The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is a novel about a
young boy’s coming of age in the Missouri of the mid-1800’s. The main
character, Huckleberry Finn, spends much time in the novel floating
down the Mississippi River on a raft with a runaway slave named Jim.
Before he does so, however, Huck spends some time in the fictional town
of St. Petersburg where a number of people attempt to influence him.
Before the novel begins, Huck Finn has led a life of absolute
freedom. His drunken and often missing father has never paid much
attention to him; his mother is dead and so, when the novel begins, Huck
is not used to following any rules. The book’s opening finds Huck living
with the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Both women are
fairly old and are really somewhat incapable of raising a rebellious boy
like Huck Finn. Nevertheless, they attempt to make Huck into what they
believe will be a better boy. Specifically, they attempt, as Huck says, to
“civilize” him. This process includes making Huck go to school, teaching
him various religious facts, and making him act in a way that the women
find socially acceptable. Huck, who has never had to follow many rules in
his life, finds the demands the women place upon him constraining and
the life with them lonely. As a result, soon after he first moves in with
them, he runs away. He soon comes back, but, even though he becomes
somewhat comfortable with his new life as the months go by, Huck never
really enjoys the life of manners, religion, and education that the Widow
and her sister impose upon him.
Huck believes he will find some freedom with Tom Sawyer. Tom is
a boy of Huck’s age who promises Huck and other boys of the town a life
of adventure. Huck is eager to join Tom Sawyer’s Gang because he feels
that doing so will allow him to escape the somewhat boring life he leads
with the Widow Douglas. Unfortunately, such an escape does not occur.
Tom Sawyer promises much-robbing stages, murdering and ransoming
people, kidnapping beautiful women-but none of this comes to pass. Huck
finds out too late that Tom’s adventures are imaginary: that raiding a
caravan of “A-rabs” really means terrorizing young children on a Sunday
school picnic, that stolen “joolry” is nothing more than turnips or rocks.
Huck is disappointed that the adventures Tom promises are not real and
so, along with the other members, he resigns from the gang.
Another person who tries to get Huckleberry Finn to change is
Pap, Huck’s father. Pap is one of the most astonishing figures in all of
American literature as he is completely antisocial and wishes to undo all
of the civilizing effects that the Widow and Miss Watson have attempted
to instill in Huck. Pap is a mess: he is unshaven; his hair is uncut and
hangs like vines in front of his face; his skin, Huck says, is white like a
fish’s belly or like a tree toad’s. Pap’s savage appearance reflects his
feelings as he demands that Huck quit school, stop reading, and avoid
church. Huck is able to stay away from Pap for a while, but Pap kidnaps
Huck three or four months after Huck starts to live with the Widow and
takes him to a lonely cabin deep in the Missouri woods. Here, Huck
enjoys, once again, the freedom that he had prior to the beginning of the
book. He can smoke, “laze around,” swear, and, in general, do what he
wants to do. However, as he did with the Widow and with Tom, Huck
begins to become dissatisfied with this life. Pap is “too handy with the
hickory” and Huck soon realizes that he will have to escape from the
cabin if he wishes to remain alive. As a result of his concern, Huck makes
it appear as if he is killed in the cabin while Pap is away, and leaves to go
to a remote island in the Mississippi River, Jackson’s Island.
It is after he leaves his father’s cabin that Huck joins yet another
important influence in his life: Miss Watson’s slave, Jim. Prior to Huck’s
leaving, Jim has been a minor character in the novel-he has been shown
being fooled by Tom Sawyer and telling Huck’s fortune. Huck finds Jim
on Jackson’s Island because the slave has run away-he has overheard a
conversation that he will soon be sold to New Orleans.