Huck Finn is a thirteen-year-old boy. Why does Twain use a child as the center of consciousness in this book?
In using a child protagonist, Twain is able to imply a comparison between the powerlessness and vulnerability of a child and the powerlessness and vulnerability of a black man in pre–Civil War America. Huck and Jim frequently find themselves in the same predicaments: each is abused, each faces the threat of losing his freedom, and each is constantly at the mercy of adult white men. As we see in Huck’s moral dilemmas, however, Jim is also vulnerable to Huck, who, although he occupies the lowest rung of the white social ladder, is white nonetheless. Twain also uses his child protagonist to dramatize the conflict between societal or received morality on the one hand and a different kind of morality based on intuition and experience on the other. As a boy, Huck is a character who can develop morally, whose mind is still open and being formed, who does not take his principles and values for granted. By tracing the education and experiences of a boy, Twain shows that conclusions about right and wrong that are based on logic and experience often stand at odds with the society’s rules and morals, which are often hypocritical rather than logical.
Discuss Twain’s use of dialects in the novel. What effect does this usage have on the reader? Does it make the novel less of an artistic achievement?
Twain’s use of dialect, which has proved controversial over the years, lends to the overall realism and vividness of Huckleberry Finn. Because it is sometimes difficult to decipher the character’s speech while reading, we are almost forced to read aloud: at the very least, to read this novel, one has to be able to “hear” the voices in one’s own head. Performance is important in this novel, as Tom Sawyer’s follies and the duke and the dauphin’s cons demonstrate. Furthermore, in the world of the novel, the way in which a character speaks is closely tied to that character’s status in society. Huck, who was born in poverty and has lived on the margins of society ever since, speaks in a much rougher, more uneducated-sounding dialect than the speech Tom uses. Jim’s speech, meanwhile, which seems rough and uneducated, is frequently not all that different from Huck’s speech or the speech of other white characters. In this way, Twain implies that it is society, wealth, and upbringing, rather than any sort of innate ignorance or roughness, that determines an individual’s educational opportunities and manner of self-expression.
Discuss the use of the river as a symbol in the novel.
At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the river is a symbol of freedom and change. Huck and Jim flow with the water and never remain in one place long enough to be pinned down by a particular set of rules. Compared to the “civilized” towns along the banks of the Mississippi, the raft on the river represents an peaceful, alternative space where Huck and Jim, free of hassles and disapproving stares, can enjoy one another’s company and revel in the small pleasures of life, like smoking a pipe and watching the stars.
As the novel continues, however, the real world beyond the Mississippi’s banks quickly intrudes on the calm, protected space of the river. Huck and Jim come across wrecks and threatening snags, and bounty hunters, thieves, and con artists accost them. Although the river still provides refuge when things go wrong ashore, Huck and Jim’s relation to the river seems to change and become less friendly. After they miss the mouth of the Ohio River, the Mississippi ceases to carry them toward freedom. Instead, the current sweeps them toward the Deep South, which represents the ultimate threat to Jim and a dead end for Huck. Just as the Mississippi would inevitably carry Huck and Jim to New Orleans (where Miss Watson had wanted to send Jim anyway), escape from the evils inherent in humanity is never truly possible.