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Huckleberry Finn: Journey Without End

ISSUE:  Spring 1982

We have tended to see Huckleberry Finn as a sort of quest narrative in which the prize is freedom. Huck and Jim are jointly engaged, we say, in the effort to achieve personal liberty, liberty from the bonds of slavery for Jim, from the bonds of prejudice and social conformity for Huck. Huck’s is an internalized quest as well as a physical fugue, it would seem; we are witness, presumably, to his growth from childishness and reliance upon received concepts to a more adult independence of being. The trouble with this reading is that it is repudiated by Twain’s ending which reveals Jim to be a free man—but not in the least because of the quest for freedom he and Huck have made; as for Huck’s self-liberation of spirit, this is quite forgotten as he surrenders all his painfully acquired maturity and relapses into the condition in which he was discovered at the start of the book as the playmate of Tom Sawyer. A generation of critics has strenuously argued that there is no repudiation—for does not Huck vow to “light out for the Territory” in pursuit still of the liberty he has learned to love? Unfortunately, as Henry Nash Smith reminded us, what Huck means there may be only that he will participate with Tom in the plan to “go for howling adventures amongst the Injuns, in the Territory, for a couple of weeks or two.” There would seem to be no choice but to conclude that Twain has dropped the quest-for-freedom idea—and perhaps, as Leo Marx claimed, willfully botched his masterpiece.

It seems possible, however, that Twain’s narrative is not molded so intentionally and does not betray itself in its conclusion. Huck himself is without conscious sense of goal most of the time, and, after Cairo has been passed, freedom for Jim becomes a forgotten enterprise. Perhaps the major figure, that of a raft borne downstream not by the conscious will of the men on board but by impersonal natural forces, suggests Huck’s passivity in ordering his experiences, giving significance to the adventures which come to him by the flow of time. No work may be more existential, perhaps, than this one, which seems to exhibit its hero as submitting to a process by which the self, far from seeking and attaining new forms, is subjected to a perilous sequence of breakdowns. The reiterated motif of death, often noticed, suggests how close, repeatedly, Huck comes to loss of the self, how negative a condition is the freedom he experiences. That a positive new self might be gained in the place of what is lost is hardly envisaged by Twain.

It is helpful to see Huckleberry Finn as autobiographical. We can suspect that it incorporated a change in Twain from an earlier, romantic view of American possibility to the vision of his times to which he gave the name The Gilded Age. Between the composition of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, and this later work, which he began in the same year, stopped after 15 chapters, started again and stopped again before finishing it seven years later, something happened. He revisited the scenes of his childhood in 1883 and, as Smith and others have pointed out, saw Hannibal more sardonically. But crucial in his second picture of his childhood Eden—the safe little town where the middle-class rapscallion, Tom, had flourished securely—was his choice of a new point of view, that of the true social outcast, Huck. We have not pondered sufficiently, I think, why, for Twain, that choice meant such a liberation of style as he had never achieved before, the attainment of a voice not only perfectly suited to its fictional function but deeply expressive of his own deepest resources of insight. The first-person utterances of an ignorant, superstitious boy became, in a mysterious way, the sophisticated writer’s profoundest language.

First-person narrative, tending as it must to an impressionism that makes a story out of the changing states of a particular consciousness, invites a psychological emphasis, and Huckleberry Finn is far more the history of a consciousness receiving experience and altering as a consequence than it is objective social realism. It is a novel of the inward self and that self, as so frequently is the case in the firstperson novel, was a projection of the writer’s own. This is true despite the fact that Huck is not the child Sam Clemens—Tom Sawyer is that. But Twain had not been able to write in the first person about Tom Sawyer, though he tried. It was not that he had lost connection with young Sam, who had been Tom—he was exactly what that earlier self could have been expected to turn out to be—successful, respectable, and gifted with a lively imagination that could produce story-book adventures. Even as he started Huckleberry Finn,he was at work on The Prince and the Pauper, which he tended to regard as the more serious of the two projects.

