Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1765
Theme of Freedom as Inherent Motivation: Huck and Jim are separated by age, race, and social position in this racist society, but each is driven by an intense longing for freedom, suggesting that the desire to be free is inherent in human nature. Both run away from a society that denies them personal freedom; Jim struggles to escape slavery, and Huck does not want to be “sivilized,” forced to conform to the conventions of society. The Mississippi River represents freedom for Huck and Jim and serves as the primary symbol in the novel.
- For discussion: How are Jim and Huck both outcasts from society? How is each able to find peace and a sense of liberty on the river?
Theme of Society’s Corruption as Inescapable: The towns and settlements along the Mississippi are occupied by those who demonstrate the worst in humanity: greed, hypocrisy, arrogance, duplicity, selfishness, stupidity, and violence. The violence Huck witnesses on several occasions sickens him—and he is no stranger to violence himself at the hands of his abusive, drunken father. The greatest corruption in society is slavery, a political and social institution that expresses all the worst traits found in humans.
- For discussion: The novel’s themes are often developed through contrast. Twain contrasts the beauty, peace, and freedom of rafting down the Mississippi with the violence, greed, and duplicity Huck encounters in settlements along the river; nature as a source of goodness contrasts with society as a corrupting influence on human behavior. Where can these contrasts be found, and how does Twain’s word choice for his descriptions of various settlements reflect this theme?
Theme of Friendship Formed Through Adversity and Shared Experience: Huck has two friends in the world, Tom Sawyer and Jim, but his relationship with each of them is different. Tom is Huck’s mischievous pal, whereas Jim becomes Huck’s protector and often serves as a father figure. Huck is bound to Tom by their boyhood adventures; he is bound to Jim by the dangerous encounters and life-and-death struggles they survive together.
- For discussion: At what points do Huck and Jim share a genuine connection? How does Jim act as a surrogate father to Huck?
Theme of the Natural World as Source of Internal Peace: Nature plays a continuing role in the novel, and Huck’s descriptions of the natural world occur throughout the text. Huck feels at home in nature, especially while rafting down the Mississippi, and finds in natural settings the beauty, peace, and freedom not present in society. Nature nourishes his spirit; it is a source of goodness in the novel that contrasts with the evils of society.
- For discussion: What does the Mississippi River symbolize throughout the novel? How does Huck find peace and freedom in nature?
Huck as Follower of Internal Morals: The internal conflict Huck experiences about freeing Jim at the Phelps plantation is pivotal to his moral development. Huck’s deciding to go literally to hell rather than leave Jim a slave is the dramatic climax of the novel and Twain’s harshest criticism of slavery. Huck’s decision indicates that being damned for eternity is preferable to allowing someone to be enslaved. By the end of the novel, Huck has encountered society at its most corrupt, but he has not been corrupted. He has struggled with questions of morality versus immorality and followed the goodness in his own heart.
- For discussion: Make a list of Huck’s predominant character traits as they are revealed through his words and actions. How is his character developed through the conflicts he faces, and how does he decide how to resolve these conflicts?
Huck and Jim as Respected Equals: Highlight Huck and Jim’s relationship. It is through his evolving relationship with Jim that Huck matures as he recognizes Jim’s fine qualities of character despite his enslavement and lesser status. Throughout the novel, Jim acts with courage, integrity, compassion, unselfishness, gratitude, and loyalty. He forgives Huck’s occasional lack of kindness and can’t forgive himself for once having hurt his little daughter. He is determined to bring his wife and children out of slavery and be reunited with them.
- For discussion: Where are readers able to see evidence of Jim’s admirable qualities? How does Huck react to these situations, and how do they change his perception of Jim and slavery in general?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- The novel is rich in irony, both situational and dramatic. Characters valued the least in society (Huck and Jim) prove to be the most admirable and heroic. What are other examples of irony in the text? How does Huck’s understanding of situations and events in the narrative differ considerably from readers’?
- The novel is often infused with humor through Huck’s running commentary on the foibles of human nature as he observes them in society. What are some examples of these? Do they strike readers are particularly true, even today?
