The conversations between Huck and Jim about King Solomon are among the most humorous and linguistically complex passages in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The literary lens of Polyglossia helps us to understand that the two characters are speaking across and around each other’s cultural views of the world with little appreciation of the other’s position. First of all, Huck is a thirteen-year old lad and Jim is an adult runaway slave. Huck had been an uneducated social outcast who, in the previous year, had bee sivilized by his foster parent, Miss Watson, who required him to attend school and church. But as readers learned from Tom Sawyer, a little education can be a very dangerous thing. As a slave, Jim would not have been allowed to attend the same schools or church as his white counterparts. However, Jim represents the voice of reason and experience. In many cases, blacks formed and operated their own churches. We know that the gospel style of preaching and music was developed in these churches and in their offshoots that developed after slavery. Twain loved the gospel style of preaching, Negro spirituals, and all storytelling traditions. In the following passages, the author treats readers to a glimpse of the two characters distinct views about the world, as they discuss whether King Solomon was the wisest man in the world. Their differences are further highlighted as Jim uses native southern black dialect at the same time that Huck speaks from the position of a self-proclaimed Bible and History scholar. The two characters had plenty of time on their hands for such discussions as they were floating on a raft down the Mississippi. Huck starts off lecturing Jim with he thought was a clear-cut Sunday school or history lesson like he had heard from both Tom Sawyer and Miss Watson.
“I read considerable to Jim about kings and dukes and earls and such, and how gaudy they dressed, and how much style they put on, and called each other your majesty, and your grace, and your lordship, and so on, ‘stead of mister; and Jim’s eyes bugged out, and he was interested,” and he says:
“I didn’ know dey was so many un um. I hain’t hearn ’bout none un um, skasely, but ole King Sollermun, onless you counts dem kings dat’s in a pack er k’yards. How much do a king git?”
“Get?” I says; “why, they get a thousand dollars a month if they want it; they can have just as much as they want; everything belongs to them.”
“Ain’t that gay? En what dey got to do, Huck?”
“They don’t do nothing! Why, how you talk! They just set around.”
“No; is dat so?”
Jim was clearly very interested in kings, but his only knowledge of them was seeing their pictures on playing cards. He had heard about King Solomon. When he asks “what they do and how much they get,” Huck’s response is that they get as much as they want and that they don’t do anything useful. This view corresponds to Twain’s disdain for the corrupt power of monarchs, and it was also shared by many Americans in the nineteenth century. Huck uses an ironic tone when he says, when kings are bored they just declare war or play with their hawks. He explains that they can be cruel and arbitrarily cut people s off for no reason, and spend their idle time indulging in lustful activities with many women in their harem.
In hearing about a harem, Jim asks, “Roun’ de which?”
Huck responds, their “Harem.”
Jim asks, “What’s de harem?”
(Above, See E.W. Kemble’s Original, First Edition of Huckleberry Finn Illustration of King Solomon’s Wives. Courtesy of the University of Virginia Special Collections Library).
Jim is shocked to hear about how Solomon treated his wives and why he needed so many of them, and Huck is eager to explain:
Jim responds, “Why, yes, dat’s so; I — I’d done forgot it… Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nussery. En I reck’n de wives quarrels considable; en dat ‘(in)crease de racket.
Jim, who has only one wife and a couple of his own kids, cannot understand why King Solomon would want so many of them. He has had enough trouble trying to keep his small family happy and together. He believes that a man who had many wives would be bothered with their constant quarreling and with the racket of the crying babies. Thus, Jim takes issue with the claim that King Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, He reasons that a wise and powerful man wouldn’t agree to live in such “blim-blammin all de time” (chaos) without the possibility of getting any peace of mind or rest. The wisest man, he thinks, would shut down that baby making “factory.”
Huck defends the established white Biblical view of King Solomon and contradicts Jim by saying: “Well, but he was the wisest man, anyway; because the widow she told me so…”
Jim is not at all impressed with the widow’s or with the southern white person’s view of the king. He reasons with his own understanding and experiences from living, countering, “I doan k’yer what de widder say, he warn’t no wise man nuther. He had some er de dad-fetchedes’ ways I ever see. Does you know ’bout dat chile dat he ‘uz gwyne to chop in two?”
