Themes of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      "PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

      Despite the novelist's warning, in the Preface, against any attempt to find a motive in the story, the narrative has been more scrupulously scoured for motive than any other work of fiction. The myriad of themes, which develop throughout the novel, have been, painstakingly, culled from it. A few of the major ones are as under:


      Though the novel was written after the abolition of slavery in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the way blacks were perceived by people remained the same for a considerable time afterwards. Slavery had been a fact of life for decades. People had been brought up with the perspective that slavery was the "right" and "acceptable" thing. It was considered reasonable to ill-treat blacks and look down upon them.

      Twain presents a realistic portrayal of the society of his times. There are a few so-called religious people in the novel - Widow Douglas, Miss Watson, the Phelps those who are god-fearing and would adhere to the tenets of Religion. But, by and large, they too have double standards. They don't consider it wrong to treat a fellow human being with thoughtlessness on account of racial grounds. They turn a blind eye to Jim's sentiments and have no qualms about doing so. Miss Watson wants to separate Jim from his family by selling him off to slave-traders from New Orleans, for a paltry sum of eight hundred dollars. Tom and Huck don't care about how they might be hurting Jim's sentiments by playing several practical jokes on him.

      The so-called "civilized society" is seen moving towards moral confusion. They'd rather accept an uneducated, crude "white" drunkard like Pap than respect a well-educated and decent nigger. Pap says "And they call that govment." (Chapter 6). His intolerance towards the "free nigger" from Ohio stems from the fact that he is not a white man. It is ironical that a useless, good-for-nothing waif, like Pap, should consider himself superior to a literate and educated man, merely on racial grounds.

      The noble and moral Jim is discriminated against simply because he is a nigger. The standards of judging people are pathetically lopsided.

      Though Huck is one of the more humane and sensitive characters in the novel, he too is not totally free from this racial prejudice. He finds it unethical and immoral to help Jim, Miss Watson's slave, escape to freedom. When Huck notices Jim crying for his family, especially his daughter, Elizabeth, he is surprised that even a nigger is as capable of emotions and sentiments just as whites are. Though, ultimately he overpowers the effects of his social conditioning, it is difficult for him to come to terms with his inner voice. Very often, during the course of the novel, he almost succumbs to the authority of the didactic influence of his society.


      Education - both Intellectual and Moral form a major part of the social theme. Intellectual education, which is akin to bookish knowledge, is highly revered. Huck's guardians, Widow Douglas and Miss Watson try their best to make Huck appreciate the idea of going to school, learn Spellings, etc. Education is the hallmark of a gentleman and it is only a "gentleman" who is respected in society.

      Tom has all these privileges. He goes to school, can read and write and, in all these respects, is a perfect gentleman in the making.

      Though uneducated, in the conventional sense of the term, Huck has een the world around him and he understands it reasonably well. It is as though his experience with, the bitter truth of life has helped mature him fast. He is geared up with: all that is needed to survive in the insensitive world, full of thoughtless people. At the tender age of thirteen or fourteen years, he knows how to extricate himself from trouble and manage his own affairs without the support of a real family.

      It is not just academic education, but also moral education, that has a significant role to play in the novel. Huck embodies a person who, as a result of his exposure, trials and tribulations, has attained a higher level of moral growth than any other character in the novel. He hasn't delved into the nuances of History, Geography and Mathematics, but his emotional quotient is much more developed than all the other seem religious, refined or educated people around him - Widow Douglas Miss Watson, the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, the Phelpses, etc.

      Widow Douglas tries to acquaint him with Religion, concepts of "Providence" and the need for being a Philanthropist. Instead of absorbing these ideals blindly, his insight into things makes him question them. Since he can't relate to any of these principles and fails to perceive tangible results, he questions their validity.

      His growing relationship with Jim steers him towards a realization of the hollowness of his social conditioning and all the teachings that have been ingrained in him. He manages to affirm his own codes and principles regarding his affiliation with people. More than once, he chooses to go to "the bad place" but he would make his own rules.


      Along with this, there is also the theme of self-realization and rebirth. After each of Huck's escapades, whether alone or with Jim, he learns something new.

