During the course of their journey down the Mississippi River, Huck and Jim develop a strong bond of friendship and mutual respect born of their shared experiences escaping from their very different forms of captivity and resulting from the numerous adventures they encounter along their way. Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the story of Huck’s maturation as he runs away from the suffocating environment of the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson, and finds himself forced to take care of himself while helping the escaped slave Jim evade capture. In the novel’s beginning, Huck is characteristically immature in his perceptions of his life and surroundings. Restrictive though his environment may be, he is too young and immature to appreciate how good he actually has it relative to many around him. He continuously laments his fate and conspires to break the bonds forced upon him by the Widow Douglas while dreaming of independence – the kind of independence that ignores, or is ignorant of, the responsibilities that independence entails.
An early indication of Huck’s growing maturation involves his regrets about playing a practical joke on Jim involving a dead snake – a joke that takes on ominous undertones as the two primitive souls begin to attribute the snake prank as a harbinger of bad tidings. Hence, as the two seek out the town of Cairo, they begin to speculate that their difficulties finding it are a consequence of Huck’s attempt at humor:
“I says: ‘Maybe we went by Cairo in the fog that night.’
He says: ‘Doan’ le’s talk about it, Huck. Po’ niggers can’t have no luck. I awluz ‘spected dat rattlesnake-skin warn’t done wid its work.’ ‘I wish I’d never seen that snake-skin, Jim—I do wish I’d never laid eyes on it.’
“It ain’t yo’ fault, Huck; you didn’ know. Don’t you blame yo’self ‘bout it.’”
In this exchange, Huck is beginning to develop a conscience and a greater sense of responsibility for his actions. In short, he is beginning to understand the concept of consequences. This process of maturing continues for the remainder of the novel, as when Huck, feeling guilty about his role in the criminal activities of duke and king, who conspire to rob the Wilks girls of their inheritance:
“I says to myself, this is another one that I’m letting him rob her of her money. And when she got through they all jest laid theirselves out to make me feel at home and know I was amongst friends. I felt so ornery and low down and mean that I says to myself, my mind’s made up; I’ll hive that money for them or bust.”
This display of conscience and of an emerging moral compass is one of the story’s most important examples of Huck’s personal growth. Another involves his sympathy for the two thieves who, being captured by townsfolk, tarred and feathered and dispatched from town on a rail, have gone from embodying corruption and immorality to representing human suffering:
“Well, it made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seemed like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”
During the course of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the character of Huck grows as a person and exemplifies a developed sense of morality rare among individuals of his age.
The experience of Huck sailing down the river helps to demonstrate the level of maturity that Huck undergoes. This happens on multiple levels. One distinct notion of change that comes out of Huck traveling down the river is that it shows the level of change he had undergone. This helps him understand the world and his place in it. Huck's experience down the river is a separation between he and society. It enables him to better understand the hypocrisy that exists in society. Such reflection is where maturation in Huck's character becomes evident.
As Huck reflects about his own condition in the world, his experience on the river enables him to better understand his place in the world. Part of this experience involves Huck coming to terms with his stand on racism in American society. Huck's experience on the river enables him to understand the hypocrisy involved in American slavery. Huck Finn matures because he understands the fundamental difference between doing what society tells him to do and what exists in his own heart. When he speaks to Jim as a human being, maturation is seen in how Huck has to distance himself from social attitudes regarding race:
Well, I did. I said I wouldn't, and I'll stick to it. Honest INJUN, I will. People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don't make no difference. I ain't a-going to tell, and I ain't a-going back there, anyways. So, now, le's know all about it.
This shows maturity in Huck because of his commitment to that which is right. Huck is forced to make a moral choice, an ethical choice that goes against the nature of socially dictated notions of the good. The experience of leaving society, meeting Jim, and traveling down the river allows such a change to happen.
Huck's experience leaving "civilization" and the attempts to "civlise" him help to forge his maturation. This experience of recognizing what might be wrong with socially dictated notions of the good is where maturation exists. To a great extent, Huck understands that freedom is about speaking out against that which is perceived to be wrong. Huck's maturation lies in the recognition that he needs to escape from a world that is "so cramped up and sivilized [sic] as they call it." At the same time, Huck also realizes that he cannot stay with his father. In recognizing the need for Huck to find his own path, he becomes mature. Maturity is seen in such an action. It is something that Huck gains as a result of him leaving conformist notions of the good.
Traveling with Jim and eventually freeing him is what defines his character. Taking such moral action in the name of another human being and in the name of what is seen to be right are both examples of maturation. Even if the act itself was not significant, Huck recognizes the need to take it, thereby experiencing a level of maturation. Leaving into "the real world" is where this experience causes Huck's maturation. Dong so allows him to become a more actualized human being, and demonstrating that all people are capable of maturing no matter how old they are.