In the story of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain uses many different types of symbols to get Twains numerous messages across. Twain signifies the Mississippi river as a symbol to get away from society for Huck and Jim. Twain also criticizes the way society runs and the things it teaches everyone to be. The river vs. land setting in Huckleberry Finn symbolizes Huck’s struggle with himself versus society; Twain suggests that a person shouldn’t have to conform to society and should think for themselves.
Throughout the novel, Mark Twain shows the society that surrounds Huck as just a little more than a set of degraded rules and authority figures. When the new judge in town allows Pap to keep custody of Huck, the judge privileges Pap’s “rights” to his son as his natural father over Huck’s welfare, “He said he’d cowhide me till I was black and blue if I didn’t raise money for him […] When [Pap] got out the new judge said he was going to make a man of him. So he took him to his own house, and dressed him up clean and nice, and had him to breakfast and dinner and supper with the family” (16). Even though Huck is being mistreated, the new judge overlooks that and treats Huck as though he is a piece of property, like a slave. In comparing the condition of slaves to Huck’s situation at the hands of Pap, Twain suggests that it is impossible for a society that owns slaves, to be right, no matter how “civilized” that society believes and proclaims itself to be.
Huck encounters people who try to change him or civilize him throughout the book, one in the beginning of the novel was the Widow Douglas, “The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back” (1). Huck’s problems with civilized society are based on observations an adult should have of this time about the worth of the society he lives in. Under the influence of his friend, Huck gives in and returns to the Widow’s, but as the novel goes on, his dislike for society reappears and motivates the important decisions he makes. The land represents a part of man that is corrupt and feels as though must change or “perfect” what Mother Nature made imperfect and savage.
For Huck and Jim, the Mississippi River is the ultimate symbol of freedom. Alone on their raft, they do not have to answer to anyone. For Jim, the river carries him toward the free states; for Huck, he’s carried away from his abusive father and the civilizing of St. Petersburg. At this point in Chapter XVIII, Huck has just escaped from the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud and is extremely sickened by society, “I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens–there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right–and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time […] 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” (88) Huck now realizes the freedom the river possesses.
Compared to the crazy incidents onshore, the raft represents a place to go from the outside world, an area of simple fun and friendship. Huck and Jim have just recently left Jackson Island and they’re just becoming friends and getting to know each other, “We catched fish, and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. 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 aloud” (48). Huck and Jim feel relaxed on the raft, and the freedom the river leave them in awe. When these two are on the river, there is no society telling Huck that he is better than Jim, or anyone telling Jim that he can’t do something. They’re both free to do as they please, and in this moment, they take full advantage of that freedom. The Mississippi River is the greatest representation of independence from the corruption of society and its influences.
Mark Twain tries to send a message of free thought throughout Huckleberry Finn. When Huck writes the letter to Miss Watson telling where Jim is when Jim gets sold by the king and the duke, Huck writes a letter to Miss Watson, but then decides not to send the letter for Jim’s welfare, “It was a close place. I took […] up [the letter I’d written to Miss Watson], and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”–and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming” (161) Huck sacrifices himself and his eternal happiness for Jim. Huck’s moral obligations and his friendship with Jim, despite what society has taught him, drive Huck. He decides that going to hell, if it means following his gut and not society’s two-faced actions and cruel social ladder, is a better option than going to society’s heaven.
This moment in the book represents Huck’s separation from society around him. By the final chapter, most everything has been resolved: Jim is free, Tom is on his way to recovering from a bullet wound, and Aunt Sally has offered to adopt Huck: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (220). Huck has come to like Sally and Silas, but he knows they are still a part of the society he has come to disgust and fear. Huck knows from past experience that the things offered to him by adopters are things he doesn’t need and doesn’t care for. Twain gives Huck the power to think for himself, and come to adult conclusions, which show Twains message; think for yourself.
Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn is for the reader to interpret for him or herself. But any reader could pick up on Huck’s struggle with the freedom the Mississippi River gives him, and the society that holds him back. Huck realizes that he shouldn’t have to conform, and he refuses to at the end of the book. Huck’s trials and tribulations show the reader that he or she to think for themselves and not conform to societies standards from Huck’s time period, or now.