Mark Twain was known as a humorist and in fact, humor was a tool he used to strengthen his points about what he saw as the major problems of the day. Living at the time of the Civil War, he clearly saw and chose to address such problems as slavery, child abuse, religion and feuds. In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain expresses his loathing for some of these serious social problems and yet in general, he never loses his humorous touch.
Nonetheless, when he deals with the ills of society that particularly anger him, he chooses not to use humor; rather this is reserved for other areas of his work. One of the social problems that Mark Twain addresses in Huckleberry Finn is child abuse. Huck is abused by Pap many times during the book and is even locked into a cabin by Pap. Pap also tries to steal Huck’s six thousand dollars, and beats Huck frequently, which results in Huck running away. Pap puts down the idea of Huck getting an education.
Twain does use humor in his descriptions of some of the interactions between Pap and Huck. For example, the scene when Pap agrees to reform and stop drinking, but ends up getting drunk and falling over is actually funny, but tells us a lot about Pap’s character. Twain generally found the kind of behavior he described through the character of Pap to be disgusting, and by painting a humorous picture of the situation he emphasized his dislike of it. The humor perhaps made Pap seem even less sympathetic.
Another social problem that Mark Twain addresses in the book is slavery and treatment of black people in general. Jim, who is a black slave, is treated like a piece of property. For example, he is forced to practice Christianity, which actually seems to be the opposite of Christian values. Jim is also forcefully separated from his family and has no legal recourse to get them back. Jim is very superstitious, and Huck, who knows this, puts a dead snake, (representing bad luck) at the bottom of Jim’s bed and Jim gets bitten.
Even Huck, at this point in the book, threats Jim as less than human. illustrates Jim’s actual humanity by contrasting him and Pap as parents. He portrays black values as more humane than white ones. In the novel, it is suggested that one must flee in order to gain freedom. Both Huck and Jim are fleeing from tyranny, which is a dangerous process and too serious for Twain to portray humorously. Huck, himself is conflicted throughout the novel between his feelings for Jim and his sense that he is breaking the law for helping Jim escape.
When Huck plays the last joke on Jim, with the trash, he comes to realize that Jim is an equal. Finally, Jim informs Huck that if he and his children do not become free then he will get an abolishonist to help him escape. Huck is first very upset by this and feels he must turn Jim in, but changes his mind as he sees Jim as a person worthy of respect. To the modern reader Huck’s dilemma problems may seem funny, but in fact, he is torn between following the laws, however cruel they seemed, and doing what he comes to think was morally correct.
Thus, although Twain is generally known as a humorist and does indeed occasionally make use of humor emphasize his points, when he addresses issues that make him furious like child abuse and slavery he is very serious. Once in a while he puts in a memorable funny scene, but in general, he seems to find these issues too important to risk having people laugh, and therefore not realize the cruelty Huck and Jim, as representatives of parts of society, must face. Cruelty, in any form, in Twain’s views is not something to be laughed at.