Oxford World’s Classics Book Club:
Arab Stereotypes in Huck Finn
In chapter 24 of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim complains to the duke that “it got mighty heavy and tiresome to him when he had to lay all day in the wigwam tied with the rope” (143) pretending to be a runaway slave. So the duke comes up with a clever solution, “He dressed Jim up in King Lear’s outfit…and then he took his theatre-paint and painted Jim’s face and hands and ears and neck all over a dead dull solid blue, like a man that’s been drownded[sic] nine days…Then the duke took and wrote a sign on a shingle…Sick Arab-but harmless when not out of his head.”
Wait, it gets worse.
“The duke told him to make himself free and easy, and if anyone ever came meddling around, he must hop out of the wigwam, and carry on a little, and fetch a howl or two like a wild beast.”
Poor Jim. First he is sidelined by being black and then he is encouraged to dress up as another marginalized race in pre-civil-war society, an Arab. Yet being a “sick Arab” is preferable to being a black, not complete freedom or equality, but the ability to conjure an aura of fear which allows him freedom in isolation.
What do you think Mark Twain was up to here? Was he illustrating a caste system in America or did he have another purpose? What do you think?