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Themes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Theme of Freedom as Inherent Motivation: Despite Huck’s and Jim’s differences—age, race, and social position in their racist society—both pursue freedom, spurred by society’s denial of personal freedom. Huck does not want to be “sivilized”—forced to conform to the conventions of society, even those whose use he doesn’t see—while Jim understandably seeks freedom from slavery. Because the Mississippi River allows them to travel, it represents freedom for Huck and Jim and serves as the primary symbol of freedom in the novel.
Theme of Society’s Inevitable Corruption: The towns and settlements along the Mississippi are occupied by those who demonstrate humanity’s worst vices: greed, hypocrisy, arrogance, duplicity, selfishness, stupidity, and violence. Huck confronts violence at the hands of many characters, beginning with his own father. Twain suggests that society’s greatest corruption is slavery, a political and social institution that expresses all the worst traits found in humanity. To escape the creeping influence of societal corruption, Huck and Jim escape to the natural world, which is farther from civilization and its faults.
Theme of the Natural World as Source of Internal Peace: As Huck and Jim travel down the Mississippi, Huck wondrously describes the various natural scenes they encounter. In contrast to civilization, Huck feels at home in nature, able to find peace and the opportunity for introspection. Nature nourishes his spirit while society attempts to change it.
Themes Examples in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
"anybody dat put in a dollar would git fo' dollars mo' at de en' er de year..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
If this sounds like a Ponzi scheme, that's because it is. Ponzi schemes are fraudulent operations that trick people into investing their money by offering a high rate of return and then use the money invested by new targets to pay the original investors (the only ones who profit in this scheme). Needless to say, Jim doesn't get his money back, and this loss builds on the themes of money and poverty in the novel.
"it was death..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
This isn't the first time that Huck and his actions have been likened to death. In a previous chapter, his Pap hallucinated that he was actually the Angel of Death, and there have been many references to murder, death, and drowning. Twain will continue to build this theme as the novel progresses.
"We could 'a' had pets enough if we'd wanted them..." See in text (Chapter IX)
Often, when someone has a pet or thinks about getting a pet, they're trying to make a family or a home for themselves, using this pet as a kind of anchor to tie them down and provide them with company and comfort. It would appear, from this line, that Huck is attempting to find a new home in the wilderness, and that, even if he doesn't intend to stay on this island, he's going to spend as much of his life as possible in nature.
"dress up like a girl..." See in text (Chapter X)
Twain intends this cross-dressing to be humorous and light-hearted, a clever way for Huck to conceal his identity and procure information that will move the plot forward. This is a common trope on the stage and in literature. In real life, however, cross-dressing was reviled and frowned upon in the 1800s, and the cavalier way Twain uses it here underscores a deep-seated prejudice against transvestites, people who are transgender, genderfluid, and non-binary, and anyone who doesn't uphold this status quo. This prejudice is at the root of many of the problems members of the LGBTQI community face today.
"as awkward as you can..." See in text (Chapter XI)
This line, more than any other, implies that this woman (and, perhaps, all women) understands that what men think of as "feminine" is really a performance, a kind of mannered and affected set of attributes and behaviors that make a woman seem feminine by hiding how she acts and thinks behind the mask of gender norms. This might be Twain's own opinion, but we can't assume that based on this line alone.
"two hundred dollars..." See in text (Chapter XI)
Notice the disparity here: the reward for Pap is less than the one for Jim, even though the evidence against Jim is only circumstantial and points to Pap as the more likely suspect. This is yet another example of racism in the novel, which sees white characters suspect the worst of African-Americans time and time again. It may be that the reward for Jim is higher because he's a slave and thus considered property that might be retrieved if he's innocent of the murder.
"was afeard I had made a mistake coming to her..." See in text (Chapter XI)
Notice Huck's impatience in this passage and his inability to properly empathize with this woman. In later chapters, we'll see him speak to and become friends with other people he meets on the river, but the characters he's closest to are without exception male. This gendered interaction reveals something fundamental about Huck's character: though he's perfectly happy using women and their clothing for his own purposes, he's really only interested in what other men have to say.
"we must always light the lantern whenever we see a steamboat coming..." See in text (Chapter XII)
This lantern, like the fire Huck left on the island and the lights of the ferry-landing Huck floated past in Chapter VII, becomes a symbol of life. Sources of light can be seen as signs of life, which reveal both a person's whereabouts (as with the lantern) and the beauty and power of nature (as with the bolt of lightning).
