The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn book cover
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At a Glance

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores the tension between civilization and nature. Huck's free-spirited desire to explore is a great example of this. In the end, Huck refuses to be tamed by the Widow Douglas and decides to keep roaming.
  • Slavery and freedom are two important themes in the novel. As a runaway slave, Jim is hunted, imprisoned, and very nearly killed because of his race and social status. For him, freedom brings with it dignity, respect, and the right to be acknowledged as a human being.
  • Twain's depiction of racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appears conflicted. Even though Huck recognizes Jim's humanity and helps him escape slavery, he doesn't extend this same consideration to other African Americans.

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the central works of American literature and a worldwide bestseller, traces the moral education of a young boy whose better impulses overcome both self-interest and the negative forces of his culture. Huck, a homeless boy whose only relative is his disreputable father, is taken in by a respectable widow who seeks to educate him. She forces him to go to school, but Huck dislikes being "so cramped up and sivilized [sic] as they call it." His father abducts him, and Huck prefers the freedom of his father's shack to the constraint of more genteel surroundings.

Freed from civilizing influences and placed in the company of his father, a vicious racist who boasts of his own illiteracy, Huck seems like a poor candidate for moral growth. But when Pap Finn nearly kills the boy during an alcoholic delirium, Huck escapes and meets the runaway slave Jim, who provides him with the opportunity to make a significant moral choice. Huck has been shaped not only by his father's view that one should act out of self-interest, but also by his society's belief that God's law mandates slavery. As he protects Jim, Huck feels certain that he will go to hell. Nonetheless, he transcends his upbringing and learns to value essential human bonds of trust beyond his own interest. Throughout the novel the boy witnesses a variety of human corruption, pretension, and violence, but maintains his integrity through his ability to identify with others.

The Walter Scott, the derelict steamer named after the enormously popular author of historical romances, suggests an attitude toward the ideals of chivalry as they are practiced in the American South. These ideals are acted out as murderous fantasies by the Grangerfords, who impress Huck with their refinement and "culture" (plaster parrots and morbid art) but are involved in a bloody feud, and by Col. Sherburn, who shoots down an unarmed man for insulting him. Society's institutions are built on some of the same illusions Tom draws from books, with terrible consequences. Religion is employed in the service of slavery, and Huck has to overcome his "conscience" in order to act morally toward Jim.


(Novels for Students)


In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn both Huck and the runaway slave Jim are in flight from a society which labels them as outcasts. Although Huck has been adopted by the Widow Douglas and been accepted into the community of St. Petersburg, he feels hemmed in by the clothes he is made to wear and the models of decorum to which he must adhere. But he also does not belong to the world Pap inhabits. Although he feels more like himself in the backwoods, Pap's drunken rages and attempts to control him force Huck to flee. At the end of the book, after Jim has been freed, Huck decides to continue his own quest for freedom. "I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before." Huck is clearly running from a civilization that attempts to control him, rather than running in pursuit of something tangible. He is representative of the American frontiersman who chooses the unknown over the tyranny of society.

As a slave, Jim has likewise been denied...

(The entire section is 1,562 words.)