Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Racism and Slavery
Although Twain wrote
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
Intellectual and Moral Education
By focusing on Huck’s education,
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.
The Hypocrisy of “Civilized” Society
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
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,
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.
Ironically given the book’s title, the theme of “adventure” in
Money does nothing but cause problems in this book. Huck complains that ever since he came into a significant sum of money at the end of
Further money-related problems arise following the initial appearance of the duke and the dauphin, who swindle common townsfolk out of their money. Their scams cause anxiety for Huck and wreak havoc in all of the small towns they visit. The only time money seems like it might have a redemptive power is at the end of the novel, when Tom gives Jim forty dollars to pay his way back north. For Jim, money holds the promise of liberation. But given the many problems money has brought throughout the book, it seems unlikely that money alone will guarantee Jim his freedom.