      Though Huck can't read well, he can "read" the world around him. He can discern, from the very beginning, that the "King" and the "Duke' are rogues. His decision to take a stand for the Wilks sisters, speaks volumes of his moral development. When he realizes the extent to which the "King' and the "Duke" can stoop, he exhibits exemplary moral courage. He has also learnt that, sometimes, it is not possible to change people and it is best to just let them be. In the "Boggs episode", he echoes Col. Sherburn's views on mankind.

      After grappling with his conscious, Huck realizes that it is better to do one's duty towards a fellow human being even if it means going to Hell. He has realized that blacks are people too and have the same emotions and sentiments as whites do. Huck has acquired this "knowledge" not through any books or coaching, but by his exposure to the hard realities of his life.


      Another important theme in the novel is the dangers of civilization, which arise form the hypocrisy of the so-called "civilized society". From the very beginning of the novel, Huck is conscious of these "dangers" and he wishes to break away from the ideology of this society. He'd rather opt for his carefree life of "rags" and "sugar hogshead" than that promulgated by the likes of Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. He prefers his "natural" life to that of refinement and polish.

      It is this civilized society that fails to protect Huck from the ill-treatment and abuse of his father, Pap. The new judge, in Chapter 5, consents to Pap's claim of his son. The moot question here is whether it is so important to keep father and son together even if it is at the cost of a young child's welfare? Pap has, after all, hardly been a true father to his son. It is the shallowness of this society that encourages the "superior" white man to take control over lesser mortals, the blacks.

      The lopsided standards of society advocate punishing a man's desire to seek freedom, his basic right as a human being, but condone heinous crimes like the murder of a seemingly harmless drunkard, Boggs. Huck's yearning to flee society is not merely to escape its constricting influence, the table manners and the schools but also the tarnished rules and precepts. It is, out and out, ironical that Jim and Huck, the uneducated lot, are more conscious of their social responsibility than all the others put together.


      Throughout his adult life, Mark Twain is known for his derision of conventionally accepted precepts of traditional religion. Twain's mockery of this conformist religion is a strong theme that pervades the novel. The novelist's non-conformism is perceived in the beginning of the novel itself and continues to suffuse throughout.

      Though Huck Finn tries to pray, he cannot sustain his faith for too long when he realizes the discrepancies in certain tenets propounded by Religion. Widow Douglas tells him that he can get whatever by simply praying to God. Huck questions this belief because he fails to see any proof of this belief. If this were the case, why doesn't the widow get her stolen silver snuffbox back and why can't Miss Watson become more attractive?

"No, says I to my self, there ain't nothing in it. I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was "spiritual gifts."

      Huck's preliminary skepticism of this religion is evident when he, vociferously, announces his preference of the "bad place" over "Heaven". Though it astounds the poor lady, Huck is pragmatic about his preferences. He sees no good in going to a place that offers him no attractions. He, like any other young lad of his age, would rather live life the way he enjoys it, even if it means going to the "bad place".

      He is taught the significance of goodness and service to others. But when he sees no use for himself in being a philanthropist, he abandons the idea as useless and redundant. Though not a typically pious boy, he is, definitely, God-fearing and has his own moral scruples that guide him through his troubles.

      Mark Twain again gets a chance to mock people's religious beliefs and staunch faith in God when, in chapter 20, the "King", after a lot or drama, convinces the religious congregation of his intentions to convert his fellow-pirates to good people. He extracts a good amount of money form the gullible lot.


      Family is one of the most important themes in the book. Right from the beginning of the novel, the influence and presence of the family is a strong one. Widow Douglas adopts Huck and gives him the love, care and attention that she would probably have given to her biological son. She makes all efforts to give him her best, in terms of love, care and concern. She tries to teach him refined manners and introduces him to a gentleman's way of life. Even Huck has a lot of regard for the old lady. In fact, she is the only component of society (that Huck detests) who is worthy of Huck's love and respect. Huck tries to please her, even in her absence, in whatever small ways he can. In Chapter 13, Huck's desire, to go and save the robbers, is driven by his desire to please Widow Douglas. It is interesting to note that he never makes an endeavor to please Miss Watson. He holds the younger sister in high esteem possibly because of her kindness towards him. Nor has he ever thought of pleasing his tather, Pap. On the other hand, he made it a point to do things (such as going to school) in order to spite the latter.

      Later, in chapter 43, Aunt Sally offers to adopt Huck and provide a more stable and better life. Nevertheless, after his odyssey, Huck still fears being "sivilized". He wants to be the first one to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest".

