Mark Twain centers The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn around the personal development of the central character through a series of exploits and interactions. Raised with a traditional southern mindset, Huck’s surroundings inform his conscience. Jim serves as Huck’s principal companion through his journey, fostering Huck’s growth, while presenting him with an ongoing moral dilemma. Huck faces a continuous internal struggle between notions of righteousness imposed by society and the guidance of his own moral compass. Jim effectively pulls Huck towards the latter, steadily shifting Huck’s view of African Americans by discrediting conventional prejudices. Huck’s time on the raft with Jim proves beneficial to his growth, as Jim is able to steer him in the absence of external influences. Yet, recurrent exposure to southern society consistently thwarts Huck’s progress. Throughout the novel, periodic interactions with others repeatedly impede or limit Huck Finn’s personal ascent to a more enlightened individual.
In his first extended interaction with others, Huck’s ability to blend seamlessly with the Grangerfords correlates with the diminished significance he confers to Jim during that period. Having recently “humbled” himself to Jim, Huck appears primed for a significant moral breakthrough when circumstances physically separate the two (73). Upon meeting the Grangerfords, an instant infatuation overcomes Huck. He exalts the “mighty nice” family’s hospitality, and claims he “hadn’t seen no house out in the country before that was so nice and had so much style” (84). Huck’s effusive portrayal of Colonel Grangerford’s impeccable manner and physical stature overshadows his cursory comment on their vast slave population. The passivity with which Huck observes that Colonel Grangerford owns “over a hundred slaves” reveals his reemerging numbness towards slavery (90). The same dismissive attitude manifests itself in Huck’s reunion with Jim. As Huck increasingly immerses himself in the Grangerford family, he fails even to acknowledge Jim’s absence. Having tirelessly tracked Huck, “swum behind” him, and awaited in the woods for an opportunity to approach, Jim “nearly crie[s]” when they meet (94). Huck, on the other hand, appears only dumbfounded, seemingly having forgotten Jim’s existence. Referring to him as “my old Jim” in the same manner he addresses the Grangerford’s slave (“my Jack”), Huck reveals a neglect for Jim’s individuality, implying that he views them interchangeably (94). Moreover, Huck demonstrates little outward concern for Jim’s well-being, focusing instead on the logistics of his journey. By repeatedly inquiring, “where did you get a hold of that raft again?” Huck confirms that his principal curiosity centers on the materials enabling their escape (90). Ultimately his friend Buck’s death and the immediate threat to his own safety prompt Huck to return to Jim.
Shortly after a return to the raft, the mere presence of the duke and dauphin confines Jim and Huck’s rhetorical situation, limiting their ability to be open with one another, and presenting an incessant barrier to Huck’s growth. Huck instantly recognizes both men as frauds, yet decides that there is “no use to tell Jim” (106). His silence immediately engenders a degree of distance between the two. Forced to conjure an elaborate backstory to explain their current circumstances, Huck casts Jim as his “n*****,” placing Jim in a servile position, and undermining the evolving balance in their relationship that enabled Jim to influence Huck (106). That the con men’s antics frequently require physically constraining Jim, often in “handcuffs and chains,” further disables Jim’s sway over Huck (113). With Jim constricted in virtually all spheres, Huck’s development suffers. In the absence of Jim’s navigation, Huck stands left to bear witness to the duke and dauphin’s unscrupulous endeavors. The swindlers’ presence poses an indirect, yet prolonged hindrance to Huck’s progress.
Shortly after a sign of perhaps Huck’s greatest ethical leap, his stay with the Phelps and interactions with Aunt Sally bring his persistent prejudicial instincts to the fore. Huck’s moral awakening comes as he ponders “reforming” and alerting Jim’s master of his whereabouts, but presently declares his readiness to endure “hell” in order to save Jim (179). Yet, upon arrival at the Phelps home, Huck effortlessly embraces the role of Tom Sawyer, depicting it as “easy and comfortable” to acclimate to traditional southern life (187). When asked if any injuries resulted from the fabricated steamboat explosion, Huck mirrors Aunt Sally’s scathing racism in his reply: “No’m, Killed a n*****” (185). The rash response instantly dismisses the humanity of an entire race and belies in a flash any appeared progress in Huck’s mentality. His speed and facility in stooping to Sally’s level, in spite of his close companionship with Jim, exposes the lingering imprint of the South on his mindset. The Phelps’ outwardly decent and nurturing manner cloud Huck’s perspective. Huck commends their being as “kind as can be” even as they capture Jim and vow to return him to slavery (207). Huck eventually comes to view the Phelps in a different light and, by the end, his resistance to being “sivilize[d]” by them reveals his recognition of their impeding influence on his ability to grow freely (244).
Tom Sawyer’s ensuing reemergence delivers a decisive blow to Huck’s advancement, aggrandizing the boys’ sense of adventure at the expense of Jim’s humanity. Huck swiftly reverts to his fascination with Tom’s ways, asserting, “If I had Tom Sawyer’s head, I wouldn’t trade it off to be a duke nor mate of a steamboat…nor nothing” (194). Huck thus reveals his blind admiration for Tom, but in giving deference to Tom’s ploys, reduces Jim to solely the object of the mission underlying the boys’ adventure. That Huck remains “satisfied” with Tom’s elaborate escape plan, even while recognizing it as likely to jeopardize Jim’s freedom, suggests that Huck prioritizes Tom’s schemes over Jim’s freedom (195). Abandoning reason as well as his once impassioned desire to act in Jim’s best interest, Huck fails to challenge Tom’s absurd plan to bake a rope ladder into “witch pie” for Jim (209). With Tom’s ascendancy, Huck’s treatment of Jim speaks to a deeper regression in his mindset. In leveling with Tom, Huck likens freeing Jim to stealing a “watermelon, or a Sunday-school book,” reducing Jim to a mere prop in their proposed feat (206). Hence, despite remaining enamored in the plot to liberate him, Huck demonstrates little value for Jim’s life. Huck and Tom often go off on their own while “leaving Jim at work,” powerless in the shed (217). Perhaps most revealing, Huck fails to interject as Tom suggests to Jim that he live with “rats” and “rattlesnakes,” permitting Jim to be equated with vermin (219). Thus Tom spurs a significant regression in Huck, who idly stands by as Jim returns to his original level of reclusive submission.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn conveys a sharp message on the ability to abandon prejudicial inclinations engrained by society. The novel presents two seemingly conflicting themes. Huck’s development demonstrates the capacity of individuals to transcend their cultural biases. His reversion, however, suggests the impossibility of achieving enduring enlightenment in an environment dominated by racism. Huck’s moments of personal growth under Jim’s influence provide hope, only to be ultimately dashed against the overbearing sway of the prevailing societal mindset.