We Are Our Own Demise: the Risk of Ignorance in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

By: Annalie Buscarino.

Written as part of the course “Intro to American Literature”

“Don’t run no resk,” Jim warns Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ironically, both Jim and Huck, among other renowned literary characters, actively court risk into their own lives.The characters of the books The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass suffer unnecessary levels of risk as a result of human ignorance. The ignorance of the American public in regard to the horrors of slavery exposes African Americans in the United States to inevitable and endless abuse. Ignorance also stems from immaturity, which retains an innate type of crudeness that comes from a lack of understanding of independence and its consequences. When blinded from the knowledge of such natural processes and having been repressed from seeing the truth, the characters of each book incur imminent amounts of risk. On the other hand, when they are enlightened, each of the literary figures enjoys personal experiences of success. The restrictions placed by human ignorance prevent people from accessing a complete sense of safety.

Being born an African American warrants inevitable and excessive risk. It is the ignorance of the American public that allowed slavery to prosper in the United States. The public’s contented blindness to the “injustice, exposure to outrage, or savage barbarity…the banishment of all light and knowledge” allowed the institution to persist (40, 58). The extensive violence of Douglass’ initial overseer, Mr. Plummer, is a prime synecdoche of such a theory, as his master’s failure to be aware of Plummer’s brutality allowed the overseer to indulge in cruelty without punishment (50). As Douglass’ master was ignorant and thus unresponsive to the violence of the vicious overseer, so too was America unaware of and unmotivated to address the brutality of slavery. The public’s ignorance was drawn from an illusion that slavery was a civilized practice, partly due to the fact that slaves would falsely preach of their happiness in fear that otherwise, they may accidentally complain to their overseer, whom they haven’t seen before, and be shipped off to a more infamous plantation as punishment (62). The aversion to truth thus perpetuated the practice of slavery and maintained a permanency of risk for all African Americans.

The ignorance that fueled the practice of chattel slavery consequently instituted an outrageous risk as an everyday phenomenon for African Americans. As a boy, Frederick Douglass verified that slaves “never knew when they were safe from punishment” (62). Even when they had run away to the North, former slaves continuously ran the risk of exposure; William Lloyd Garrison explained “there is no single spot… where a fugitive slave can plant himself and say ‘I am safe’” (45). The fear of slavery was great enough that even Jim, an escaped slave in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, contemplated death via drowning opposed to surviving and risking being sold to the South (86). The innumerable and unnecessary horrors of slavery made it clear that African Americans could not be safe in the United States despite their status of bondage or freedom.

Immaturity yields a sense of ignorance that often indulges in foolish risk. Childhood does not provide enough experiences for children to identify the consequences of their actions. For example, when Huck jokingly places a dead rattlesnake in Jim’s sleeping spot, he fails to consider the resulting appearance of the snake’s mate, who bites Jim and sends him into a superstitious frenzy (63-64). The threat to Jim’s health ultimately resulted from Huck’s inability as a child to realize the consequences of his actions. Likewise, Henry’s lack of real-life conflict throughout his childhood in The Red Badge of Courage prompted his insecurity of the ability to stand his ground in battle (178). Henry’s preservation from the external and internal struggles of war disabled him from the certainty of his own bravery, thus inciting his fear of fleeing during confrontation. Frederick Douglass was also intellectually limited by his experiences as a child, since his constant relationship with abuse and neglect raised the risk of his disappointment in mistakenly identifying Ms. Auld as a selfless Christian woman when she in fact proved to be a conforming southern female (177). The constraints on child intellect and experience enable risk to occur naturally in the lives of children.