      Pap asserts the familial bond with his son. On the basis of this, he pleads the right to his son's custody, even though he can hardly provide for him, financially or emotionally. This fight over his son's custody is what triggers off the entire drama in the novel - Pap's ill treatment of Huck, the latter's flight and all the ensuing events.

      One of the major points of difference between Huck and Tom's personalities arises due to family. While Tom has the support of a conventional family, Huck is an orphan. Despite the Widow's endeavours, he does not have the security that is Tom's privilege. He has missed the guidance and support - financial as well as emotional that is every child's right. This lack of direction and supervision is what contributes to his waywardness.


      An important theme in the novel, it is all-pervasive. In the novel, while society and civilization are akin to bondage and corruption, escape from this society is synonymous with freedom. While life on shore offers nothing more than oppression and is a burden, that on the river abounds with tranquility and harmony. It stands for freedom and escape from undesirable circumstances. "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 river is Twain's "strong brown god" that proves to be a safe haven for people trying to escape the influence of society.

      Jim, in his efforts to get freedom, risks his life and runs away to Jackson's island where he bumps into Huck and then continues his journey with the latter. Freedom is important to Jim not just for his own sake; he yearns for freedom not just from the shackles of slavery but also for the sake of his family. It is his longing to be reunited with his family members that he seeks freedom for.

      The theme of freedom represents not just Jim's freedom from the shackles of slavery but also that of Huck. Though Huck leads a comparatively more settled life in the house of Widow Douglas, he wants to escape its restricting influence and live on his own terms. Though free, he does not acquiesce to a life with Pap, either. His act of faking his own murder is another indication of the freedom (from Pap) that he desires. At the end of the novel, he wishes to run away "amongst the Injuns, over in the Territory" to avoid being adopted by Aunt Sally and letting all his efforts, to attain freedom, come to naught.

      Huck and Jim also crave for freedom from the clutches of the two swindlers. In chapter 29, at the end of Peter Wilks episode', Huck dashes towards the river and sets sailing with Jim. They believe that they have left the "King" and the "Duke" far behind. They set to sail and begin celebrating their freedom from the clutches of the two frauds. They start dancing and skipping. Jim is particularly happy to have got rid of the two men. Just then Huck hears a familiar sound and, on listening more a attentively, realizes that it is the King and the Duke. They catch up with the two boys and ruin their celebrations.


      The theme of friendship breathes life into the very essence of he narrative. Huck's relations with other members of society form his basic friendships. Though he runs away from society, he still longs companionship. When he bumps into Jim, on Jackson's island, he is elated. His friendship with Jim is one theme that has been analyzed most fastidiously. Despite Huck's initial consideration of Jim as merely about one of the numerous slaves, the former evolves to regard the latter a one whose companionship is indispensable for him. During their voyage together, by and by, Huck grows to appreciate that Jim's standing is way beyond that of an illiterate and incompetent slave. In the absence of a family, Jim becomes a father-figure to Huck and is the closest and most sincere friend that he has ever had. We can say that not only does Jim provide physical companionship to Huck, but he also offers him moral support. He shields him not only from the weather conditions but also from the ruthlessness of emotional pain, like a true friend.

      We are steadily reminded that Jim's attachment for and warmth towards Huck is there to stay. He doesn't leave the young boy's side even though, at times, the latter forgets about him, though temporarily. When Huck arrives at the Grangerfords' mansion, in chapter 17, he is quite intrigued by the occurrences in that house. The feud with the Shepherdsons, Miss Sophia's love story and his friendship with Buck Grangerford seize his attention. He forgets about Jim who is constantly waiting in the swamp for him.

      A relationship of sincere friendship also means having respect for each other. In chapter 15, they both get separated in the thick fog Ulimately, when Huck located the raft and finds Jim sleeping, he decides to playing a prank on him. When Jim expresses his happiness on seeing Huck, the latter pretends to have been with him all this while. He makes Jim believe that all this was but a nightmare. On realizing that Huck is pulling a fast one on him, Jim chastises him for being insensitive. He says to Huck, "......En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun', de tears come, en I could a got down on my krnees en kiss yo' foot, I's so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin' "bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ote Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is traslt; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed." Huck feels sorry for having played the prank on Jim and apologizes, albeit after fifteen minutes. This is an incident that makes it evident that he respects the latter's feelings.