"why doan' he talk like a man..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
Here we see that prejudice isn't solely the purview of white people in this novel. Jim espouses a dangerous kind of xenophobia that fosters hate not for one's skin color but for one's ability to speak English. It's important to remember that different regions of the English-speaking world (including different parts of the United States, like for instance the south) have very distinct accents. Thus, Jim's expectation that the Frenchman "talk like a man" (meaning an American man) is incredibly unfair: from listening to the way Jim speaks English, the Frenchman wouldn't know how.
"Well, he was right; he was most always right; he had an uncommon level head for a nigger..." See in text (Chapter XIV)
It would be easy to say that Jim wouldn't have survived this if not for Huck, but keep in mind that Jim wouldn't have been in that situation in the first place if it weren't for Huck (which is why Jim doesn't thank him). Here, Huck pays him an empty compliment that praises him for his reasoning skills and then undercuts that praise with a very racist comment. Huck may not be nearly as racist as the other characters in the book, but he still has a long way to go.
"I felt easy and happy and light as a feather right off. All my troubles was gone..." See in text (Chapter XVI)
Twain distinguishes between what is lawful and what is right here. Huck is caught between two conflicting codes of ethics: one that would require that he turn Jim in (obeying the law) and one that would require that he break a law that is unjust to begin with. This line illustrates how much easier it would be for Huck to obey the law and turn Jim in, but Twain reminds us that what is easy is not always what is right.
"song-birds just going it!..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
Note the warm, light, and happy tone of this passage now that Huck and Jim have returned to the raft. Huck enjoyed his time with the Grangerfords, but it seems that the raft offers him a necessary familiar comfort that was missing at the Grangerfords—especially towards the end of Huck’s stay when the family’s feud results in extreme violence. Nature offers Huck an escape from society’s rules and regulations, but it also offers him a sense of security. Huck is impervious to the brutalities and injustices of society while he is in nature—or so he thinks.
"Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened..." See in text (Chapter XIX)
Huck and Jim are having a philosophical debate about the theory of "intelligent design." Jim believes that God created the universe and that the stars are part of his plan or design, but Huck believes that the stars just "happened" or evolved. Huck doesn't understand the astrophysics behind this and certainly doesn't know about the Big Bang, but has learned from his time on the river that nature has the power to perpetuate and reinvent itself.
"runaway niggers on them, all over the walls..." See in text (Chapter XX)
This doesn't bode well for Jim. Everywhere they go in the South, he's going to be a fugitive, so his only options are to go back north to the free states or live his life on that raft forever, barring an unexpected bit of good luck. Huck may have fooled the King and the Duke into thinking that Jim is his slave, but it's possible that they'll see through his lies just as he saw through theirs. Jim must be very, very careful in this racist society.
"but with courage that's borrowed from their mass..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
Another way to say this would be that there's strength in numbers. If not for the sheer size of the lynch mob, no one would've dared even to think of going after Sherburn, who, as Twain has established, is by far the most respectable man in this town. His extended speech here can be understood as a general comment about the nature of violent and prejudiced people: they draw their strength from communities of like-minded people, not from the moral strength of their convictions, which are without a doubt hollow.
"man..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
Twain and Sherburn both place heavy emphasis on this idea of being a man. Modern readers will recognize this from the phrase, "A real man," which bears the same connotation: that only someone as good and upright as Sherburn can be considered a man, which implies that all these men are just animals or sorry excuses for men. This belief stems from a traditional sense of gender roles, which we can see throughout the novel.
"as splendid as a rainbow..." See in text (Chapter XXIII)
Twain uses a simile to compare the King's body-paint with a rainbow, referring both to its impressive spectrum of color and to its half-moon shape, which the King unintentionally mimics by prancing around on all fours with a hunched back. This simile is yet another example of Huck describing something with images from the natural world, thus building on the theme of nature developed throughout the book.
"swell and starchy..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
This line furthers the theme of the hypocrisy of “civilized” society. The king has been revealed to be a dishonest swindler, but when he wears these clothes that look tailored and expensive he seems “swell and starchy.” In other words, the king can put on a different outfit and fool anyone into thinking that he is a kind, polite person. Jim, more virtuous and kind than the king by a longshot, would never be awarded the same treatment by changing clothes.
"So they softened down and said it was all right..." See in text (Chapter XXIV)
Time and time again, we find that money solves as many problems as it causes: it might get the Duke and the King run out of one town, but it buys them passage to another; it damns men who covet it (like the King) and absolves others who give it away out of guilt (as when the men in Chapter XVI pay Huck two twenty-dollar gold pieces so they don't have to help him). Twain gives us these conflicting examples to complicate and deepen the theme of money in the novel.
