The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is most commonly categorized as a bildungsroman, as it portrays the protagonist Huckleberry Finn’s psychological and moral development in the course of the storyline. The portion of the novel which most clearly represents such change in character can be found in chapter 36. Here, Huck is in a conflict whether to keep helping Jim, his friend who is a runaway slave, pursue his freedom or to send a notice to Miss Watson, Jim’s “rightful” owner, that her slave is with him. The point where Huck decides not to turn Jim over to Miss Watson is pivotal to the meaning of the work, as it is a great representation of the three significant themes in the novel-- loyalty, rejection of civilization, and satire.
Loyalty is highlighted throughout the novel. This can be seen in the instance where Huck helps the Wilks sisters due to their generosity-- “they all jest laid themselves out to make me feel at home and know I was amongst friends”-- by stealing back the money the duke and the king wrongfully acquired from them: “I felt so ornery and low down and mean, that I says to myself, My mind’s made up; I’ll hive that money for them or bust”. There is also loyalty between Tom and Huck, who have been friends for a long time. When Huck tells Tom about his plans to help free Jim in chapter 33, Tom enthusiastically agrees: “His eye lit up, and he says ‘I’ll help you steal him!’”. As much as loyalty is important in the novel, Huck seems to choose loyalty over many other things. In order to help Jim, he disregards the common moral and religious values along with risking his own reputation. According to those values, he used to believe white people always came before black people and that one would be a sinner to act against that: “people that acts as I’d been acting about that n***** goes to everlasting fire”. He also knew that if word got around about his helping Jim, his reputation would be destroyed as he says “if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame”. He is relieved for a moment right after writing a note to Miss Watson, but the memories of the cordial relationship with Jim and the feeling of guilt soon take over. He destroys the note, determined to keep helping Jim run away. This action indicates that Huck values friendship rather than what society has taught him. Also, this not only establishes the theme of loyalty, but shows that Huck ultimately resorts to choosing his own path in life.
Huck’s rejection of conformity has been found in many parts of the novel, especially in the form of ‘allergic’ reactions to civilization. The novel begins and ends with Huck’s resistance to civilization. In chapter 1, Huck says “The Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me... when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out”. In the last chapter, he repeats the same idea: “Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before”. Because these statements are placed at the start and the end, they imply society’s attempts to “frame” and to conform Huck. However, Huck’s choice to help Jim get his freedom symbolizes his withdrawal from the frame. Consequently, not only does he reject the prevalent societal values, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph, but he also stands up for the character “Jim”, who is in himself a symbol of the uncivilized-- in other words, untainted by society. First of all, Jim’s manner of speech is unrefined, as seen in all of his spoken words. More importantly, Jim is a very simple-minded person, who easily trusts other people and therefore makes himself more trustworthy. An instance of Jim’s simplicity can be seen in chapter 20: “I found Jim had been trying to get him to talk French, so he could hear what it was like; but he had been in this country so long, and had so much trouble, he’d forgot it”. From this, it can be inferred that Jim really had believed that the king and the duke are really who they say they are. Huck has the same position regarding society as Jim’s in the aspect that they are both uncivilized. Thus, Huck, by ultimately taking Jim’s side, implicitly demonstrates that simplicity and primitiveness are much better than the corrupted society.
A satirical tone regarding society is used throughout the course of the novel, especially in the form of words with double meanings. For example, Huck, when he decides to help the Wilks sisters by retrieving their money, says “I got to steal that money”. The word “steal” here conveys a positive meaning, because even if Huck is unaware of it himself, Huck’s action is for a good purpose. This contextual irony is also apparent in chapter 36, right after Huck concludes that he must make it possible for Jim to achieve his freedom. Huck says “I would take up wickedness again” and “I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again”. The employment of words such as “wickedness” and “steal” to describe Huck’s actions has the same effect as the previous example. Furthermore, Huck, before ripping the note apart, says “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”. In reality, Huck is acting for justice by protesting against the evils of slavery, an unjust policy. If the unrighteous society that allows slavery is heaven, then the “hell” that Huck refers to must symbolize the humaneness that is rarely implemented by the people of that time period. In other words, on the outside, the evils of the society are packaged to seem good while the just actions are treated as crimes.
In conclusion, the moment when Huck decides to keep helping Jim escape from slavery shapes the meaning of the work as a whole because it embodies the three important concepts of loyalty, rejection of civilization, and satire. The novel’s significance as a bildungsroman is increased as Huckleberry Finn learns to choose the paths that he himself considers correct, as the standard of laws and values given by society is not always ethical.