Little could Mark Twain have visualized in 1876 when he began a sequel to capitalize on the success of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would come to be regarded as his masterpiece and one of the most significant works in the American novel tradition. His greatest contribution to the tradition occurred when, with an unerring instinct for American regional dialects, he elected to tell the story in Huck’s own words. The skill with which Mark Twain elevates the dialect of an illiterate village boy to the highest levels of poetry established the spoken American idiom as a literary language and earned for Mark Twain the reputation, proclaimed for him by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and many others, as the father of the modern American novel.
Mark Twain maintains an almost perfect fidelity to Huck’s point of view in order to dramatize the conflict between Huck’s innate innocence and natural goodness and the dictates of a corrupt society. As Huck’s story, the novel centers around such major themes as death and rebirth, freedom and bondage, the search for a father, the individual versus society, and the all-pervasive theme of brotherhood. Huck’s character reflects a stage in Mark Twain’s own development when he still believed human beings to be innately good though increasingly corrupted by social influences that replaced their intuitive sense of right and wrong. This theme is explicitly dramatized through Huck’s conflict with his conscience over whether or not to turn Jim in as a runaway slave. Huck, on the one hand, accepts without question what he has been taught about slavery by church and society. In his own mind, as surely as in that of his Southern contemporaries, aiding an escaped slave was both legally and morally wrong. Thus Huck’s battle with his conscience is a real trauma for him, and his decision to “go to Hell” rather than give Jim up is made with a certainty that such a fate awaits him for breaking this law of society. Mark Twain compellingly establishes the irony that Huck’s “sin” against the social establishment affirms the best that is possible in the individual.
Among the many forms of bondage that permeate the novel—including the widow’s attempt to “civilize” Huck, the “code of honor” that causes Sherburn to murder Boggs, and the law of vendetta that rules the lives of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons—slavery provides Mark Twain his largest metaphor for both social bondage and institutionalized injustice and inhumanity. Written well after the termination of the Civil War, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not an antislavery novel in the limited sense that Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is. Rather than simply attacking an institution already legally dead, Mark Twain uses the idea of slavery as a metaphor for all social bondage and injustice. Thus, Jim’s search for freedom, like Huck’s own need to escape both the Widow and Pap Finn, is as much a metaphorical search for an ideal state of freedom as it is flight from slavery into free-state sanctuary. It is almost irrelevant that Mark Twain has Huck and Jim running deeper into the South rather than north toward free soil. Freedom exists neither in the North nor in the South but in the ideal and idyllic world of the raft and river.
The special world of raft and river is at the very heart of the novel. In contrast to the restrictive and oppressive social world of the shore, the raft is a veritable Eden away from the evils of civilization. It is here that Jim and Huck can allow their natural bond of love to develop without regard for the question of race. It is here on the raft that Jim can become a surrogate father to Huck, and Huck can develop the depth of feeling for Jim which eventually leads to his decision to imperil his soul. While the developing relationship between Huck and Jim determines the basic shape of the novel, the river also works in other structural ways. The picaresque form of the novel and its structural rhythm are based on a series of episodes on shore, after each of which Huck and Jim return to the peaceful sanctuary of the raft. It is on shore that Huck encounters the worst excesses of which “the damned human race” is capable, but with each return to the raft comes a renewal of spiritual hope and idealism.
The two major thrusts of Mark Twain’s attack on the “civilized” world in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are against institutionalized religion and the romanticism he believed characterized the South. The former is easily illustrated by the irony of the Widow’s attempt to teach Huck religious principles while she persists in holding slaves. As with her snuff-taking—which was all right because she did it herself—there seems to be no relationship between her fundamental sense of humanity and justice and her religion. Huck’s practical morality makes him more “Christian” than the Widow, though he takes no interest in her principles. Southern romanticism, which Mark Twain blamed for the fall of the South, is particularly allegorized by the wreck of the steamboat Walter Scott, but it is also inherent in such episodes as the feud, where Mark Twain shows the real horror of the sort of situation traditionally glamorized by romantic authors. In both cases, Mark Twain is attacking the mindless acceptance of values that he believed kept the South in its dark age.
Many critics have argued that its ending hopelessly flaws Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; others argue that the ending is in perfect accord with Mark Twain’s themes. Nevertheless, all agree that the substance of Mark Twain’s masterpiece transcends the limits of literary formalism to explore those eternal verities on which great literature rests. Through the adventures of an escaped slave and a runaway boy, both representatives of the ignorant and lowly of the earth, Mark Twain affirms that true humanity is of humans rather than institutions.