The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel by Mark Twain about Huck, a mischievous boy, who runs away from his drunken father. Huck meets up with Jim, a runaway slave and they travel down the Mississippi on a raft. The two escape through various misadventures, including the family feud between the Grangerfofrds and Shepherdsons and the conning "duke and king." Finally, Jim is captured on the Phelps' farm, Huck plans an escape and, finally, it is revealed that Jim is now a freeman and Huck's father has died.
From the beginning of the novel, Huck is wary of being "civilized." He runs away from the widow's house once, but is convinced by Tom Sawyer to return. He puts up with the widow's ways because he appreciates her feelings for him, but he is made extremely uncomfortable by the rules he has to follow. Twain employs irony as Huck inadvertently points out the inconsistencies in the religious principles that the widow and her sister Miss Watson follow. Though they profess to follow the same Providence, their descriptions of him vary wildly, and Huck is convinced that there are two. The fact that the two women, of such a close background can have such differing interpretations highlights the way that religion is too often based on a self-serving, personal interpretation. The widow's ways are based on kindness and gentleness, but Miss Watson's religion is used to bully Huck around and force him into behaving in what she believes is a proper way.
Huck chafes under the restrictions placed upon him, which are quite often completely arbitrary. For example, he explains that the widow does not allow him to smoke, since it is a dirty habit, yet she and her sister take snuff, an almost equivalent exercise. Huck proves himself to be the much more genuine personality, as he questions them enough to demonstrate the illogic of some of their beliefs, but does not press the issue enough to make them uncomfortable. As he does with his father, he lets matters lie, since he feels it is best not to upset people unnecessarily.
The all-too-common hypocrisy of "civilized" society is further explored once Huck meets the Grangerford family. This family is the epitome of Southern society--hospitable, generous and genteel. The sons toast their parents in the morning, as a demonstration of their loyalty and obedience, and Col. Grangerford is well-kempt, carrying himself with grace and dignity. They are everything that civilization should be, yet they are involved in a needless, irrational feud with the Shepherdson family. They suffer the loss of family members almost casually, arguing that if killed honorably, death is not an issue. No one can remember why they are fighting, yet they continue anyway. The unnecessary violence performed by both families is inexplicable to Huck, and once he sees the results firsthand, having to cover the dead body of his adopted brother, the savagery of this civilized society is fully exposed.
Above all, this theme is demonstrated by the relationship between Jim and Huck. Throughout the journey, Huck spends his time with a slave, who, according to the society in which Huck was raised, is the most uncivilized of all. Most often treated as one step above an animal, Huck even refers to Jim's wife using the pronoun "which," rather than "who." He has been taught that people like Jim are property, not members of civilization, yet, as Huck finds out, Jim turns out to be one of the most honorable people Huck meets. At one point he mentions that he is convinced that Jim is "white inside," a sentiment which sounds horrendously racist in today's society, but in this context, is actually an expression of Huck's realization of Jim's civility.
Jim expresses his own version of gentility through his devotion to his family. It is this feeling that guides his actions more than anything else. He runs away because he wants to be with his family, and his plans revolve around eventually bringing them together. This is a sharp contrast to Col. Grangerford, the supposedly more civilized man, who is actually willing to have his sons killed in order to perpetuate his own honor. Similarly, Jim gives up his chance for freedom so that there is someone to look after Tom Sawyer, and help the doctor during the surgery to remove the bullet from Tom's leg. He is devoted to Huck and to Tom, not because society tells him that they are his "master" and he must obey, but because he values them as individuals, and is genuinely concerned for their well-being, as a good father should.
There has been much controversy over Twain's portrayal of Jim, a runaway slave, and Huck's companion. Many argue that Jim's overwhelming belief in superstition and seeming lack of intelligence is a one-dimensional and racist picture of a black man. It is true that Jim can be extremely simplistic, for example, he believes the duke and the king's stories of royal lineage, while Huck sees the deception in them from the start. Yet, Jim's lack of education and experience is not necessarily a purposefully negative portrayal, but an accurate description of someone from whom education had been withheld, and for whom normal, decent interaction with society had been impossible. On the other hand, it does seem clear that Twain was conveying the theme that humanity has nothing to do with a person's color. This is most evident as Huck gradually begins to break free of the attitudes towards slaves that dominate the society in which he was raised.
