What does it mean to be "free"?
Huckleberry Finn presents two main visions of freedom in exploring questions about the meaning of liberty and at what price, if any, a person is truly free. Both Huck and Jim seek freedom, though they have very different ideas about what freedom means. This difference has to do in part with what each character feels he is winning freedom from. Huck, for instance, longs to be released from “sivilized” society. He feels suffocated by the restrictions imposed by heavy clothing, formal education, and, of course, domestic life: “Living in a house, and sleeping in a bed, pulled on me pretty tight, mostly.” By contrast, Jim longs to be released from his station as Miss Watson’s slave: “she pecks on me all de time,” he complains, “en treats me pooty rough.” Despite the differences in their class and race backgrounds, Huck and Jim both face immediate threats that amplify their desire to escape. Huck’s abusive, alcoholic father kidnaps him and seems willing to do him harm to acquire his fortune. Jim, on the other hand, overhears Miss Watson discussing the possibility of selling him downriver, where she could get a lot of money for him. Both of these events culminate with an escape to Jackson’s Island, which is where Huck and Jim begin their adventure together.
Just as Huck and Jim are escaping from different types of confinement, they also have divergent visions of what freedom will look like, raising the question of whether there is one universal definition of the idea, or if the notion of freedom is unique to each individual. In Huck’s case, he imagines that freedom will allow him to pursue an unhampered life of adventure and exploration, all without the restrictions imposed by society and religion. Huck’s vision of freedom, which is clearly influenced by his friendship with Tom Sawyer, is naïve, as it comes from a place of relative privilege. The freedom he seeks is more symbolic than literal since no one actually “owns” him and he has enough money to live independently. Jim’s vision of freedom, in contrast, seems much humbler: in escaping from slavery, he hopes to earn enough money to reunite with his family. Since Jim is reminded on a daily basis that he is another person’s property and has no personal liberty whatsoever, the freedom he seeks is simpler, more fundamental, and also more profound: a state of being both literal as well as figurative.
For both Huck and Jim, the Mississippi River serves as a powerful symbol of the freedom they envision, though the symbol acts differently for each character. Alone on their raft, Huck and Jim have complete autonomy. Being on the river at night, invisible to the world while moving swiftly through it, brings Huck a profound sense of calm: “You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” For Huck, being on the river is freedom. For Jim, who hopes to travel the Mississippi to the free states along the Ohio River, the river is a path to freedom. As long as he and Huck are traveling on the Mississippi, Jim is still a slave, his life is still in danger, and his personal liberty is still compromised. This is why he and Huck mostly travel at night, and he hides in the wigwam when Huck and the king and duke go ashore during the day. While for Huck the river is a destination in and of itself, for Jim it is a means to an end, and represents the freedom in theory, not in fact.