Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes are the fundamental concepts addressed and explored in a literary work.

Racism and slavery - One may wonder why Mark Twain would choose to write an antislavery novel some twenty years after the end of the Civil War. 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 some shaky ground, although it had not yet failed outright (that wouldn't occur until 1887, three years after the publication of Huck Finn). Still, 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; Jim Crow laws, designed to limit the power of blacks in the South, began a new, insidious effort to oppress. Twain made a powerful decision when he chose to describe a system that no longer existed, when doing so could just lead the unsympathetic reader to claim that things had gotten much better for blacks.
One way to analyze this decision is to read 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 the white man, no matter how degraded that white man may be, so too did the more insidious racism that arose near the end of Reconstruction oppress black men for illogical and hypocritical reasons. However, the new racism of the South, less institutionalized and monolithic, was also much less easy to critique. Slavery was a tough practice to justify; 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. In exposing the hypocrisy of slavery, Twain demonstrated how racism distorts the oppressors as much as it does those who are oppressed. Just as the South has never entirely escaped the legacy of slavery, this theme, articulated so subtly by Twain at such an early time, has continued to animate Southern writing throughout the twentieth century, most particularly in the work of the great Southern writer William Faulkner.

Education, both intellectual and moral - By focusing on Huck's education, Huck Finn fits into the tradition of the bildungsroman: a novel of maturation and development. An outcast, Huck distrusts the morals and precepts of the society that labels him a pariah 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 on race. Time and time again, the reader sees him choosing to "go to hell" rather than go along with what he's 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 represents a kind of natural man. Through deep introspection, he comes to his own conclusions, unaffected by the accepted, and often hypocritical, precepts of Southern culture. Early in this novel, Huck learns to read books-a skill that later serves him well in a literal sense; 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.

Civilized society - When Huck plans to head west at the end of Huck Finn to escape further "sivilizing," he is trying to avoid more than having to take baths regularly and going to school. Throughout the novel, Twain depicts society as a structure that has become little more than a collection of degraded rules and precepts that defy logic. This faulty logic manifests itself early, when the new judge in town allows Pap to keep custody of Huck. The judge privileges Pap's "rights" to his son over Huck's welfare. Clearly, 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. Whereas a reader in the 1880s might have overlooked the moral absurdity of giving a man custody of another man, however, the mirroring of this situation in the granting of rights to the immoral Pap over the lovable Huck forces the reader to think more closely about the meaning of slavery. In implicitly comparing the plight of slaves to the plight of Huck at the hands of Pap, Twain demonstrates how impossible it is 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 Twain takes care to show us that person as a prejudiced slave-owner. The shakiness of the justice systems that Huck 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 given in this book: rather than maintaining collective welfare, society is marked by cowardice, a lack of logic, and profound selfishness.

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.

Childhood - Childhood is an important factor in the theme of moral education: only a child is open-minded enough to undergo the kind of development that Huck does. Since Huck and Tom are young, their age lends a sense of play to their actions, which excuses them in certain ways and also heightens the profundity of the novel's commentary on slavery and society. Huck and Tom know better than the adults around them, but they lack the guidance that a proper family and community should have offered them. Huck as a child is also frequently contrasted to Jim as a black man: both are vulnerable, yet Huck, because he is white, has power over Jim. Finally, the silliness, pure joy, and naïveté‚ of childhood offer Huck Finn a profound humor and sense of fun. Though its themes are quite weighty, the novel itself feels light in tone. The child's rambunctious excitement flowing through the novel enlivens the story, making Huck Finn not only an important read, but a fun one as well.

Lies and cons - Like the motif of childhood, the motif of lies and cons is linked to the larger theme of moral development. Huck Finn is full of malicious lies and scams, many of them coming from the Duke and Dauphin. It is clear that these lies are bad: they hurt innocent people. Yet Huck tells a number of lies himself, and even cons a few people, most notably the slave-hunters, to whom he makes up a story about a smallpox outbreak in order to protect Jim. As Huck realizes, it seems that telling a lie can actually be a good thing, depending on its purpose. This insight is part of Huck's learning process, as he finds that some of the things that he's been taught contradict what seems to be "right." At other points, the lines between a con, legitimate entertainment, and approved social structures like religion are very fine indeed. Lies and cons become an effective way for Twain to highlight moral ambiguity.Is it moral ambiguity or bad behavior?

Superstition - Jim is a wonderful repository of superstitions and folktales. Curiously, many of his beliefs seem to have some basis in reality, or to presage events to come. While Huck initially dismisses most of Jim's superstitions as silly, he comes to appreciate Jim's deep knowledge of the world. Superstition thus serves as an alternative to accepted social mores, and is a reminder that mainstream conventions are not always right.

Conceits taken from other kinds of literature or art - Huck Finn is full of people who base their lives on a romantic literary model. Tom Sawyer bases his life on adventure novels, Emmeline Grangerford painted weepy maidens and wrote poems about dead children, the Shepherdson and Grangerford families kill one another out of some bizarre conception of family honor. The inclusion of these peculiarities of character allows Twain to indulge in some fun, and sections that deal with this subject are among the funniest in the book. However, there is also a real message here: literature tends to represent the codified and stylized values of a society, and Twain shows how a strict adherence to these ideals of chivalrous Southern nobility is ultimately dangerous: Tom is shot, Emmeline dies, and the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords all end up dead.

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or 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 don't have to answer to anyone, and 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. The fluid, fast-moving river reflects the characters at this point: free from society, Huck and Jim are in flux, willing to change their attitudes about one another with little prompting. As rivers must be, however, the Mississippi is sandwiched between two banks, upon which lie the towns and villages that represent that which Huck and Jim are trying to escape.
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. Most importantly, a thick fog causes them to miss the mouth of the Ohio River, which was to be their route to freedom. In other words, the river becomes something other than the inherently benevolent place Huck had thought it was. As they move further south, and the Duke and Dauphin invade the raft, Huck and Jim must spend more time ashore. Though it continues to offer a refuge from all of the trouble that the quartet encounters, the river 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 comes to mirror the complicated state of the South. As their journey progresses, the river, which once seemed an Eden, a source of freedom, becomes merely a short-term means of escape that nonetheless pushes Huck and Jim ever further toward danger and destruction.