"don't give us no receipt for it.”..." See in text (Chapter XXV)
Mary Jane’s stating that she doesn’t need to see a receipt is Twain’s way of making it clear that she does not believe the king to be an imposter, despite the doctor’s (warranted) accusations. This statement influences Mary Jane’s sisters to join her at the king’s side, an action that ultimately deems the king genuine. Note that the townspeople immediately side with Mary Jane and her sisters. This introduces a theme that Twain will continue to explore throughout the novel: the innocent and naive are blinded by the corruption of those in power.
"that nobody hadn't hired me to take care of..." See in text (Chapter XXVII)
Huck’s actions might be noble, but he faces a serious threat if he is caught. As his stealing the money from the duke and king would surely make them angry, they would be much less obliged to use their talents for deception to help Huck if he were caught. Twain points out that no good deed goes unpunished—and no one would take the word of a young, poor valet over the word of “Wilks’ brothers.”
"You ought to been ashamed of yourself..." See in text (Chapter XXX)
Twain prompts the reader to compare the two con artists to one another again. The duke says that he has been holding doubts and concerns about this ruse since the very start, but that he stood by the king as if he were his “own father.” The duke finally expresses his disgust at the king’s breaking up a family, but note that the duke could have intervened before the family was ever broken up. Twain thus creates a fairly round character in the duke. While the duke is dishonest and immoral, Twain illustrates that he is certainly more ethical than the king. Twain reminds us that there is no easy definition of good and evil—morality exists on a spectrum, and people have the capacity to commit both heinous crimes and selfless acts of kindness.
"So now the frauds reckoned they was out of danger, and they begun to work the villages again..." See in text (Chapter XXXI)
While the duke and the king may have learned from their mistakes for a few days, the lesson is extremely brief and they immediately get back up to their old tricks. Consider that Huck seems to continually gain a stronger sense of right and wrong as the story has progressed and to act accordingly, but the duke and king seem to be fairly grounded in a life of theft and deceit. Twain thus encourages us to question how deeply our moral principles are ingrained and we are left wondering how much people can truly change and what it would take to prompt an irreversible change.
"best old soul I ever see..." See in text (Chapter XXXIII)
Huck sees Uncle Silas as a virtuous and kind-hearted person. However,even someone like Uncle Silas believes that he is doing the right thing by imprisoning Jim. Consider this in relation to the fact that Huck is in disbelief when Tom, someone he looks up to, also agrees to be Huck’s accomplice in “stealing” Jim. The laws and norms of their time and place are so pervasive and deeply-ingrained that otherwise “kind” or “respectable” people do not even think to question them. By characterizing Uncle Silas as a righteous citizen, Twain emphasizes the insidious nature of institutional racism.
"I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars—and kind treatment, too..." See in text (Chapter XLII)
The doctor helps defend Jim, but he also places a monetary value on him. Additionally, while the doctor’s speech about Jim’s valiant behavior helps humanize him to the townspeople, the doctor still brought him back to town locked in chains. In essence, the doctor’s intentions may be “good,” but he is still perpetuating racism and slavery. In this way, Twain creates a character that highlights the scale and depth of institutional racism. Even otherwise “good” people during this time have difficulty erasing deeply-rooted racist beliefs, as the doctor, Huck, Uncle Silas, and many other characters demonstrate.
" the very ones that ain't the most anxious to pay for him when they've got their satisfaction out of him..." See in text (Chapter XLII)
The Phelps’ neighbors justify wanting to hang Jim in the name of “justice” and as an example to other slaves. However, they immediately reconsider this when they realize that they could potentially have to pay for hanging Jim, as he is considered someone’s “property.” Not only does Twain make their hypocrisy apparent (preaching“justice” but failing to see that they would be committing murder), but he shows that they value money more highly than the “justice” they’re supposedly preaching. Society pretends to have high moral standards, but Twain again reveals this to be a fallacy.
Chapter the Last
"light out for the territory..." See in text (Chapter the Last)
“The territory” refers to the untamed parts of the United States to the west. Note that Huck is returning to nature now that Jim is free. Huck has spent much of the novel running from “sivilized” society, and often the only thing that allows him to do so is retreating to nature. The novel comes full circle, but we are left wondering if Huck can ever successfully escape society.