Tuesday, December 20, 2005



Discussion Questions

Why is the teaching and reading of Huck Finn so controversial?

How have the criticisms about the book changed over the years?

How do these various criticisms reflect a changing America?

How does knowing about the history of the controversy make you feel about reading the book?

Under what circumstances, if any, do you think a book should be taken off a school's reading list and/or out of its library?

What are stereotypes? Why and how are they formed? Have students form a working definition of the word "stereotype" as they did with "racism" in Section I.

How were stereotypes used to justify slavery? To reassure slave owners?

Why might slaves themselves have reinforced stereotypes?

How have slave stereotypes influenced portrayals of African Americans today?

What do the Hughes and Dunbar poems express?

What are some "masks" that oppressed groups use? What is the function of such a mask? How can masks be used as a form of resistance?

What is your first reaction to Jim? How do you feel about him by the end of the novel? Why?

To what extent is Jim a stereotype? When and how does he break free of stereotypical roles?

Compare Pap's treatment of Huck with Jim's treatment of Huck and of his own daughter.

What is your reaction to Huck at first? How do you feel about him by the end of the novel? Why?

What determines who we are -- nature (inborn traits) or nurture (environment)? How do you think Jim and Huck were shaped by these factors?

Have students reread the passage in Chapter 31 of Huck Finn in which Huck talks about the conflict between what his heart tells him to do about Jim as his friend and what his conscience tells him to do about Jim as a slave. Reflecting back on the Jefferson essay (see Section II), how does a slaveholding society influence its members to see slaves as inhuman?

Twain wrote in a journal that "Huck Finn is a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat." What do you think he meant by "a sound heart and a deformed conscience?" How is "conscience" a theme in the novel in general?

What is a hero? Have students brainstorm a class definition. How is Jim a hero? How is Huck a hero?

What do you think is the climax of the novel? Why?

Why do you think the author chose Huck -- an illiterate young boy -- as the voice through which to tell this story?

Why have the Phelps Farm section and the ending of the novel been considered problematic by critics over the years? How does the current controversy echo and extend those complaints?

Is Mark Twain speaking through Huck, or do you think Huck's point of view is different from Twain's? Explain.

Is Twain speaking through Jim, or is Jim's point of view different from Twain's? Explain.

Who uses the word "nigger"? Based on who is speaking, what might have been the effect on a nineteenth-century reader? What do you think Twain is saying in how he uses the word?

Huck begins and ends the novel by revealing his discomfort with being "sivilized." Why do you think he feels this way? What do you think Twain's message is?

Does Huck Finn contain a realistic portrayal of slave life? Why or why not?

In what ways did slaves resist?

How did Jim maintain his pride, dignity, and integrity, despite being enslaved? How did he resist slavery?

What did freedom mean to Jim?

What did freedom mean to Huck?

How does reading Douglass's autobiography affect your understanding of and feelings about Huck Finn?

Douglass writes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; now you shall see how a slave was made a man." What does he mean? How can you apply this quote to the story of Jim in Huck Finn?

Look again at the class definition of a hero. Does Frederick Douglass fit the description? How does he compare to Jim and Huck?



Choose one or more of these culminating activities to wrap up the unit.
Some people feel that race relations in America today are still influenced by the legacy of slavery. What is that legacy? How does it relate to reading Huck Finn? Throughout the unit, have students individually or in small groups collect newspaper and magazine articles, music lyrics, poems, excerpts from books, artwork, and so forth, that they believe in some way expresses how America is still affected by slavery today. At the end of the unit students can either do a short oral or multimedia presentation on their findings, or they can create a "book" in which these findings are collected and annotated.

Is or isn't Huck Finn racist? Does reading Huck Finn help or harm race relations? Have students stage a mock trial with the book or Mark Twain as the defendant. (You may want to visit this site which contains a detailed lesson plan on staging a trial, developed by teacher Diane Walker.) Have students present the evidence they have been gathering. Students could also explore this question in a talk show format featuring Huck, Jim, Twain, and anyone else -- real or imagined, living or dead -- they believe might add to the conversation. Before doing this activity, it may be helpful to have students first revisit the class definition of racism.

Writer David Bradley notes that many have criticized the ending of Huck Finn but "none of them has been able to suggest -- much less write -- a better ending. . . . They failed for the same reason that Twain wrote the ending as he did: America has never been able to write a better ending. America has never been able to write any ending at all." What do you think he means? Ask students to imagine they were Mark Twain's editor and to write Twain a letter explaining why and how he should change the ending. (To extend this activity, have students actually rewrite the ending, and compare their versions to the original.)

Gerry Brenner, in his essay More Than a Reader's Response: A Letter to 'De Ole True Huck' (in A Case Study in Critical Controversy: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan, Boston: Bedford Books, 1995) pretends Jim has read Huck Finn and written a response in which he sets the record straight. Ask students to do the same, or pretend to be Jim writing a short review of the book. How would Jim's version differ from Huck's? Have students compare and contrast their ideas with Brenner's article.

Have students write a scene or a "treatment" for a new movie or novel, set in contemporary times, in which Huck and Jim meet and become friends. Who would they be today? What would their issues be? Where would their journey take place?

Ask students to write Huck's diary entry if he were to visit their high school in the present day. What would he think of what he sees?

Have students review the case of Kathy Monteiro and her complaint to the Tempe, Arizona, school board, as shown in the Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn film. Do they agree or disagree with her? Let groups or individual students prepare a presentation to a Board of Education in which they argue either for or against teaching the novel in the school curriculum. Remind students to anticipate the objections that might come from different members of the community, including parents, teachers, religious leaders, students, and administrators.

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