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The connection between being comfortable and being free from established authority begins at the outset of Twains book as Huck finds himself rankling under the care of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. Although he appreciates his foster parents desire to raise him as a conventionally "good" boy, he is uncomfortable with their program to "sivilize" him. Huck attaches value to education, religion, and middle-class manners, but he resists the confinements of school and church, of wearing respectable clothes and being reminded to sit up straight at the dinner table. In response to the continuous "ecking" of his benevolent, self-appointed parents, Huck seeks refuge in Tom Sawyers gang of robbers. However, he quickly becomes bored with the imaginary freedom that being part of the gang offers to him.
When his Pap arrives in St. Petersburg and essentially kidnaps his son, Huck finds himself free of all these "sivilizing" restraints. Despite his captivity at the hands of a cruel task-master, he initially takes to the freedom that Pap's position outside of society provides to him, recalling that "it was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books or study" (p.21). Yet Huck soon finds himself the object of his drunken Pap's hickory switch, and escapes from the arbitrary punishments of the cabin by faking his own murder. On Jackson Island, he is once again free but his alliance with Jim forces him to take flight anew, entering into the "world elsewhere" of rafting along the river. Nevertheless, this form of freedom brings him (and Jim) into contact with charlatans, and the need to escape from the clutches of the King and the Duke. At the novel's end, Huck still seeks comfort in an illusionary freedom that may lie somewhere that he has never been. Fearing that Tom's Aunt Sally will try to "sivilize" him, he vows "to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest" (p.263). In contrast to Jim, who conceives freedom in positive terms, feeling "trembly and feverish" as they approach they approach the free northern state of Illinois, Huck sees freedom in terms of the absence of external compulsion.
Even if Huck was able to achieve a state of comfortable liberty, he still finds himself liable to another type of constraint, one that makes him even more uncomfortable than external coercion, the pangs of his own conscience. Huck and Tom both scheme to arrange Jim's escape from Phelps farm, to which Huck proclaims, "it don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway. If I had a yaller dog that didn't know no more than a person's conscience does, I would poison him" (p.194) Despite his surface amorality, Twain's misfit lad periodically experiences inclinations of guilt. He easily surmounts to his sense of guilt while watching his friends search for his corpse in the wake of his self imposed murder. He is also able to rationalize with his actions while "borrowing" the farmer's crops, when Jim suggests that they should only steal a few items, to which he declares that "we warn't feeling just right, before that, but it was all comfortable now" (p.58).
The enduring source of Huck's internal discomfort stems from being "conscience" towards shielding Jim, he is also committing an offense against the slave's owner, Miss Watson. At an early point in his adventures, Huck's conscience accuses him with the thought, "What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say a single word?" (p.75). After the King and the Duke sell Jim to the Reverend Phelps, Huck's feelings of guilt about Jim surfaces again. He writes a letter to Miss Watson, notifying her of the whereabouts of her property, and recalls, "I felt so good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life" (p.179). But Huck doesn't send this message, and by doing so, he defies his conscience and, by his own light, consigns himself to damnation, replying to his inner voice, "'All right then I'll go to hell'---and tore it (the letter) up" (p.180). Huck shoves his guilt feelings aside, and resolves to "steal" Jim out of slavery, but he is still convinced that this is a shameful course of action.
Although he does not acknowledge it as such, it is Huck's development of a higher standard than that of contemporary mores that enables him to partially overcome the dictates of his conscience and act the part of a "nigger-stealer." After tricking Jim into believing that he died in their raft's crash with a steamboat, Huck experiences unexpected remorse. Seeing his companion alive, Jim is characteristically heartened, but he then expresses his resentment at feeling grief while "all you wuz thinkin 'bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie" (p.73). Huck apologizes to Jim, humbling himself to a nigger, because he empathizes with his victim and puts himself in Jim's position. Gradually, Huck embraces the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. The most explicit expression of this moral action comes from Mary Jane Wilks, a young woman whom Huck openly admires for having "sand." When Huck is caught in a blatant lie, Mary Jane chastises his interrogator by demanding "How would you like to be treated so?" (p.147). This remark clearly leaves a powerful impression on Huck, for he immediately decides to double-cross the King and the Duke by re-stealing the gold that they have robbed from Mary Jane and her sister.