      Huck's friendship with Tom, though not as profound as that with Jim, is also worth consideration. His admiration of Tom stems from the fact that the latter is more educated and leads a polished life. Tom can read and write and this skill proves to be the beginning of Huck's awe for him. The latter continuously yearns to be like the latter. He always hankers after his approval in whatever he does. In Chapter 7, when Huck contrives his own murder, he yearns for Tom's assistance. He holds Tom in high esteem for his education and broader exposure that the latter has received. He believes that Tom's elaborate touches could have made his plan more foolproof. Little does he realize that, owing to his own "natural learning" and a superior instinct, he himself is capable of much more than he thinks. "I did wish Tom Sawyer was there; I knowed he would take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches. Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that"

      Later, in chapter 12, Huck makes it very clear that Tom is his role model. The former would go to ay lengths to emulate Tom. Who would "land on that wreck if it was his last act" and would "throw style into it". "Why, you'd think it was Christopher C'lumbus discovering Kingdom- Come. I wish Tom Sawyer was here". Equating Tom to Christopher Columbus, Huck reveals how strongly he idealizes his friend. During the wrecked steamboat episode, Huck refuses to go with Jim because "Tom Sawyer wouldn't back out now, and so I won't either....".


      The novel begins with the "money motif". Right at the beginning of he novel, there is a reference to the sum of six thousand dollars that the two boys, Huck and Tom, lay their hands on (in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). It is this sum of money that engenders the major crisis in the story. Judge Thatcher is entrusted with the wealth. In his pursuit of this money, Pap goes to the extent of ill treating his own son. Money becomes the bone of contention between father and son and triggers the father to sneak his son and keep him prisoner on the deserted island. Pap wants custody of his son not for the sake of any fatherly love but for the pure love of money.

      Money is important for Miss Watson and Jim as well. Miss Watson tries to sell Jim, to slave traders from New Orleans, fora sum of money. Money triggers off the entire story of the novel as Jim runs away, meets Huck on Jackson's island and starts his journey downriver. It is through money that he aspires to buy his freedom and that of his family members so that he can fulfill his long-cherished dream of being re-united with them.

      The "King" and the "Duke" swindle people for money. They pretena to be adept at a variety of "professions", such as "yellocution, missionarying", "mesmerizing", "doctoring" and "fortune-telling". In Chapter 20, the "king" pretends to be eager to transform his fellow pirates of the Indian Ocean to good, religious men and extracts a good sum o money from the gullible masses, for the purpose. In the meantime, the "Duke" sells some newspaper subscriptions to local farmers and collects nine dollars and fifty cents. He even goes to the extent of printing poster offering 200 dollars for a runaway slave, whose description resembles that of Jim. All these fraudulent practices are resorted to, i the sake of money. They even go to the extent of deceiving the poor a innocent Wilks girls who have done them no harm at all.

      It is money that entices the two robbers, on board the steamboat, Walter Scott, to conceive the design of abandoning their comrade. They intend to cheat him of his share in the plunder by killing him and dividing his share between themselves.

      While money is very important for these characters, it doesn't hold the same value for Huck. His yearns for something that cannot be bought by money. He, therefore, has no greed for materialistic acquisitions. Money can't buy him his freedom, nor can it buy him the happiness that he gets on the Mississippi. He wants a carefree and peaceful life neither of which has any requirement of money. This explains his indifference towards wealth. Moreover, as the owner of six thousand dollars, Huck has more than what he needs. His needs are limited. His priorities are different. He yearns for freedom; he wants to have a kind of society that we all crave for.


      The majority of the plot takes place on the river or its banks. For Huck and Jim, the river represents freedom. On the raft, they are completely independent and determine their own courses of action. Jim looks forward to reaching the free states, and Huck is eager to escape his - abusive, drunkard of a father and the "civilization" of Miss Watson: However, the towns along the river bank begin to exert influence upon them, and eventually Huck and Jim meet criminals, shipwrecks, dishonesty, and great danger. Finally, a fog forces them to miss the town of Cairo, at which point there were planning to head up the Ohio River, towards the free states, in a steamboat.

      Originally, the river is a safe place for the two travelers, but it becomes increasingly dangerous as the realities of their runaway lives set in on Huck and Jim. Once reflective of absolute freedom, the river soon becomes only a short-term escape, and the novel concludes on the safety of dry land, where, ironically, Huck and Jim find their true freedom.

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