But there was, we must suppose, a self that felt itself to have lived more hazardously, a self that experienced the extremity of marginality and found a way of speaking out through this character whose existential risk is of the highest. Huck’s risk is like that of Melville’s Ishmael, but he is more permanently an Ishmael, whose return to human society is not reconciliation but submission. Van Wyck Brooks’s early thesis of Twain’s “ordeal” has this truth in it—somewhere on a level of unconscious feeling the writer was divided between acceptance and rejection of the world to which he belonged. But this division did not pervert his art; perhaps, in Huckleberry Finn it even provided its best opportunity, a chance to explore the cost of alienation, the only form freedom could conceivably take in Twain’s pessimistic view.

It is right after Huck has climaxed his development toward a “free” morality by the decision to go to hell rather than send Miss Watson the note informing her that her escaped slave is at the Phelps farm that he undergoes his last death and rebirth. It is a reversal of that first faked death in Pap’s cabin and the rebirth by which he became Jim’s companion on the river. From the start of their alliance Huck has died to the world of conventional ethics by assisting the stolen property to elude its owner. Now, appearing at Phelps’ sawmill, he resorts to one of his make-believe identities again in his story to the duke, and discovering Jim’s whereabouts, sets out for the Phelps’. Chapter XXXII finds him once again in one of those states of dream-death which mark his separation from the identity assigned him by society—full of a melancholy longing for passage into the land of the dead, the full surrendering of that identity for ghostly merger with the spiritual-natural world:

When I got there it was all still and Sunday-like, and hot and sunshiny—the hands was gone to the fields; and there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody’s dead and gone: and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves, it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it’s spirits whispering—spirits that’s been dead ever so many years— and you always think they’re talking about you. As a general thing it makes a body wish he was dead, too, and done with it all.

Immediately, he arrives at the Phelps farm and is greeted as Tom Sawyer by Aunt Sally. Still not quite knowing who he is supposed to be, he tells yet another of his made-up, falseidentity tales, the particulars of which he puts together by guess work and inspiration, while he remarks truly of his own character, with its reliance upon the uninstructed parts of his nature, “I go a good deal on instinct; and my instinct said she would be coming up from down towards Orleans.” In this tale, he incorporates still another death, that of a black man, as though he has now died in that part which achieved the ability to identify with Jim. As though he surrenders his acquisition of the sense of brotherhood which (on instinct rather than conscious knowledge, of course) just persuaded him not to betray his friend, he answers her question, “Anybody hurt?” with the famous, “No’m. Killed a nigger.” He can say this, we know, because his conscious ideology is still that of the white boy who accepts the mores of his native region without question. Instinct and impulse, which have brought him so far, are not enough to supply a new social personality, after all. And it is symbolically appropriate that it is Tom that he is taken to be, now. When he realizes this, he is ready to relapse, with relief, into that role which is so much the easier one, to give up the terrible burden, morally speaking, the awful isolation from the rest of his world, of being Huckleberry Finn. In this light we can respond to his remark. “Well, it was like being born again, I was so glad to find out who I was.”

Literally, of course, he is merely expressing relief at discovering who he has been taken for, which is, to discover that he has an identity, however false, which he can perfectly enact, since it belongs to his familiar old friend. But the relief is more meaningful than this. He is reborn again into Tom Sawyer’s world, into the sense of adventures uninvolved with those taxing dilemmas, those crises of being, which his Huckleberry Finn adventures have involved. “Being Tom Sawyer was easy and comfortable.” Being Huckleberry Finn has been difficult precisely because it has involved, all along the journey, such nearly fatal losses of identity as represented by the passage quoted above from Chapter XXXII.

