Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
The major theme in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the theme of “initiation.” In an initiation narrative, the protagonist goes through a rite of passage, a growing up process which is multifaceted. In a moment of crisis, the protagonist is suddenly obliged to make the painful transition from childhood to adulthood; this passage is known as the initiation. It is essentially a process by which the hero gains self-knowledge and finds his own identity. In the process, he also learns about the world in which he lives and the nature of evil.
The entire novel is structured around the theme of initiation. Huck’s floating down the river on a raft with the runaway slave Jim is a “rite of passage.” It is during this journey that the great moral crisis in Huck’s life occurs; he must choose between his social conscience and individual conscience. He has to make the painful decision as to whether he is going to give Jim up to the slave hunters (as society would have him do) or help him to remain a free man (as his own conscience would have him do). He refuses to give Jim up.
Twain depicts the horror of slavery and racism through the character Jim. He is going to be sold away from his family by Miss Watson, so he runs away. Huck travels with him down the Mississippi, but even Huck at first treats him like a piece of property, and Jim, because Huck is white, must do what this twelve year old boy wants. Even though he is a slave, Jim shows Huck that he is a real human being, who has true feelings and who deeply cares for his family. Huck begins to understand Jim and accept his humanity. As a result, he is willing to fight for his friend.
Unfortunately, society is not so kind. The Duke and Dauphin advertise that Jim is a runaway slave with a reward; therefore, many people want to capture and return him for cash. In the end, the Duke and Dauphin sell Jim as a piece of property to the Phelps. Even after Jim gives up his freedom to save the life of Tom Sawyer, he is still treated poorly; he is put in chains, and an armed guard stands watch over him. Twain obviously feels that slavery is the ultimate example of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.
The major mood of the novel is adventurous; but it is interspersed with Huck’s fear for the safety of Jim and himself and disgust at the behavior of adults like the Duke and the Dauphin. The novel has a more serious tone than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, for it deals with social issues like racial prejudice and slavery.