As children, the main characters in The Red Badge of Courage, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn must face the risk of relying on the opinion of others opposed to trusting the validity of their own due to their own immaturity. Henry, of The Red Badge of Courage, dreams of enlisting in the army to experience the glory of war. When he realizes its rather cold realities, Henry childishly blames his desires on political propaganda opposed to his own free will (145-157, 188). Henry concedes that his decisions were made under the pressure of societal influence and not his own. In displacing the guilt about the illusion of war away from himself, Henry not only unintentionally reflects on his immaturity, but makes a claim that the influence of societal institutions clouded his expectations about the nature of warfare. Huckleberry Finn was similarly blinded by Tom Sawyer’s influence when embarking on his own adventures, deciding to board the wrecked steamboat with the certainty that Tom Sawyer would not allow such an opportunity to go unexplored (76-77). Since Huck essentially carries the idea of Tom Sawyer with him throughout the entirety of his adventures, he makes his decisions based on the probable decisions of Tom, ultimately courting extravagant risk into his life. Frederick Douglass was also oppressed by the desires of others, as “it [was] the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves…ignorant….A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood” (47). In withholding basic information from slaves throughout their childhood (such as birthdays, family relations, or literacy), slaveholders prevented them from being intellectually equipped to eventually fight for their own freedom. The oppression of ulterior influences prevents each character from being able to rely on his own intellect and rather face exposure to intellectual manipulation.

When distracted by concepts larger than themselves, the characters of each book unintentionally court unnecessary levels of risk. With the failure to appreciate the implications of self-preservation, each character invites risk directly into his life. When the tall soldier of The Red Badge of Courage“[develops] virtues”, he washes his shirt in the river in full sight of enemy lines (173). Because the tall soldier was focused on values of cleanliness and honor, he completely disregarded danger in order to achieve the respect of his peers. Tom Sawyer, in his pursuit of adventure, conducts a superfluous plan to “free” Jim from captivity (though he realizes that Jim was in fact a free slave) that results in him being shot in the calf (242, 278-279). Because both the tall soldier and Tom focus on ideas beyond their own self-preservation, they expose themselves to injury. On the other hand, the overseers of Frederick Douglass’ experience pursued drastic means of self-preservation: “’It is better that a dozen slaves suffer under the lash, than that the overseer should be convicted, in the presence of slaves, of having been at fault’” (65). In focusing only on their own reputations, overseers risk the suffering of a large quantity of slaves. The ignorance that stems from narrow-mindedness and misplaced focus places the characters of each book in exorbitant danger.

In an effort to satisfy their own desires, people manipulate knowledge to blind others from their true intentions. Since Jim depends on Huck for his freedom inThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he conceals Pap’s dead body to prevent Huck from seeing it and consequently wishing to return home (62). In making Huck ignorant to his own reality, Jim is able to avoid the risk of isolation in the wilderness or else being turned in by Huck while simultaneously placing Huck at risk in his continuously boyish pursuit of hazardous adventures. On a much grander scale, the South interpreted Christianity to justify their use of the system of slavery (39, 42, 50). In perpetuating God’s word as one of consent for the peculiar institution, the South made an entire nation blind to their harsh intentions while placing African Americans under continuous risk. Through the manipulation of knowledge, people obscure their selfish intentions and are able to consistently place others at risk.

When enlightened to different aspects of their own nature, the figures of each book enjoy various levels of successes. When each of the characters act on an enlightened state, they are most successful. Huck’s knowledge of geography and of basic skills for survival enable he and Jim to thrive in their exile (74-75). For Henry, questioning soldiers alleviates his internal conflict in that he realizes that not all first-time fighters display bravery in battle and that the only way to achieve a sort of self-understanding on the matter is to engage in battle himself (180-181). Most significantly, it is when Frederick Douglass conditions himself to be literate that he is able to write an account relaying the horrors of slavery that prompts a unified call for its abolition (38, 78). It is when each main character breaks through the binds of ignorance that he finally experiences relative success in regard to his own cause.

Human ignorance courts vast levels of risk as illustrated through the accounts of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The public’s blindness to the horrors of slavery obscured any motivation for abolition while placing African Americans at a perpetual risk to their lives and to their freedom. Immaturity brings on its own form of risk, as childhood does not yield enough experience for adolescents to appreciate the repercussions of their actions and renders them vulnerable to the manipulative influences of others. When characters then restrict their mindsets to only certain aspects of self-interest they place themselves or others at a superfluous amount of risk. The oppression of ignorance is reasserted when, in each book, the characters enjoy moments of success when they finally experience an enlightened state of mind. The implications of human ignorance are therefore detrimental to the safety and well-being of all who suffer from it.

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