Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twains classic novel, Huckleberry Finn, is a story that tackles many complicated themes and takes a long, hard look at the nature of the South in the middle part of the nineteenth century. Though it appears to be little more than just a story of a young boy on the surface, the novel digs into themes of racism, slavery, and the transitions that take place across the South during that period of time. Specially, Twain touches on how the region and its people were constantly changing in an effort to keep up with the times, and how they were constantly looking for new ways to combat the changes that they did not want to endure. As one reads the book, it is hard not to notice the importance of the Mississippi River as it relates to the characters and to the overall picture of the South during that time. In many ways, the river is a metaphor for life in the mid-nineteenth century South. Always flowing and changing, the river charges toward an eventual destination, just as life in the South did during the middle part of the nineteenth century.

The Mississippi River charges on toward its eventual destination, and its relentless nature is something that cannot be denied. Much in the same way, the South, as depicted by Twain, is a place that is headed toward an eventual destination. Set in the time of slavery, this book discusses some of the ways that racism and slavery impact society during that time. Though the world around was quickly changing, rushing toward a time when slavery would no longer exist, the South continued to hold out for as long as possible. Slavery was a way of life in the region, and the people there could not begin to imagine what life would be like without slavery. This insistence on keeping slavery alive and well is something that can be seen in many of the political agreements made during the 1850s. With the United States expanding toward the West, it was clear that some things had to be defined and others had to change. New states would be entering the Union, so agreements had to be struck on the nature of those states. The Compromise of 1850 was a very important event that illustrates just how stubborn the South was during a time when the eventual direction of life in the United States was apparent. indicates that this was one of the turning points, and further indicates the obvious nature of the nations direction. That sites says of the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted to the Union as the 16th free state. In exchange, the south was guaranteed that no federal restrictions on slavery would be placed on Utah or New Mexico. Texas lost its boundary claims in New Mexico, but the Congress compensated Texas with 10 million. Slavery was maintained in the nations capital, but the slave trade was prohibited. Finally, and most controversially, a Fugitive Slave Law was passed, requiring northerners to return runaway slaves to their owners under penalty of law ( The site goes on to note that the Compromise of 1850 was a win for the free states, giving them power in the Senate and setting the stage for legislation in the future. Still, the South was holding on and grasping at straws, attempting feebly to protect its way of life. This way of life in the South was changing, though, and nothing was going to stop it as it charged forward toward eventual emancipation. Just as the river could not be stopped, the eventual changes in Southern culture could not be stopped.

One of the interesting literary techniques that the book uses is symbolism with the Mississippi River. The role of the river changes over the course of the book, as well. It represents freedom in the beginning, as it is the method that Jim and Huck use to get out of the society they both loathe. Over time, the role of the river evolves, and once again represents a metaphor for what life in the South was like during that time. Eventually, the river becomes a dangerous place, where twists and turns lie around every bend. The river was always changing and it took on a life of its own. This is similar to what happened in the South during the middle part of the nineteenth century. Times were changing, and Southern leaders were well versed in how to adapt to those changes. As the movement to end slavery began to pick up steam, Southern leaders postured in Congress to stop the movement. Even more importantly than that is the fact that after slaves were granted some freedoms, life in the South modified to disallow these freedoms once again. Just as the river constantly shifted to provide new challenges and dangers, life in the South shifted to provide new obstacles for freed slaves to overcome.

One of the most important themes that Twain touches on in the work is the role of Jim Crow laws, which were the official genesis of the discrimination effort against newly freed blacks. It was something that would sustain itself for decades to come, as the South continually reinvented itself in an effort to stop its eventual direction. According to, the South took the law into its own hands, asserting that if the Union would not allow slavery legally, the South would do everything in its power to collectively intimidate and shut out blacks. On that site, Dr. Ronald L. F. Davis writes, Segregation and disfranchisement laws were often supported, moreover, by brutal acts of ceremonial and ritualized mob violence (lynchings) against southern blacks. Indeed, from 1889 to 1930, over 3,700 men and women were reported lynched in the United States--most of whom were southern blacks. Hundreds of other lynchings and acts of mob terror aimed at brutalizing blacks occurred throughout the era but went unreported in the press (Davis).

As the University of Dayton indicates, these laws could be very heinous or simply annoying, depending upon the situation. That universitys site lists one Alabama law as being, It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment (University of Dayton). In these items, one can see a clear representation of how Twain used the river to denote Southern society during that time. As the story goes along, the river grows to have a life of its own, just as the treatment of blacks in Southern society took on a life of its own. Slavery could be one stretch of the river, and as soon as Jim and Huck make it through a difficult stretch, something else was waiting once again. Much in the same way, just as Southern society was forced to change to accommodate free blacks, it modified itself to ensure that they were not totally free.

Twain uses this work to touch on some very human themes in a most simplistic way. Using literary techniques like symbolism, metaphors, and powerful imagery, he paints the picture of a time in the South when things were constantly changing. He discusses the historical impact of slavery, and notes how life in the South was something that was very twisted. Much like the Mississippi River had its twists and turns, life in the South was something of an adventure. People who would normally be considered good by moral standards were even standing by the wayside, not doing anything about the terrible instances of racism and slavery that they encountered on a day to day basis. It was a world where few truly good people existed, as even those folks who might earn this distinction were guilty of not stopping the heinous acts that were such a major part of the society at large.

Though the book might seem simple and it might read like an adventure tale on the surface, it truly does evaluate some deeper, more important themes. Racism and slavery were rampant in Southern society, and the more important them is the constant evolution of Southern society to help counter the changes that were forced upon it. Twain uniquely and skillfully uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for this Southern life, even modifying the way in which the river represents Southern life as the story goes along.


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