The plot of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of two characters’ attempts to emancipate themselves. Huck desires to break free from the constraints of society, both physical and mental, while Jim is fleeing a life of literal enslavement. Much of the conflict in the novel stems from Huck’s attempt to reconcile Jim’s desire for emancipation with his own. Initially, Huck is only concerned with his own freedom, and doesn’t question the morality of slavery. But after spending time with Jim, Huck’s conscience tells him that he needs to help Jim because Jim is a human being. While Huck faces few legal barriers in his own quest for personal freedom, the stakes are much higher for Jim, since it is against the law for slaves to run away. Over time, Huck develops an inner conviction that he can’t return Jim to slavery. Despite feeling guilty for acting in a way his society considers immoral, Huck decides he must treat Jim not as a slave, but as a human being.
Initially, Huck’s conflict with society is embodied by the Widow Douglas’ attempts to “sivilize” Huck and thereby make him into an upstanding citizen. Being an upstanding citizen also means accepting slavery and institutionalized racism. Tom Sawyer convinces Huck to stay with the Widow, telling Huck that he must stay “respectable” in order to remain in Tom’s robber’s gang. Paradoxically, Huck must play by society’s rules in order to be an outlaw. Huck’s drunken, abusive father poses a more direct threat to Huck’s freedom when he kidnaps Huck. Huck escapes his captivity by faking his own death and running away to Jackson’s Island. There he meets Jim, whose status as a runaway slave marks him as an even more serious victim of social strictures. The two characters band together in an act of mutual escape, setting out on a raft down the Mississippi River. The episodes that follow bind Huck and Jim closer together, especially when Huck decides to lie about Jim having smallpox to prevent him from being captured. As Huck comes to see Jim’s humanity, he grows increasingly conflicted about the morality of being an accessory to Jim’s escape.
The rising action begins when Huck and Jim meet the king and duke, two newcomers claiming to be royalty who are in fact con men who carry out deceptive tricks on unsuspecting townsfolk. Through witnessing the king and duke’s various scams, Huck becomes aware of Jim’s essential goodness, in contrast to the self-interested hypocrisy of most of the people they meet. In calling themselves royalty, the king and duke highlight the fallacy of assuming some people are superior to others by nature of their birth, and makes Huck question what civilized society actually represents: “all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out,” he tells Jim. Huck wrestles with his own conscience, and feels guilt for his role in the king and duke’s deceptions, especially when they conspire to rob Peter Wilks’ daughters. He tells Mary Jane Wilks the truth about the duke and king, marking the beginning of his moral evolution, as he acts out of compassion for Mary Jane rather than self-interest. After narrowly escaping the Wilks, the duke and king sell Jim, who is captured and held by Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle.
The climax of the novel comes when Huck must decide whether to reveal Jim’s whereabouts, guaranteeing Jim will be returned to slavery and implicating himself in breaking the law by freeing a slave. After initially deciding to turn Jim in, Huck feels “all washed clean of sin for the first time,” but then remembers how kind Jim was to him, and reverses his decision, vowing to help Jim escape. Tom arrives and joins Huck in devising an elaborate plan to free Jim, seeing the escape as a chance for adventure like the novels he reads, rather than understanding the moral gravity of the situation. After much delay as Tom creates unnecessary complications to heighten the drama of the escape, Tom and Huck succeed in freeing Jim, and Tom is shot in the leg in the ensuing chase. Jim insists on getting a doctor, and Tom stays on the raft while Huck goes for help and Jim hides in the woods. The doctor returns Tom and Jim to Tom’s aunt and uncle, revealing that Jim gave up his own chance at freedom to help Tom. Jim’s steadfast morality and selflessness demonstrates the absurdity of a society that considers him less than human.
Following the attempt to free Jim from captivity, Tom reveals that Jim had already been legally emancipated following the death of his owner, Miss Watson, and that Tom only wanted to help him escape for the fun of it, further contrasting Tom’s boyish self-interest with Huck’s new-found, adult morality. Tom pays Jim forty dollars to compensate him for his troubles, enabling Jim to take a steamboat back up north where he can reunite with his family and live in relative freedom, although the fact that all the other slaves the characters met during their adventures remain enslaved compromises Jim’s victory. Jim reveals that Pap is dead, a fact he tried to protect Huck from, and the final evidence of his generous and empathetic nature. The fact that Tom kept Jim’s freedom a secret has important implications for Huck’s final decision to shirk “sivilized” life for good and “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” by which he means he wishes to head West. Huck’s continued ambivalence toward civilization suggests that even though the particular matter of Jim’s freedom has been resolved, the greater immorality of society persists in the form of slavery and institutionalized racism.
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