The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Themes

The main themes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are freedom and constraint, education and ignorance, social class, and slavery and race.

  • Freedom and constraint: Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi River in pursuit of freedom, escaping the constraints of money, abuse, and enslavement.
  • Education and ignorance: Much of the book’s humor arises from interactions between uneducated characters and those who are only slightly less ignorant.
  • Social class: Twain satirizes members of both the upper and lower classes.
  • Slavery and race: Huck’s friendship with Jim is complicated by Jim’s status as an escaped slave and the deep racial divide in Southern society.

Themes

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Last Reviewed on May 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1172

Freedom and Constraint

It is a powerful irony that a book about a boy who is running away from his abusive father, who locks him up for days at a time, and a runaway slave with a price on his head should be one of the greatest evocations of freedom in American literature. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is unmistakably an expansive one, in which joyful idleness mingles with a sense of possibility and adventure. In between their various escapades, Huck and Jim spend many days simply drifting down the river, fishing, swimming, idling, talking, and doing exactly as they please. It is an idyllic life, contrasting sharply with Jim’s former slavery and with both lifestyles Huck has recently endured: constrained by respectability at the Widow Douglas’s house and locked up in a log cabin by his father.

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Huck and Jim are both ignorant and unsophisticated, but they are continually shown to be wiser than those around them. One of the principal reasons for this is that others in the book pursue pointless goals, which demonstrably bring them no happiness: the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons with their senseless blood feud, or the Duke and the Dauphin constantly seeking to cheat people out of their money. Huck and Jim are both in pursuit of freedom, and they enjoy it while they pursue it. They are both indifferent to money. Huck is already rich without wanting to be and has found that the money does nothing but constrain his liberty and prevent him from enjoying simple pleasures. He is running away from the money, and the limitations it placed on his freedom, just as Jim is escaping from literal slavery. At the end of the book, the revelations that both Miss Watson and Pap Finn are dead confirm the freedom of Jim and Huck to live the lives of their choice. In Huck’s case, this is one of absolute freedom, while Jim, no longer a slave, is constrained only by willingly assumed obligations to his wife and children.

Education and Ignorance

One of Twain’s favorite comic set-pieces is the argument between one character who is completely ignorant and another who is very nearly so. Jim and Huck fulfill these criteria in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, just as Huck and Tom do in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, before Huck goes to school.

None of the characters in the book appear to be particularly well-educated, though many of them seem so to Huck. The difference in levels of education allows Twain to rewrite the same essential piece of comedy in various different ways, all of which only work on the assumption that both the author and the reader are better educated and more discerning than any of the characters. Huck, who takes a didactic attitude when talking to Jim about European history, is impressed by Emmeline Grangerford’s terrible poetry and even by the Duke’s mangling of Shakespeare. The Duke knows at least the names of the famous actors, David Garrick and Edmund Kean, though he probably knows little else about them. No one in his small-town audience even knows enough to be surprised that they are both alive and performing in an Arkansas courthouse.

Social Class

The characters in the book span the social spectrum, from the feuding Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, who represent the wealthy landowning class, to several vagrants, drifters, and, of course, slaves. It is ironic that the grandest titles, Duke of Bridgewater and Dauphin of France, are claimed by characters close to the bottom of the social spectrum for white people, a couple of miscreant vagabonds who make money by cheating and stealing from the vulnerable.

The book begins with a significant change in Huck’s own social status. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he was outside the respectable society of St. Petersburg, the envy of the other children because he did not have to attend school but a pariah as far as the adults were concerned. However, having become rich, he has begun to live with the Widow Douglas, one of the town’s wealthiest and most socially elite citizens. Huck’s father, a ragged, illiterate alcoholic, is horrified to find his son learning to read and write, wearing smart, clean clothes, and sleeping in a soft bed in a fine house. This elevation in Huck’s social status seems to irk him just as much as his inability to claim Huck’s money, for which he has no plans except to spend it on whiskey.

Although Twain often satirizes respectability, he also treats his upper-class characters with more respect than the poor and ignorant. Even the icily cruel Colonel Sherburn is clearly the superior of everyone else in the town where he lives, and his social superiority translates directly into his quality as a human being. He may be unsympathetic, but he is also courageous and cool-headed, conscious that he is a better, braver, more intelligent man than the rabble who want to lynch him. Both Twain and Huck seem to share his perspective, along with that of Widow Douglas, who says that good breeding is “worth as much in a man as it is in a horse.”

Slavery and Race

The adventures of Huckleberry Finn are also the adventures of Jim the runaway slave, but “adventures” does not seem such an apposite term in the second instance. Huck and Jim are often separated, and Jim does not share in most of Huck’s escapades on land, because he cannot risk being seen. This makes it clear that, while Huck and Jim are traveling along the same route, they are on very different journeys. Huck has no particular destination, and the consequences of getting caught are not particularly serious for him. Jim has a price on his head, and his escape is a matter of life and death, something Huck does not always understand.

Huck is probably as color-blind and unprejudiced as it is possible for any white person raised in the South in the era of slavery to be. He is loyal to Jim and generally treats him as an approximate equal, with occasional disparaging comments on his intelligence, education, and credulous nature. This is partly because Huck is not part of respectable, white, slave-owning society himself. However, he has lapses, the most serious of which occurs when he thinks they are about to reach Cairo, which means that Jim will be a free man. At this point, he regards Jim as a piece of property belonging to Miss Watson and is ashamed to be stealing from her. Jim’s wife and children also appear to him as valuable possessions owned by members of his own race. He has the same reaction when Jim is captured by Silas Phelps, even fearing eternal damnation for his part in helping Jim to escape. At such crucial points, the racial divide between Huck and Jim prevents them from enjoying the uncomplicated friendship which existed between Huck and Tom in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

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