In an immediate sense, the Phelps Farm episode—despite the final promise to “light out”—effects what James M. Cox called Huck’s “sad initiation” into his society. Perhaps it is as reactionary and as inferior artistically to the rest as Leo Marx charged it with being. But it should be recognized that the conformist self, represented by Tom Sawyer, is internally present in Huck, though Tom is absent between the opening and the closing of the book. From the Tom side of himself Huck partly, painfully breaks free, but such rejections are never complete. The Tom side remains, takes over again. The conflict is resolved in a way that is not false to experience, for what Huck has nearly rejected is not merely cruelty and greed; along with St. Petersburg respectability, he has rejected all social roles.


Dying to older selves we run the risk of failing to find new modes of being in the world of living men. We have surrendered, without replacing, those memberships of caste and class and race, those attitudes by which one is defined in the interlocking design of social relationships. The simpler harmony of the child with his world is available only in memory and reached for by Twain as nostalgically as Proust would reach for the lost paradise of Iliers. The idealized white town of Tom Sawyer has become a ramshackle Bricksville, where the finest gentleman shoots down the town drunk in cold blood. But things have not really changed so much as they have always been this way, Twain realized, having known of such a murder in Hannibal. To reject this blackened world altogether is to face the outer dark of the loss of all community and of the self that can only subsist in community. To think otherwise, Twain may have believed, is to imagine that Utopia, the condition of the raft afloat upon its mystic river, can continue ashore.

Of course, there is no question that Huck does begin his journey in conscious flight. He must escape first from his father, the horridly evil old drunkard whose fish-belly white face suggests some incarnate malice, like Ahab’s whale, that is the opposite of the black face, which will turn upon him with true love. He is also in flight from the widow, representative of society’s idea of virtue. During the two months of his capture by Pap in the wood across the river, he even finds it possible to prefer such a father to such a mother as he lolls, “lazy and jolly,” between Pap’s visitations of drunken rage. But he eventually realizes that he must flee both. The widow and Pap belong on the same side of the divide from Huck, though extremes of the respectable and the disreputable. For all Pap’s appearance of being a pariah, the town drunk has a place in St. Petersburg’s moral scheme. He is what the town is, too, satanic, self-indulgent, covetous; at the same time he can be as righteous as the best about the duty owing a father, and he can enact the town’s notion of repentence no more hypocritically, perhaps, than virtue acknowledges its innate sinfulness generally. From Pap’s rival, the Widow, Huck had already “lit out,” he relates on the opening page of his book, using the same phrase that he will use at the end when Aunt Sally is about to become the Widow and to “adopt and sivilize” him, starting the whole process over again.

Tom is, of course, also part of the Widow’s and Pap’s world, and it must be remembered that it is he who persuades Huck in the beginning to go back to her by promising adventures in the form of make-believe robberies to be perpetrated by his band of village boys. If Huck will go back to the widow, he may have the right to engage in harmless fantasy lawbreaking in the place of that real defection from society which tempts him. Tom’s naughtiness is co-opted rebellion, unthreatening to the social structure, and, in the end, Huck can hardly bring himself to believe that Tom would lower himself to his own status as a “nigger-stealer.” His incredulity is justified; Tom is nothing of the sort, he has only played at nigger-stealing, knowing that Jim is already free. His early bargain with Huck may be repeated if “lighting out for the Territory ahead of the rest” means the start of a new boys’ adventure, a purposeless escapade.

The bargain can be seen as the sealing of an identity composed of those ingredients which are externalized in the widow, Pap, and Tom—the social world of Hannibal. Yet we find Huck engaged at the end of the first chapter in one of those peculiar reveries of which I have already given a later example, reveries which reflect not so much the longing for freedom as a sense of the loss of identity altogether. He has listened to the religious lectures of Miss Watson about the “good place,” which does not much inspire him to desire it, especially after he hears that Tom is unlikely to go there. He is ready to accept hell, as he shall be in Chapter XXXI when he willingly damns himself for another friend not for company’s sake (“I wanted him and me to be together,” he says of Tom) but to save him from slavery—”All right, then I’ll go to Hell!” Now he sits by the window, and listens to an owl— “who-whoing about somebody that was dead, and a whip-poorwill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods, I heard that kind of sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave and has to go about that way every night grieving.” He flicks a spider off his shoulder and it falls into the candle flame and dies—a sign of bad luck. He then tries to perform several little good-luck rites to counteract the bad luck bound to come for having killed it, but “I hadn’t no confidence.” This mood, in which Huck seems outside of the world of living men, lost to himself as a member of humankind and linked only to those vague, anonymous ghosts who grieve without being understood, places him, as we will find him again, in an outer space where personality dissolves.

