The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Essays and Criticism
by Mark Twain

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Huckleberry Finn: An Overview

Told in the voice of its first-person narrator, the central themes of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn necessarily reflect the values, interests and concerns of an affable but unruly adolescent who is, by his own account, a petty thief, an inveterate idler, and a liar to boot. In Huck's vernacular vocabulary, the key evaluative word is "comfortable." At any given point in his story, Huck appraises his situation by the degree to which he feels comfortable. As Twain manipulates it, "comfortable" is a multivalent term. On the one hand, Huck clearly wants to be free of external restraint, of work, and of punishment for his misdeeds. Capture and rescue serve as a recurrent pattern within the novel's plot. At the same time, Huck wants to be rid of the pangs of his own conscience, particularly the ironic guilt that he experiences as he becomes increasingly involved in helping the runaway slave Jim attain freedom. Ultimately, Twain's unlikely hero moves toward the adoption of a standard that enables him to resolve his misgivings on this count, embracing a variation of the Golden Rule. In the course of his narrative, Huck develops the capacity to place himself in the shoes of other people. This is, however, an imperfect solution because many of the people whom he encounters along the Mississippi are con artists, gullible victims, or outright hypocrites.

The connection between being comfortable and being free from established authority is established at the outset of Twain's book as Huck finds himself rankling under the care of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. Although he appreciates his foster parents desire to raise him as a conventionally "good" boy, he is uncomfortable with their program to "sivilize" him. Huck attaches value to education, religion, and middle-class manners, but he resists the confinements of school and church, of wearing respectable clothes and being reminded to sit up straight at the dinner table. In response to the continuous "ecking of his benevolent, self-appointed parents, Huck seeks refuge in Tom Sawyer's gang of robbers. But he quickly becomes bored with the imaginary freedom that being part of the gang offers to him.

When his Pap arrives in St. Petersburg and essentially kidnaps his son, Huck finds himself free of all these "sivilizing" restraints. Despite his captivity at the hands of a cruel task-master, he initially takes to the freedom that Pap's position outside of society provides to him, recalling that "it was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books or study" (p.21). Yet Huck soon finds himself the object of his drunken Pap's hickory switch, and escapes from the arbitrary punishments of the cabin by faking his own murder. On Jackson Island, he is once again free but his alliance with Jim forces him to take flight anew, entering into the "world elsewhere" of rafting along the river. Nevertheless, this form of freedom brings him (and Jim) into contact with charlatans, and the need to escape from the clutches of the King and the Duke. At the novel's end, Huck still seeks comfort in an illusory freedom that may lie somewhere that he has never been. Fearing that Tom's Aunt Sally will try to "sivilize" him, he vows "to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest" (p.263). In contrast to Jim, who conceives freedom in positive terms, feeling "trembly and feverish" as they approach they approach the free northern state of Illinois, Huck sees freedom in terms of the absence of external compulsion.

Even if Huck were able to achieve a state of comfortable liberty, he finds himself liable to another type of constraint, one that makes him even more uncomfortable than external coercion, the pangs of his own conscience. While he and Tom scheme to arrange Jim's escape from Phelps farm, Huck proclaims, "it don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway. If I had a yaller dog...

(The entire section is 8,362 words.)