The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is Mark Twain’s classic adventure novel about a young runaway and an escaped slave traveling the Mississippi River, which symbolizes individual independence and freedom. In this novel containing a myriad of themes and symbols, the reader must search for clues pertaining to the concept of education rather than pinpointing exactly related quotations.
The first step might be to examine the language Twain uses to advance the novel. In an explanatory note introducing the work, the author acknowledges:
In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: The Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southern dialect; the ordinary Pike County dialect; and four modified varieties of this last.
With an understanding of the diverse language structure of the text, it makes sense to assume that “education” refers to systematic formal academic instruction as opposed to the acquisition of knowledge through the natural learning process of daily experiences. Thus, the spelling, dialects, and grammatical structures imply a lack of formal education.
For example, from the outset of the novel, Huck explains:
The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.
It is clear from the language and grammar Huck uses to tell his story that he is an uneducated boy. It is equally clear that the Widow Douglas entrusted with his upbringing is an educated woman who would qualify as a person who could “sivilize” him.
Judge Thatcher is also presented as an educated man. When Huck decides to “give” his money and property to the Judge and hide it from his father, the Judge figures out Huck’s motivation and reaches an educated solution:
Oho-o! I think I see. You want to sell all your property to me—not give it. That’s the correct idea.
Then he wrote something on a paper and read it over, and says:
There; you see it says ‘for a consideration.’ That means I have bought it of you and paid you for it. Here’s a dollar for you. Now you sign it.
So I signed it, and left.
A direct quote from Huck tells the reader outright that he remains uneducated, even though he had the opportunity to experience formal schooling:
WELL, three or four months run along, and it was well into the winter now. I had been to school most all the time and could spell and read and write just a little, and could say the multiplication table up to six times seven is thirty-five, and I don’t reckon I could ever get any further than that if I was to live forever. I don’t take no stock in mathematics, anyway.
Several examples of the protagonist’s lack of education can be found by looking for instances where he relies on superstitious beliefs. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” In one scene in the book, Huck goes to his room to ponder his direction in life. Huck explains through internal dialogue:
Pretty soon a spider went crawling up my shoulder, and I flipped it off and it lit in the candle; and before I could budge it was all shriveled up. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some bad luck, so I was scared and most shook the clothes off of me. I got up and turned around in my tracks three times and crossed my breast every time; and then I tied up a little lock of my hair with a thread to keep witches away. But I hadn’t no confidence. You do that when you’ve lost a horseshoe that you’ve found, instead of nailing it up over the door, but I hadn’t ever heard anybody say it was any way to keep off bad luck when you’d killed a spider.
The above quote exemplifies the reaction of a boy without an adequate educational background to analyze such a simple occurrence more rationally.
Huck and Jim encounter many different characters during their travels down the Mississippi and several of their adventures involve elaborate schemes and clever deceptions. It is easy to see how their critical thinking skills and intelligence quotients are well-developed, but their institutional education is lacking. In Jim’s case, as a runaway slave, the reader knows his educational opportunities were non-existent. In that sense, almost all his dialogue throughout the novel paints him as an uneducated individual. For example, when Huck discovers a “wreck laying there so mournful and lonesome in the middle of the river,” he suggests to Jim that they climb aboard. Jim replies:
“I doan’ want to go fool’n ’long er no wrack. We’s doin’ blame’ well, en we better let blame’ well alone, as de good book says. Like as not dey’s a watchman on dat wrack.”
In the novel, the author portrays Jim as a decent man who loves his wife and children, intends to escape to the North to acquire enough money to free his family from slavery, and finds the time to befriend Huck. Nevertheless, Twain portrays Jim as an uneducated man through his language usage.
By tracing the language the author uses in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the reader can discover hundreds of clues related to education and the lack of education among the main characters of the story.