The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Themes and Colors
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Society and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Religion and Superstition Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Growing Up Theme Icon

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn belongs to the genre of Bildungsroman; that is, the novel presents a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist, Huck, matures as he broadens his horizons with new experiences. Huck begins the novel as an immature boy who enjoys goofing around with his boyhood friend, Tom Sawyer, and playing tricks on others. He has a good heart but a conscience deformed by the society in which he was raised, such that he reprimands himself again and again for not turning Jim in for running away, as though turning Jim in and prolonging his separation from his family were the right thing to do.

As the novel develops, however, so do Huck’s notions of right and wrong. He learns that rigid codes of conduct, like Christianity, or like that which motivates the Grangerson and Shepherdson’s blood feud, don’t necessarily lead to good results. He also recognizes that absolute selfishness, like that exhibited by Tom Sawyer to a small extent, and that exhibited by Tom’s much worse prankster-counterparts, the duke and the king, is both juvenile and shameful. Huck learns that he must follow the moral intuitions of his heart, which requires that he be flexible in responding to moral dilemmas. And, indeed, it is by following his heart that Huck makes the right decision to help Jim escape from bondage.

This mature moral decision is contrasted with the immature way in which Tom goes about acting on that decision at the Phelps farm. Instead of simply helping Jim, Tom devises a childishly elaborate scheme to free Jim, which results in Tom getting shot in the leg and Jim being recaptured. By the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is morally mature and realistic, whereas Tom still has a lot of growing up to do.

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Growing Up Quotes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Below you will find the important quotes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn related to the theme of Growing Up.
Chapter 3 Quotes

I went and told the Widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too much for me, but she told me what she means—I must help others, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself…but I couldn’t see no advantage about it—except for the other people—so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), The Widow Douglas and Miss Watson
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

As part of being "sivilized," Huck is given a religious education in which he's instructed to pray. However, he gets mixed messages on this point. Miss Watson, for one, tells him to pray for whatever he wants, but Huck soon realizes we only very rarely get what we pray for. The Widow Douglas betters Miss Watson's instructions, and says that people can't get the material things they want through prayer, only "spiritual gifts." That Miss Watson and the Widow disagree suggests that religious truth is not self-evident and absolute, but dependent on interpretation. 

Huck is too practical to have much use for spiritual gifts, however. We might say that he is self-sufficient, that he has everything he needs inside of himself already. Moreover, Huck comes to think that serving others and acting selflessly isn't all it's cracked up to be: people who constantly serve society become bound by society's customs and sacrifice their freedom. Ironically, it is the untamed, unchristian Huck who develops the richest, most loving relationship in the novel, with Jim. The Christianity of the Widow and Miss Watson doesn't exactly practice what it preaches.

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Chapter 8 Quotes

“People will call me a low down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t agoing to tell, and I ain’t agoing back there anyways.”

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck and Jim stumble into one another on Jackson's Island after Huck escapes from Pap and after Jim escapes from his owner Miss Watson. However, Jim is at first reticent about his escape, because he's afraid that Huck will turn him in. Huck responds with this quote.

In the pre-Civil War America of Huck and Jim's time, Abolitionism was a movement that agitated for the immediate end of slavery in the country. The movement was largely based in the North, and most white Southerners like those featured in Twain's novel denounced Abolitionism as fostering disorder and slave rebellions. Huck, however, doesn't care if he's associated with Abolitionism and despised for it; he does what he thinks is right, even if it flies in the face of social interests. When he says, "I ain't agoing back there anyways," he is at once being literal and metaphorical – he is not going to return to "civilization," nor is he going to return to the frame of mind it sponsors. 

Note, however, that Huck wrestles with racism throughout the novel, not just in his society but in himself. He knows and loves Jim for who Jim is, and therefore don't turn him in; but it will take more spiritual education before he more firmly resists and more squarely turns his back on racist patterns of thinking.

Chapter 13 Quotes

I begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix. I says to myself, there ain’t no telling but I might come to be a murderer myself, yet, and then how would I like it?

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mississippi River
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

One night during a storm, Huck and Jim encounter three robbers in a steamboat. Huck and Jim manage to survive the storm, but the robbers are trapped. Here, Huck sympathizes with the three doomed men, and tries to think up ways to save them, but to no avail.

Most characters in the novel are so judgmental and self-righteous that they'd probably be glad that the criminals meet an untimely death. Huck, however, has a much larger imagination and a much freer spirit than most other characters; he can see the murderers as real people with real fears, not just as abstract undesirable elements in society. It is this capacity of Huck's that gives him his charm as well as his spiritual backbone; it is this capacity, also, that enables Huck to see how inhuman an institution slavery is. 

Most people rely on scapegoats to feel good about themselves (think of the mob that assembles to lynch Colonel Sherburn in Chapter 22). They need people to judge and condemn and punish as a means of venting their own antisocial aggression. Huck does not need a scapegoat. He knows that a single human spirit is big enough to hold both the saint and the murderer at the same time, even if it's unpleasant to think about for most of us. But being able to acknowledge our own capacity for evil paradoxically makes us more merciful – or at least that's what Huck's experience suggests.

