The protagonist of Twain’s novel is Huckleberry Finn, who acts as the book’s narrator and tells his own story from his own perspective. Huck incites the action of the novel in two ways: first, by faking his death and running away from St. Petersburg, and second, by deciding to assist Jim as he flees enslavement. In both cases, Huck focuses on escaping from a corrupt society and running toward an idea of freedom. Although Huck’s actions get the narrative going, he is not the central instigator of conflict in the novel. Instead, Huck often finds himself caught up in the conflicts of others, and he uses his natural wit and charm to get himself out of dangerous situations. In this regard Huck bears a resemblance to the heroes of the picaresque literary tradition, who have similarly roguish adventures in a society defined by corruption. As in other picaresque novels, then, society is the central instigator of conflict, and Huck must struggle to retain his ideal vision of freedom in spite of the social corruption that surrounds him.

Huck’s developmental arc in the novel consists of his growing moral maturity. The groundwork for Huck’s moral education has already been laid before the novel begins, primarily through Widow Douglas’s religious teachings. Although Huck fails to comprehend his guardian’s lessons at the beginning of the book, over the course of his adventures he comes to understand and even grow past many of these lessons. Several key moments contribute to Huck’s moral education. The first comes in Chapter 13, when Huck seeks help for the murderous thieves on the wrecked steamboat. Here he learns a lesson in empathy worthy of the Widow: “I judged she would be proud of me for helping these rapscallions.” Other important moments in Huck’s moral development relate to Jim. In Chapter 15 Huck humbles himself before Jim and apologizes for playing a cruel trick on him. And in Chapter 31, Huck rips up the letter he writes to Miss Watson informing her of Jim’s whereabouts. In these moments Huck begins to understand how his society dehumanizes black people. He decides to reject social customs and religious piety alike, ultimately moving beyond the Widow’s lessons and choosing damnation over bigotry: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”