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Themes

Learn about themes in Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Course Hero's video study guide.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn | Themes

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is both a coming-of-age story and an intelligent social commentary, featuring themes relating both to character development and issues prevalent in Twain's day.

Maturation

Huck's physical journey along the Mississippi is also an emotional journey—his coming-of-age. After his experiences on the raft and in the towns, he is no longer the same person. He has a newfound understanding of people, having seen both good and bad behavior.

Much of the good behavior he witnesses comes from Jim. In Chapter 14 Huck says of Jim, "Well, he was right; he was most always right; he had an uncommon level head for a nigger." Jim's behavior and actions are what push Huck the most to grow and mature.

When Huck decides he is willing to "go to hell" to ensure Jim's freedom, he shows a level of maturity much greater than earlier in the book. Huck is willing to listen to his own conscience and do what he feels is right. He ignores the civilized people and goes against what he has been taught growing up. Huck's willingness to buck the system foreshadows his ultimate decision to go out on his own. By the novel's end he has the wherewithal and determination to act on his own and trust his own sense of right and wrong.

Racism

Racism was accepted in the South during the time the book is set. Black peoples' lives are viewed as worthless and irrelevant. They are valued only as possessions, and their primary function is to serve others.

When Jim is brought back after attempting to escape from the Phelps's, the neighbors are furious. They are ready to lynch him to make an example of him for their slaves, who will think twice before considering running away. Ultimately the crowd decides not to: "[T]he others said, don't do it, it wouldn't answer at all, he ain't our nigger, and his owner would turn up and make us pay for him, sure." They spare Jim's life for the sole reason that they do not want to pay his master.

The hero of the novel, Huck, is a racist as well. It is only after spending time with Jim that Huck recognizes Jim's humanity. This is the case with the people all over the South. At the time, a black person was thought of as a commodity to be bought, used, and sold. Recognition of slaves' rights, feelings, and even their existence is limited.

When Twain wrote the book, slavery had ended, but racism was as rampant as ever. African Americans continued to be treated unfairly according to the Jim Crow laws. Racism could not be ended by a war but only with a change in attitude. In the story Huck does change his attitude about slavery. But he is so frustrated with his society that he leaves it. Twain paints a bleak picture of the South.

Cruelty

The novel depicts people who are often cruel toward each other. This cruelty can extend to family, friends, and strangers. The reputation of the hospitable and welcoming Southerner is shattered in the novel.

Pap is the epitome of cruelty. He kidnaps and imprisons Huck, curses him, insists he stop his education, and beats him mercilessly. It is because of Pap's treatment Huck decides he needs to run away. In Chapter 6 Huck says, "But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick'ry, and I couldn't stand it. I was all over welts." Prior to learning that Huck has come into money, Pap had been an absentee father. His interest in Huck extends only as far as Huck's reward money.

The duke and the king have no problem taking money from innocent people. They manipulate a religious event, fleece orphans and, ultimately, sell Jim. One of their cons works because neighbors act cruelly toward one another by encouraging them to get cheated as well. In addition this society features angry mobs that gather regularly and are out for violence. Feuds are carried on for no reason at all. The society that is depicted is nearly unanimously mean and ugly. They are cruel toward neighbors and strangers alike.

Hypocrisy

There are a number of "good" people in the novel. These characters act decently and are civilized. Yet even these seemingly good people behave in immoral ways when it comes to the slaves.

In Chapter 32 Aunt Sally is thrilled to meet Huck—but mainly because she had been expecting Tom, and Huck lets her think that is who he is. When she inquires as to what happened to him, Huck notes that there was a problem on the boat. Aunt Sally is concerned: "Good gracious! anybody hurt?" "No'm. Killed a nigger." "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt." Aunt Sally, the same women who Huck says is tender and caring, is completely indifferent to the death of a black person. In her eyes they don't fit within the category of "people." Examples such as this can be found throughout the text.

The latent racism exists even in so-called civilized people. It is hard to overlook this attitude and see these people as good like Huck does. Huck himself is confused by the end and refuses to be "civilized."

The violence of the times is also surprising. The genteel and aristocratic Colonel Grangerford partakes in a feud for no apparent reason. The feud will ultimately claim three of his children and his own life. How civilized people can be involved in such behavior confuses the protagonist and is portrayed as senseless by Twain.

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