How does Huck grow as a person? What life lessons does he learn from his encounters on the river?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator
Huckleberry Finn matures after he runs away and travels down the Mississippi River with the escaped slave named Jim. Huck learns to fear and distrust society as he witnesses the evil that men do.

1. While Huck and Jim hide on Jackson's Island, Huck learns to appreciate the beauty and power of nature. 

While they spread out blankets in the cavern in which they hide, a storm moves in. Huck watches as the wind "sets the branches to tossing their arms," and then the lightning strikes and makes the night "as bright as glory." Huck watches as the tree-tops are "a-plunging about." Thunder suddenly crashes and then begins

...rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs....

Later, Huck tells Jim, "this is nice...I wouldn't want to be nowhere else but here." (Ch.9)

2. Huck learns about the depravity of human nature.

One night while they are on the island, a frame house floats downstream, and Jim and Huck paddle out to it. Inside they find a dead man (Huck's Pap), but Jim quickly covers him so that Huck cannot see his face. There are other distressing signs, too, that Huck does witness: there are "heaps of greasy cards," black masks, women's underclothes hanging on hooks, and obscene graffiti on the walls.

Later, Huck overhears two men planning to murder a third man. They plan to drown Jim Turner, the third man, by waiting for the steamboat on which Turner is sailing to break up so the ship can take him down with it. Huck returns to Jim and informs him of a "gang of murderers."

3. Huck learns that hate and violence only beget more hate and violence

In Chapter 17, Huck is saved from snarling dogs by Buck Grangerford, and they become friends. As he stays with Buck's family, Huck thinks that nothing could be better than living in such a beautiful house and eating delicious meals and having a friend like Buck. However, one day Buck shoots at a Shepherdson, puzzling Huck, who does not understand why his new friend wants to kill someone. Buck explains that his family has a feud going with the Shepherdson clan, who are their mortal enemies. However, Buck cannot explain how the feud began. Also, when Huck witnesses the two feuding families in the same church one Sunday as they sit in the pews with their rifles, he does not understand how the feud makes any sense. Finally, when his new friend Buck is murdered, Huck, who hides in a tree, is sickened. He climbs down during the night and calls for Jim. Jim is elated to hear Huck's voice and tells Huck how happy he is to find him.

Unable to stomach the vainglorious inhumanity of the feud, Huck and Jim return to the river, and they agree that

...there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy on a raft. (Ch. 18)

4. While they float down the river on the raft, Huck learns that he and Jim are free from the hypocrisy and injustice of society while they are on the river. 

It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars...and nothing ever happened to us at all, that night, nor the next, nor the next.
We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. (Ch. 18)

5. After being exposed to the hypocrisy and underhandedness of the duke and the dauphin, and the irrational feud of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, Pip becomes disillusioned with his society. Huck decides to defy the unjust rules of his society and not return Jim to Miss Watson.

At first, Huck writes Miss Watson, reporting that he has found her slave. But as he ponders the consequences of Jim's return to slavery, Huck realizes that Jim will probably be sold and separated from his family. He may then be sold to a cruel master. Then, Huck recalls all that Jim has done for him. 

I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it [the letter] up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. (Ch. 31)

Huck recalls all the loving care that Jim has given him, how happy Jim was to see him when he thought Huck was lost in the fog, and how relieved he was to see Huck after the deadly battle between the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords. Jim has been a loyal and loving friend, and at times much like a father to Huck.

Huck grows from a naive boy into a mature, thoughtful young man. He has witnessed the hypocrisy of his society, and he has felt the disillusionment of learning of the evil that men do and the senselessness of many human decisions. Furthermore, he has learned how valuable the love of a friend is.

jasminaenotes eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Huck learns responsibility:

He is immature at first, playing practical jokes on Jim, treating him the way Tom Sawyer would--as an inferior toy. However, Jim teaches him to be responsible and to care about other people's feelings. Recall the rattle snake incident when Jim got bitten by a dead snake's mate. Recall the fog incident when Jim was worried sick whether or not Huck was all right, but he thought it was hilarious to lie to  him that it was just a dream.  For the first time he learns to apologize to a slave, and that a slave is just like anyone else and deserves respect.

Huck learns about love:

His father was an abusive drunk. He did not teach Huck any good values, did not allow him to get an education, taught him how to steal, neglected him, and regularly and brutally abused him. Huck had to stage an elaborate plot of his own death just to escape from Pap's abuse.

However, Jim teaches what it is like to be loved. Each night he keeps Huck's watch and lets Huck sleep, he calls him "honey" and is always nice to him. He teaches him values of respect, friendship, and loyalty.  For the first time, Huck has a father figure who shows him what love feels like.  He grows emotionally by developing a bond and care with someone.

Huck learns morals--what is right and wrong:

This is the major inner conflict. All along he has been torn by the decision whether or not to turn Jim in to the slave catchers. At first, he saves Jim because he needs him. Huck is lonely and prefers to have company when he runs away from Pap.  Later on, he lies to the slave catchers that his family has the small pox on the raft and deters them, but he says that whether he tells the truth or lies, either way he would have felt terrible, so he'll do whatever comes easier. This is a child talking. Finally, in the end, when he tears up the letter to Miss Watson telling her where Jim was, he DECIDES to damn his soul to hell in order to protect Jim. This is a much more mature decision. He has developed a love for Jim, and consciously decides to go against the teachings of his society and PAY A PRICE for it--go to hell.  His motive this time is not a selfish one, but a selfless one--for his friend Jim.

Read the study guide:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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