- What is Tom Sawyer’s purpose in the plot?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Vernacular Speech Is Difficult to Read: Students may have difficulty at first understanding how the characters speak, especially how Huck and Jim speak in stylized dialect. As students continue to read the novel, Twain’s vernacular style will seem less foreign.
- What to do: Playing a recording of several brief passages of Huck’s narration in the novel or a conversation between Huck and Jim will allow students to listen to the dialects as they are spoken, rather than to rely solely on how the sounds of the words are communicated in writing.
- What to do: Study Twain’s use of vernacular style by having students “translate” a few brief passages from the text and write them in standard English.
The Novel Portrays Racist Attitudes and Beliefs: In the mid-1900s, Twain’s depiction of African-American slaves and the frequent use of the derogatory and offensive word “nigger” in the text generated fierce criticism of the novel as a racist work, and the book was banned in some high school libraries and classrooms. Teaching the novel requires being sensitive to how students perceive Huck’s character and Twain’s vernacular style. The distinction must be drawn between a novel’s depicting a racist society versus being a racist novel.
- What to do: Note that Twain’s intent was to realistically depict Huck’s society, which was thoroughly racist, and that it is the characters, not Twain himself, who use racist language and express the racist attitudes and beliefs of those who viewed slavery as having been instituted by God as part of the natural order in the world. Twain wrote in vernacular style, a staple of local color writing, to depict realistically how the people in Huck’s society, who were racist, actually spoke. Show students excerpts from interviews with Twain and point out that when speaking as himself, in person and in print, Twain expressed strong views against racism and slavery.
- What to do: Take students through a short unit on romanticism and the development of regionalism (local color writing) in 19th-century American literature. Establish the characteristics of romanticism and local color writing. Have students identify elements of romanticism and local color writing in the novel and come up with explanations as to why Twain made the choices that he did.
The Novel Stereotypes African-Americans as Ignorant, Foolish, and Superstitious: The African-Americans in the novel are slaves living in the era prior to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States. Some contend that Twain portrays African- Americans not as individuals but as stereotypes created by white society. Opposition to Huckleberry Finn has continued among its critics, who argue that the novel stereotypes African-Americans and that reading and discussing it in the classroom hurts and humiliates African-American students.
- What to do: Note that the black characters’ dialect is so exaggerated it suggests that Twain was, in fact, ridiculing the stereotype and the stereotypical portrayal of African- Americans in the blackface minstrel shows that were popular during his time. Point out also that while Jim is clearly ignorant and superstitious, so are Huck Finn and various other white characters. Jim is perhaps foolish to remain a voluntary prisoner at the Phelps plantation, but Tom Sawyer’s elaborate plans to free him—plans that Huck also goes along with—are patently absurd. Being ignorant, foolish, and superstitious are presented as universal human traits, rather than characteristics of a particular race.
The Novel Changes Location Frequently: It may be difficult for students to keep an accurate sense of place as Huck and Jim raft to various towns. It’s likely that students will not know many of the areas around the Mississippi River.
- What to do: Give students information about the Mississippi, and show them pictures to illustrate the size and appearance of the “Mighty Mississippi.” Also give students a map of the region in Missouri that is the novel’s setting; the map should show the region’s proximity to Illinois with the Mississippi running between them. Trace Huck’s journey from the time he runs away from home until he returns. Have students locate specific details in the text to create a timeline of his travels.
Alternative Teaching Approaches
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Focus on Huck as a romantic hero. His values adhere to many tenets of romanticism: idealization of nature, especially as a refuge from a corrupt society, an emphasis on one’s emotions, and the necessity of an individual’s personal freedom.
Focus on Tom Sawyer as a literary foil for Huck. Highlight Tom Sawyer’s role in the novel as a functional character. Through Tom’s obsession with the adventure books he has read, Twain satirizes popular romance novels of the day and contrasts Tom’s imagination with Huck’s realism.
Focus on Jim as a voice of moral integrity. Look over his conversations with Huck, and note how he often steers Huck in a better moral direction than more respected characters.
Focus on the novel as a condemnation of how children are treated, particularly in light of Pap’s abuse of Huck, the Widow’s civilizing influence, and Jim’s guilt over having beaten his daughter.
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