Chapter 14 Quotes

Well, he [Jim] was right; he was most always right; he had an uncommon level head, for a nigger.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

The morning after their encounter with the robbers during the storm, Huck refers to it all as an "adventure." Jim says he doesn't want any more adventures, because he could easily have been harmed. Huck thinks this is pretty level-headed of Jim.

Huck is divided between two influences, that of Tom Sawyer and that of Jim. Tom is fantastical, self-serving, reckless – the kind of person who would take any adventures that come his way. Jim, in contrast, is realistic, sensitive to other people's wants and needs, and therefore careful. In this quote, we see Huck acknowledge the rightness of Jim's perspective, the level-headedness of it. This is a sign that Huck is growing up.

This growing up on Huck's part coincides with a change in Huck's perception of Jim. Huck absorbed his society's prejudice in thinking blacks intellectually inferior to whites, but his experience with Jim is corroding this prejudice. That being said, the qualification "for a nigger" is blatantly racist; Huck is still bound at this point in the novel to society's way of looking at the world and at Jim.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“My heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, en I didn’t k’yer no mo’ what become er me en de raf’. En when I wake up en fine you back agin’, all safe en soun’, de tears come en I could a got down on my knees en kiss’ yo’ foot I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin ‘bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie.”

Related Characters: Jim (speaker), Huckleberry Finn
Related Symbols: The Raft
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

A fog sets in on the Mississippi River as Jim and Huck make for the Ohio, and the two are separated. When reunited, Huck plays a trick in the style of Tom Sawyer on Jim: you dreamed the fog, he says. Jim figures out Huck's trick, however, and responds with this quote.

Huck's trick demonstrates both his childish egocentricity and his racist callousness toward Jim, whom he as yet thinks incapable, perhaps, of the full range of human feeling. Jim's response proves just how ignorant Huck's attitude is. Jim loves Huck deeply – perhaps more deeply than anyone else in the world does. Jim is not selfish like Huck can be either: the raft, Jim's vessel to freedom, means less to him than Huck does. Huck's lies are often charming – and he lies just to stay in practice, as he says – but here he lies without thinking of the consequences of doing so. 

This episode draws a great deal of its power from the fact that Jim has been ripped away from his family by slaveholders. If his heart breaks at the thought of losing Huck, it must have been shattered by that loss – even though many whites at the time of the story deny that blacks are fully human and capable of heartbreak. Twain's novel, in contrast, insists on the full humanity of all of its characters, and in this way his art imitates life and serves as a rebuke to the aspects of American society that continue to believe in white superiority at the time he wrote the novel and even today.

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck tricks Jim into thinking the two were never separated by a fog that settled on the Mississippi River, and Jim shames Huck for playing such a callous trick. Huck, albeit reluctantly, humbles himself and apologizes to Jim.

In Huck's society, a white person didn't need to treat a black person like a human being, much less apologize. Consequently, in his racist pride, Huck is reluctant to apologize to Jim for wronging him – but Huck is also very different from most other whites in his society, and he recognizes that he really did wrong Jim, and that Jim was right to shame him for it, and that an apology is the only decent thing he can do at this point. Huck recognizes in his heart Jim's inalienable humanity, despite all of the prejudices he's absorbed. 

Huck says he "warn't ever sorry" for apologizing to Jim, which suggests the he expected to regret doing so. His experience is shattering his expectations, and his experience is therefore his most important teacher when it comes to understanding the iniquity of the world he lives in.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom. Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, me.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

As Huck and Jim drift on their raft toward Cairo, Ohio, and the free states up North, Jim becomes very excited, and so does Huck, although for very different reasons. Jim is joyous to be almost free, while Huck dreads the idea of having helped a black man escape from bondage.

Huck's spiritual education is not without regressions back into the toxic attitudes and beliefs of the racist society around him. This is one such regression. Even though Huck has recognized that Jim is wholly human, and though he is Jim's friend (whether he would admit it or not at this point), he nonetheless can't help but see himself through society's eyes. What he sees is a person who helped a slave illegally escape from his owner, someone who is blameworthy in the eyes of other whites. This makes Huck anxious, but only because he does not yet have the courage of his convictions. 

Another characteristic of the racist worldview is that whites are the actors in the world, the people who make things happen, while blacks are passive, objects to be acted on and incapable of self-determination. Huck displays that trait here when he asks "who was to blame" for Jim's freedom. He acts as though he singlehandedly freed Jim, as though Jim has no responsibility for his freedom because, being black, he couldn't actively achieve it for himself. This, of course, is a fallacy: Jim is capable of self-determination, and was the actor who effected his own escape. 

So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about [right and wrong], but after this always do whichever comes handiest at the time.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker)
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck feels guilty about being an accessory in Jim's escape to the free states, but reasons that he would feel just as guilty had he not helped Jim escape. This leads him to conclude that conscience is not really a firm means of determining what is right, and that one therefore would do better to "do whichever comes handiest at the time."

