Huckleberry Finn is no hero, though he does symbolize the American conscience at the time Mark Twain wrote, or at least the conscience Twain hoped for. Yes, Huckleberry Finn is a coming-of-age tale and a social criticism and satire, but it also asks crucial questions: Who actually changes? What type of American will change?
Huckleberry Finn is no hero, though he is clearly a child on the cusp of adulthood. That perhaps is one reason I enjoy reading and teaching Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn every year. Like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck and Tom’s imaginary childhood adventures quickly become real. From pranking the ever-suspicious Jim at night to signing contracts in blood with their gang, the novel begins as Tom’s story did. Their youth sparks the adventure, yet I think Twain manipulates their youth, especially Huck’s, to deepen his story.
Our empathy is first stirred by Huck’s lack of upbringing because that in itself is an upbringing. Pap Finn is a mean drunk. When he first appears in Huck’s room in the widow’s house, he discourages Huck from taking on airs by becoming educated, that “highfalutin’ foolishness,” and he makes it clear that he wants Huck’s money. Twain intentionally provokes our pity, and that’s before Pap kidnaps, beats, and terrorizes Huck. This is not an adventure, yet Huck doesn’t seem marred by it at all. No bitter bad boy here, Huck longs to be free of Pap and those who want to “sivilize” him.
Once he fakes his death and determines to live on Jackson’s Island again as he did with Tom, Huck encounters the widow’s slave Jim who has run away. From here, Huck’s story accelerates into his very own, replete with lessons and failings. It is these life lessons that make me wonder if Twain himself was pondering the American conscience and society’s shifting morals through the nineteenth century.
From quickly realizing his stupidity when he pranked Jim with a dead snake to the adventure of boarding the sinking steamboat simply because of the romantic danger of scavenging, Twain casts glimpses into Huck’s burgeoning awareness—“Now was the first time that I begun to worry about the men—I reckon I hadn’t time to before. I begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix.” What empathy is this? Huck thinks of others, even murderers, as fellow men at the point of death. I still wonder if it’s because of his experiences with his father. The point is that Huck is changing, and perhaps America was too.
Soon after, Huck and Jim are separated in a dense night fog. Once Huck finds Jim asleep on the raft the next day, Jim is overjoyed to see Huck alive. In a cruel twist, Huck chooses to tell a whopper. He tricks Jim by pretending that Jim dreamed up their entire separation. After the snake incident, I can’t imagine why Huck thinks this is some amusing prank. It’s a moral step backwards. Nevertheless Jim goes along with it and weaves Huck a fanciful story of his dream, turning the fog and danger of the night before into an allegory of their journey to freedom.
But then Jim notices the leaves and branches on the raft. After Jim explains his heart “wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los,” he confronts Huck with the truth—that Huck lied to him and made him feel ashamed. Huck, however, doesn’t lie again to get out of it. Filled with remorse, Huck humbles himself to a slave because he just now realized, as he will continue to do, that Jim is human.
By the next chapter, Huck is tested again. Huck and Jim hope they have reached Cairo, Illinois, where Jim can be free and hopefully buy his family back. Jim is so excited and praises Huck, “you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ old Jim’s got now.” Huck is sick to his stomach because he knows he would obey the law and turn Jim in as a runaway. He accepts slavery. He believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. Yet that sickening in his stomach, that troubling in his heart, is telling.
Through the next chapters with the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords, Huck continues to learn about people, their hypocrisy, and the futility of feuds and war just as America has done. But once Jim and Huck are reunited, they must join together to truly survive the antics of the duke and king. Did Twain intend a lesson in unity? Jim and Huck both learn so much about each other and themselves in the escapades with the two rascals, especially when the duke and king hoodwink an entire town as the brothers of Peter Wilks. Huck’s ability to lie degrades, and he barely plays his part, feeling mighty sorry for deceiving the three daughters. He does tell Mary Jane the truth and is particularly struck by her sincere declaration that she would pray for him. But sure enough, days later, once Jim and Huck determine to ditch them, the duke and king sneakily sell Jim off.
Huck is in a world of trouble, and Twain depicts his conundrum beautifully—“It would all get around, that Huck Finn helped a [n-word] get his freedom; and if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame.” The moral climax of the novel falls here as Huck debates whether to send Miss Watson a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.
Huck fully considers his life with Jim thus far. His retrospective includes beautiful imagery and sentiment as he recalls “floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing” together. In his mind’s eye, Huck remembers Jim taking his night watch so he could sleep, then he speaks of the joy in Jim’s face when Huck both emerged from the fog and from the Grangerfords’ property. Huck calls him good. I think the key is that Huck decides for himself what to believe, what to do, and most importantly, what to value.
But Twain isn’t done. Huck must rescue Jim from the Phelps’ farm. He is astonished as we are to discover that they think Huck is Tom Sawyer come for a visit. When the two boys reunite, Huck has already developed a shaky security, but he is happy to learn Tom wants to free a slave. Huck does insist a quick escape is necessary for Jim’s well-being but is overridden by Tom. Tom insists on the folly-full escape plan drawn out over days—blood notes, pet snakes, and rope pie. At the end, somehow Jim can say “ain’t nobody kin git up a plan dat’s mo’ mixed-up and splendid den what dat one wuz.” I wonder if that might be part of Twain’s thesis, at least a light-hearted one. Tom unfortunately invents his own conflicts while Huck has had his share of real tribulation, including the moment when the doctor tending Tom turns Jim back in.
This is the crux. Who actually changes? What type of American will change? Are we Toms or Hucks? Yes, Huckleberry Finn is a coming-of-age tale, it’s a social criticism and satire, it’s a commentary on the South and slavery and racism, but my favorite element is that the novel is one massive symbol of how Huck grows past Tom.
The Tom of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is fun-loving, just dangerous enough, and one heck of a dynamic leader. But he doesn’t change, and what’s more, he doesn’t realize Huck has changed. We know by the end that he has manipulated Huck since he knew all along that Jim had been freed. My students often say the appearance of Tom at the end even ruins the novel because Huck regresses and is submissive to Tom and his splendid plans. A pertinent theory, yet more importantly, I think Twain is reiterating that Huck is imperfect. He is still learning.
When we find out that Jim has already been freed and that Pap Finn is dead, we realize, along with Huck and Jim, that they have been running away from nothing. Nothing. It’s true that adventure might best be taken with common sense, but maybe the adventure was not the point. If Huck has grown in tenderness, in mercy, in justice, how much more has his character deepened because he now views Jim as both friend and fellow man. Perhaps Huck does symbolize the American conscience at the time Twain wrote, or at least the conscience Twain hoped for.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a sketch from the 1884 edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by artist E.W. Kemble, courtesy of Project Gutenburg.