When he first discovers Jim on the island, he is delighted to see him, because Jim is someone he can trust to keep his existence secret. Once he hears Jim's story, and finds out that Jim has run away from Miss Watson's, he suffers a pang of regret that he promised not to tell anyone, but decides to remain true to his word, as an honorable person should. Once their journey is underway, he will revisit the question of whether or not he should turn Jim in.
On the first of these occasions, in Chapter 16, they feel they are close to Cairo, where they would set on a course for a free state, where Jim would be set free. Huck is faced with the prospect of Jim's freedom and becomes troubled. As he is canoeing to shore, he thinks over the problem. His upbringing leads him to imagine Jim as property, and when he slips into this frame of mind, he considers that hiding Jim is akin to stealing from Miss Watson, something that his code of honor would not permit. This makes him feel as if the right thing to do would be to notify someone of Jim's whereabouts. At the same time, his personal experience challenges his firmly ensconced belief that a slave is not a person as such, and as he considers the words that Jim said to him, he realizes that there are emotions involved in the situation, which complicate the matter beyond simple right and wrong. In the split second in which he has to make a decision, he does not have the courage to turn Jim in. While he immediately perceives this as weakness of his own character, it actually can be seen as his inability to deny the fact that Jim is a person, not property. Though this is something that he will never openly express, from this point, Jim's humanity becomes more evident to him, and his need to assist Jim's flight to freedom becomes more pressing.
It is in Chapter 31 that Huck makes his final decision concerning Jim. Jim has been sold to the Phelpses by the king, and Huck must decide if he is going to notify Miss Watson of his whereabouts. He writes the letter, and feels better, as the morals placed within him by society are placated. Feeling more comfortable, he begins to think about the matter, and as he considers all of the evidence, all of the experiences that he and Jim shared, he is faced with Jim's humanity most fully. He remembers how Jim protected him, took care of him, and loved him. Jim proves over the course of the narrative that though others might see him as property to be bought and sold, he has a greater humanity than most of the white people that Huck encounters. Jim's honor is highlighted by the fact that he stays with Tom so that he can assist the doctor, and care for Tom as he recovers, even though it means sacrificing the freedom he so desperately desires. He feels the same fear, the same love for his family, the same gratitude for friendship that anyone else, of any race or color, could experience.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , among other things, is a bildungsroman, or coming of age story. The novel focuses on Huck, who over the course of the novel comes to understand the world, and his place in it, a bit better. At the end of the novel, he has reached a level of maturity in which he can question the beliefs that were a part of his upbringing, and he is confident enough to make decisions for himself about his future.
Huck has an independent spirit from the start. He initially runs away from the widow's house because it is drastically different from what he is used to, and he cannot deal with the restrictions placed on his freedom. He is convinced to return, by Tom, making a commitment to stay. In carrying this out, he learns more about people and their idiosyncrasies, and how best to deal with different individuals. He soon develops the ability to let things go when it is better to be silent rather than pressing his point. He practices this with Miss Watson as well as his father.
Once he strikes out on his own, he teams up with Jim, and throughout their adventures, he gains more experiences of the broader world, which results in an ability to step outside of the situation in which he finds himself so that he can consider things more clearly. He is able to do this when he stays with the Grangerfords, recognizing the foolishness of a long-standing feud. When faced with the prospect of continuing with the king and the duke, he has the presence of mind to develop a plan for retrieving the money they stole, and placing them under arrest. Once he and Tom meet again in Kentucky, he faces the problem of freeing Jim as an adult, while Tom is wrapped up in adolescent fantasies based on the adventure novels he has read. Huck goes along with Tom's schemes, but is always the ignored voice of reason that counter's Tom's purposeful foolishness.
Though he already sounds like an adult in relation to Tom's wild imagination, the strongest proof of his passage into adulthood is his acceptance of his own personal morality over that which was given to him by society. He comes to understand his own nature better, and works out that he is unable to follow the mores that claim that slaves are inhuman property. He decides that he cannot turn Jim in to Miss Watson, and though this means that he will burn in hell (according to the religious dictates of the people of his hometown) he makes his decision based on what he feels is the just and moral thing to do. Though he will later continue to speak as if he believes that his action is morally wrong, he has the maturity and strength to ignore what is merely something he was taught, rather than something he genuinely believes, and act on this belief. He is willing to suffer the consequences, whatever they may be, and that is a measure of his adulthood.