The Role of Mississippi: in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      As a child, Mark Twain had been, thoroughly and intimately, acquainted with the Mississippi river. As a child of four years, in 1839, his family moved to Hannibal, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi river. The river has been a major channel of transportation between the North and the South.

      In the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the river Mississippi is a symbol of freedom, peace and change. Besides its geographical significance, it plays another substantial role. For Huck, it symbolizes an entry into the carefree and idyllic life that he has always yearned for. In Chapter 7, Huck fakes his own murder and runs away to Jackson's island where he finds the ambience blissful.

"I laid there, and had a good rest, a 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 knowed it before".

      The riverbanks are inhabited by civilization; people who uphold certain ideals and values that are, as far as Huck is concerned, completely lopsided and redundant. He finds it claustrophobic to adhere to them. This is where he has to grapple with people like Miss Watson and others who display double standards in their dealings with people. He has to get himself to wear uncomfortable clothes, hold on to gentlemanly behaviour, go to school and learn spellings - everything that he detests.

      In chapter 9, when Huck and Jim start exploring Jackson's island together, it is on a stormy night, by the riverside that Huck says,

"Jim, this is a nice...I wouldn't want to be nowhere else but here. Pass me along another hunk of fish and some hot corn-bread."

      The town is also infested with the likes of Pap who make life miserable lor Huck. With him around, Huck has to fight for life itself. For the young adolescent, the river is a retreat from the constricting influence of "sivilized" society that he abhors so much. It is here that he can laze around, smoke his pipe and watch the stars without any cares and concerns. The river lends the two boys, Huck and Jim, a vivid impression of delight as they anticipate their freedom.

Soon as it was night, out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle, we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water and talked about all lands of things... we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us.... Sometimes we'd have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time ... It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened. (Chapter 19).

      A symbol of tranquility and independence, the Mississippi river offers an ecstatic and blissful life for Jim as well. His owner, Miss Watson plans to sell him off to slave traders from New Orleans for a sum of eight hundred dollars. Petrified at the prospect of being separated from his family for ever, Jim manages to escape to Jackson's island where he meets Huck. Together, they embark on a journey downriver, towards the free states. It is the river that offers Jim his only hope of freedom and that of a reunion with his family.

      The river is also the common chord that fosters a strong bond between both Huck and Jim. A part of society, initially, Huck too is not free from traces of a racist attitude. He has been brought up to believe in the accepted "rules" and "codes of conduct" that perceive blacks in a certain way. But the time that Huck spends with Jim on the river, plays an instrumental role in helping the former evolve emotionally, morally and spiritually. A deeper friendship evolves between the two and Huck starts understanding the fact that Jim too is a human being like the rest of the people. Despite being a nigger, he too has emotions and feelings. The concept of family is as important to him as it is to anybody else.

      Another notable development brought about by the river is an almost familial bond that grows between the two of them. Huck is, for all practical purposes, an orphan. He shares a very disturbing relationship with Pap, his father, who is a drunkard and hardly provides any emotional or moral support to his son. During the course of their journey downriver, Huck starts looking up to Jim as a father-figure. In chapter 9, the two come across a wrecked frame house floating in the water. Jim notices Pap's dead body but does not let Huck see it because "it's too gashly". ln this way, he shelters Huck from the emotional pain of the awareness that he has lost his father.

      However, as the novel progresses, there is an intrusion by various others characters who have a corrupting influence on the hitherto unspoiled and untainted flavor of the river. Quite early in the novel, Huck and Jim encounter floods, broken houses, dead bodies, snakes. Amongst: the people who add to the debasing air are the two swindlers who pose as "King Louis the XVIl" and the "Duke of Bridgewater (Chapter 19). They epitomize all that is fraudulent and ignoble in human beings. The "low-down humbugs and frauds" are symbolic of the society that Huck detests. With their intrusion on the raft, the tranquil ambience gets sullied. From this point of time, it is as though Huck and Jim's relation with the river has become less than perfect. The realization that they have missed Cairo, (chapter 16) dashes Jim's hopes of freedom and all that is treasured by him.

      Despite occasional disruptions, life on the river is preferable to that on shore. The moment the two of them step on the shore, they get into trouble. People like the Grangerfords, Shepherdsons and Col. Sherburn herald an unpleasant life diseased with bloodthirsty people. But as soon as they resume their journey downriver, they attain some peace of mind. In Chapter 18, after their adventure of witnessing the "Grangerford - Shepherdson" feud, Huck says,

"I was power glad to get away from the feuds, ard so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft."

      The river lets them be their natural self. It helps them reinforce their disgust of society, for their own reasons. In this way, the river serves as a route of escape for both of them, carrying them to their respective destinations. As contrasted with society, the river symbolizes how nature can be so much more caring than mankind.

According to Lionel Trilling, the Mississippi river is "the greatest character. It is like a God in the novel. Those who familiarize themselves with its ways are able to fathom its force, vitality and splendor. No doubt it poses dangers like the destruction caused by floods, etc. but, on the whole, it protects Huck and Jim from the appalling viciousness and abomination of society - aspects that are more hurting.


      According to the American poet and critic, T.S. Eliot, the river "gives the book its form". He goes on to say, "But for the River, the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending. A river, a very big and powerful river, is the only natural force that can wholly determine the course of human peregrination. . . . Thus the River makes the book a great book. Mark Twain is a native, and the River God is his God."

      "The Dry Salvages," the third of his Four Quartets, is a poem by the poet that commences with contemplation on the Mississippi. T.S. Eliot had known the river ever since is boyhood days: - "I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god.."

      Huck is almost critical of the conventional and time-honoured forms of religion that he has come across, so far, in the house of his guardians. But he is not at odds with all forms of religion. The Mississippi symbolizes one such form of religion that Huck has no qualms in accepting. Possessing a divine nature, it is almost like a deity and Huck serves this divinity. The world of the river abounds in hidden connotations, omens and signs. Looking at the moon over the left shoulder, handling a snake-skin, the "who-whooing" of an owl, etc. are all the incidents that instigate the fury of the God that exhibits its wrath in the form of floods and fogs destruction and mortal wounds.

      Religion, and adherence to its tenets, is important to preserve one's essential humanity. Despite a denunciation of accepted forms of conventional religion, Huck, (besides Jim), is probably the only character in the novel who has remnants of this humanity. It is the river that provides him the support of 'religious conviction' and 'faith'. Huck's passionate morality seems to be consequent of his piety towards the river. Each time, after a distressing rendezvous with society, he returns to the river with an enthusiasm characteristic of a devotee. It is a homecoming to relief, tranquility and harmony. After each return, there is an adoration of the serenity offered by this temple.

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