After this, Huck sinks, passively, into the Gang’s Tom Sawyer foolery; he thinks his own untutored common sense inferior to the literary imagination which makes no distinction between life and Dumas or Scott. He is willing to enact any arbitrary imagined self, though his sense of the ridiculous and the tedious obtrudes. He has forgotten, nearly, about Pap, the underside of the social identity contrived for him by the Widow and Tom. When a body believed to be his father’s is found in the river, it is faceless, identity-less, as he himself feels, and dressed as a man. He suspects the body to be a woman, sex-disguise or confusion suggesting the kind of identity confusion he himself will experiment with when he adopts the first of his disguises on the river voyage.

Everything that has been said about the importance of the river in the book is true—one may well think of it as a mystic force. The life of the raft is a fragile and temporary ideal state sustained by the river which bears it onward past one threatening social entrapment after another. When we have sailed past Cairo and still continue, it is clear that the end of the river journey is not any landing but the sea—or the wilderness, the “Territory”—in which the self yields itself to annihilation. Much is made of Huck’s bliss on the raft (“It’s lovely to live on a raft,” he says), where the coercions of society are replaced by an ideal harmony with nature. This is, as for Wordsworth, a relationship of solitary man with the nonhuman. Huck does have Jim, but theirs is a solitude a deux; the very fact of their union makes their seclusion absolute. It is lonelier than Wordsworth’s solitude because the ghostly presences in nature have no divine significance for Huck or Jim. The spirit voices to which they are attuned— with the aid of primitive superstition—invite the living to join the dead in a merger which does not continue selfhood into some other existence. In moods that are transcendental only in a curiously qualified way, Huck seems to feel, shudderingly, the death-loveliness, dark and deep, which beckons from the void.

One of the most striking aspects of the river life is the sense of separation it establishes from the shore which becomes less real than Jim and Huck in their isolation as they are cut off from the rest of mankind by night or fog or distance. Even at the moment of Huck’s escape from Pap’s prison-cabin, alone in his canoe, Huck seems to be listening to human sounds from a remoteness of difference as though he is already merged with nature. He says, “The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before. And how far a body can hear on the water such nights!”—and he overhears, incompletely understands, some joking among men on a landing, hears an order spoken by someone on a lumber raft that shoots by in the dark, as though he is an invisible spirit. And he has, really, just become one, died to the rest of mankind by the fake murder, and will wake the next morning to hear the firing of the cannon which is meant to bring his body to the surface of the water. The faked death is a kind of suicide; the self which he formerly owned as a social being is at the bottom of the river. He is like nothing so much as a ghost as he lies behind a log while the ferry bearing everyone he has ever known (including Pap and the Widow and probably Tom) grazes “so close that they could a run out a plank and walked ashore” to where he is hidden. He is so out of the human world that when he comes upon Jim’s campfire he is as startled as Crusoe seeing the footprint. Quite properly, Jim takes him for a ghost.

With Jim, of course, he recovers human relationship; Jim is father, mother, child to him, after a while. But at the same time it is a relationship which must cost him what is left of his former self as a conscience-governed social man. To Jim he is related at the price of losing human society in general. The river, in flood, rises higher between its spreading banks, and if he comes close to a house it is only a floating upside-down one, a dead thing itself, which contains a dead man (whom he does not know is Pap). From the dead house of civilization Huck and Jim scavenge bits and pieces—beeswax and buttons, a dog-collar and a wooden leg—for none of which they have any particular use.