Huck's movement toward an ethical code is complicated by the superstitious gullibility of the adults around him. He is himself a trickster in a world of ready-made victims, fools with whom he cannot identity lest he be labeled a fool as well. Jim recognizes that "dese kings o' ourns is regular rapscallions; dat's jist what dey is; dey's reglar rapscallions," but Huck sees nothing amiss here because "all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out" (p.129). Watching the King and Duke "work" small-town crowds, Huck is more offended by the credulity of the dupes than by the duplicity of the con artists. As the mountebanks pull the wool over the family and neighbours of the late Peter Wilks, it is the responses of the victims, their slavish willingness to believe, that Huck finds disconcerting, declaring that, "it was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race" (p.137).
Twain furnishes Huck with ample cause to be ashamed of the human race, for many of the good adults whom he encounters in his adventures are hypocrites. While Miss Watson extols the virtues of honesty, her promises to Jim that she would never "sell him South" are evidently broken. The Reverend Phelps appears to be a good-hearted and kindly soul, yet he purchases Jim with an eye toward receiving a reward from the slave's rightful owner. Although Twain's Mississippi society is filled with such hypocrisy, it is in the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons that the fundamental falseness of social interaction is most acutely presented. Taken in by the Grangerfords, Huck is duly impressed by their wealth and respectability. But he learns from Buck Grangerford that no one can recall "why the family is at war with the Shepherdsons." Huck becomes part of the Grangerford clan, and recollects, "Next Sunday we all went to church. . . . The men took their guns, so did Buck and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdson's done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching---all about brotherly love, an such-like tiresomeness. . . ."(p.93). The "admirable" figures in Huck's world overtly endorse Christian principles yet hatred, greed, and fear often drive their actions. Even Huck's idol, Tom Sawyer, puts Jim through humiliating experiences for the ostensible end of "rescuing" him, knowing all the time that Jim is already a free man.
Whether slavery and race relations should be seen as an explicit theme of the novel, they are at the heart of a running critic controversy about the book and its author's intentions. Many modern readers have objected to Twain's portrayal of Jim, who can be seen as superstitious, ignorant, and servile "Uncle Tom" Negro. At the same time, Jim is one novel's most appealing adult characters in the book, a gentle and loyal individual, who does not hate, cheat or trick anyone, who fears and evades violence but never commits any. There are also intimations that Jim is wiser than he lets on to be, that he is able to con Huck into helping him. When the two meet on Jackson's Island, Jim explains that he was forced to abscond from Miss Watson because he had learned of her plans to "sell" him South. But he then adds, "she picks on me all de time, en treats me pooty rough." (p.38). This statement is tailor-made to appeal to Huck's sensibility, for he too feels constantly "pecked" by Miss Watson.
In the end, Twain sets Jim free from the shackles of slavery through the device of Miss Watson's will, but Jim's wife and children remain in servitude, and Jim himself is still a "nigger" even in the eyes of those who have sympathized with his plight. Whether Twain himself was a racist cannot be determined from the text. Plainly Pap's form of racism is targeted for parody, an ignorant white man resenting the very idea of a "free nigger" being able to read and write. Aunt Sally's relief at learning form Huck that only a "nigger" had been killed in the steamboat crash is also qualified by a tone of ironic humor. But Huck himself appears to take Jim as an exception to the rule that black people are inherently inferior to whites. He recognizes that Jim "cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n" (p.131), but he still considers it a shame that the "respectable" Tom Sawyer "stooped" to the business of helping to rescue Jim. Plainly, Twain's purpose in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was not to present his opinion about broad social issues that continued to confound people in his day, but to entertain them with an amusing, picaresque tale that touches upon timeless subjects such as freedom as seen through the eyes of a highly particularized character.