The river is a powerful metaphor for safety and refuge for Jim and Huck. The river is the one place where Huck is safe to be himself. Unless invaded by rapscallions and slave traders, Huck is safe on the raft with Jim. If he goes on shore or has to talk to others he must assume a false identity.
Whenever Huck gets off the river on the left or east side he is confronted with the hypocrisy of the “civilized” America. He is tempted to grow in a world of feuding families and the legalized, codified horror of slavery. When he gets off the raft on the right or west side, he experiences the opportunity for social change, the “unsettled” America. Here in Arkansas he sees the bare face of cruelty, sloth and the failure of humanity to rectify the faults of the eastern side.
There is a stunted, sporadic progression to Huck’s maturity. The raft on the river however is more than just a metaphor for maturity. It is more complex than that. The longer they stay on the river, the closer they come to the doom of New Orleans. Jim’s hope for escape dwindles the further south they get. Huck must develop as a human before it gets too late. It is arguable if Huck ever does mature the way we want him to. This theme plays off the genre of the bildungsroman.
Absolutely! When Huck begins his journey, he is naive and unseasoned as most 13-year-old boys are. He hasn't really thought of the consequences of his actions, or even how others will react or be effected.
He first meets Jim, who thinks Huck is a ghost. Huck plays tricks on Jim (especially the one where they are separated by the fog and Huck pretends he hadn't left the raft the whole time) Jim shows through his reactions to these tricks that he is a living, breathing, feeling human being who just happens to be a black man. Huck learns to respect Jim as a person and promises not to play Jim for a fool any more.
Jim protects Huck from the knowledge that the dead man on the floating house was Huck's dad. Much later, toward the end of the book, when Huck is much more mature and had gained some life experience, Jim shares with Huck that the dead man was his father. Huck has a hard time dealing with this, but having lived through the adventures with him, we know he wouldn't have been able to hear this information earlier in the book and dealt with it as well as he does when Jim tells him.
When Huck and Jim begin their journey, Huck is a white boy who has known nothing but whites are in control and blacks are their slaves. No questions asked, that's how it is and always has been. By the time he and Jim are at the Phelps' house, Jim is more than a slave to Huck. He is a friend for whom Huck would do anything.
Yes, I do believe the river can be a metaphor for life's journeys and the changes we all go through as we take those journeys.
Huck is an incredibly dynamic character in that he changes and matures a great deal on his voyage with Jim up the Mississippi. Despite being told his entire life that blacks are inferior, no different than cattle or horses, Huck comes to realize that there is more to Jim than that - that he is a human being with feelings and that he has a right to be free, too. Huck goes against his teachings because his conscience tells him what is truly right with regards to the slavery issue. Sometimes he wonders if he's going to go to hell for helping a slave, but eventually he decides that Jim is worth helping and he doesn't care what the consequences are.
These changes in Huck emerge as he and Jim make their way through a variety of adventures along the river, and so I do believe that the river and the journey Huck takes on it is a metaphor for life's journeys.