The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by: Mark Twain

What Does the Ending Mean?

At the end of the novel, with Jim’s freedom secured and the moral quandary about helping him escape resolved, Huck must decide what to do next. On the one hand, now that his father has died and no longer poses a threat, Huck could return north to St. Petersburg. On the other hand, he could say with Sally and Silas Phelps, who offer to adopt and “sivilize” him. But Huck inclines toward a third option. Instead of returning home or staying on the Phelpses’ farm, Huck wishes to escape civilization altogether and “light out for the [Indian] Territory” in the West. Huck’s strong desire for independence marks him as a symbol of American individualism. His longing to set off for the uncharted territories of the American West also links him to the pioneers, whose bravery, pragmatism, and ability to persevere all contribute to the proverbial character of the American spirit. In these senses, the ending of Huck Finn channels the founding mythology of American freedom.

What remains ambiguous, however, is whether the novel’s ending celebrates or critiques the American tenets of freedom and individualism. Throughout most of the book, Huck’s individualism seems like a good thing. It is difficult not to cheer Huck on as he escapes from St. Petersburg, floats down the Mississippi with Jim, and evades the various dangers encountered along the way. At the end of the novel, however, it remains unclear whether the reader should celebrate Huck’s individualism or reject it. For one thing, Huck’s wish to escape could be understood as a reversion to childishness and immaturity. Huck has no real knowledge of what he will find out West, other than what he’s heard of in stories like those Tom Sawyer recounts. And in any case, the experience of working with Tom to free Jim from prison seems to demonstrate to Huck that such stories have a limited relationship to reality. So why would Huck believe blindly a childish and idealized fantasy of the Wild West? On the level of plot, then, it seems that Huck’s individualism has its limits.

A similar problem arises on the level of theme. If Huck’s individualism links him to the spirit of the pioneers, then it also links him to the nineteenth-century doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” which celebrated and justified westward expansion across the North American continent. Huck’s desire to run off into the sunset toward the “Territory” makes him an agent of Manifest Destiny. From the point of view of a contemporary reader, Huck’s celebration of westward expansion as a reflection of freedom and individualism conflicts with his powerful challenge to the institution of slavery. Just as the institution of slavery led to suffering and death for countless African Americans, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny enabled the genocide and colonization of Native Americans. Even though Huck has risked his own freedom to secure Jim’s, his continued pursuit of freedom out West would most likely result in the subordination of Native Americans. Huck Finn therefore ends on an ambiguous note, indicating how the concept of freedom stands as the defining problem of the United States.