The river - a winding ribbon leading ever on toward the wide expanse of water known as the ocean. What sets the river apart from the earth surrounding it? This is a dominant question present throughout the novel Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn is an explorative novel about the journey of Huck from childhood into manhood. Mark Twain has expressed this novel eloquently and excellently through the use of symbolism. But what is symbolism? Webster's dictionary calls it "the practice of representing things with a symbolic meaning or character." One essayist defines symbolism as "objects, characters, figures or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts." Let's delve into the inner workings of Huckleberry Finn and wade through the symbolism shared with us by Mr. Twain.
The use of the river as a symbol not only expresses the difference between river and land -- the river being the place of peace and harmony, and land being the space where all things bad originate from -- but the river also show the path which Huck must take to reach maturity.
In the book, Land is where everything bad happens. Everything even remotely connected to land emanates danger and hidden tricks that could be turned on Huck and Jim at any moment. Everything they come across involving land -- animals, people, boats -- all these things threaten the stability of Jim and Huck's pleasant life on the river. There is always the danger that they will be caught.
In contrast, the River is the space of peace and Harmony. On the river, Jim is safe from those who hunt runaway slaves. On the river, Huck has the time to ponder all that goes on around him; he has the time to learn from Jim and also play teacher. He can swim, eat, and play just as he pleases -- the river is freedom to Huck.
To me, Huck's ascent into manhood is foreshadowed by the phrase "It had all the signs of a Sunday school," (Twain pg 14). Tom Sawyer's gang was raiding a Sunday school, although Tom insisted it was something more. In this phrase, Huck seems to shed the immaturity and imaginary world of Tom Sawyer for the practical reality of his own voice and opinions.
The path of Huck's adventure begins with a glimpse the main character's inner profound practicality when he finds a way to get around his abusive, inebriated father through faking his own death. However, the faking of his death is what sets off the whole adventure. If Huck had not escaped, he never would have met Jim on Jackson's island. He wouldn't have gone through the moral dilemmas which gives the story much of its touching reality.
Huck and Jim's first problems arise on Jackson's island. What Huck considers to be an amusing joke almost kills poor Jim. Huck puts a dead snake in Jim's bed, but little did Huck remember that a dead snake's mate will always come after it. Jim was "laid up for four days and nights," before he's finally well again (Twain, pg 46) . Not too soon after that, Huck catches wind of people looking for Jim, and both of them start on their journey down the river, and into each others' hearts.
The river, as they quickly discover, is the key to freedom and happiness for both Jim and Huck. They begin feeling a kind of kinship as two mismatched partners, and begin realizing that they need each other to survive. Huck and Jim manage to stay their course by banding together. The further Huck and Jim go together down the river, the further Huck's maturity is strengthened. When asked who is on the raft, Huck masters his inner dilemma by replying "He's white," and showing us a sliver of his inner morality in the face of a racist world (Twain, 76).
The major dilemma, aforementioned in the previous paragraph, is of course the question of whether or not he should turn Jim in. If Huck turns in Jim, he loses his best friend and developing father figure, if he doesn't turn Jim in, he'll be forever damned to the pits of hell. With the phrase "All right, then, I'll go to hell," Huck throws his self-doubts out the window and assumes responsibility for the life of his friend.
As we move along down the river, Huck and Jim face one problem after another -- each of their problems stemming, of course, from the surrounding land. The first in a series of mishaps that occur as they float along down the river happens when Huck suggests that they board an abandoned boat wreck. Jim, being the more cautious of the two partners, is hesitant and warns against it, but ends of being dragged into it anyway. On the shipwreck, the two discover a band of thieves about to drown one of their own in the wreck. When Huck and Jim try to return to their raft, they find the raft had been loosed and was floating down the river from them. So, they steal the skiff that the robbers were using and get away in it. After relocating the raft, Jim and Huck become separated, and loose track of each other for a time. When they manage to find each other again, their raft gets ran over by a steamboat!
After the steamboat incident, Huck and Jim do manage to find each other again, but not without great cost -- they also managed to drag along two strangers. These two strangers are common con artists; vagabonds out to make a buck off anyone they can -- which is what Huck soon finds out. After struggling for some time with waiting on the King and the Duke (the two vagabonds), Huck comes up with a brilliant plan to escape the two scoundrels, but this plan backfires and the Duke ends up selling Jim using a flyer for a runaway slave that was originally designed to fool people into thinking they were holding Jim and taking him back to his owner.
All of these terrible things that happen in this amazing tale of one boy's ascent into manhood emanate from the land -- the people, the boats, the animals -- all of these come from the land. All of the good things -- the building of Huck and Jim's
relationship, the freedom of slavery for Jim, and the emotional growth for Huck -- all emanate from the time the two spend together on the river. These examples show the ways that the water represents serenity, freedom and unity in life, and the adverse of which -- the earth -- represents the repression of modern society and the intense moral lack of the men on land.
The circle of life: birth, change and death, are all represented in this story. Birth, being the birth of Huck's friendship with Jim. Change being the maturity Huck gains traveling down the river, and death: the death of Huck's father, and the passing of Huck from his old life of torture to his new life of endless possibilities.
In closing, the symbolism of Huckleberry Finn shows us the profound understanding that Twain had of the human spirit and the struggles through which many went through during his time, and that many may still be going through today.