In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain juxtaposes Huck’s adventurous and liberating journey along with Jim on the raft down the river Mississippi with the corrupt life that allows unconscious acceptance to the values of society on the shore.
The novel unfolds Huck’s inner mind and records his learning and moral development as he encounters morally corrupt and crooked people on his journey to freedom. The novel contrasts between the constricting life on the shore and the freedom offered by the journey on the river. Though Huck’s raft follows the river towards its downward journey, he goes against the stream in his life learning on his own the hard realities of life.
Huck finds the two wealthy sisters Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, who adopt him, as the true representatives of the society that is based on hypocritical religious and ethical values. Though Widow Douglas is more patient and gentle towards Huck, he finds her care and concern quite restrictive.
When she puts him in new clothes he could do nothing but feel cramped sweating a lot. He does not find any meaning in prayer before the dinner and in the stories of Moses and the Bulrushers who were dead long time ago. Though the life in the care of Widow Douglas is decent and dignified, cozy and comfortable, Huck does not like it much. He feels his old ways of living are the best. Living in a house and sleeping in a bed pulled on me pretty tight mostly, but before the cold weather I used to slide out and sleep in the woods sometimes, and so that was a rest to me. I liked the old ways Best. (Twain 13)
He finds Miss Watson’s attempts to ‘sivilize’ him most annoying. For him, she is the best example of severe and unforgiving laws of Christian life which are against his individual freedom. He feels “Miss Watson she kept pecking at me, and it got tiresome and lonesome”. He is so vexed with the ways of living under the care of Miss Watson that he feels one night quite depressed and feels “I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead.” (Twain 5)
When Miss Watson insists that he should pray he can not find any reason to pray when his prayers are not answered by God. When he asks her to try for him she calls him a fool. Huck tries several times in his own way asking God for the things he wanted, but he could not find any response from God. He finds it quite impractical. He does not find any advantage for him in praying for others as told by Widow. He finds a lot of difference between Widow and Miss Watson who both pray and teach the same things to him about Providence. The following lines best illustrate his understanding of his two guardians who differ a lot in their attitude.
I judged I could see that there was two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there warn’t no help for him any more. (Twain 11)
Huck’s father, Pap, an incorrigible wreck with his disgusting and ghostlike appearance in tattered clothes, represents the generally debased white society and the failed family. Pap, who is always after the money earned by Huck, feels jealous of his son’s education when his son is living with Widow Douglas and going to school. He not only kidnaps his son but also virtually imprisons him in a cabin in the woods and beats him completely drunk. In fact, he proves dangerous and provides the immediate and most potent cause for Huck’s escape from the society on the shore.
On the contrary, he finds a trusting and caring surrogate father in Jim who accompanies him in his escape from the shore. Jim, a runaway slave from the house of Miss Watson, stands for strong family relationship, nobility and loyalty. He takes the extreme step of running away from Miss Watson’s house as he suspects he would be sold for another master which will eventually separate him from his family. Though he seems superstitious and ignorant, he is an intelligent man with a deep understanding of human life. Jim he was right; he was most always right; he had an uncommon level head for a nigger. (Twain 55).
There is a strong bond of friendship and understanding between Huck and Jim on the raft. Both are desperately in need of protecting themselves from the selfish people in the society. The raft on the river Mississippi provides them an opportunity to save their lives. It offers them the much needed freedom. The following passage aptly conveys their dire need to run away from society.
I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and 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. (Twain 83)
The life on the raft is different in many ways from the life that is found on the shore. The
raft provides them not only as escape from the corrupt and selfish people, but also an opportunity to be what they are and to do what they like. It gives them a unique opportunity to explore their true identity and their stand in relation to many things in life. They are closest to their true nature on the raft in the lovely and mighty presence of the river and the woods. It offers them unrestricted and uninhibited freedom. Huck feels happy and liberated on the raft and expresses the same in the following words:
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. (Twain 84)
Twain has brilliantly contrasted the plight of a white boy with that of a slave Jim. The story of the novel revolves around these two characters that are almost in the same boat with similar problems. As luck would have it, they share the same raft in their escape for freedom.
