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The Role of the Mississippi River in Huckleberry Finn

Rivers are often associated with freedom and growth as they are vast and constantly moving and progressing. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is no exception as Mark Twain beautifully paints a picture of a boy who grows significantly during his journey down the Mississippi River. At the beginning of the novel, Huckleberry Finn yearns for his freedom from people who hold him down such as the Widow Douglas and Pap. Ironically, he finds freedom in a place nearby: the river. When he first begins to travel down the river, Huck is more or less self-involved with his own personal motives in mind when running away. He complains about boredom and loneliness when what he really wanted in the first place was to be left alone. When he comes upon Jim, he is overjoyed to be with someone finally and being that it is a Negro man running for his freedom, he begins his growth as a character. As he moves down the river, we see his growth in stages and much of it is due to his experiences on the water, which ultimately becomes his moving home. At the beginning of chapter 19, Twain uses narrative devices and literary techniques to exemplify Huck’s relaxed yet lonesome attitude toward the Mississippi River.

In the beginning, Huck tells us that “two or three days and nights went by.” Usually, two or three days when running away seems like an eternity but, for Huck, “they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely.” He is relaxed on the river and shows this by his ability to lose track of time and watch it slip by. Huck describes his daily routine, which seems more suitable for a vacationer than a runaway, like this: “Soon as night was mostly gone, we stopped navigating and tied up-nearly always in the dead water under a tow-head; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next, we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off.” It would seem as though there would be a little bit more tension in a situation where a runaway is hiding out whole days at a time but this seems to be more of a “paradise found” type attitude.

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When Huck explains the look of the river in the morning, he seems awe-stricken as he portrays it as very mystical in the morning: “The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line- that was the woods on t’other side-you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn’t black anymore, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away-trading scows, and such things…”. Looking out on open water in the very early morning, a person can really feel how huge and daunting the water really is and Twain’s use of a long sentence with a lot of punctuation gives the effect of looking across the horizon over a large body of water. We are then comforted by Huck’s description of the breeze and the early daybreak: “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…and next you’ve got the full day and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!” The early morning is a special time for Huck and Jim as we can tell by these extensive descriptions of the river at daybreak.

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The days on the bank of the Mississippi are slow, lazy and relaxed for Huck and Jim. They really can’t do much because they have to stay as low-key as possible so as not to be seen by a passing steamboat or some people. A normal morning starts by taking some fish off the line and cooking up a hot breakfast then “afterwards we would watch the lonesomeness of the river, and kind of lazy along, and by-and-by lazy off to sleep. Wake up, by-and-by, and look to see what did it, and maybe see a steamboat, coughing along upstream, so far off towards the other side you couldn’t tell nothing about her only whether she was a stern-wheel or a side-wheel; then for about an hour there wouldn’t be nothing to hear nor nothing to see- just solid lonesomeness.” Twain’s use of run-on sentences highlights how the day drags on and on and how Huck’s loneliness must be setting in. The reader is shown the extent of their solitude by the description of the galoot chopping wood: “you’d see the axe flash, and come down-you don’t hear nothing; you see the axe go up again, and by the time it’s above the man’s head, then you hear the k’chunk! -It had taken all that time to come over the water.”

The description of voices that have nobodies “like spirits carrying on that way in the air” gives the reader an uneasy feeling. Once again, we are reminded of Jim’s beliefs in ghosts and spirits as “he believed it was spirited”. Jim could be right in calling them spirits as they could be the materialistic ‘ghosts of society’ that Twain has such distaste for and Huck escapes from. When they shove off at night time, Jim and Huck are back to their carefree ways: “When we got her out to about the middle, we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit our pipes, and dangled our legs in the water and talked about all kinds of things-we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us.” In this case, Twain employs the run-on sentences to hopefully let us feel the length that they are travelling during the nights. The lazy days and active nights are underlined beautifully with the author’s use of description and literary techniques.

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As the passage winds down, Huck and Jim converse extensively on topics such as the moon and the stars. Jim’s ignorant idea that maybe the moon laid the stars and Huck’s agreement reveals that the two are not that different in their ways of thinking. It is interesting that Jim mentions that the falling stars might have “got spoiled and was hove out of the nest”. Although childish, this idea is, in a way, a symbol of Huck himself. He was orphaned by his careless father and taken in by the widow Douglas but never actually feels at home in the clothes he is expected to wear or the house in which he lives. Whether with his own consent or not, Huck has been “hove out of the nest” and some think that he has spoiled as a child. This realization by the reader entices a sad feeling on the otherwise beautiful night.

The entire last paragraph of the passage is one sentence and describes once again, how alone they are: “Once or twice of a night, we would see a steamboat slipping along in the dark, and now and then she would belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimbleys.” Even though the river is very active during the day, it is more or less deserted at night, this illustrated after the boat had passed: “and by-and-by her waves would get to us, a long time after she was gone, and joggle the raft a bit, and after that you wouldn’t hear nothing for you couldn’t tell how long, except maybe frogs or something.” The sounds that Twain describes add to the feeling of solitude. The silence is broken only by subtle sounds such as waves in the river or a frog’s call really remind a person how alone they truly are. At this point, they are back where they started: moving down the river alone and relaxed.

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In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there is much talk of being alone or being cast away from society. This is most understood when Mark Twain describes the vastness of the river. His narrative devices and literary techniques help us feel these characteristics. Loneliness is a reoccurring theme as well and how better to feel the loneliness that Huck is experiencing than to describe the slow-moving life on the large, open Mississippi River. Twain does a beautiful job of this throughout the novel and especially in this passage. What we are left feeling for Huck is hope; Hope that he finds the freedom he is looking for. Hope that he can help Jim to the free states, and hope that he will never be lonely again.

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The Role of the Mississippi River in Huckleberry Finn. (2021, Feb 28). Retrieved March 27, 2023, from