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The Motif of Journey in American Literature: The Road, to Kill a Mockingbird, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Journey theme in literature
  3. Conclusion
  4. Works Cited


“Life is a journey, not a destination.” This quote by nineteenth-century American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, describes how life’s lessons, special moments, and hardships will help one achieve their life purpose, the final destination. This message regarding the journey of one achieving their final destination is one of the underlying themes used in literature. The journey motif is one of the most widely used elements in American literature. The journey is a powerful symbol often used to represent a character’s adventure leading to an epiphany, or some sort of self-realization. This literary device can be applied in the background, working invisibly alongside the plot, or it can comprise the entirety of the plot itself so that all of the character’s experiences are centered on the journey. There are a number of American works and writers spanning centuries that have applied this device to their characters. Three literary works, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, use the journey motif to illustrate the mental and physical challenges and tribulations that the characters must experience. However, although all of these novels utilize a journey, the type of journey used is extremely varied.

Journey theme in literature

The journey is used to represent a mental or physical challenge, often daunting, that the characters in question must undertake as a part of their enlightenment integral to their character development. Usually, journeys represent something lacking within the lives of the protagonists, so they leave their current predicaments in order to find the lacking piece of their character. Journeys can be literal, such as those in The Road and in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or introspective, such as the journey in To Kill a Mockingbird. The physical journeys are as suggested by their genre: the character(s) must literally move from one area to another, regardless of destination. However, it is not the literal act of moving through which the journey motif exerts its symbolic significance. Rather, the journey involves passage through unfamiliar areas, and the characters must face and solve problems and hardships encountered along the way. It is these attributes of a physical journey that culture a dynamic character by causing the characters to realize, through introspection spurred by the hardships encountered during the journey, an element either hidden or unrealized within themselves or in those around them.

In The Road, as the title implies, the protagonists, named “The Man” and “The Boy,” follow a path from the United States down to the ambiguous “south” (McCarthy 7) after an unspecified cataclysm devastates modern society and leaves these characters ostensibly among the few survivors on the planet. However, the sudden and apocalyptic reduction in population does not shield them from the prospect of danger, for there are nomadic groups of cannibals roaming the scorched land. The Man and The Boy must constantly work to defend themselves from these groups while at the same time foraging for food and resources to refill the dwindling supplies in their shopping cart (McCarthy 3). The reason for their physical journey is obvious: they lack safety in their current situation, and although their situation seems hopeless no matter where they go, they hope that they can find refuge and safety by searching for it. In this case, the author makes no note or hint about a destination, indicating that a journey does not necessarily need to have a definitive end. Rather, it can be seen as an ongoing process.

In addition to the search for safety and the need to survive, one of the protagonists, The Boy, who seems to be no older than a pre-adolescent is faced with the imminent death of his father, who chronically coughs up blood. Because the boy has never known independence, he, essentially, faces a “second” journey on top of the metaphysical journey experienced by both characters. To The Boy, it is the journey to responsible manhood, being able to provide for and survive by himself, something he has not had to do because of the presence of his father. Both have to realize their true position in this reformed society (or the absence of it). The father now understands that no matter how much he wants his son to survive, his purpose is to keep his son alive as long as possible, with the slim hope that he will be able to survive and, presumably, procreate. However, the son’s purpose is to reach independence, and the life-or-death experiences faced by these characters merely serve to develop his independence. In this sense, The Road can also been seen as a quasi-Bildungsroman, a genre involving a young protagonist who experiences psychological and moral growth throughout the story. The Boy, who is fearful and fawning at the beginning, slowly begins to exert his independence, as exhibited through certain actions of rebellion against his father. For example, when his father wishes to enter an abandoned house in search of resources, The Boy refuses to enter, citing it as unsafe (McCarthy 13). It is also made known that the boy is silently aware of his father’s illness (McCarthy 28), meaning that he has slowly learned to accept the fact that his father will not always be around to protect and provide for him. By the novel’s end, when the boy’s father dies, the boy fearlessly faces a stranger with his family and, presumably, follows them into safety.

