Freedom in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Besides a myriad of themes, the novelist, Mark Twain deals with, that of escape and freedom is a prominent one in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


      As soon as the novel opens, Huck is introduced to us as the narrator of the story. He is a fourteen-year-old adolescent, an orphan, who has been adopted by the refined and "civilized" Widow Douglas. Huck's father, who comes into the picture later in the story, is a useless drunkard. He brutally treats his son, Huck.

      For all practical purposes, Widow Douglas is Huck's guardian and makes sincere efforts to make him better suited to the society that he is part of. Her younger sister, Miss Watson is even more particular about Huck learning his manners. She is the one who "kept pecking at me" all the time and Huck resents her because "it got tiresome and lonesome...". She offers an extremely constricting environment for the boy who longs to go back to his "old rags" and "sugar hogshead".

       Though Huck's reaction towards the Widow is relatively mellower, he is not particularly fond of her ways, either. "I was getting sort of used to the widow's ways, too, and they warn't so raspy on me". Nevertheless, he doesn't accept her precepts, wholeheartedly. The two ladies, along with their preconceived notions about "civility" and "decency good him towards civilization and refinement. "Miss Watson would say, "Don't put your feet up there, Huckleberry;" and "Don't scrunch up like that, Huckleberry - set up straight;" and pretty soon she would say, "Don't gap and stretch like that, Huckleberry why don't you try to behave"?

      As he shows his antipathy towards them, Pap comes on the scene to horrify him even more. Though, initially, Huck is quite happy to get rid of the two ladies, and lead his own carefree life, soon he gets wretched because of the way his father treats him. He is hardly a father in the true, sense of the word. He is simply after Huck's money as he has become aware that the latter has found a fortune of six thousand dollars. He beats him mercilessly and manhandles him. Soon, Huck starts feeling bitter towards him and engineers his escape.

      Huck also aspires for freedom from the ritual of school-going. Though he has been to school and can "spell and read and write just a little, and could say the multiplication table up to six times seven is thirty-five", he doesn't find the place too fascinating. He finds it mentally exhausting and "tiring". Whenever I got uncommon tired I played hookey, and the hiding I got the next day did me good and cheered me up. So the longer I went to school the easier it got to be".

      Huck doesn't accept what he is taught in school because that too is colored with the principles and guidelines of the slave-owning society that he resents so much. Moreover, we have seen that schooling has not done much good to Tom Sawyer, either. Formal education, as we can see, has given nothing much to Tom, by way of maturing him or making him more judicious. On the other hand, it has filled his mind with funny and unpractical ideas of romance, adventure, and heroism.

      Notwithstanding Huck's lack of formal education, his emotional intelligence steers him towards quicker growth. Huck's maturity lies in stretching his knowledge beyond the four walls of the school and making him more agile. He can cook up white lies and save his skin. He can also manage affairs, effectively, for Jim and ensure his safety. He has also developed the maturity to see through the mask of the King and the Duke. He has the sagacity and adaptability to accept them as they are, for the sake of peace. His malleability is also evident from the fact that he can adapt to Widow Douglas' lifestyle, though unwillingly, as well as that at the mansion of the Grangerfords.

      Thus, we notice that, for Huck, it is more a question of spiritual and emotional freedom; he hungers after a situation that would free him from an ideological reliance on a slave-owning society: He yearns for an ability to assess, for himself, what society calls "right", always need not be so. He needs the freedom and power to make his own decisions based on his sagacity. This end can only be achieved once he accomplishes freedom from Miss Watson, Widow Douglas as well as Pap.


      Jim's desire for freedom is one in a more literal sense. For him, the be-all and end-all of his existence is freedom, in the physical sense, from the slave-holding Southern American society of the 1840s. He wants to run away from the brutality and discrimination of the mindset of people. Though he is treated kindly by Miss Watson, she wants to sell him to a slave owner from Orleans, for a sum of eight hundred dollars. Pap fears being separated from his family and therefore, wants to run away to the free states.


      While the shore symbolizes inequality, cruelty, and malice, the raft as well as the river Mississippi symbolizing freedom, home, equality, and safety for the two boys who are in a quest for their freedom. They stand for freedom and escape from undesirable circumstances. The river is idyllic and extremely peaceful as it promises a carefree life that Huck has always yearned for. "I laid there, and had a good rest, smoke out of my pipe, looking away into the sky; not a cloud in it. The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knew it before". It is Twain's "strong brown god" that proves to be a safe haven for Jim as well. It assures him that, in the wigwam of the raft and in the company of Huck, he is away from people who would try to enslave him.


      Now, the question that arises is whether or not they finally accomplish their freedom. Huck tries to live by his own experiences and form his own moral standards. He succeeds to a great extent when, on several occasions, he challenges and flouts social conventions by helping a runaway slaves. In chapter 16, he lies to the slaveholders about ns companion being "white". He says that he has his father, wn Sullering from Smal-Pox, onboard the raft. The slave-holders beside him and let them move on. On another occasion, when he is in a severe quandary, he decides to tear Miss Watson's letter and "go to Hell". He decides against giving Jim away and chooses to remain loyal to his friend. But a significant point to be noted here is that, despite all his decisions, there has always been a latent streak of racism, one of social conditioning within him. He always looks at niggers as less than humans. His admission, that Jim "had an uncommon level head, for a nigger" (chapter 14), betrays his racist attitude.

      Huck indeed has more empathy than the other characters in the novel. He is more compassionate towards Jim than anybody else is. Yet, he is surprised how a nigger could be capable of human emotions like love, etc. He says, "I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks do for their'n." (Chapter 23).

      All these statements made by Huck reveal that he is still not completely liberated from the weight of society's thoughts. Moreover, the very fact that he goes through the anguish of being in the "everlasting fire" in Chapter 31, trying to decide whether or not to let Miss Watson know about Jim's whereabouts, shows that he is not yet free in the true sense of the word. The "slap" of "Providence" makes us fully aware of the tough time that he has. Had Huck been freed from society's way of thinking, he wouldn't have had such an ordeal.

      We can, therefore, summarize that, in Huck's case, complete freedom is not attainable. We cannot free ourselves from society. No matter how much we may resent being a part of this malicious world, the fundamental truth remains that we have to exist as part of it. Any desire to emancipate ourselves from it would come to naught.

      Of course, in Jim's case, he does get his freedom. His desire for freedom is a more rational and attainable one because he craves freedom from physical slavery while Huck craves for one from the mindset and thought processes of "civilization" - an unrealistic goal.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Discuss the theme of escape and freedom in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
What does freedom mean to Huck? What does it mean to Jim? Explain from your reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Discuss how the river provides freedom for Huck and Jim.

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