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The Mississippi River
For Huck and Jim, the Mississippi River is the ultimate symbol of freedom. Alone on their raft, they do not have to answer to anyone. The river carries them toward freedom: for Jim, toward the free states; for Huck, away from his abusive father and the restrictive “sivilizing” of St. Petersburg. Much like the river itself, Huck and Jim are in flux, willing to change their attitudes about each other with little prompting. Despite their freedom, however, they soon find that they are not completely free from the evils and influences of the towns on the river’s banks. Even early on, the real world intrudes on the paradise of the raft: the river floods, bringing Huck and Jim into contact with criminals, wrecks, and stolen goods. Then, a thick fog causes them to miss the mouth of the Ohio River, which was to be their route to freedom.
As the novel progresses, then, the river becomes something other than the inherently benevolent place Huck originally thought it was. As Huck and Jim move further south, the duke and the dauphin invade the raft, and Huck and Jim must spend more time ashore. Though the river continues to offer a refuge from trouble, it often merely effects the exchange of one bad situation for another. Each escape exists in the larger context of a continual drift southward, toward the Deep South and entrenched slavery. In this transition from idyllic retreat to source of peril, the river mirrors the complicated state of the South. As Huck and Jim’s journey progresses, the river, which once seemed a paradise and a source of freedom, becomes merely a short-term means of escape that nonetheless pushes Huck and Jim ever further toward danger and destruction.
At the end of the novel, Tom seems to be beyond reform, Huck opts out of society in his desire to go to Oklahoma, and the other adults are left in compromised positions. Jim is the only character who comes out of the mess looking like a respectable adult. By helping the doctor treat Tom and shielding Huck from seeing his father’s corpse, Jim yet again affirms that he is a decent human being. The Phelpses, although they immediately try to make amends for their previous treatment of Jim, still own slaves. Miss Watson, although she has done the right thing by freeing Jim, sullies her good intentions by making the action a provision of her will, something to be carried out in the future—at her death—rather than immediately. Aunt Sally smothers, Aunt Polly scolds, and everyone bumbles along. In the end, it is no wonder Huck wants to avoid further “sivilizing.”
Possibly the most troubling aspect of the novel’s close is the realization that all has been for naught. Jim has, technically, been a free man almost the entire time. All of Huck’s moral crises, all the lies he has told, all the societal conventions he has broken, have been part of a great game. In a way, the knowledge of Jim’s emancipation erases the novel that has come before it. Ultimately, we are left questioning the meaning of what we have read: perhaps Twain means the novel as a reminder that life is ultimately a matter of imperfect information and ambiguous situations, and that the best one can do is to follow one’s head and heart. Perhaps Twain, finishing this novel twenty years after the Civil War concluded and slaves were freed, means also to say that black Americans may be free in a technical sense, but that they remain chained by a society that refuses to acknowledge their rightful and equal standing as individuals. In a sense, perhaps Tom’s mistreatment of Jim is actually a boon, for it leads the other characters in the novel to acknowledge Jim as a worthy human being. In the end, Huckleberry Finn moves beyond questions of slavery, to broader questions of morality and race. Unfortunately, these questions seldom have straightforward answers, and thus the ending of the novel contains as many new problems as solutions.