They are still not launched upon the raft, and Huck plays a mean, Tom Sawyerish trick with the snakeskin, which is just like the trick the two boys had played on Jim in Chapter II when they hung his hat upon a tree—only this time it is admonishingly dangerous in its consequences. Huck’s repentence is the mark of his further relinquishment of his Tom Sawyer self and prepares him to declare his identification with this new friend whose flight he now calls his own when he shouts, “Git up and hump yourself. . .they’re after us.” If he visits the shore, it must be in disguise—or by the temporary adoption of some alternate persona, the first, Sarah Mary Williams, adopted as though a sex-change might make him ineligible to be the white male who should turn Jim in, and this promptly replaced, in the same scene in Chapter XI, by that of a bound-man, identified by his bondage with the slave himself.

As ghostly witness to the rest of humanity, the pair come aboard the floating wreck, and Jim sees and hears, unseen and unheard, the argument among the gang of murderers. This dangerous foray into the society of men almost costs them their raft, and they steal off in the gang’s own boat, Huck chastened by the reality which has replaced Tom Sawyer’s idea of “adventure” and pitying even the doomed murderers, attaching his shifting sense of identity even to them (“There ain’t no telling but I might come to be a murderer myself). After sleep “like dead people,” they wake to review the experience, and Jim, reminding Huck of the risk they had run, says he doesn’t “want no more adventures.”

Yet Huck is not quite finished with Tom Sawyerism and plays one more joke on Jim in Chapter XV, and for his callous willingness to divert himself at his expense is exposed to Jim’s ability to see the symbolic significance of things—a power far beyond his dream-reading, which Huck had mocked. “Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat put dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes’ em ashamed.” Jim has supposed that Huck was dead—and in a way he has been right. Huck, in the fog “hadn’t no more idea which way he was going than a dead man.”

The following chapter, XVI, we know, contained, in its first writing, a remarkable passage which Twain excised and put into Life on the Mississippi but which is really an integral part of Huckleberry Finn. In Life on the Mississippi this “raft passage” is another tall tale “illustrating keelboat talk and manners,” but in the novel it is an episode full of relevant symbolism. Huck, still the ghostly witness to humanity’s ways, now sneaks aboard a passing raft to listen to the singing and storytelling of the rough lumbermen. He listens to the wild talk of the “corpse maker” who says he is called “Sudden Death and General Desolation” and the rival tirade of Child of Calamity, and to the general conversation full of reference to corpses and ghosts, and finally to the story of Dick Allbright and the ghost-barrel which contained his murdered child. Suddenly discovered and asked his name, Huck blurts out “Charles William Allbright” as though not only recalling his near-death at his own father’s hands but experiencing that loss of personal identity which is a death also.

Resurrected, like the naked child, he is stripped of the last rag of social selfhood that once clothed him as he comes to the point of deciding that he must put aside “conscience.” He “does what comes handiest,” and when the moment to betray Jim arrives, he tells another make-believe tale about a small-pox-afflicted family to scare off the slave-hunters. In this act of life which at the same time is a near suicide, death and disease is not in himself but in the family of man who orphaned him.

After this moment, he is literally as well as symbolically wrecked, run over by a river-boat, and though miraculously still alive, he loses both the raft and Jim. It is at this point, as scholars have long known, that Twain stopped writing and laid aside his manuscript. To resurrect Huck after this last self-destruction, when naked impulse has triumphed over his deep-planted inner direction, must have seemed an impossibility. Three years passed and he picked up the novel with the Grangerford-Shepherdson story. With these chapters XVII and XVIII, the raft narrative is suspended and Jim is absent—we are on land, in human society once more. It is a parodistic society, high burlesque of the house beautiful, the life polite and fine among “good” people who are possessed, as good people can be, by the fiendish compulsion to destroy one another. Huck is adopted once again, by the Grangerfords, and, in further mimicry of Huck’s experience at home, has as a friend another boy. Buck Grangerford has the same infatuation as Tom with fictions—here the fiction of feudal vendetta—only enacted in fact and resulting in real bloodshed. The death of Buck, whose name is his own real one except for a letter (while he poses as George) is the death of the self he has almost found again in the human family. Grieving, he wishes again for disconnection. “I wished I hadn’t ever come ashore that night to see such things,” he says.

