooking oil and perfume oil and cooked the asparagus in the latter. As a result, the food was rancid and tasted disgusting. Caesar, however, ate all of his food with a smile on his face. After the meal his troops complained about the food and insulted their hosts. Caesar quipped, ‘he who comments on the lack of breeding in another shows his own lack of breeding.’ Caesar’s ability to overlook the fault of his hosts is a great example of magnanimity.

Magnanimity is not a commonly used term. It is derived from two Latin words: magnus (great) and animus (soul); it literally means “great-soul”. A “great-souled” man or woman is one that can overlook or forgive faults. The greater the fault one can forgive, the greater the soul one has.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the runaway slave Jim embodies the virtue of magnanimity. Not only has he endured decades of enslavement, but after he runs away he is subject to a number of hardships and insults, from a prank that goes wrong and leads to him being bitten by a rattlesnake to being subject to Tom Sawyer’s adventurous hijinks that result in his false imprisonment. Throughout all his ordeals Jim consistently responds with patience, kindness, and even forgiveness to those that wrong him. He becomes a father-figured to the fatherless Huck, both having compassion on him and giving him sound advice. And when Tom’s foolishness leads to him being shot, Jim surrenders himself, as a fugitive runaway slave, in order to save Tom’s life. 

As many of you know, there is some controversy around this book and many schools have pulled it from their curricula. I think this is a mistake. Yes, it uses racist langauge that is completely indefensible, but this is a thoroughly anti-racist book. He does this by critiquing southern culture and highlighting the virtues of Jim.

Mark Twain was a fairly sarcastic individual, so he spends much of his time making fun of southerners. He characterizes one town as the type that spends it leisure ‘catching stray dogs, pouring turpentine on them, and lighting them on fire or tying pans to their tales so that they run themselves ragged.’ He insults the cowardice of southern culture as he mocks lynching (in this case the attempted lynching of a white man). Many of the characters in this book are violent, lying, and amoral and he contrasts these with the virtue of Jim.

The clearest example of Twain’s goal is seen in his depictions of Huck’s father. Huck’s father is a violent drunkard. He is abusive, deceitful, and he treats his son worse than most people treat their animals, by robbing him and even imprisoning him. Eventually his abuse becomes so acute that Huck fakes his own death to escape from his dad’s tyranny. Twain paints this picture because many of his readers would know of someone like Huck’s dad and all of them would be sympathetic to Huck. He then ties Huck and Jim together. The reader naturally feels bad for Huck, but Twain shows that Jim has suffered in the same way: he has been ill-used, separated from his family, robbed of the fruits of his labor, held captive on his mistress’s estate, and stuck in such an intolerable position that he is willing to risk his life for the chance to escape. By taking an extreme example of wickedness and abuse that his readers would understand (Huck’s dad) and tying it to the plight of a runaway slave, Twain showed his readers the wickedness and tyranny of slavery.

This is why we read this book; this is why we read old books. They are imperfect and sometimes they are even deeply flawed. But they have things of value. Many before us have profited from them and we believe our students can still profit from them today.