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It is no surprise that a book that elegantly combines American History, culture, and moral dilemmas along with controversial issues has become a classic novel. This novel’s effects were felt from coast to coast and its presence shaped the nation as no other has ever done. Therefore, it remains no surprise that what many people regard as the first truly American novel, set in the 1840s and written after the American Civil War, should have at its heart the issue that divided the nation, slavery. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrates a slave’s escape from freedom and a boy’s escape from society’s standards, a plot in which the entire theme of freedom and bondage occurs. Twain utilizes freedom as a main theme in this novel in order to illustrate the constant struggle to escape psychological and social imprisonment.
Huck’s initiation into adulthood seems to show his inner struggle with the problem of being free from the grips of society. Huck is stuck in a world that he does not respond to. While in captivation, Huckleberry is not the person who he wants to be. He cannot seem to escape the grips of society. As points out, “Jim can say as soon as he escapes from Ms. Watson, ‘I owns myself,’ while Huck is still ‘owned’ by the official values supervised by his conscience. Huck is not only imprisoned by society but by the grips of his own mind. Due to the abusive relations of his father, Huck is imprisoned by the idea of survival. A healthy person, as demonstrated by noted psychologist Abraham Maslow, is able to meet self-actualization needs. However, Huck Finn on the table of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is stuck at safety needs. Because of his father’s attitude towards him, Huck needs to take care of his safety needs until he is able to feel secure. When he finally feels secure, he will move from safety needs to love and belongingness needs. However, in order to fulfill these safety needs, Huck must escape from society but, “he is a fugitive from society who cannot be alone”(219 ). Clearly, Huck is trapped between existing as a prisoner to society or as a prisoner to his own lonesomeness. “In lighting out, Huck preserves his independence but also commits himself once more to isolation”.
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Jim too exhibits the stronghold of slavery, however this is a general form of slavery. Initially in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, others regard Jim as an object to laugh at and play jokes on; slavery is presented as a natural institution. Early in Chapter 70, “pap also makes explicit the communal lie which passes as a rationale for slavery. Slaves are property, subhuman and necessary for commodities”. Repeatedly in the novel, the reader is reminded of the absurdity by which one human owns another like one would a cow or a dog. The idea is introduced immediately after Jim runs away and speaks of himself as property, “I’s rich now, come to look at it. I owns myself”. At the same time, what continually bothers Huck is that helping Jim escape, he is stealing Ms. Watson’s property and conspiring to help Jim steal his own children. The only way that Huck is able to hold off those who want to capture Jim, including the King and the Duke, is to claim Jim as his rightful property. The peculiar notion that one person can actually own another, body and soul is supported not only by the law and the government, but by the church and religion as well. It is no coincidence that Jim belongs to and is being sold down the river by the person in the novel who makes the greatest show of her religion, Ms. Watson. Mimicking the religious beliefs of the slaveholding society, which believes that the bible approves slavery, Huck thinks he hears the voice of God telling him to return Ms. Watson’s property. However, he attributes his final decision to help Jim, not to his own compassion and benevolence, but to his wickedness, bad upbringing, and failure to attend Sunday school. Nor does Huck feel he is able to pray as long as he cannot bring himself to notify Ms. Watson of Jim’s location. Also, his society’s religion has taught him that he will be damned to hell for helping a slave escape, fate to which e replies, “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell”.
The two separate quests for freedom, Jim’s quest to escape from the institution of slavery, and Huck’s quest to escape fro the moral standards of society, meet together and combine to form the ultimate freedom, “It is a freedom achieved in imprisonment, the freedom of solitude in loving company”(221 LohF). While alone, Huck cannot grasp the psychological needs of loving and belonging, but while under the stronghold of society, he has trouble reaching even his safety needs. While under the supervision of Jim, conversely, Huck is able to meet his safety needs, love and belongingness needs, and reach a higher step on the hierarchy. He is able to gain the freedom that he looks for while with Jim, but it keeps Jim from gaining the freedom he seeks. The only instance in the novel where Huck and Jim both acquire the freedom they need is “the freedom of those two or three days between the Grangerfords and the first arrival of the Duke and King, the freedom we barely have a chance to remember before their second arrival, is a freedom neither Huck nor Jim sets out to find; but it is the only freedom they ever share” (221 lohf). Sadly, this freedom fades and Huck and Jim go back to the original freedom that they seek. When Jim finally gains the freedom that he fought so strongly for from a piece of paper, it is almost ironic. The freedom that he pursued turns out to be a freedom that he had all along. It is almost a let down to learn that Jim’s freedom does not come from the hardships he faces, but rather the power of a notable person in society, Ms. Watson. It is also ironic that the freedom Jim tries so hard to grasp throughout the novel, the freedom to be a part of society and be live by their standards, is the freedom Huck runs from. He is a refugee form the ideals of others and even throughout the end of the novel, still seeks the freedom he originally longs for.
In order to illustrate the struggle to escape the strongholds of society, Twain emphasizes the importance of freedom. It is ironic, however, that he ends his novel in a fashion that show that no matter how hard the struggles, it is nearly impossible to escape the hands that bind. Clearly, Huck will never be able to escape the society he fears and the loneliness he faces simultaneously, and Jim will never be completely free form the prejudices and stereotypes of society despite his acquired “freedom”. Twain emphasizes this point and accurately draws a picture of what he believes will happen to all of those Hucks and Jims out in the world. No matter how “free” one may be considered, there is no way to escape all of the thresholds that the society or even the mind places on us. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not only “the first truly American novel” but it is a classic because it gives a true, clear picture of the inner and outer struggles that complicate lives every day.