Jim and the raft are waiting for him. “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery. . . .” Stripped of social relationship they are literally naked—”The new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable,” Huck says, stating again the paradox of constricting conventional goodness. And XIX opens with the wonderful descriptive passage that begins, “It was a monstrous big river down there. . . .” They are enclosed in perfect solitude, “Not a sound, anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep.” Again, humanity is very far off, as though one had died to it. “You could see little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far . . .you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank t’other side of the river, being a wood-yard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars, and such, and they do get pretty rank.” It is as though a ghost leaned longingly towards the living. They pass on, unseen. Now and then they see a steamboat, but “so far off towards the other side you couldn’t tell nothing about her only whether she was stern-wheel or side-wheel” or a raft with “maybe a galoot in it chopping, because they’re almost always doing it on a raft; you’d see the ax flash, and come down—you don’t hear nothing; you see that ax go up again, and by the time it’s above the man’s head, then you hear the k’chunk!— it had took all that time to come over the water.” And sometimes fog adds further to the sense of separation and distance. “A scow or a raft went by so close we could hear them talking and cussing and laughing—heard them plain; but we couldn’t see no sign of them; it made you feel crawly, it was spirits carrying on that way in the air.” But spirits wouldn’t, Huck reminds Jim, say “dern the dern fog.” It is, of course, they who are spirits, having lost their social if not their physical selves.

But exactly at this point the duke and the dauphin invade the raft and alter its Utopian harmony of perfect sharing and loving trust between the white waif and the runaway slave. The two phonies immediately reintroduce the hierarchies of civilization and make the other pair fetch and carry for them. Huck accepts this new arrangement—if the duke and the dauphin want to be treated like superior beings, he is willing to humor them. But the price of this compromise will be complicity in their outrages against others. Huck will have to cast them off when they reach beyond their first rascalities and abuse the innocent Wilks girls and then sell out Jim. Even then he will pity them, as he once pitied the murderers on the sinking Walter Scott. They themselves are forced to shed all their own preposterous selfhoods and are almost unrecognizable as men as they are carried off tarred and feathered.

We are, in these later chapters, very much involved with the land, only intermittently escaping to the raft, as though the society which Huck has fled reaches out more and more insistently to recall him to its verminous breast. There is the episode at Bricksville, when Colonel Sherburn, as fine a man as Col. Grangerford—or Judge Thatcher, for that matter— destroys, for his dignity’s sake, the rowdy drunk who has abused him, and then shows up the faltering lynch mob that goes after him. After the duke and the dauphin commit their last perfidy against Jim, Huck completes his divestment of “conscience.” Though he knows he should send the letter to Miss Watson, he tears it up. We may take too humorously Huck’s resolution, failing perhaps to see that this is a loss of the main prop of moral character as Huck understands it, as well as an act of instinctive morality.

And so, when he arrives at the Phelps Farm in chapter XXXII, he is once again in one of those moods of melancholy transcendence already experienced by him, and he even wishes himself dead in the passage quoted at the start of this essay. And he is ready for his last relapse, nearly without protest, into the character of Tom Sawyer’s comrade, accepting Tom’s name and serving Tom’s imagination. Perhaps the last ten chapters, so often considered a letdown if not a betrayal of what has gone before, have this function: the act of fabricating the self seems finally, Twain seems to be saying, only an aspect of storytelling, an act of the mind analogous to the writing of fiction. The idea of goal, the telic tendency of plot, is rejected in favor of the idea that play is the essence of art; by implication, life, as illustrated by Huck’s adventures, cannot be said to have goal either. “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”


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