Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Mississippi River

For Huck and Jim, the Mississippi River is the ultimate symbol of freedom. Alone on their raft, they do not have to answer to anyone. The river carries them toward freedom: for Jim, toward the free states; for Huck, away from his abusive father and the restrictive “sivilizing” of St. Petersburg. Much like the river itself, Huck and Jim are in flux, willing to change their attitudes about each other with little prompting. Despite their freedom, however, they soon find that they are not completely free from the evils and influences of the towns on the river’s banks. Even early on, the real world intrudes on the paradise of the raft: the river floods, bringing Huck and Jim into contact with criminals, wrecks, and stolen goods. Then, a thick fog causes them to miss the mouth of the Ohio River, which was to be their route to freedom.

As the novel progresses, then, the river becomes something other than the inherently benevolent place Huck originally thought it was. As Huck and Jim move further south, the duke and the dauphin invade the raft, and Huck and Jim must spend more time ashore. Though the river continues to offer a refuge from trouble, it often merely effects the exchange of one bad situation for another. Each escape exists in the larger context of a continual drift southward, toward the Deep South and entrenched slavery. In this transition from idyllic retreat to source of peril, the river mirrors the complicated state of the South. As Huck and Jim’s journey progresses, the river, which once seemed a paradise and a source of freedom, becomes merely a short-term means of escape that nonetheless pushes Huck and Jim ever further toward danger and destruction.

The Raft

Through their journeys on the Mississippi River, the raft Huck and Jim build together comes to symbolize a space outside of the dictates for society where they can redefine proper conduct and behavior. Whereas Huck describes his other homes as stifling or confining, he describes the raft as being “free and easy.” Notably, life on the raft is only comfortable so long as everyone treats everyone else with respect. When Huck plays mean tricks on Jim or considers turning him in, they face terrifying fog and even the raft breaking. After Jim and Huck establish a respectful friendship, their life on the raft is pleasant and enjoyable.

At first the duke and dauphin appear to uphold the rules of the raft. The dauphin reminds the duke that a raft is a small space and one person’s rudeness can disrupt its atmosphere. However, the duke and the dauphin are not actually prepared to be respectful. Even before they decide to try and sell Jim, their plans for hiding him involve tying him up, which makes Jim uncomfortable. Unsurprisingly, the duke and dauphin throw off the equilibrium of the raft, and eventually bring about the end of Huck and Jim’s idyllic society.


As the primary Black character in the book, Jim becomes a symbol for the larger injustices of the institution of slavery and anti-Black racism. Every time Huck has a crisis of conscience about stealing Miss Watson’s “property,” he finds himself stuck on how terrible he’d feel betraying Jim. This apparent contradiction—that Jim is a person whom Huck can choose to be loyal to or betray while also legally being someone’s property—highlights the fundamental repugnancy of slavery. Furthermore, Jim’s backstory and motivations are inherently sympathetic. He wants to escape both to avoid facing the terrors of enslavement farther south, and also to free his wife and children. By emphasizing that Jim has a family whom he thinks about constantly and cares about, the novel demonstrates how awful it is that he not only faces separation from them but will also have to purchase the right to be near them. Finally, Jim acts as a more responsible father figure to Huck than Huck’s own father. Jim’s kindness and care toward Huck emphasizes Jim’s humanity and implicitly criticizes any society that would consider Huck’s betrayal of Jim to be the moral decision.