Study Guide

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Themes

Themes

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the central works of American literature and a worldwide bestseller, traces the moral education of a young boy whose better impulses overcome both self-interest and the negative forces of his culture. Huck, a homeless boy whose only relative is his disreputable father, is taken in by a respectable widow who seeks to educate him. She forces him to go to school, but Huck dislikes being "so cramped up and sivilized [sic] as they call it." His father abducts him, and Huck prefers the freedom of his father's shack to the constraint of more genteel surroundings.

Freed from civilizing influences and placed in the company of his father, a vicious racist who boasts of his own illiteracy, Huck seems like a poor candidate for moral growth. But when Pap Finn nearly kills the boy during an alcoholic delirium, Huck escapes and meets the runaway slave Jim, who provides him with the opportunity to make a significant moral choice. Huck has been shaped not only by his father's view that one should act out of self-interest, but also by his society's belief that God's law mandates slavery. As he protects Jim, Huck feels certain that he will go to hell. Nonetheless, he transcends his upbringing and learns to value essential human bonds of trust beyond his own interest. Throughout the novel the boy witnesses a variety of human corruption, pretension, and violence, but maintains his integrity through his ability to identify with...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Themes

Freedom

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn both Huck and the runaway slave Jim are in flight from a society which labels them as outcasts. Although Huck has been adopted by the Widow Douglas and been accepted into the community of St. Petersburg, he feels hemmed in by the clothes he is made to wear and the models of decorum to which he must adhere. But he also does not belong to the world Pap inhabits. Although he feels more like himself in the backwoods, Pap's drunken rages and attempts to control him force Huck to flee. At the end of the book, after Jim has been freed, Huck decides to continue his own quest for freedom. "I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before." Huck is clearly running from a civilization that attempts to control him, rather than running in pursuit of something tangible. He is representative of the American frontiersman who chooses the unknown over the tyranny of society.

As a slave, Jim has likewise been denied control over his own destiny, and he escapes to prevent being sold down to New Orleans, away from his wife and children. But Jim is chasing a more concrete ideal of freedom than Huck is. For Jim, freedom means not being a piece of property. Jim explicitly expresses his desire to be free as they approach Cairo and the junction with the Ohio River: "Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom." But after they pass Cairo in the confusion of a foggy night, Jim's quest for freedom is thwarted and he must concentrate on survival. After Jim's capture, Tom and Huck attempt to free him in a farcical series of schemes that actually make escape more difficult and dangerous. Huck indicates that a simple removal of the board that covers the window would allow Jim to escape, but Tom declares that is too easy. "I should hope we can find a way that's a little more complicated than that, Huck Finn," Tom says. After Jim escapes and is recaptured, Tom reveals that he has been free all along. Miss Watson had died and left him free in her will. The irony of freeing a free man has concerned many critics, who believe Twain might have been commenting on the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Conscience

Huck's main struggle in the book is with his conscience, the set of morals with which he has been raised. As they begin to approach Cairo, and Jim looks forward to his freedom, Huck says his conscience "got to troubling me so I couldn't rest." He rationalizes that he didn't lure Jim away from his owner, but "conscience up and says every time, 'But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you 'could 'a' paddled ashore and told somebody.'" During this scene he wakes up to the fact that he is helping a slave gain freedom, something he has been brought up to believe is wrong. So in an attempt to relieve his guilt, he sets off for shore, telling Jim he is going to find out if they have passed Cairo, but really intending to turn Jim in. When he meets up with two men looking for a runaway slave, he confronts a true test of conscience, and fails, in his eyes. The two men ask him about the man on board, and Huck protects Jim by making up an elaborate tale about his father who is dying of smallpox, a highly contagious disease. When he returns to the raft, Jim rejoices in his cover-up, but Huck instead is "feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong." He decides that he is naturally bad, and that he only did what made him feel better. Not being able to analyze his actions, Huck fails to recognize that he has taken a stand against a morally corrupt society. Later, after Jim has been turned in by the King and Duke, Huck must again wrestle with...

(The entire section is 1564 words.)