The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Bildungsroman Through and Through

Updated on September 3, 2017
Elyse Thomas profile image

Elyse has taught middle school for five years. She majored in middle grades education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is unquestionably an adventure representing a coming of age. This is known as a bildungsroman, a story about growing up. While much of the text supports this description, however, author Mark Twain met with much criticism regarding the way he ended his story. Many critics argue that, given the final few chapters, Huck does not appear to have learned anything at all, and in fact seems to regress back to the impressionable young boy he was before he began his journey. While this impression is not without its evidence, there is ample proof of the contrary as well. Huck develops his already fierce sense of individuality, determines his own moral compass separate from that of society, and outgrows playing pretend. This growth of character shows continuity through the entirety of the novel and especially so during the final few chapters. Regardless of Tom Sawyer’s reappearance, Huck shows at the end of the novel that he has gained maturity.

One of the biggest arguments critics make about the end of the novel is that when Tom Sawyer comes back into the picture, Huck reverts back into a compliant child. Compared carefully to the beginning of the story, however, the reader can see that Huck, in fact, acts significantly different towards the end of his adventure. In chapter two, Tom Sawyer starts up a band of robbers, which meets in a secret cave at night. Tom insists everyone take an extensive oath and write their names in blood. At this point, one boy points out that Huck Finn has no family to kill, should he ever tell the band’s secrets. “I was most ready to cry; but all at once I thought of a way, and so I offered them Miss Watson—they could kill her” (1359). Huck is clearly desperate to be accepted here, or, at the very least, not left out of the group. This behavior continues when the greater group “resigns” from the band of robbers, tired of playing pretend. Fighting with Tom over the authenticity of genie stories, Tom goes to his usual method of asserting authority: his faith in books. “Shucks, it ain’t no use to talk to you, Huck Finn. You don’t seem to know anything, somehow—perfect sap-head” (1363). A little put-out by Tom’s opinion, Huck decides to try rubbing an old tin lamp to see if a genie would appear. When nothing magical happens, Huck takes his first step towards maturity. “I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different” (1363). Here he separates himself from Tom, and in doing so is no longer blindly following just to be accepted, and a putting aside of childish things. When reading carefully, it is evident that this mark of maturity is still present at the end of the novel. While going along with many of Tom’s absurd ideas to free Jim, it is obvious that Huck isn’t following blindly for acceptance or for fun. What he is doing is really much closer to humoring Tom, in exchange for his help. “It warn’t no use to say any more; because when he said he’d do a thing, he always done it” (1489). There is not a step along the way that Huck does not suggest a more practical option, letting Tom lead outright while Huck subtly guided in his own way, not playing pretend, as Tom is. When Huck brings up that there are saw blades they could use instead of case knives, Tom is contemptuous, as it is too easy of an option. When the time came to use them, however, he ends up using the saw blade, still pretending, of course, that he is using a case knife. Overall, Huck was a lot more frustrated with Tom throughout the whole process than awed as he might have been at the very beginning of the novel. He has learned, and retained, first of all, that his own ideas have value. He also puts aside childish ways for a more serious perspective, and a cause he cares deeply about.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is oft-cited as speaking against slavery, and it is true that part of Huck’s maturity is the realization that Jim is a person. This aspect clearly denotes individual thinking—the story being set in the pre-abolition South. This way of thinking is one that Huck develops slowly over time, for at the beginning of the novel, slaves were simply playthings to him, comparable to property, and he certainly struggled at first to justify helping Jim to freedom. Critics point out that Huck reverts back to his old way of thinking when he becomes disappointed that Tom Sawyer would ever stoop to helping him help Jim. “Here was a boy that was respectable, and well brung up; and had a character to lose…to stoop to this business, and make himself a shame, and his family a shame, before everybody” (1489). It is a passage that certainly seems out of place, given the growth Huck had been experiencing before. Upon closer examination, however, the reason for Huck’s outrage had nothing to do with rightness or morality, but with the expectations of society, which he distinguishes only Tom as being a part of. Tom comes from a good family, and it very much a part of society, and Huck is aware of the weight that brings. He feels it his responsibility as a friend to tell Tom just what he is getting into. “It was outrageous, and I knowed I ought to just up and tell him so; and so be his true friend, and let him quit the thing right where he was, and save himself” (1489). Here it is clear that Huck wishes to save Tom from social condemnation, but plans on going on with the societal transgression himself anyway. Huck is merely showing that he is aware of societal expectation, not that he is bowing to it in any way. Huck’s moral compass is right where it’s always been—doing what he resolves to be right, in this case helping both friends: Jim and Tom. Huck and Tom go on to attempt, however haphazardly, to help Jim to freedom, which was something Huck would not have done previously, when his moral compass was magnetized solely by the society in which he lived. His maturity continues, unimpeded.

Some final evidence of Huck coming into his own is his tendency towards fierce independence. Living with the Widow Douglas did not agree with him in the first chapter, and he decided to leave. “I got into my old rags, and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied”. Tough he was able to make himself happy in this way, he changes his mind when it means being part of a group. “But Tom Sawyer, he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. SO I went back”(1355). He begins a long pattern of changing himself for others. Huck hated living with the Widow and being bothered by Miss Watson every hour of the day about every aspect of his being. He is compliant, however, for reasons ranging from being able to be in the band of robbers, to safety from his Pap, to a simple sense of consideration for the two women, who he always said “meant no harm”. Even so, he was absolutely miserable, even saying “I felt so lonesome I most wished I were dead” (1356). It can be speculated that if Huck’s Pap hadn’t come into town and kidnapped him, Huck would have stayed where he was indefinitely, no matter how much he disliked it. This changes by the end of the novel, and he becomes self-sufficient enough to assert his independence. Critics worry over the last chapter, saying that his adoption by Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Sally puts him right back where he started, in and out of reluctant captivity. Huck dispels these fears, however, by showing that he has learned from his past. “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (1522). What some might see as the lamentable cycle repeating, is evidence of hope for Huckleberry Finn. He knows that being held and raised within society does not work for him, so he has made the decision to run to Indian territory to live. This is a decision that he made for himself, unhindered by pressure or threat of others, and it shows that he has learned to function independently of all of those things. He is breaking the cycle and taking his life into his own hands, leaving behind all that held him back previously, saying “I been there before”.

Mark Twain may have been unsure of how to end this novel. He certainly may have brought Tom Sawyer back into it as what many critics claim to be a “cop-out” ending. What he did not do, however, was sell Huckleberry Finn’s journey short. Huck matures exponentially throughout his adventure, and his growth does not reverse when Tom is reintroduced at the very end. Throughout this novel, Huck comes to trust himself and make adult decisions. While more subtle about it, this shows through in his quiet guidance of less-mature Tom as they plot to break Jim from the shed. He also breaks, triumphantly, from societal expectations by deciding not to send Jim back down-river into slavery and recognizing him as a person who needs freedom. This, too, is shown all the way to the end, where he frees Jim and his only reservation is whether Tom is doing what is best for him. Huck follows his own moral compass, and Tom’s reappearance does not alter it at all. Huck also establishes himself as an individual, and goes from passive acceptance of captivity at the beginning to a determination to strike out on his own. This will also happen despite Tom and his relatives’ desire to “sivilize” him. The lessons Huck learns on his adventures are consistent with his actions in the final chapters, and his growth and maturity continues to be exhibited until the end of the story.

© 2017 Elyse Maupin-Thomas


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