Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Themes Flashcard Example #22115

slavery and racism
Though Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after the abolition of slavery in the United States, the novel itself is set before the Civil War, when slavery was still legal and the economic foundation of the American South. Many characters in Twain’s novel are themselves white slaveholders, like Miss Watson, the Grangerford family, and the Phelps family, while other characters profit indirectly from slavery, as the duke and the king do in turning Miss Watson’s runaway slave Jim into the Phelpses in exchange for a cash reward.

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.

society and hypocrisy
Huck lives in a society based on rules and traditions, many of which are both ridiculous and inhuman. At the beginning of the novel, Huck’s guardian, the Widow Douglas, and her sister, Miss Watson, try to “sivilize” Huck by teaching him manners and Christian values, but Huck recognizes that these lessons take more stock in the dead than in living people, and they do little more than make him uncomfortable, bored, and, ironically enough, lonely. After Huck leaves the Widow Douglas’s care, however, he is exposed to even darker parts of society, parts in which people do ridiculous, illogical things, often with violent consequences. Huck meets good families that bloodily, fatally feud for no reason. He witnesses a drunken man get shot down for making a petty insult.

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.

religion and superstition
There are two systems of belief represented in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: formal religion (namely, Christianity) and superstition. The educated and the “sivilized, like the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, practice Christianity, whereas the uneducated and poor, like Huck and Jim, have superstitions. Huck, despite (or maybe because of) the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson’s tutelage, immediately has an aversion to Christianity on the grounds that it takes too much stock in the dead and not enough in the living, that Christian Heaven is populated by boringly rigid people like Miss Watson while Hell seems more exciting, and, finally, that Huck recognizes the uselessness of Christianity. After all, prayers are never answered in Huck’s world.

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.

growing up
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn belongs to the genre of Bildungsroman; that is, the novel presents a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist, Huck, matures as he broadens his horizons with new experiences. Huck begins the novel as an immature boy who enjoys goofing around with his boyhood friend, Tom Sawyer, and playing tricks on others. He has a good heart but a conscience deformed by the society in which he was raised, such that he reprimands himself again and again for not turning Jim in for running away, as though turning Jim in and prolonging his separation from his family were the right thing to do.

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.

Huck and Jim both yearn for freedom. Huck wants to be free of petty manners and societal values. He wants to be free of his abusive father, who goes so far as to literally imprison Huck in a cabin. Maybe more than anything, Huck wants to be free such that he can think independently and do what his heart tells him to do. Similarly, Jim wants to be free of bondage so that he can return to his wife and children, which he knows to be his natural right.

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.

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