The river went on raising and raising for ten or twelve days, till at last it was over the banks. The water was three or four foot deep on the island in low places and on the Illinois bottom. On that side it was a good many miles wide; but on the Missouri side it was the same old distance across—a half a mile—because the Missouri shore was just a wall of high bluffs.
Huckleberry Finn describes the Mississippi River in early summer, right after he and Jim have escaped to Jackson Island. Twain portrays the river as a powerful natural force that constantly changes the landscape along its banks. The river also serves as a political boundary between Missouri, a slave state, and Illinois, a free state. As they float downstream, Huck and Jim usually keep to the Illinois side, where it is easier to land their raft and where Jim, an escaping slave, is in less danger.
This second night we run between seven and eight hours, with a current that was making over four mile an hour. We catched fish, and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed, only a little kind of a low chuckle.
Huck explains that while floating downstream on their raft, he and Jim experience the Mississippi River as a life-sustaining, spiritual force. The river provides them with food and exercise, and their raft provides them with shelter. Huck and Jim experience the freedom of being in the wilderness. At the same time, they submit to nature’s power and let the river carry them toward freedom. The scene evokes feelings of being at peace and at one with nature.
When it was daylight, here was the clear Ohio water in shore, sure enough, and outside was the old regular Muddy! So it was all up with Cairo.
Huck explains how he and Jim “read” the river and conclude that they have floated past Cairo, Illinois, where they had planned to land, in order to take a steamboat up the Ohio River into the free states. South of Cairo, the Mississippi River still symbolizes freedom and escape to Huck and Jim. But the river now also stands for danger because it is carrying them deeper into the slave states. The contrasting colors of the water symbolize good and evil, wrong and right directions, and freedom and slavery.
Sometimes we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark—which was a candle in a cabin window—and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two—on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft.
Here, Huck describes life on the river with Jim. They are in the South now, rafting toward unknown dangers, but as long as they are on the river, they feel free. The lights and sounds from the shore and from other watercraft serve as reminders that human society exists, but at a safe distance. Huck describes a sense of peace, but the reader is aware that the river is carrying them toward danger.
So, in two seconds, away we went, a sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river and nobody to bother us. I had to skip around a bit, and jump and crack my heels a few times, I couldn’t help it; but about the third crack, I noticed a sound that I knowed mighty well—and held my breath and listened and waited—and sure enough, when the next flash busted out over the water, here they come!—and just a laying to their oars and making their skiff hum! It was the king and the duke.
Huck describes how he feels after blowing the whistle on a swindle being run by the king and the duke and heading out on the raft with Jim, hoping to escape the two con artists. But the river no longer symbolizes an easy escape route. Instead, the duke and king row a small boat out and catch up to the raft. Huck and Jim are still trapped by the manipulations of the greedy, unscrupulous king and duke. For Jim especially, the raft has become a floating prison.