Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Although Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, America—and especially the South—was still struggling with racism and the aftereffects of slavery. By the early 1880s, Reconstruction, the plan to put the United States back together after the war and integrate freed slaves into society, had hit shaky ground, although it had not yet failed outright. As Twain worked on his novel, race relations, which seemed to be on a positive path in the years following the Civil War, once again became strained. The imposition of Jim Crow laws, designed to limit the power of blacks in the South in a variety of indirect ways, brought the beginning of a new, insidious effort to oppress. The new racism of the South, less institutionalized and monolithic, was also more difficult to combat. Slavery could be outlawed, but when white Southerners enacted racist laws or policies under a professed motive of self-defense against newly freed blacks, far fewer people, Northern or Southern, saw the act as immoral and rushed to combat it.
Although Twain wrote the novel after slavery was abolished, he set it several decades earlier, when slavery was still a fact of life. But even by Twain’s time, things had not necessarily gotten much better for blacks in the South. In this light, we might read Twain’s depiction of slavery as an allegorical representation of the condition of blacks in the United States even after the abolition of slavery. Just as slavery places the noble and moral Jim under the control of white society, no matter how degraded that white society may be, so too did the insidious racism that arose near the end of Reconstruction oppress black men for illogical and hypocritical reasons. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain, by exposing the hypocrisy of slavery, demonstrates how racism distorts the oppressors as much as it does those who are oppressed. The result is a world of moral confusion, in which seemingly “good” white people such as Miss Watson and Sally Phelps express no concern about the injustice of slavery or the cruelty of separating Jim from his family.
By focusing on Huck’s education, Huckleberry Finn fits into the tradition of the bildungsroman: a novel depicting an individual’s maturation and development. As a poor, uneducated boy, for all intents and purposes an orphan, Huck distrusts the morals and precepts of the society that treats him as an outcast and fails to protect him from abuse. This apprehension about society, and his growing relationship with Jim, lead Huck to question many of the teachings that he has received, especially regarding race and slavery. More than once, we see Huck choose to “go to hell” rather than go along with the rules and follow what he has been taught. Huck bases these decisions on his experiences, his own sense of logic, and what his developing conscience tells him. On the raft, away from civilization, Huck is especially free from society’s rules, able to make his own decisions without restriction. Through deep introspection, he comes to his own conclusions, unaffected by the accepted—and often hypocritical—rules and values of Southern culture. By the novel’s end, Huck has learned to “read” the world around him, to distinguish good, bad, right, wrong, menace, friend, and so on. His moral development is sharply contrasted to the character of Tom Sawyer, who is influenced by a bizarre mix of adventure novels and Sunday-school teachings, which he combines to justify his outrageous and potentially harmful escapades.
When Huck plans to head west at the end of the novel in order to escape further “sivilizing,” he is trying to avoid more than regular baths and mandatory school attendance. Throughout the novel, Twain depicts the society that surrounds Huck as little more than a collection of degraded rules and precepts that defy logic. This faulty logic appears early in the novel, when the new judge in town allows Pap to keep custody of Huck. The judge privileges Pap’s “rights” to his son as his natural father over Huck’s welfare. At the same time, this decision comments on a system that puts a white man’s rights to his “property”—his slaves—over the welfare and freedom of a black man. In implicitly comparing the plight of slaves to the plight of Huck at the hands of Pap, Twain implies that it is impossible for a society that owns slaves to be just, no matter how “civilized” that society believes and proclaims itself to be. Again and again, Huck encounters individuals who seem good—Sally Phelps, for example—but who Twain takes care to show are prejudiced slave-owners. This shaky sense of justice that Huck repeatedly encounters lies at the heart of society’s problems: terrible acts go unpunished, yet frivolous crimes, such as drunkenly shouting insults, lead to executions. Sherburn’s speech to the mob that has come to lynch him accurately summarizes the view of society Twain gives in Huckleberry Finn: rather than maintain collective welfare, society instead is marked by cowardice, a lack of logic, and profound selfishness.
Huck experiences guilt and shame at various points throughout the novel, and these feelings force him into serious questions about morality. Huck’s guilt is largely tied to the religious morality he learned from Widow Douglas. Not long after he and Jim set out on their journey, Huck realizes that by helping Jim escape he has done harm to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson. He explains: “Conscience says to me, . . . ‘What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?’ . . . I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead” (Chapter 16). Here Huck recognizes that has broken the Golden Rule of Christianity, which states, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Huck remains conflicted until near the end of the book. The breaking point comes in Chapter 31, when he finds himself unable to pray. Huck realizes that in his heart he doesn’t believe Jim should be returned to slavery, and saying so in a prayer would result in him “playing double” and hence lying to God. When he finally resolves to help Jim escape for the last time, Huck banishes the last vestiges of guilt.
The theme of empathy is closely tied to the theme of guilt. Huck’s feelings of empathy help his moral development by enabling him to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. The theme of empathy first arises when Huck worries about the thieves he and Jim abandon on the wrecked steamboat. Once he’s escaped immediate danger, Huck grows concerned about the men: “I begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix.” Huck’s concern drives him to go and find help. Another significant example of empathy in the book comes in Chapter 23, when Huck wakes up to Jim “moaning and mourning to himself.” Huck imagines that Jim is feeling “low and homesick” because he’s thinking about his wife and children: “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.” Despite the residual racism in this comment, Huck’s capacity for empathy has a strong humanizing power.