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.
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.
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.
The characters in the book span the social spectrum, from the feuding Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, who represent the wealthy landowning class, to several...
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