The Road ideally embodies a quote by the novelist Don Williams Jr., who said, “The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” In the characters of The Road, the lessons of survival, epiphany, and growth stem solely from the dangers that are experienced along the journey, never from the destination. The destination, in fact, is unmentioned, further emphasizing the author’s desire for perpetually developing self-enlightenment.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is another work in which a physical journey motif is utilized. However, unlike the morose, barren journey for carnal survival as undertaken in The Road, Huck Finn tells the story of an escaped slave and a naïve yet independent young boy on their road to freedom. This freedom is different for each character: the slave, Jim, hopes to achieve freedom from his slave status by escaping north, while the boy, Huck, hopes to achieve freedom from the decorum of civilized society (Twain 32). In a sense, both characters lack freedom in their positions at the beginning of the novel, and they set off to gain it no matter the hardships. However, despite the absence of cannibals as in The Road, Huck and Jim’s journey brings upon them a distinct set of problems, such as being held “hostage” by two quacks (Twain 122), having to life a double life when they stumble upon communities (Twain 145), and escaping recapture (at least for Jim) when they discover that their journey to freedom has taken a wrong turn. In this metaphorical journey, Huck’s story embodies a Bildungsroman, and he is the more dynamic character of the duo. He transforms from a naïve young boy to a slightly more mature, learned young boy, having seen the true colors of discrimination and having learned about the nature of people from the various feuds and plans that snake through the slave-holding community. For instance, before embarking on this journey, Huck maintains the traditional viewpoint that Blacks were to be subservient to Whites and that they were nothing more than cattle in human flesh. However, midway through their journey, Huck learns that Jim, although a slave, is a human like Huck himself, and he even accepts condemnation to Hell for refusing to turn him in (Twain 205). This realization marks one of the most profound turning points in the novel. Despite the epiphanies that Huck himself experiences, his travel partner, Jim, remains relatively static, clinging to his beliefs from the beginning of the story and perhaps only learning that not all Whites are bad through Huck’s kindness.

A figurative journey, on the other hand, does not require an actual movement from one area to another, although it does not necessarily exclude one. However, characters who embark on such a journey are far from idle, as they must face a fluid, active, and often powerful society that influences and attempts to mold them. It is this process of being molded that constitutes the hardships that are faced along a figurative journey. One of the archetypal figurative journeys is utilized in the novel set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird, in which the protagonists, Jean Louis Finch (“Scout”) and Jeremy Finch, two young children, experience the true colors of society and are forced to face the miseries of maturity beyond their years. At the beginning of the story, the readers learn that their father, Atticus, is a prominent attorney in the town, and that he has chosen to defend a Black man, Jim, in their discriminatory society (Lee 18). Because of this, Jem and Scout become the subject of scorn from many of the town’s characters. Jem is also slammed with a dual lesson of death and courage through his forced community service to Mrs. Dubose, a cranky morphine addict (Lee 103).

Of the two, Jem appears to be the most affected by the psychological journey that the two protagonists embark on. During the actual trial, though it is clear that Atticus has made a powerful defense and discredited Jim’s accusers multiple times (Lee 205), Jim is still found guilty and is later shot while trying to escape (Lee 212). Jem is shattered during this ordeal, and his faith in both the utopian society that he had believed in during his years of naivety and the legal system is compromised. Both he and Scout learn that the world is definitely not an ideal place and that stigma can play a large role in determining factors as large as life or death. Although it appears that Jem treks along the journey faster than Scout, by the end of the novel, Scout appears to have actually learned more than Jem. The father of girl who had accused Jim of raping her is bitter about his defeat, and near the end of the novel, he attempts to kill Scout and Jem as they are walking home. However, they are saved by the prompt appearance of Boo Radley, a hermit, about whom Jem and his friends have perpetually spread gruesome rumors, attempting to lure him out of hiding. Scout, however, quickly learns that what Jem was doing was inconsiderate, and she even makes an extremely sharp conjecture about Boo’s desire to remain hidden. During the ordeals of the trial, Scout says that perhaps Boo does not want to leave his house because of how poisonous the outside society is (Lee 231). When Boo saves Scout and Jem, Jem is left unconscious, but Scout finally sees Boo as a real, breathing, kind person, not the monster that her brother and his friends have asserted him to be (Lee 271).

By the end, although both Scout and Jem follow a path to the same destination, maturity, both take a different route and experience different events along the way. Jem approaches his destination through enduring and facing the corrupting miasma of a discriminatory, racist society and how society’s judgment can affect people’s lives. Scout approaches her destination through learning of people’s true colors, culminating with her amiable connection with Boo at the conclusion of the novel.


The journey is widely employed not only in American literature but in literary works that span the history of fiction. As demonstrated in The Road, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the journey is employed to demonstrate a particular self-realization or epiphany gained through experiencing daunting hardships or problems faced along the way, forcing the characters to reexamine their positions in their surroundings through introspection. In this sense, the journey is one of the most effective examples of symbolism in conveying such a motif.

Works Cited

  • Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1960. Print.
  • McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.
  • Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Collector’s Library, 1912. Print.

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