What does the river symbolize in Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
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Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was a man of the American South. To many southerners, the Mississippi River has a very deep sentimental importance that matches the practical role the river plays in their lives. When a black worker sang of “Ol’ Man River” in the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat, he was paying homage to the enormous place the Mississippi holds in the soul of the South. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published well-before Kern and Hammerstein came along, but the symbolic importance of the Mississippi River played just as large a role in his novel of a young teenager and an escaped black slave’s journey down it. The river in Twain’s story, as in real life, served a vital function as a means of transportation, but it also represented the culture of those who lived along its shores. By having his characters’ journey take place along the river, Twain makes the Mississippi the focal point for virtually his entire story. Huck and Jim’s encounters, both good and bad, invariably take place along the river’s shores, and the river assumes the role of sanctuary from those who would threaten their freedom. In describing one particular escape from peril, Huck and Jim manage again to make it to safety aboard their raft, and the river’s symbolic importance as a sanctuary is evident in Huck’s comment that,
“I never felt easy till the raft was two mile below there and out in the middle of the Mississippi. Then we hung up our signal lantern, and judged that we was free and safe once more.”
The river’s importance as a source of safety and freedom was encapsulated again when, at the end of Chapter 29, Huck and Jim again take off down the river:
“So in two seconds away we went a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents the Mississippi River as the great symbol of Southern culture that it has been throughout American history. More than that, it represents freedom from oppression and threats to Huck and Jim’s lives.
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