What are the implications of the many disguises in The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn in relation to American identity?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, trying to survive a change American identity is reflected in Huck's numerous disguises. 

Mark Twain is making a statement about the need for people within society in the 19th Century to hide their true feelings and/or beliefs, coupled with their struggle to come to terms with impending change.  

With that said, consider the theme of appearance vs. reality with regard to our main character, Huck Finn. Mark Twain speaks volumes through the seemingly naive—though often sharply perceptive—eyes of young Huck. Twain endows the scraggly Huck with feelings the author experienced himself at one time—the belief that people are basically good, but struggle with a corrupt society that wishes to alter one's "sense of right and wrong." Twain's struggle with his identity allows him to sympathize with the country's struggle to identify with a changing American identity. And it is through Huck's innocence that Twain makes some of his strongest statements about human nature, freedom vs. slavery, and the individual vs. society. Each of these also reflects aspects of a changing American identity.

The question of American identity can refer to people like Huck who struggled with the values of the South, when a man was judged first and foremost by the color of his skin. People like Miss Watson were slow to contemplate and/or accept the change foreshadowed by a Mississippi River-like movement traveling inevitably toward civil war and a world (it would have seemed to Southerners) turned up side down. Huck and Jim encounter more people on their journey that resist the concept of a free man of color than those who do not. America was fragmented. In the South, most people were satisfied to maintain the status quo. But at the other extreme, many Northern whites refused to keep slaves, and many others worked to emancipate those in bondage, secretly moving runaways through the North and into Canada. Huck Finn is the epitome of these two oppositional sides of the slavery issue. His heart is at war with society's expectations and his love for his friend Jim—not defined by Jim's skin color, but by the "content of [his] character."

Huck's disguises allow him to avoid censorship by Southern society and to move about society innocently. He can collect information where they stop to see whether Jim will be safe, and Huck even finds himself able to help others. Exposure to so many kinds of people tests Huck's resolve. He loves Jim, but feels guilty for not turning him in. He finally must decide: he writes a letter telling Miss Watson where to find Jim. However, upon reflection he decides he will simply face the consequences, however harsh, to save Jim: 

All right, then, I'll GO to hell…

And Huck tears up the letter, choosing his American identity. 

Twain allows Huck to consider and decide the American identity that suits him best: 

Just because you’re taught that something’s right and everyone believes it’s right, it don’t make it right.

When Jim is held at Aunt Sally's, interestingly Jim also chooses his American identity. He hides...

...behind the protective...mask of  “humility, ignorance, emotional deadpan, deference and placatory compliance” that all slaves were forced to wear in order to survive under white supremacy and hostility...

But he does not relinquish his humanity.

The disguises further the plot, but more importantly they hide the truth of those struggling to understand a changing American identity without making themselves vulnerable to the uncertainty of censorship within society at the time. 

Read the study guide:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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