In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, how does Huck's identity evolve from what it is at beginning of novel to what he created for himself as the book progresses?
At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck expresses his strong desire to escape from the confines of civilized society. The Widow Douglas has taken him into her home and is teaching him how to be a proper young gentleman. He can’t stand it. By the end of the novel, we hear something very similar. He again expresses his strong desire to escape another woman (this time Aunt Sally) and her desires to raise and civilize him. He would rather be free of such reform, so he makes the decision to head west—“to light out for the Territory.”
So, in one sense, he is still the same old Huck yearning for freedom and escape from society’s rules. But during the course of the novel, he ends up spending much of his time traveling down the Mississippi River with Jim, an escaped slave. They are both running away, and their desire to join their fates is effortless and immediate. While Huck expresses some dismay when Jim tells him that he is a runaway, it doesn’t change Huck’s mind. He does not want to be alone and is eager to stay with Jim. Interestingly, when he first discovers that Jim too is on Jackson’s Island, his immediate reaction is utter happiness and relief; he had been feeling “lonesome” and scared prior to meeting Jim. Throughout the novel, we see this same pattern: he is often separated from Jim, but every time he is reunited with Jim, he is full of happiness and comfort. So, has anything changed from the beginning of the novel to the end? Does he mature? Does he “evolve”?
We must remember that Huck is a limited narrator. Twain uses the poor, uneducated, thirteen-year-old boy as a way to satirize many aspects of Southern society, in particular slavery. He wants us to love and identify with Huck, but only up to a point. We can’t help but feel our distance from (and pity for) Huck when we see Huck in the climax of the book deciding whether to save Jim or not. Huck feels it is a great sin to help a slave escape. He truly believes he will suffer eternal damnation in hell for what he has done. As much as he desires to escape from society and all of its rules and is happiest when he is on the raft with Jim, he still can’t shake the tenets of his slave-holding culture that have seeped into his consciousness. His “conscience” tells him that only a wicked person would help a slave escape.
Does Huck ever learn? Does he change? While it’s tempting to say no, that he still has the same racist beliefs that he started out with (otherwise why would he think he would go to hell for helping a slave?), we must also look at his actions. At first, he’s ready to turn Jim in, writing a letter to his owner Miss Watson to reveal to her where Jim is. But, in the most famous passage of the book, he ends up tearing up that letter. He decides to help Jim even if it means he will go to hell. He will damn his soul in order to save his friend.
Some may wish Twain had gone further and created a Huck Finn that would be better at shaking off the shackles of his society. They want more progress for their protagonist. But we must remember who we are talking about. Huck is a shape-shifter. He fluidly shifts identities throughout the book in order to adapt to any situation. Why? As an orphan who is stuck on the outskirts of society, he has learned how to be a survivalist. He doesn’t have the advantages of a Tom Sawyer. He must always have his guard up and be ready for the many difficult and often dangerous situations he finds himself in. Only when he is on the raft is he able to relax and show his true self to Jim, the father figure. Jim allows Huck to take on a new identity, an identity where he doesn’t have to worry all the time about how to survive and how to fit in; he can simply laugh and talk and enjoy the freedom of Jim’s company.
The developing and changing identity of Huckleberry Finn in this excellent story is something that is well worth focusing on. The change in Huck's character can be detected most clearly and obviously in his attitude towards Jim, the runaway slave who is his companion. Initially, Huck treats Jim in a way that we would expect of a white boy at that time: he tricks him, placing a dead snake where he sleeps, which results in Jim being bitten by the dead snake's mate. He bullies Jim into getting involved in dangerous scrapes such as when they visit the floating boat, even though Jim does everything he can to persuade Huck to keep out of danger. He also lies to Jim when they are separated by fog in Chapter Fifteen. However, one crucial moment that represents the beginning of change in Huck is when he realises in this same chapter how much Jim cares about him and how worried he was. Jim speaks some very strong words to Huck expressing this love, but also expressing his sense of disappointment and anger that Huck could only think of tricking him and making him look stupid. Note how Huck responds:
It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn't every sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn't do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way.
This comment, for a white boy growing up in the context of the novel, is revolutionary, as it shows Huck is beginning to see Jim as a human being rather than simply viewing him simply as a slave. This is something that we see more and more of as the novel progresses and Huck gets to know Jim more deeply.