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Huck Finn is one of the most popular fictional characters in American literature. Approximately twelve years of age, he is a typical “frontier boy” with a love of fun, a respect for nature, and a lot of common sense. Although he can adapt to almost any situation other than a normal, civilized life, he is most happy living independently and in the wild.
Throughout the book, Huck proves he is kind and sympathetic by his basic nature. He is ashamed that he causes the kind Widow Douglas grief. He even feels sorry for the Duke and Dauphin when he sees them tarred and feathered. He also grows to understand and love Jim. In fact, he says that even if he goes to hell for it, he will not betray his black friend.
Huck stands in stark contrast to Tom Sawyer. While Tom thrives on excitement and being the center of attention, Huck likes a quiet, peaceful life out of the public eye; while Tom lives for romanticized adventure, Huck thrives on practicality; and while Tom remains impulsive, immature, and insensitive throughout the novel, Huck matures into a thinking young man who is able to survive on the raft and protect his friend Jim from discovery. In summary, Tom plays at life, and Huck lives it.
Huck provides plenty of humor in the novel, because he is a “lawless and vulgar” outcast from society who freely curses and smokes. His language and style are often comic. His literal nature also provides humor. Because he has always lived a simple life and has little education, Huck is unable to see things as they really are. The reader realizes the truth, which goes right over Huck’s head, to create wonderfully comic scenes. At the circus, he never really understands that the “drunken” man in the audience who joins in the performance is really a member of the circus. He also believes in superstitions and thinks that Tom Sawyer is wise and learned, both situations that cause comedy in the book.
Since Huck is simple, naive, and literal, he is an excellent narrator. He tells things like he sees them, never embellishing the facts like Tom Sawyer would do. The reader can trust what Huck is saying and seeing as factual.
Huck’s journey down the Mississippi River with Jim is his initiation into life and manhood. On the raft he feels a peace and happiness that he has never experienced in his miserable existence on land. Each time he goes on shore, he is horrified by the actions of the people and their inhumanity. Every time he encounters someone from society, such as the Grangerfords and the Duke and Dauphin, Huck is more convinced that he never wants to be civilized. He also begins to realize that a poor, black runaway slave is really a much more noble person than most of the whites he encounters on land. Huck proves he has come to terms with life and loyalty when he refuses to betray Jim, even if it means he will go to hell in the process.
Tom is a perfect contrast to Huck. While Huck tries to escape from society, Tom represents most of society’s values. He goes to school, reads adventure stories, goes to church, and is driven by Southern, Christian values. While Huck is literal minded and practical, Tom tries to live out the fantastic, romantic adventures of his favorite books. While Huck uses common sense to get through his tough existence, Tom is an imitator who has few of his own thoughts or plans. While Huck thrives on the raft, Tom, because of his impractical, romantic ideas, could never have survived. While Huck matures in the novel, Tom never changes. He is as immature and selfish at the end of the book as at the beginning. The proof of this lies in the fact that he makes Jim suffer as a prisoner, so he can have some fun, even when he knows Jim is a free man.
Jim is the slave of Miss Watson who runs away when he learns that he is being sold away from his family. He meets Huck on Jackson Island, where both are hiding. He joins Huck on a raft to seek freedom by way of the Mississippi. On the raft, Jim shows his slave mentality. Although he is much older and wiser than Huck, he shows deference to the twelve-year old boy because he is white; as a slave, that is the only thing he knows. He also reveals that he is a noble person at heart. When he thinks that Huck is drowned in the river, he is deeply affected, as if he has lost his own child. As a father figure to Huck, he is totally unlike Pap, who used to regularly beat and abuse Huck. By contrast, Jim is caring, affectionate, and protective towards Huck. Towards the end of the novel, he puts up with all the senseless and unnecessary plans of Tom and Huck because he indulges them. Jim also gives up his precious freedom in order to save the life of Tom Sawyer. The irony lies in the fact that Jim has been given his freedom two months earlier; when Miss Watson died, her will made Jim a free man.