This is an important realization for Huck, and a new height in his spiritual education. His new ethic of handiness can be summarized like this: whatever his heart tells him to do instinctually, Huck resolves to do. He is free, in this way, to be himself. Conscience reflects the society around it, which is for the worse, in Huck's case, because his society fabricates its moral rules to justify the unjustifiable evils of slavery. The heart, on the other hand, is more primordial and innate than the conscience: it is not a social construct, but the oldest and best part of ourselves. Conveniently, it is also the handiest for someone like Huck. 

Note that doing what is handiest, for Huck, does not license him to do wrong on a whim. This is because Huck has a fundamentally good heart, such that needlessly inflicting harm on others is alien to it, something that would never present itself as handy. 

Chapter 23 Quotes

I do believe [Jim] cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck's adventure on the raft becomes rollicking and exuberant once the duke and king join up with him and Jim – so much so that Huck doesn't keep in mind Jim's plight. One morning, however, he wakes to find Jim mourning for his wife and children, from whom he's been separated. This quote gives Huck's reaction.

Earlier in the novel, Huck sees through his racist prejudices and recognizes that Jim can be hurt by cruel jokes and have his heart broken by loss like anyone else. However, Huck does not seem to recognize till now that Jim is capable of loving his own family as much as white people are. This error in empathy is challenged by experience, however, when he finds Jim in mourning here.

The big irony of this passage is that there's nothing more natural in the world than that people should love their family members. Huck, however, has been raised to think it unnatural for a black husband and father to care so deeply for his wife and children. Culture teaches us what to think of as natural or unnatural, and it is so effective in this – in Huck's case insidiously so – that we can become blind to what is self-evident and deaf to what our hearts tell us.

Chapter 31 Quotes

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and [I] tore [my note to Miss Watson] up.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker)
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

When Jim is turned in by the king for being a runaway slave, Huck thinks for a moment that the only moral thing to do would be to write a letter to Miss Watson so that she can reclaim her human property. However, Huck reflects on how good Jim is, and resolves at last to help him reach freedom no matter what; he tears up his note.

The decision represented in this quote is the major turning point in Huck's spiritual education. At the beginning of the novel, he thinks that hell would be more interesting than heaven, anyway – but here he goes a giant step further and realizes that what society thinks of as heaven is just rigid rule-following without much of a basis in what's right, and that choosing hell is not about indulging oneself. It is about living a good and loving life, regardless of what society dictates. Huck and Jim's friendship is the most sacred thing in the novel, and embracing it over all ingrained prejudice and cowardly conformity is Huck's crowning moment.

Chapter 33 Quotes

I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer!

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Tom Sawyer
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck and Tom meet up near the Phelps's farm and, after hearing that Huck plans to rescue Jim, Tom agrees to join in the attempt. Huck thinks less of Tom for helping him, because doing so flies in the face of the racist, slaveholding values of their society.

This passage is troubling. Huck has just decided to save Jim, society be damned, and then he judges Tom's decision to help him from the absurd perspective of the society he's just cast off. Can Huck really be so divided in his soul that he can decide to rescue Jim, only to judge someone negatively for doing the same? This is either a considerable regression on Huck's part, a moment of reflexive thinking that doesn't reflect how he really feels, an irony on Huck's part, or a mistake on the author's. The second of these interpretations is perhaps most charitable to the novel (though many critics would argue that this final section of the novel is its weakest, and that Twain in fact did make a mistake in this entire escapade with Huck and Tom trying to free Jim).

Tom's reasons for joining the rescue attempt are very different from Huck's. Huck loves Jim. Tom thinks it would be a fun adventure to play rescue. This suggests Tom's childishness, but something more troubling. Tom treats himself like the hero of a drama and Jim like a prop. This is just a refinement of how his society sees Jim as an object to be used by whites.

I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seems like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), The duke and king
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck learns that the duke and king are staging their scandalous show near the Phelps' farm, and he at once sets out to warn the con men that their gig is up. He's too late, though. On the way, he sees that a mob has tarred and feathered the duke and king; Huck pities the two immensely.

Tarring and feathering was an especially painful and humiliating punishment, common in the United States as a type of mob vengeance. Offenders were stripped to the waist, covered in scalding tar, and then covered in feathers which stuck to the tar. They were then paraded around to be humiliated, as the duke and king are. Punishments like these are one of the ways a society enforces conformity to its standards, regardless of whether or not those standards are just. As dreadful as the duke and king are, the people who tar and feather them are just as dreadful.

Huck, who knows just how exploitative the duke and king are, is nonetheless so empathetic that he pities them. As he sees it, nobody should be so cruelly abused – for such punishments amount merely to cruelty, not to justice. It is one of Huck's great characteristics to be in such a cruel world, and to know it, and yet retain his sensitivity and gentleness and kind-heartedness.