What does the river represent in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was a man of the American South. To many southerners, the Mississippi River has a very deep sentimental importance that matches the practical role the river plays in their lives. When a black worker sang of “Ol’ Man River” in the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat, he was paying homage to the enormous place the Mississippi holds in the soul of the South. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published well-before Kern and Hammerstein came along, but the symbolic importance of the Mississippi River played just as large a role in his novel of a young teenager and an escaped black slave’s journey down it. The river in Twain’s story, as in real life, served a vital function as a means of transportation, but it also represented the culture of those who lived along its shores. By having his characters’ journey take place along the river, Twain makes the Mississippi the focal point for virtually his entire story. Huck and Jim’s encounters, both good and bad, invariably take place along the river’s shores, and the river assumes the role of sanctuary from those who would threaten their freedom. In describing one particular escape from peril, Huck and Jim manage again to make it to safety aboard their raft, and the river’s symbolic importance as a sanctuary is evident in Huck’s comment that,
“I never felt easy till the raft was two mile below there and out in the middle of the Mississippi. Then we hung up our signal lantern, and judged that we was free and safe once more.”
The river’s importance as a source of safety and freedom was encapsulated again when, at the end of Chapter 29, Huck and Jim again take off down the river:
“So in two seconds away we went a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents the Mississippi River as the great symbol of Southern culture that it has been throughout American history. More than that, it represents freedom from oppression and threats to Huck and Jim’s lives.
A great force of Nature, the Mississippi River cuts through the middle of the vast United States. It transports food and goods from the Northern states down to New Orleans, Louisiana. From there many a product is exported as well as imported to make its voyage north. Thus, the river possesses a life of its own; it is apart from society. While Huck and Jim are on the raft, traveling down the river, they are suspended from the rules of man and commune with Nature, instead. After escaping the carnage of the battle between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, Huck lies with relief upon the raft,
I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp...We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't.
Out on the raft with only the open sky for a roof, Jim is a free man, and Huck is relieved of the "white man's burden" which dictates that he must treat Jim as property and an inferior creature. Instead, free of the restraints of society, Huck becomes aware that Jim is a man with emotions, a man who loves Huck as though he were his child, and a man with much common sense: "He had an uncommon level head, for a n****," Huck acknowledges. It is, indeed, the lessons of life learned upon the raft which floats on the life-giving river that teaches Huck true morality, a morality that leads Huck to refuse to turn Jim over to Miss Watson. "All right. I'll go to hell," Huck resolves his moral crisis, for he cannot subject Jim to the dehumanizing conditions of slavery.
Thus, the river represents freedom of body and soul. On the river there is freedom from the rules of society and its conflicts; on the river there is a clarity given to the conscience that is no longer tethered by the restrictions of man-made laws. Indeed, on the river rightful moral decisions can be made without the physical and civil the bindings of society's rules. On the river, Huck and Jim develop--to use the words of Mark Twain himself-- "sounder hearts."