While slaveholders profit from slavery, the slaves themselves are oppressed, exploited, and physically and mentally abused. Jim is inhumanely ripped away from his wife and children. However, white slaveholders rationalize the oppression, exploitation, and abuse of black slaves by ridiculously assuring themselves of a racist stereotype, that black people are mentally inferior to white people, more animal than human. Though Huck’s father, Pap, is a vicious, violent man, it is the much better man, Jim, who is suspected of Huck’s murder, only because Jim is black and because he ran away from slavery, in a bid for freedom, to be with his family.
In this way, slaveholders and racist whites harm blacks, but they also do moral harm to themselves, by viciously misunderstanding what it is to be human, and all for the sake of profit. At the beginning of the novel, Huck himself buys into racial stereotypes, and even reprimands himself for not turning Jim in for running away, given that he has a societal and legal obligation to do so. However, as Huck comes to know Jim and befriend him, he realizes that he and Jim alike are human beings who love and hurt, who can be wise or foolish. Jim proves himself to be a better man than most other people Huck meets in his travels. By the end of the novel, Huck would rather defy his society and his religion—he’d rather go to Hell—than let his friend Jim be returned to slavery.
Even at the beginning of the novel, a judge ridiculously grants custody of Huck to Huck’s abusive drunkard of a father, Pap. The judge claims that Pap has a legal right to custody of Huck, yet, regardless of his right, Pap proves himself to be a bad guardian, denying Huck an opportunity to educate himself, beating Huck, and imprisoning him in an isolated cabin. In such a case, fulfilling Pap’s legal right ridiculously compromises Huck’s welfare. Furthermore, Huck’s abuse and imprisonment at the hands of Pap is implicitly compared to a more widespread and deeply engrained societal problem, namely the institutionalized enslavement of black people. Huck comes to recognize slavery as an oppressively inhuman institution, one that no truly “sivilized” society can be founded on. People like Sally Phelps, who seem good yet are racist slaveholders, are maybe the biggest hypocrites Huck meets on his travels.
On the other hand, Huck and Jim’s superstitions, silly though they are, are no sillier than Christianity. Huck and Jim read “bad signs” into everything, as when a spider burns in a candle, or Huck touches a snakeskin. Jim even has a magic hairball, taken from an ox’s stomach, that, when given money, supposedly tells the future. Huck and Jim find so many bad signs in the natural world that, whenever anything bad happens to them, they’re sure to have a sign to blame it on. However, one of the subtle jokes of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a joke with nevertheless serious implications, is that, silly as superstition is, it is a more accurate way to read the world than formal religion is.
It is silly for Huck and Jim to read bad signs into everything, but it is not at all silly for them to expect bad things to be just around the corner; for they live in a world where nature is dangerous, even fatally malevolent, and where people behave irrationally, erratically, and, oftentimes, violently. In contrast, formal religion dunks its practitioners into ignorance and, worse, cruelty. By Christian values as established in the American South, Huck is condemned to Hell for doing the right thing by saving Jim from slavery. Huck, knowing that the Christian good is not the good, saves Jim anyway, thereby establishing once and for all a new moral framework in the novel, one that cannot be co-opted by society into serving immoral institutions like slavery.
As the novel develops, however, so do Huck’s notions of right and wrong. He learns that rigid codes of conduct, like Christianity, or like that which motivates the Grangerson and Shepherdson’s blood feud, don’t necessarily lead to good results. He also recognizes that absolute selfishness, like that exhibited by Tom Sawyer to a small extent, and that exhibited by Tom’s much worse prankster-counterparts, the duke and the king, is both juvenile and shameful. Huck learns that he must follow the moral intuitions of his heart, which requires that he be flexible in responding to moral dilemmas. And, indeed, it is by following his heart that Huck makes the right decision to help Jim escape from bondage.
This mature moral decision is contrasted with the immature way in which Tom goes about acting on that decision at the Phelps farm. Instead of simply helping Jim, Tom devises a childishly elaborate scheme to free Jim, which results in Tom getting shot in the leg and Jim being recaptured. By the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is morally mature and realistic, whereas Tom still has a lot of growing up to do.
The place where Huck and Jim go to seek freedom is the natural world. Though nature imposes new constraints and dangers on the two, including what Huck calls “lonesomeness,” a feeling of being unprotected from the meaninglessness of death, nature also provides havens from society and even its own dangers, like the cave where Huck and Jim take refuge from a storm. In such havens, Huck and Jim are free to be themselves, and they can also appreciate from a safe distance the beauty that is inherent in the terror of freedom.
That being said, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn implies that people can be so free as to be, ironically enough, imprisoned in themselves. The duke and the king, for example, foils (or contrasts) to Huck and Jim, are so free that they can become almost anybody through playacting and impersonation. However, this is only because they have no moral compass and are imprisoned in their own selfishness. Freedom is good, but only insofar as the free person binds himself to the moral intuitions of his heart.