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The Use of Mississippi River to Illustrate the Dichotomy of Civilization and Freedom

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been dually noted one of America’s greatest masterpieces of literature and one of America’s biggest controversies of literature. Mark Twain develops his story along the Mississippi River where young Huckleberry Finn helps a slave, Jim, escape to his freedom. In a criticism of Twain’s novel, T.S. Elliot says, “…Twain has two elements which, when treated with his sensibility and experience, formed a great book: these two are the Boy and the River” (348). The river makes Twain’s literature “great” and controversial because it functions much more than just the setting of the novel: the river is a multi-faceted symbol that plays a crucial role in illustrating the dichotomy between civilization and freedom.

Though the Mississippi River provides the literal route to freedom for Huck and Jim, Twain’s depictions of the river reveal that true freedom only exists in nature. The geography of the river provides literal and figurative protection for Huck and Jim. They had “mountains on the Missouri shore and heavy timber on the Illinois side, and the channel was down the Missouri shore at that place so we warn’t afraid of anybody running across us” (74). Huck and Jim do not have to worry about anyone one from civilization trying to stop them. Since Jim is a runaway slave, it would be extremely dangerous if the two of them were caught. During an extremely racist time in the antebellum South, it is only the river that can provide solace and serenity. The river is untainted by the immorality of society and is almost Eden-like because there was “not a sound, anywheres – perfectly still – just like the whole world was asleep” (135). Huck and Jim would also “dangle [their] legs in the water and talk about all kinds of things” while they were “always naked, day and night” (136). With racial tensions at a peak during this time, it would be rare to see a black man and a white child spending time together. Twain’s pure, and blissful imagery of Huck and Jim on the river together proves that true freedom for mankind may only exist outside of the confines of society. Though Jim is ultimately seeking legal freedom, he earns his emotional and personal freedom along the river where he can express himself without the reprimands of society for only seeing him as black.

When externalities from civilization find their way onto the river, Huck and Jim’s freedom is completely lost. First, a “solid white” (92) fog momentarily encapsulates the entire river, and separates Huck and Jim. This fog is Twain’s powerful symbol representing the dangers of racism. The fog physically segregates Huck and Jim from each other, as was the common practice in the South. It also blinds Huck from seeing anything on the river, similar to how racism blinds people of any morality or compassion for other human beings. This brief scene in the novel provides a deeper look into Twain’s criticism of racism, especially of white people, during the time. Additionally, the fog makes Huck and Jim pass their intended destination of Cairo, elongating their path to freedom. Huck proclaims, “if you think it ain’t dismal and lonesome out in a fog that way, by yourself, in the night, you try it once – you’ll see” (93). When the theoretical cloud of racism taints the river, Huck loses his freedom, confidence, and safety. Twain is very critical of white people’s prejudice throughout his novel. Though it is ambiguous whether Twain’s intent was to symbolize the fog as the racism of white people and not just racism in general, it is intriguing that a “white” fog caused this frightful scene for Huck and Jim. Further, the river gives Huck an outlet to develop his moral compass. Huck lied to Jim about the fog, trying to convince him that it was all just a dream. Jim recognizes Huck’s lie, and is hurt by his effort to mislead him. Huck says, “it was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go humble myself to a nigger” (95). Huck had been raised in a society where a white person’s voice was always valued over a black person’s voice. Out along the river, without society molding his opinions, Huck makes a moral choice on his own.

The freedom on the river gave Huck a blank slate to formulate his own morals and opinions, and develop into a better person. The freedom of the river is tainted by more societal externalities: The Duke and the King. Just before these new characters arrive, Huck explains how “it’s lovely to live on a raft… [with] the sky, up there, all speckled with stars” (136). This serene scene is abruptly cut off with the arrival of the Duke and King, who are not really royalty, but are two con-men. They corrupt the raft with lies, and satirically dominant behavior, similar to the 1800s-society corrupted with slavery, racism, and immorality. The Duke and King begin to have a ridiculous quarrel about their titles, which starts to worry Huck. Huck, wanting to protect the prior sanctity of the river, says, “it didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn’t no kings and dukes… but I never said nothing. I hadn’t no objections, long as it would keep peace in the family” (142). Huck is willing to keep satisfying the men’s false egos to preserve peace on the raft, the raft that Huck considers home. Twain is obviously very critical of aristocrats by making a mockery of the Duke and the King. The two re-enact horrid versions of various Shakespeare plays, and are always trying to steal money. Twain also criticizes the awfully racist nature of aristocrats throughout the antebellum South. The Duke makes a comment asking, “do you reckon a nigger can run across money and not borrow some of it?” (190). This statement is quite ironic: The Duke assumes all black people are thieves, without admitting that he is thieve himself. Twain is critical of the hypocrisy of white upper class people. Ultimately, the Duke and the King corrupt the goodness of the raft upon the river with their lies, racism, and pettiness. People from an impure civilization like the South cannot mutually exist with the pureness of nature.

Though Twain initially sets up the river as the road to guide Jim to freedom, the river actually guides Huckleberry Finn to his own freedom. The audience learns that throughout the entire journey up the Mississippi, Jim has unknowingly been freed. The main adventure of Huckleberry Finn is truly his bildungsroman story. He survives many days on a river, learns his own morality, and develops the mental strength to prevent quarrels between the Duke and the King. Twain suggests that white people are the ones that need freedom from their own tainted society.

Since civilization and freedom cannot coexist, it is only fitting that Huckleberry Finn chooses to go to the new “Territory” (296) to avoid the “sivilizing” (296) by his Aunt Sally. Huck would rather make autonomous choices than have old ideals forced upon him. This is very progressive as a 12-year-old boy. Presumably, Huck wants the Territory to be his new river where he has freedom, and genuinely enjoys living life. Also, Huck is moral enough to know he does not want to blend into the civilization he currently lives in: he will not adapt to an immoral or racist way of life after helping Jim along his journey. T.S. Elliot remarks “a river, a very big and powerful river, is the only natural force that can wholly determination the course of human peregrination” (351). Perhaps, humans need a bit of a guiding force from nature to develop their character. Hopefully, Huck can find another river, either literal or metaphorical, to guide him during the next phase of his young life.

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The Mississippi River: Revealing the Dichotomy Between Civilization and Freedom. (2018, May 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from
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