Huck finds Jim’s presence on the raft comforting and supportive as Jim is practical, intelligent and trustworthy though, at times, he seems sentimental. Jim not only cooks food for Huck but also protects him from dangers. Jim’s acts of selflessness and his longing to meet his family have left an indelible impression on Huck. Huck is very determined till the end to save Jim and to get him free.
However, the life on the raft is not without its share of dangers and threats. Huck and Jim get separated when their raft is hit by a steamer in the river. Huck’s encounter with the family of Grangerfords exposes him to pretentious importance that people attach to their family’s honor or prestige. Huck suspects behind the kindhearted and gentle people in the family, there is an unreasonable feud between them and the Shepherdsons. It makes no sense to Huck. Many of the people belonging to these families die in a bitter gun fight from which Huck luckily escapes.
After facing many challenging situations Huck and Jim once again continue their journey on the raft further towards the south. The two con artists who ask for help and seek refuge on the raft prove dangerous to Huck in the end. The two con artists involve in various crimes at times claiming to be the descendants of royal family and sometimes, pretending to be great actors and evangelists. They once again remind the crookedness of the people in the society on the shore.
The raft has proved an excellent place to enjoy the perfect freedom and bliss without any interference. Though Jim is there with him all the time, he is silent and provided a good company with his accommodating nature. Huck enjoys Jim’s company and the journey most. He expresses his happiness saying,
It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed — only a little kind of a low chuckle. (Twain 47)
The long journey on the raft has provided Huck with many opportunities to learn new things and develop his own logic. Every challenge he faces presents him with an opportunity to think about it deeply and to come to a conclusion which he feels right. His association with Jim on the raft has given him opportunity to think clearly and form his own opinion without any interference. He prefers to follow his own instinct and logic than to accept the unquestioned conventions of the society.
Huck’s determination to save Jim when he is caught demonstrates his maturity and broadness of understanding. Huck has to undergo an internal struggle to overcome some of the notions that have been ingrained in him by the society. Every time Huck faces a problem he applies his mind and comes out with a decision what he feels right, though it might look wrong and offending to the white community. He takes help from Tom Sawyer in rescuing Jim finally.
Huck loses his faith in the society that has failed to protect him. Though the Widow tried her best to give him what he has missed, it has proved imperfect to mould him. His growing distance from the society makes him skeptical about it. His natural intelligence and his ability to think through a situation have enabled him to form his own right conclusions. Thus, he creates his own rules and develops his character throughout the journey.
Twain depicts the society around Huck with people who are degraded in their values. The actions of these people defy logic and commonsense. For example, when the judge allows Pap, the wreck and disgusting drunkard, to keep custody of Huck, he gives more importance to the right of ownership than to the welfare of the innocent boy. It clearly depicts the social system that has fallen in its moral standing. It highlights the white man’s rights over his property whether it is a slave or a son.
The Mississippi River plays the most important role in the novel providing freedom and refreshing experience to Huck and Jim who are in their quest for freedom. They travel from their home town St. Petersburg, Missouri, north of St. Louis, hundreds of miles into the Deep South. The odyssey down the river lends the story a mystic element offering contentment to the people who come in search of freedom.
The river with its power and grandeur sets a meaningful background to the story that contrasts life on the river with the life on the shore. The river plays the role of liberating influence on the two characters Huck and Jim. It is the only place where they can feel at home though they are on a raft. Huck arrives at the conclusion that the idyllic life, peace and brotherhood of himself and Jim have given him more satisfaction and a sense of freedom and understanding as opposed to the inhumanity, the feud and the degenerated values of society.
Thus, it is a journey in search of understanding and freedom leaving behind the so called ‘sivilization’ that destroys innocence and enslaves human beings. In short, Huck’s journey is from unthinking acceptance of received values and knowledge to an independently achieved understanding of what is right. It is journey from boyhood to manhood, from servitude to freedom. T. S. Eliot, the great English poet and critic of the twentieth century who also grew up on the banks of the same river says, “the river makes the book a great book” It has fired the imagination of the boy Huck and became the only real home for him.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
< http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/twain/huckfinn.pdf >