In these chapters, Twain makes a number of comments on the society of his time and its attempts at reform. We see a number of well-meaning individuals who engage in foolish, even cruel behavior. The new judge in town refuses to give custody of Huck to Judge Thatcher and the Widow, despite Pap’s history of neglect and abuse. This poorly informed decision not only makes us question the wisdom and morality of these public figures but also resonates with the plight of slaves in Southern society at the time. The new judge in town returns Huck to Pap because he privileges Pap’s “rights” over Huck’s welfare—just as slaves, because they were considered property, were regularly returned to their legal owners, no matter how badly these owners abused them. Twain also takes the opportunity to mock the bleeding-heart do-gooders of the temperance, or anti-alcohol, movement: the judge is clearly naïve, misguided, and blind to the larger evils around him, and the weeping and moralizing that goes on in his home is grating, to say the least.
Throughout these chapters, Huck is at the center of countless failures and breakdowns in the society around him, yet he maintains his characteristic resilience. Indeed, Huck’s family, the legal system, and the community all fail to protect him or to provide a set of beliefs and values that are consistent and satisfying to him. Huck’s wrongful imprisonment elicits sympathy and concern on our part, even though this imprisonment does not seem to distress Huck in the least. Sadly, Huck is so used to social abuses by this point in his life that he has no reason to prefer one set of abuses over the other. Likewise, although Pap is a hideous, hateful man in nearly every respect, Huck does not immediately abandon him when given the chance. Pap is, after all, Huck’s father, and Huck is still a fairly young boy. Ultimately, Pap’s kidnapping of Huck provides an opportunity for Huck to break from this society that has done him harm.
Pap, the embodiment of pure evil, is one of Twain’s most memorable characters. Because we have no background information to explain his present state, his role is primarily symbolic. The deathly pallor of his skin, which is nauseating to Huck, makes Pap emblematic of whiteness. Unfortunately, Pap represents the worst of white society: he is illiterate, ignorant, violent, and profoundly racist. The mixed-race man who visits the town contrasts Pap in every way: he is a clean-cut, knowledgeable, and seemingly politically conscious professor. In establishing the contrast between Pap and the mixed-race man, Twain overturns traditional symbolism of his time and implies that whiteness, not blackness, is associated with evil. Jim’s vision of Pap’s two angels and Huck’s two future wives extends this sense of confusion over good and bad, human and inhuman, right and wrong in Huck’s world. At this point, Jim is unclear as to which will win, and even less clear about which should win.