In the Old Testament Bible story, King Solomon resolves the argument of two women who were both claiming to be the mother of a baby. The king proposes to chop the baby in half and give both mothers half of the infant. Jim thinks this is a ridiculous notion because half of a baby would have no more value than a dollar would if you chopped it in half and give half to each disputant. The accepted symbolic interpretation of this story, which Huck fully endorses, is that the true mother would rather see the other woman take possession of the child rather than allowing it to be chopped in half. But Jim thinks the idea is just “de beatenes’ notion in de worl’?”
Huck is amazed at Jim’s apparently simple interpretation and tries to correct his thinking: “But hang it, Jim, you’ve clean missed the point — blame it, you’ve missed it a thousand mile.” But Jim is still adamant that he “knows” all about King Solomon. From his view, Huck and the white world has missed the deeper point, that a wise king would not settle a dispute between two women by proposing to cut a child in half, making it worthless to both women. Huck continues to try to correct Jim:
“But I tell you, (Jim), you don’t get the point.” He tries to convince him that the king really didn’t want to cut the child in half; he was using it as a test to decide the true mother.
Rather than backing down, the uneducated, but not unwise, slave responds that the point of the story runs even deeper than what Huck understands about it. Jim explains,
“It lays in de way Sollermun was raised. You take a man dat’s got on’y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o’ chillen? No, he ain’t; he can’t ‘ford it. He know how to value ’em. But you take a man dat’s got ’bout five million chillen runnin’ roun’ de house, en it’s diffunt. He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’. A chile er two, mo’ er less, warn’t no consekens to Sollermun, dad fatch him!”
After cutting through the colloquial black dialogue, readers should be able to see that Jim, though not formally educated, has a highly developed ability to interpret Bible wisdom from a utilitarian point of view. From Jim’s understanding, King Solomon wasn’t raised with a good teaching that embraced the value of human life. Jim takes a big jump by comparing the king’s lack of appreciation of his “five million children” with the plantation owner’s lack of appreciation of their millions of slaves. Jim has one wife and two children who he values more than anything in the world. From his thinking, the owners of slaves are morally equivalent to King Solomon because they would propose to resolve an economic problem by cutting a family in half. This is a logical argument because Jim is escaping because he heard that his owner, Mis Watson, discussing the idea of selling him to a plantation owner in New Orléans. Huck never gives any thought to Jim’s interpretation, other than to say,
“If he got a notion in his head once, there warn’t no getting it out again. He was the most down on Solomon… So I went to talking about other kings, and let Solomon slide.”
The disputes between Huck illustrate the diverse positions that two people can take in arguments who have distinct cultural and social understandings of the world. In this case, both debaters advance credible presentations of their cases. However, Huck, who is still a young adult, only relays the story as it has been told to him by society. He has no implication of what the story might represent beyond its accepted interpretation. But, Jim understands the story, both symbolically and from his hard life experiences. From his interpretation, the plantation owner who is trying to sell a slave and separate him from his family is synonymous to a king who is proposing to resolve a dispute by cutting a child in half. Just as King Solomon had little respect or appreciation of his multiple wives, the slave owner had little respect or understanding of his many slaves. Their parts were interchangeable. Though Jim is respectful to Huck, he refuses to back down from his opinion because he believes that he is living proof about the cruelties of slavery. When fully considering Jim’s highly advanced thinking about kings and King Solomon, and the injustices of southern society, it is hard for me to conclude that Twain was mocking Jim or the shallow thinking of the slaves. If Twain was mocking anyone in these passages, it is of the white members of society who didn’t even consider the point of view of the slaves.
In a less controversial, but even more satiric discussion, Jim and Huck discuss why Frenchmen speak French. I plan to cover this humorous conversation in my next Litchatte post.
Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is Co-Editor of the 2017 Poetry Book, Mystic Verses by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, and the Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, VA, and writes a monthly column for the Museum website, thepoeblog.org. He has taught literature classes on Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and F.Scott Fitzgerald (thus far) at the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond. He is the organizer and Coördinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club, and is the co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at email@example.com, or leave a Comment at the bottom of any post.